Are concerns about Children’s Increasing Interaction with Computers valid when children use Programming Software?
April 6, 2005
Since the early1990s computers have become more and more prevalent in American society, providing children with a myriad of computer based activities from games and the Internet to word possessing and educational software. Most people, including parents, school faculty, and researchers, are quick to advocate computer use and cite benefits they offer to children; however, there are some people who have become increasingly concerned about the long hours children spend in front of the computer. They speak extensively about the risks that computers pose to children including physical health hazards, intellectual, social, emotional, and moral developmental problems, detachment from society, and decline in motivation, and creativity. They worry that computer use (especially the use of programs designed for children’s educational purposes) may not be as beneficial as once thought, and that it may actually be detrimental to the health and development of young learners. The question this paper examines is whether or not these concerns are relevant to and valid for programming software (like Logo and Basic, to name just a couple) developed for children. The following pages will address many criticisms and concerns surrounding computers and children to see if and how they apply to the realm of computer programming. But before we begin analyzing, let us begin with a brief overview of the programming software for children we seek to critique.
What is Programming Software?
There are many pieces of programming software available for children on the market today. Some examples of this type of software are Logo, Boxer, ToonTalk, AgentSheets, Stagecast, SmallTalk, Alice, Rehearsal World, Karel the Robot, GRAIL, HyperTalk, AppleScript, MacGnome, and Visual Basic Programming (Pane, 2002). Although many of these are fairly recent creations, programming software for children has its roots in the 1980s. In 1980, Samuel Papert released Logo, a programming language for kids. A majority of this paper will focus on the Logo because of its popularity, its longevity, and the wealth of studies and articles written about it. Logo’s simple and commonsensical language makes it quick and easy for young children to learn. By giving the turtle on the screen commands like “right 25” or “forward 10” the user enters the programming world. They quickly learn how to instruct the turtle to draw shapes, letters, and houses. From there the possibilities are endless as they invent new commands and learn how to create complex programs that include multiple turtles, play music and sounds, and even interact with the user. Beyond having fun, children using programming software like Logo are, “learning a language for talking about shapes and fluxes of shapes, about velocities and rates of change, about processes and procedures. They are learning to speak mathematics, and acquiring a new image of themselves as mathematicians” (Papert, 1980). Not only does programming afford children an understanding of how to construct different shapes and a familiarity with mathematics, but it also teaches them valuable problem solving skills. When a child writes a series of commands and the turtle doesn’t do what the child wanted or expected, this gives them an opportunity to reflect on and debug their work. Instead of giving up and feeling like they have failed, children learn how to troubleshoot and see the source of their problem. In addition to these skills, programming also fosters creativity and personal investment in their work. Since their programming is generally open-ended, children have the freedom to work on projects that are meaningful to them. Because of this they become very involved in and dedicated to their work. When programming software is used in schools, children are able to see the work of their peers and get ideas and help from each other as well as from teachers. In programming, children become active participants in their learning rather than being passive recipients of instruction. In using programming languages like Logo the traditional roles in the relationship between the computer and the child are reversed, “the child, even at preschool ages, is in control: The child programs the computer. And in teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think” (Papert, 1980). As the reader can see, computer programming is completely unlike most other interactions that children have with computers; therefore, it is fair to question: are the common concerns about children using computers valid when it comes to computer programming?
We will begin by examining potential health risks the computer poses. Critics of children’s extended computer use cite several health-based reasons to decrease the use of computers among young learners. One concern is about toxic emissions and electromagnetic radiation from computers; however, these risks can be avoided relatively easily. By getting rid of old screens and terminals and orienting the computers so that children are not exposed to the backs and sides of the terminals where the most radiation is emitted, most of the dangers of radiation and toxic emissions can be eliminated.
Some critics also speak of the danger of Musculoskeletal injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome, that can occur when kids whose muscles, bones, tendons, and nerves are still developing spend hours a day on their computers. It is important to take breaks from the computer to minimize these injuries; Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University advises, “that children take a break from computer work every 20 minutes and spend no more than about 45 minutes in any hour at a computer” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000). Even though children who program often spend a couple hours working on their projects, they frequently take breaks from the computer as they observe each other’s projects and present their progress. Incorporating other classroom work with computer programming, which programming tends to do, also allows children breaks from the computer. Because of these breaks and the mobility of children when they look at the work of others, the likelihood of musculoskeletal injuries decreases and concerns about these injuries are less relevant.
