Cyberteachers

Computer programs promise to teach your kids everything from math to music lessons. But do they deliver?

Joanna Pachner 0

From the time Jim Forbes’ two daughters were preschoolers, they couldn’t get enough of a software program called Kid Pix. They’d use it to draw pictures and make up stories, adding digital stamps and text bubbles. “It allowed them to muck around with art when we didn’t have resources [for lessons],” he says. In time, the kids moved on to fooling around with images in Adobe Photoshop and crafting cinematic adventures using Apple’s iMovie — but for years they would keep coming back to Kid Pix, a simple, intuitive program that first got them interested in being creative.

Forbes, who has spent more than 20 years as a principal in public schools around suburban Toronto, has watched computers grow from a novelty to an integral part of kids’ lives. “Our initial concern with technology was that it would isolate students,” he says. Instead, at its best, technology has become an essential tool for communication and education that helps kids practise new skills, discover new interests and share their creative experiments with friends. There are dozens of programs that will help your child learn to play violin, speak Spanish or dance like a hip hop star. But can any of them take the place of lessons with a real, live teacher?

Cyberteachers vs. real teachers

Answering that question isn’t easy because each program’s features, interactivity and basic methodology affect how good it is at teaching. You can find software that incorporates all kinds of bells and whistles, from video-conferencing sessions with teachers to collaborative online projects, but some of the best tools simply focus on doing one thing well. Dan Lang, an entrepreneur who has worked in educational software for almost a decade, finds that music and languages are where current products for kids shine. “Really good software has the ability to monitor what someone’s learning and give them immediate, corrective guidance as they’re doing it,” he says. For example, the language-learning series Tell Me More, from French company Auralog (auralog.com), comes with speech recognition: A student speaks into the microphone and the software instantly corrects his pronunciation.

What is good educational software?

Another feature of good educational software is that the program allows children to learn by doing. Using a program like Apple’s GarageBand, for example, kids can goof around with different instrument sounds, then put them together into a podcast they can post on their MySpace web page. It’s immediate gratification that feels more like play than school. Todd Wright, who helps oversee e-learning initiatives for Ontario’s York Region District School Board and is a one-time trumpet teacher, has seen software that helps students tune their instruments or lets them play back their own performances, then hear a performer like Wynton Marsalis play the same passage. Still, he believes this type of technology is a supplement, not a substitute for traditional lessons. “Technology is a teaching tool, not a replacement for a teacher,” he says. “To diagnose embouchure problems or check fingering, you need a teacher for that.”

Technique aside, a teacher serves as a motivator for kids. Sabine Allain is the programs director with Alliance Française in Vancouver, where children as young as five study French through classroom games, sticker books and crafts. While software can provide interactive exercises for kids to practise what they’ve learned, Allain finds the best incentive for sticking with a new skill is for kids to look forward to seeing their friends in class. “A teacher, someone that your child likes and builds a relationship with, becomes a sort of role model, and with other kids their age, they see that it’s fun to sing a song in French,” she says. Besides, the ultimate goal in learning a new language is to communicate and for that, nothing can replace real conversation. “Most software out there doesn’t have enough of the oral component,” says Allain. The products can be fine to learn some basics for a trip overseas but, she says, “for something more serious, like to prepare your child to get into French immersion, software isn’t enough.”

Still, home technology can allow your kids to learn at their own pace. Public school teachers today rarely have time to go through a concept more than once or to spend individual time with students having trouble grasping a lesson. Software can allow these kids to practise math or reading at home and catch up. Meanwhile, fast learners who get bored can use it to advance ahead of their classmates. And since few schools have enough PCs to provide as much computer time as either the teachers or the students would like, allowing your kids to polish their skills at home is a vital help.

Adopting technology

Our schools’ lag in adopting technology struck Lang as an opportunity. In 2007, he launched MusIQ Club, a piano-teaching extracurricular program that uses interactive software and is offered in partnership with schools. The lessons feature cartoon characters, and kids play on real keyboards attached to computer monitors. MusIQ Club is already available at about 50 schools around Halifax, and Lang is now introducing the program to Toronto-area schools. (Parents can also purchase the software at musiqclub.com)

While technology can make learning more fun and test your child’s interest level before you commit to “real” lessons, educators warn that it’s not a miracle cure for academic laggards. “Students who have poor work habits are not going to magically transform overnight into conscientious students by sitting in front of a computer and doing a software program,” notes Marjan Glavac, a London, Ont., elementary school teacher, author of The Busy Educator’s Guide to the World Wide Web and contributor to the software review website Learning Village.

Another important lesson: Digital learning need not entail expensive packaged software. For example, Forbes has found that one of the best learning tools for kids is a cheap digital camera. Even junior grade students can snap pictures of the world around them, then use programs available online (such as Comic Life at plasq.com/comiclife) to arrange the snapshots into comic books, add storylines and share them with friends. “It’s a very fun activity,” says Forbes. “It’s not focused on storytelling — but that’s what it gets them to do.”

Computer learning FAQs

Is that software package right for your child? Ask these questions before you buy:

Q: Is it highly interactive?
A: Software with lengthy sequences that kids must quietly sit through will only make them squirm.

Q: Is it entertaining?
A: Kids love games, so programs that incorporate competition and advancing levels of play are most likely to hold their interest. Mattel’s I Can Play series of instrument-learning programs (go to fisher-price.com and search “I can play”) awards points every time a child does something right.

Q: Can they share their work?
A: Being able to communicate with friends or tutors will keep your child coming back, so look for software — especially online — that includes chat room, blog and journal features. Math Made Easy (mathmadeeasy.com) allows kids to draw out their work on a notepad and show it to online instructors, who reply with pointers.

Q: Is there enough to it?
A: Since you can easily spend $100 or more, make sure there is enough content — levels of learning, activities, exercises — for the product to have a decent shelf life in your family.

Q: What does your child think?
A: Let him try the software in the store or, better still, get a trial version online. (Find the software website through an online search engine; most will offer free time-limited versions you can download.)

Q: What do experts think?
A: Check these sites:
childrenssoftware.com - a downloadable magazine of software reviews
edutainingkids.com – an extensive online guide to kid software and toys

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