Book review - Children Using Computers (2nd Edition)

Bob Fox, in charge of primary IT at University College Worcester

Those of us who have observed the rise of primary IT over the last fifteen years or so have a lot to thank Anita Straker for. There was a point in the eighties when educational software could have become largely a matter of drill-and-practice programs dressed up as glitzy arcade games, high on whiz-kiddery and low on pedagogical relevance. The situation was improved by the appearance of a wide range of short, simple programs by Anita Straker, which gave children scope to develop their thinking, mostly in a mathematical context. What they might have lacked in glamour they made up for in pedagogical relevance.

As with software, so with the first edition of Children Using Computers in 1989. Its underlying perspectives were right, and the content felt largely unthreatening to the IT timid reader. It was on my reading lists for students for years, but I was starting to find it a bit embarrassing, because, though the content and theoretical position were admirable, the examples were looking dated. The technology has moved on a long way since 1989, and the pedagogy has developed in the light of what has become possible We now take it for granted that a word processor will be WYSIWYG; we are now more comfortable with windows and mice than we would be typing in command lines; and increases in speed and storage capacity have meant that our imaginations need not be limited by the machine's capacity; and we are beginning to treat new developments like CD-ROM and the Internet as routine and commonplace. So when Children Using Computers went out of print I was not particularly sorry to see it go, though I had nothing in mind with which to replace it.

I was delighted to discover that Heather Govier was working on a revised edition, updating references, adding sections on CD-ROM and so forth, and I awaited its publication with anticipation. Now I have it, I am in two minds. On the one hand, the pedagogy is still correct, and the added sections mesh in well with the original; on the other hand, many of the examples and illustrations still look out of date. 'Newspaper' pages are still shown on Front Page, despite the enormous strides in simple desktop publishing and multimedia authoring software which have made high quality presentations so much easier and quicker to achieve. A section on electronic mail, now moved into 'cross-curricular topics' from Anita Straker's 'Into the Future' section, still shows a BBC B with a clunky Tandata modem - just about useable for very basic email, but not up to the demands of the Internet. I know that there is still a lot of old kit out there in primary schools, but the low proportion of up-to-date examples does little to future-proof this edition. I suppose that much of this is inevitable, as it is a strength of the book that its examples are based on real classroom practice, and updating all of those would actually have produced a different book.

So I'm torn. It is still an important text, and the revisions improve it considerably, and I will make sure it returns to my reading lists - but I will await a completely re-written third edition.

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