Concerns about eyestrain and visual fatigue due to prolonged computer use have also been raised. In addition, “some optometrists suggest that the rate of myopia, or near-sightedness, in childhood will increase as children are encouraged to use computers for long stretches at home and school” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000). The likelihood of near-sightedness is amplified when individuals partake in close visual work, as in sitting close to a computer which children are liable to do. Unfortunately, because programmers spend a fair amount of time staring at the computer screen, eye concerns are more difficult to alleviate. Besides taking frequent breaks and not sitting close to the screen, there is little that can be done in the programming setting to lessen the impact that computer screens have on the eyes of children; therefore, this is definitely relevant risk that should be considered when deciding whether or not to program in the classroom.
Obesity, Diabetes, Lack of Exercise, and Attention Disorders
As rates of obesity and diabetes rise, concerns about the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle are only intensified by widespread computer use. Worries that children who grow up spending hours a day on the computer instead of actively experiencing the world outside are at risk of obesity and diabetes are not unfounded; however, computer programming curriculum may not have the same implications. This is because software, like Logo, encourages active projects that tie in with other aspects of the class. For instance, in one classroom a teacher used Logo to create an exercise with path to a “bakery” and instructed the students, “Take the turtle up the path to the bakery. I want you to stay on the path and try to get to the bakery in as few moves as possible. If you go off the path you must get the turtle on the path as quickly as possible” (Yelland, 1995). The teacher could further tie in the programming project by taking the children to, “visit a bakery after deciding on the most or least effective route there, choosing a means of transport, investigating the different types of bread and conduction experiments with yeast and other ingredients” (Yelland, 1995). As this example shows, computer programming does not automatically entail a sedentary lifestyle—no more than any other subject taught in classrooms do. In fact, programming can often spark interest in and lead to active, exercise-abundant options that tie into the curriculum.
In addition to obesity and diabetes, rates of attention disorders in children have been increasing as well. Developmental specialists have supposed that these disorders have developed because of the increasing amount of time children are spending in front of the computers. In contrast, studies of children working on meaningful projects using Logo to program have found that, “Children learned to keep their attention focused on the problems they were working on, and to resist being distracted by external stimulation. They also learned to control their anxiety when a problem was difficult” (Harel and Papert, 1990). Because programming projects tend to be simultaneously open ended enough for children to create projects they are interested in and excited about and structured enough to give the children some general guidance, they successfully command children’s attention. Since software like Logo (largely due to its flexibility and meaningfulness) appears to promote attention, concerns about computers and attention disorders seem less significant.
Effects on Emotional and Social Development
Comments about the effects that the computer lifestyle are likely to have on the social and emotional skills of users are generally very worrisome. In a recent study it was, “estimated that children between the ages of 10 and 17 today will experience nearly one-third fewer face-to-face encounters with other people throughout their lifetimes as a result of their increasingly electronic culture, at home and school” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000). These researchers are not so much concerned with the fact that there are less in-person interactions; rather they are interested in the negative affects that this lack of live communication will bring. In order to gain solid social skills, face-to-face interactions are imperative. They help children in the emotional maturation process and are the essential foundation for developing social skills. The worry is that when computers play such a large role at home and in the classroom, the children become so involved with the technology that they miss out on the personal relations and skills that are absolutely necessary to become a functional adult in today’s society.
But using computers doesn’t automatically imply isolation and lack of human interaction. Programming often entails significant interaction, like the Instructional Software Design Project (ISDP)—a Logo-based learning research project in a Boston inner-city public school—shows. In the ISDP, “There were interactions and reciprocal relations among the students, teacher, researcher, members of the MIT staff, and sometimes visitors—all of whom walked around the computer-area, talked together, helped each other, expressed their feelings on various subjects and issues, brainstormed together, or worked on different programming projects individually and collaboratively” (Harel and Papert, 2000). Instead of spending time alone with their computers, the young programmers constantly had valuable interactions with their peers, teachers, and other adults. The atmosphere of the programming curriculum is conducive to the active participation that is crucial to the development of social and emotional skills; therefore, there is little reason to worry that computers will lead to social and emotional developmental problems in this setting.
