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