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Computer Learning

by N. S. Gill

Copyright © 1994 N.S. Gill

Educational programs are to other computer software as disposables are to cloth diapers. Don't get me wrong: there is a time and place for disposables--at least in my life--but Pampers and educational software are single purpose, expensive, and cluttering. Computer games, on the other hand, rarely have the superfluity of instructional materials that inflate the price and packaging of the educational fare, they usually have an abundance of challenging situations for people of many ages, they offer practical skill development for real life, and they go on sale. You may eventually win, but it takes a long time, and even after you do win, there is still the challenge of winning faster, more efficiently, or with more points. Sometimes the most challenging (educational?) component is to make the program work, or to determine the goal, since the instructions, if any, are minimal. Work related programs offer unlimited possibilities for use.
BLANKComputer games that are educationally oriented seem just one more example of how pervasive is the notion that children must be encouraged to spend their time productively. Few mainstream people subscribe to the notion that play is the work of children. Instead, it is not uncommon for kindergartners to be reading, training for musical recitals, involved in a sports program, all while attending school. Mention the value of play to the parents of these "hurried" children and you may hear embarrassed snickers. What they're embarrassed about I do not know for certain. Could it be that play is now a dirty word? Are children who play only those whose parents do not provide them with "enriching" activities? Or, do the parents have the uncomfortable feeling that just maybe they have forgotten something very important?
BLANKNow that most extended families seem to have access to a personal computer, mainstreamers who, a few years ago, were simply computer-phobic are asking my son if he is using the nice, educational software packets or learning to make pretty stationery borders with some single purpose "paint" program. Yes, he has the educational programs. No, he does not use them. Yes, he uses Windows' Paintbrush program to illustrate the stories he dictates on Word for Windows (he tried a children's word processing program , but found the pictures inadequate, the fonts disagreeable, and the buffer too small for his needs). No, he does not have any desire to make crafty items like bordered stationery.

Real World Programs

Generic Cadd 5.0, a drafting program my son uses to demonstrate such geometric concepts as the idea that a circle is composed of an infinite number of sides, Word for Windows, a word processing program, and Micrographix Designer, a graphics program, are some of the useful tools all members of our family have used. Learning to use them properly never seems to end; meanwhile, they serve our purposes. We also have a database program, Q & A, which someday our son may use to catalogue one of his collections--maybe his floppy disks. If the goal of education is to enable students to participate in the work world, these are instructive programs. My son has been using computers since he was three. At that time he played mostly maze games, like the video games many parents criticize. His tiny, nimble fingers (reminiscent of "Pinball Wizard") quickly mastered all levels of several versions of Pac-Man (e.g., Super Pac-Man, and Jr. Pac-Man). As friends and family noticed, he did spend a lot a time in front of the monitor. I learned to defend him, honestly, but creatively: my son was learning strategic planning; he was gaining dexterity; he was becoming computer literate. One sympathizer, with a four year old schooled son, told me that my son was gaining recognition skills. However, the criticism penetrated; so, to assuage my guilt , I bought him some educational programs along with the games. Since my son has always yearned to show his prowess to visitors, he was just as willing to show off on an educational program as any other. Funny thing, though--visitors would watch him far longer on the maze games than on the educational programs.
BLANKThe first educational game we bought (1988) was called My Letters Numbers and Words, published by Stone and Associates for ages 2-6. Because the instructions had a list of commands for playing several games, we thought that we had purchased at least 3 different games, Letters, Numbers, and Words. It was disappointing to realize that we only had one, the composite Anna. My Pavlovian son quickly memorized which letters made the image on the screen to do its funny little bit. Away from the screen he had no idea how to spell the words. Retrospectively, Anna may have helped my son accept K as an alternative for the sound of C in the word Kite. While that is not a lot for the money, I now regret having asked even that much of my three year old.

Dinosaur Programs

Partly because I believe that programmers can produce good software of value to an education for the real world, and partly because friends and family provide us with them, we continue to try a variety of educational programs. We tried two dinosaur programs. In one you match the body parts to come up with a legitimate dinosaur. This was neither entertaining nor stimulating, so that program was used only a couple of times. The other, Dinosaur Discovery Kit, provided hours of frustration for my husband and me, as my son made the computer re-read aloud a peculiar story about a dinosaur birthday party. This program had some other features, like a picture to which the user applies colors in order to produce fairly outrageous scenes--the picture remains the same, only the colors vary. One workbook program we tried was Math Rabbit. Our problem was that without a hard drive, because the program was created to prevent copying, it was very difficult to use. It was not a cheap program, and a parent might do better sitting with her child as he works on a paper workbook. My son prevailed on us to purchase a Sesame Street program called Letter-Go-Round, which is as mindless a program as has been created.


