Educational computing has come a long way very fast. The last few years have seen main developments in software.
Teachers now have available powerful open-ended tools, such as databases, wordprocessors, adventure games, complex simulations, LOGO implementations, graphics systems, communications packages and control technology systems. As a result of this there has been a shift away from the use of drill and practice programs and home-grown software in primary schools, and a parallel shift away from the teaching of programming in many secondary schools. This process of change will continue as more teachers are trained to use the more recent software, and even greater changes are afoot as the cost of sophisticated hardware continues to fall, making fully professional computers and programs available to schools.
All this means that books which explain real computer applications in terms which can be understood by children are at a premium, as are books which successfully link the use of the school computer with a substantive topic which children can investigate themselves. Less sought after are books which teach programming and those which deal in excessive detail with the technicalities of the design, manufacture and operation of microelectronic components and systems. Books which offer a general background to computing will have a more restricted market as children begin to gain an increasing amount of this kind of knowledge through first-hand experience. There will still be a place in the classroom for the best of these, though.
Working with Computers
Keith Wicks, Orbis, Colour Library of Science. 0 85613 934 3. £5.95
A well produced, large-format book for the secondary range. It begins promisingly with a warning to the reader not to take extravagant claims for computers too seriously, and photographs depicting people from a variety of racial backgrounds and of both sexes using computer equipment. The rest of the book, however, is full of technical descriptions of particular items of hardware accompanied by illustrations depicting, in the majority of cases, white males in control of the machines. The book falls short in its attempt to illustrate ways of working with computers: there is too much coverage of the technical detail and too little about the tasks with which computers can assist. This is likely to put off youngsters of both sexes who are embarking upon their first investigations into computer applications.
The book does give plenty of detail about the major specific applications of computers. In addition, an acceptable glossary and reasonable index will assist the casual enquirer. And if you have a number of experienced computer users who are eager to add to their technical knowledge, then this book which has plenty of detail of this kind might prove useful; otherwise, something less technical and easier to read would be a better investment.
A niggle. I find it irritating and perverse of the author to refer to ‘disk units’ when everybody else in the world calls them ‘disk drives’! There are one or two further instances of this kind of ‘misinformation’.
Robin Kerrod, Grafton. Dataworld Series, 0 246 12710 4, £4.95
‘The astonishing thing about integrated circuits is that they can be made unbelievably small.’
The really unastonishing thing is that this kind of hyperbole and condescension in books for children will endear this author to neither teachers nor pupils. In fact, of course, most children find microelectronics unremarkable and they do believe in it because they have grown up with it.
Microchip Magic tries to cover too much technical ground in a slim, primary style format, and generally fails to exhibit any knowledge of the ways in which children’s brains work. The book also relies on too many standard publicity photographs, supplied by hardware manufacturers. Pictures of smart men and women operating expensive hardware in offices with acres of virgin Wilton on the floors do little to help the majority of children relate computer applications to their own experience of the world.
Computers in Action Series
Dick Fox-Davies and Pamela Fiddy, A & C Black, £4.50 each
Traffic Computer, 0 7136 2725 5
This book is excellent in every respect, explaining simply and clearly the principles of traffic control and the ways in which computers can help the process. It sets out the case for automatic traffic lights and pedestrian crossings and follows this general discussion with a case study of the traffic system in part of Southampton.
The case study features a young woman engineer who is in charge of the central computer, which she uses to control the traffic. The reader is shown how the computer can deal with different situations. Also illustrated are the limitations of the computer system and the engineer is shown altering the instructions to the computer to cope with new requirements.
Clear, readable text and excellent photographs combined with cartoon type drawings make this a particularly attractive book to use. There is no gratuitous technical description, but there is a comprehensive and detailed coverage of the topic. This book could generate a real enthusiasm for getting out of the classroom to study the local traffic control scheme, and could also stimulate the control technology work which is beginning to become established in primary schools.
A must for every primary school. Secondary schools would find it a useful addition to the library, too.
Pilot’s Computer, 0 7136 2804 9
Clear, succinct, but detailed descriptions give a comprehensive view of the way airline pilots are trained using computerised equipment such as full scale models of airliner flight decks and full flight simulators.
Like its companion titles, this book takes a real training base as a case study and reveals the ways in which the computer assists with many of the problems associated with pilot training, such as simulating aircraft faults, dangerous weather conditions, etc.
Supermarket Computer, 0 7136 2652 6
Travel Agent’s Computer, 0 7136 2653 4
and due in April:
Library Computer, 0 7136 2884 7
The Domesday Project, Alistair Ross, 0 7136 2857 X
Computers in the Classroom
My First Computer Library Series David Marshall, Macdonald, £3.95 each
Living with Animals, 0 356 11578 X, Colour and Shape, 0 356 11576 3, Growing Things, 0 356 11577 I , Me and You, 0 356 11575 5 (BBC B versions listed but RML 480Z versions also available)
An attempt to embrace classroom use of the computer and a particular topic in one package. As a series they gets lots of things right, but don’t succeed as fully as they may have wished.
