Nicola Jones says recommending specialist publications is a useful way of advising parents about computers.
Imagine the scene. It's parents' evening. You've seen 20 people and feel ready to go home when a parent asks you what CD-Rom and Internet sites you could recommend for her 10-year- old daughter to research topic work on the Victorians.
Internet? CD-Rom? You know there is a CD-Rom in the library, but you haven't been able to get past the hordes of children making Rhino noises with it or printing out the entire contents of Encarta. As for the Internet, you've noticed how much space it is taking up in the Sunday papers, but the significance of the strings of unintelligible letters of places called "Web sites" has eluded you.
Some teachers could answer the question, but many of my colleagues would recognise this scenario and struggle a little. Lack of time and training make it difficult to keep up with all the latest developments, even for those of us who are computer literate.
Parents also have difficulty keeping up. A survey of 1,000 parents commissioned for the magazine Parents and Computers, launched on August 17, showed that only 15 could describe the Internet as the global electronic highway, while 133 thought it was part of the European railway system. Yet more and more families are buying computers. At a conservative estimate there are more than 1.5 million computers in UK homes and a quarter of these are used for school and college work.
Parents face increasing pressure to buy a home computer and it's an expensive decision. Often they turn to schools for advice. So what's the easiest way to provide reliable information?
A good starting point is with the widely-available specialist magazines. Among these, Parents and Computers has filled two gaps in the market. First, it provides general education features relevant to parents 3 to 11-year-olds. Second, it helps parents wanting to use technology with their children. The autumn edition includes articles to help parents decide which computer to buy and reviews of software by families using PC, Macintosh and Acorn computers. There are also articles explaining the national curriculum and a letters page dealing with general questions relating to education.
Pam Turnbull, the editor of Parents and Computers, says: "We hope to provide a lifeline to parents and help them to understand how computers are used in schools, as well as to advise them on what to buy and how to support their children's learning with computers."
A central aim of the magazine is to support parents who feel they have lost touch with what's happening with the technology. Many didn't have access to more than Space Invaders when they were children. Sue Cook, television presenter, says in the lead article of the first issue: "Parents need a lot of time to dabble and a lot of trial and error is required in the learning process. Yet they have greater demands on their time, less patience and their instinctive thirst for knowledge has been dulled."
Teachers can feel confident in recommending this magazine which is accessible and credible in its coverage of educational issues. The content is jargon-free and design is bright and friendly with photographs of children and families, although they don't, so far, reflect our multi-racial society .
There are several other family-friendly magazines, aimed at parents who are being dragged unwillingly into the technological revolution, as well as those who are comfortable with computers and eager to know more.
A recent issue of Computer Life, also a relatively new title, includes articles on how to guide a young person looking for a career in computing, and a summary of useful courses for parents. There is an anarchic section called "Don't do this at home" which includes a feature on how to make your computer look like Barbara Cartland - by wrapping it in pink fur and paper flowers.
PC Home, which has been around longer, is divided into sections with names like The Breakfast Table, The Living Room, The Workshop and The Games Room. The Living Room includes reviews of software for the home and a family craft project: puppets, scenery and script for a puppet show.
Magazines about the Internet are rumoured to make more money than the Internet itself. If parents have already entangled themselves in the World Wide Web, they need to be informed about appropriate sites and prevent their children stumbling into something nasty.
Internet Today has a clear directory of sites, such as the hands-on Children's Museum. This is at http:www.win.comdeltapachocm.html and currently features an exhibition called Ocean Odyssey.
As for the nasty sites, a feature article in the magazine argues that the controversy surrounding the dangers of the Net to children is probably due to adults not feeling in control. The solution is to educate themselves so they can guide their children (see pages 19-20).
Parents can also get help from on-line services on the Internet. The National Council for Educational Technology has a site at http.ncet.csv.warwick. ac.uk index.html. NCET also produces the Advice to Parents pack for teachers plus the video Learning Together with Computers which can be shown at parents' evenings.
Magazines devoted to reviewing CD-Roms, such as CD-Rom Today and CD-Rom, also contain pages about Internet sites. The magazines are expensive, but CD-Roms are not cheap and the demonstration discs that usually accompany the publications help parents decide what to buy. The September edition of CD-Rom featured an education special in which IT teacher Wilf Rees, sympathetic to the dilemma parents face in choosing software, describes his favourite packages.
The recently-launched InteracTive, while primarily aimed at teachers, plans to run a regular column which promotes the use of the wider school community and interactive life-long learning. Other articles give parents an idea of how computers are being used to support the curriculum.
Educational Computing and Technology, also aimed at teachers, offers articles and advice on the use of IT in different subject areas. It contains software reviews and is also a useful source of information for parents.
For more detailed hardware advice and comparisons on prices and performance, one of the more technical titles would be helpful. A recent issue of What Personal Computer? reviewed eight different computers suitable for family use. One shopping tip was to "bargain . . . as hard as you would in a sweaty market in Turkey".
A sweaty market in Turkey may not be the best place to buy a family PC, but who knows?
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* What Personal Computer?EMAP Business CommunicationsTel: 0181 388 2430Editor: Gail Robinson * CD-Rom MagazineDennis Publishing LtdTel: 0171 631 1433 Editor: Guy Sneesby * CD-Rom TodayFuture PublishingTel: 01225 442244Editor:Matthew Richards * InteracTiveQuestions PublishingTel: 0121 666 6717Editor: Mark Sealey * PC HomeIDG mediaTel: 01625 878888Editor: Duncan Evans * Parents and ComputersIDG mediaTel: 01625 878888Editor: Pam Turnbull* Internet TodayParagon publishingTel: 01202 299900Editor: Dave Westley * Computer LifeZiff Davis UK LtdTel: 0171 378 6800Editor: Rob Beattie * Educational Computingand TechnologyTraining Information NetworkTel: 01895 622122Editor: Phil Martin