Who cares if it works? Is it fun?

28th June 1996 at 01:00
The computer industry is making ever more seductive promises to woo its potential customers. Laugh? I nearly cried all the way to the souvenir shop, says Arnold Evans

There's no such thing as bad publicity. Try telling that to Fergie, Rod Richards, Britain's mad cows - or the teaching profession. In an unholy alliance, the media and the politicians are putting the boot in and education - that proverbial political football - is getting a kicking of Euro 96 proportions.

Parents might not believe any particular horror story, dubious statistic, or vicious soundbite, but they've heard so many of them that they can be forgiven for believing that schools might offer a reasonable child-minding service, but fail dismally when it comes to the business of teaching children anything.

Those who hurry through their newspapers in search of some light amid the encircling gloom only have to turn to the pages devoted to the home computer. Perhaps it's got something to do with the amount of advertising space that the manufacturers are happy to buy. But journalists, normally a cynical lot, rush to tap out hymns of praise for the PC. They assure readers that it will keep their accounts in order, help them plan the garden, log their record collections, predict the National Lottery numbers - and educate their children.

Not just educate, of course, but amuse them at the same time. For parents, that's always been an irresistible combination. It's why so many families will spend this summer holiday visiting castles, Saxon villages, tarted-up coal mines and all the other heritage hotspots where the kids can learn what life was like in the dim and distant past. It's a nice way of spending a day - manifestly educational, but without the hassle of classroom routine, or the threat of questions at the end to see who has been concentrating. Instead there are ice-creams, souvenir shops and enough amusing things to do to keep everyone interested.

The computer industry offers the tantalising promise that all the curriculum can be covered in an equally pleasant way: the PC can change education into edutainment as miraculously as water was once turned into wine. Any activity involving a computer can reasonably be described as educational. Even the most mindless game improves children's hand-eye co-ordination and boosts self-esteem. They also learn keyboard skills, how to handle a mouse and not to panic when the system crashes.

These are valuable lessons, and will stand them in good stead in a future which is going to be dominated by new technology. It's also true that computers can help with homework: for example, if it involves tracking down information in an encyclopedia, an electronic one can be easier to use. But if edutainment proves to be only half as good as the claims that are being made for it, the home computer could take on a more important educational role than that.

"Learning is easy when it's fun," insists one typical advertisement for a popular edutainment package. It "puts the fun into fundamentals" claims another. It's easy to sneer at such hype, but parents who have shelled out a couple of thousand on the latest multimedia kit are obviously willing to take it seriously.

In the short term, they are going to be disappointed - edutainment at the moment doesn't provide an adequate substitute for school. But these are early days: advances in multimedia, video conferencing and the eventual arrival of the information superhighway are certain to revolutionise the way children learn at home.

In an ideal world, as Learning for Life with Technology (LIFT) advocates, teachers and parents should be working in partnership to ensure children make the most of these exciting opportunities.

Sadly, research carried out at Keele University suggests that most teachers simply don't have the expertise to be able to provide the necessary guidance: despite the Pounds 200 million spent on equipping schools with computers, 70 per cent of the profession hardly ever use them.

To make matters worse, the latest wheeze from the Office for Standards in Education, which seems to have the support of both the main political parties, is to insist on more whole-class teaching. It would virtually guarantee that a generation of children is going to be prepared for the next century by the teaching methods of the previous one.

Parents, who can afford to, will make amends - they will spend more on new technology and increasingly take on the responsibility of educating their children. Schools, however, could still fulfil a valuable function. They might not sell ice-cream or have souvenir shops but children could make an occasional visit to find out what education was like in the dim and distant past.

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