Because 1993 was the year my son was to receive his first standardized achievement test, I had planned to spend a few weeks doing School Stuff with him. Having decided the simplest way to dose him with "learning- reading" would be to buy a computer phonics program, we bought Stone and Associates' Phonics Plus. I should have realized it would have had much the same inadequacies as the other Stone and Associates program, and, had I thought about it, I probably would have. I did not care, though. The whole exercise of doing School Stuff for a month seemed so repugnant to me that it did not matter how stupid I was in selecting the program. Phonics Plus, like Anna, provided my son with ample opportunity to demonstrate his memorization skills. In almost no time he had memorized (without sounding them out) which letters, corresponding with give-away-clue pictures, completed each word. His incentive was to see the humorous little bit (like that in Anna) that came at the end of a completed word. There was again some minimal redeeming value in this program which will sit on the shelf gathering dust now that the test is over: awareness that there are differences in the sounds of three consonants that he has always pronounced the same (v,w, and l). In the short term, and only for the non-real world purpose of the test, the program worked well enough, since my son was enabled to make wild guesses in the phonics section of the Iowa Basics.

Carmen and Competition

Probably the best educational program we have bought is Where In Europe Is Carmen Sandiego?, purchased for my step-daughter's twelfth birthday. Competitive, she played it every time she came to visit, determined to reach the level of master detective as quickly as possible, and definitely before her father or step-mother. When she first played, she glanced at the accompanying atlas, then realized that it was unnecessary, and not even particularly helpful (just a good reason to jack up the price). The screen provides most of the necessary information about the cities the detective visits, memory the rest. My step-daughter was then taking world geography at her school, and the program may have helped her there. It may also have helped her play Trivial Pursuit. With even more zeal than when she played Carmen, my elder step-daughter determined to get top score on Gapper, a deceptively simple shareware game whose object is to form squares by moving in straight lines through progressively harder grids, before a creature grabs you. We all enjoyed Gapper so well that we played to the point of pain. Had any of my critics complained that this game was not educational, I could have pointed out that it increases reflex speed while teaching you something about mathematics: My husband and competitive step-daughter vied for top position for a while. Gapper was hard for my three year old, but by the time he was six he was in second place.

Family Favorites

We have not yet reached the end of the game. Tetris is another competitive game for my husband. Since he has all ten of the top scores, we can only imagine with whom he is competing. Both of my step daughters (now 14 and 17) enjoy playing Tetris and its offshoot, Beyond. My son (now 8) sometimes makes patterns with the Tetris pieces, but he is not wild about the game which is praised as a tool for learning geometry. For older players, Tetris tends to be so addicting that considering the amount of time devoted to it, its educational value is probably limited. Recently, my mother and son discovered a maze variant: the obstacle course game, exemplified by Lemmings (by Psygnosis Ltd., 1991). To prevent the Lemmings from falling into the abyss, the player must make use of certain tools decided on by the program at the start of each game. Each game changes the parameters, so a new strategy must be devised. Foresight keeps the lemmings from falling off at the end because of what the player does at the beginning. Lemmings is usually marketed as a computer game rather than educational software, but another creative problem-solving game, that I have not yet seen , which sounds at least as demanding of the players as Lemmings, does tout itself as a learning program. In the not so distant future there may be more programs that justifiably call themselves educational, if the programmers learn to give as much control to the players as they give with drafting and design software.
BLANKOne of the best games we have had is an IBM version of what was originally a Nintendo game called Bubble Bobble by Taito. When my son first played it he was five. He persevered at this game, as he has in so many others (another talent fostered by non-educational games) until he finally won, at age seven. In order to win, he had to learn and demonstrate his knowledge of a secret moral lesson.
BLANKAside from the other skills mentioned, my son had to learn his way, first around different computers, learning Dos commands, and then, later, around a Windows program. His first and most intellectually stimulating computer was a little Texas Instrument that used cassettes and plugged into a television. One cassette, for Hangman, included its simple programming code, so we could go into the game, change the words (or anything else) and provide ourselves with infinite variety. My son and his father made other tiny BASIC programs for this computer. Later educational programs pale by comparison.
BLANKWhen repair parts for this obsolete computer became too costly we replaced it with a monochrome 8086 IBM clone , with dual floppies but no hard drive. Finally, we bought a 486 with hard drive. From the beginning, we have insisted that if he wants to play the games our son must quickly learn to do so without our assistance. When he does not remember, he knows enough to call up the directory to look for commands that the computer will recognize (those with the extensions: exe, com, or bat).
BLANKThe games my son plays stimulate his imagination. He dictates some exciting adventure tales unabashedly borrowing elements from other stories, cartoons and computer games. He is not the fastest runner, or the best pitcher, but he would have a decided advantage in the area of computer games, if he wished to compete; but he does not yet. Unlike his father and half-sister, he enjoys playing games with two people where both can win, where both must cooperate or neither one wins. He enjoys watching and offering constructive advice to others playing games, or just struggling with a computer. Best of all, when he is working on his computer games, he is playing.
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Copyright © 1996 & 1997 N. S. Gill.

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