The series is aimed squarely at the top infant/lower junior section of the market. The text is well laid out, uses clear typefaces and has selected words printed in bold type. These words are listed in a glossary at the back of the book. The level of reading difficulty is right for the target reader of average ability or above. The illustrations are of good quality and a pleasing feature is the way in which aspects of a variety of cultures are presented in positive ways.
The main failings of the books are the computer programs (on separate Computer Activity Cards) which accompany them. The relationship between the programs and the subject matter of the books is at best contrived and at worst simply irrelevant. It also seems pointless to ask children to type in programs which contain examples of bad programming practice (specifically, no input checking for upper and lower case and no error trapping) and which do not contribute anything substantial to the learning process.
A computer program (in Colour and Shape) to try to create red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, on a monitor screen which only reproduces red, yellow, green, blue, cyan, magenta, black and white seems particularly perverse. It would have been better to point children towards existing published software of a good standard. Branch, Animal, Front Page, etc. are all available in many schools and could be used to provide a genuine extended activity.
It is a pity that the series editor didn’t decide to commission just two or three computer programs and to issue them on disk or cassette. This would have made it possible to produce some really good and relevant programs for classification, graphs, word lists or simple simulations. As they stand, these programs may mislead a few teachers and parents into believing that six to nine-year-olds should be able to comprehend this sort of computer code:
210OSCL1″*KEY 0 “+STR$(280+(5%*10))+”DATA “+W$+:M205%- “+STR$(5%+1)+”:MRUN;M” (Growing Things).
The series is a genuine attempt to marry the use of the computer to primary school topic work, but I don’t think it is the right direction in which to move. If you are working with middle juniors, using a really good information book with a well produced database or classification program will result in better computer related work than is possible with the programs on these cards. If you are working with younger children, two titles are worth considering.
With Growing Things, start by throwing away the program cards and finding some suitable classification programs from the MEP packs. Get the children involved in actually growing things and then use this book to provide relevant reading material and explanation.
Me and You is the best book in the series. The content is cohesive and well balanced. The text is accessible and the illustrations are well chosen and, in places, humorous. Children should find that most of the subject matter can be related to their own experience but the book takes some care also to include material from a variety of cultures and geographical locations. Sadly, the computer programs are no better than in the companion volumes, but this book can be used equally effectively in classrooms with or without computers.
Computer Club Series
David Burgess, Macdonald, £5.95 each
This series is a much more successful attempt to combine a topic with relevant computer programs. Certainly the fact that the text and programs are by the same author has helped to give greater cohesion to the books as a whole. Suitable for the upper junior/lower secondary age groups and, as the series title suggests, it would be ideal as the basis for projects undertaken during a school computer club.
The programs (for BBC Model B) are well written and are, for the most part, designed to provide quite sophisticated illustrations of the ideas discussed in the text. Best of all, they are available on cassette or disk (at extra cost), which saves all that pointless typing. The series is growing slowly – so far only five titles are available: Birdwatch (0 356 11021 4), Volcanoes (0 356 11122 2), Robots (0 356 11123 0), Navigation ((1 356 11124 9) and Comets (0 356 11025 7), published to coincide with the visit of Halley’s Comet so without the information discovered about it while it was being observed.
The series has the same editor as the My First Computer Library, so it is rather difficult to understand why this formula was not adopted for these later books. I hope the editorial team don’t take the attitude that it is less important for younger children to be provided with high quality materials.
Software: Programs available for BBC Mode B and RML 480Z (cassette and disk) and for Spectrum 48K (cassette only). For details apply to the Marketing Manager, Macdonald Educational, 3rd Floor, Greater London House, Hampstead Road, London NW 17QX.
Hands On: Hands Off
Christopher Schenk, A & C Black, 0 7136 2707 7, £7.95
This is a superb book crammed with excellent ideas, from an author with impeccable credentials in educational computing. It isn’t aimed at children, but teachers will be able to pass it over to competent readers who are involved in one of the suggested projects.
The book has three sections. The first concentrates upon general uses of computers and the activities away from the computer which contribute to the selected topics. Simple programming, text manipulation, mathematical investigations, simple games and simulations are all included. Section B gives a comprehensive view of Turtle Graphics and LOGO, while Section C cover all the major aspects of information handling. The text constantly refers to published computer programs, many of which are available very cheaply or at no cost through local authority advisers.
This book avoids deep technical explanations and concentrates on the learning experience which can be provided using a computer to extend the curriculum. It certainly provides teachers with a comprehensive view of what they ought to know about the practicalities of educational computing for the primary and lower secondary age groups.
Unlike many computer books, Hands On: Hands Off will not date rapidly, so that teachers need not fear that their £7.95 might be a short-term investment. One might hope that the second edition will have a fuller treatment of Control Technology, which is beginning to gain favour in many schools, but the activities in this edition will remain valid for many years to come.
Pat Frawley, as a primary deputy head, was involved in introducing computers into primary classrooms in Oxfordshire. He now teaches in the Education Department at Bristol Polytechnic where he is involved (among other things) with in-service work on computers in education.