Decline in Motivation
It is not uncommon to hear complaints that computers are detracting from learning goals instead of being valuable tools that motivate children to learn and work hard. Critics explain that kids quickly become captivated by and obsessed with their computers, but they seldom reap intellectual gains. They point out that, “some studies have indicated that any initial academic gain generated by bringing computers into the classroom may dissipate as the novelty of the technology wears off for both students and teachers” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000). If a child is placed in front of a boring drilling exercise or even an “exciting” piece of educational software, it is easy to see how the child could get tired of the program or simply gain little from the technology.
In the case of programming, however, the child does not just sit back and play the game or answer questions. They are motivated to create projects that interest them, whether that means creating a model of the planets orbiting the sun or constructing a car with LEGOs and programming it to move forward when it senses an increase in light. And since projects are personally meaningful and teach new concepts, the novelty of programming seldom wears off and the children remain hooked. Speaking of his programming software Logo, “Papert (1986) has observed, ‘that children love the turtle’ (p. 34) and engage in Logo activities with a high level of motivation and a deep level of concentration” (Yelland, 1995). The freedom of choosing their own projects allows children to become so involved in them that they don’t even recognize their enthusiastic interest as an increased motivation to learn. So when critics complain about extensive computer use and cite, “Research [that] indicates that the most troubled schools can improve the educational performance of their students by strengthening teacher-student bonds and making other, people-oriented changes to foster a strong sense of community” they should note that programming curriculum does just that (Alliance for Childhood, 2000). Instead of distancing the child from learning, programming sticks each kid at the helm of his or her learning vessel. With direction and advice from teachers and peers, students create a vision and follow it to completion, intent on debugging, refining, and learning any other necessary skills and knowledge required for a successful outcome. Therefore, we see that concerns that computers may decrease children’s motivation to learn are not so applicable to computer programming.
Creativity and Imagination
During childhood, it is critical to have situations and learning atmospheres that foster creative and intellectual development. Increased computer time among children, some worry, may not allow for creativity and imaginative thought. When they are, “Entertained constantly and effortlessly by so many adult-generated images, children seem to be finding it harder to generate their own images and ideas” (Alliance for Children, 2000). But this is hardly the case when children use computer-programming software. For example, Lego teamed up with Logo to create a, “version of Logo with LEGO building pieces (including motors, gears, wheels and sensors) [that] provides a novel outlet for this creativity” (Science News, 1988). Children become inventors and come up with their own original plans for projects. They come up with problems they want to solve, topics they want to demonstrate, subjects they want to teach, and even artwork they want to create. The children are creative in their ideas, presentation, and demonstration. Their ideas show originality, too. This is quite apparent to the teachers who gave their class an assignment to create a program that explains and teaches fractions and received all different representations of the same subject matter (Harel and Papert, 2000). Instead of being at risk, creativity and imagination thrive in the computer programming setting.
Concerned researchers say intellectual development may also be at risk as our society becomes more computer-centered. They stress that, “Computers, which are supposed to accelerate the pace of children’s cognitive development, reflect the same mechanistic approach to education as a narrow focus on raising standardized test scores” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000). Since the goals of programming software are to allow the child to explore things that are meaningful to them and use the computer as an object to think with instead of directly raising test scores, much intellectual development takes place. The student who plays around drawing with the turtle on Logo quickly discovers how to program the turtle to draw a circle (by repeating fd 1 rt 1), and from there, moves on to try and master more complicated mathematical procedures (Papert, 1990). By coming up with the answers on their own, like this child devised formulas for complex shapes, children become excited and gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter. In the Instructional Software Design Project students, “became software designers, and were representing knowledge, building models, and teaching concepts on their computer screens. They were thinking about their own thinking and other people’s thinking—simultaneously—to facilitate their own learning” (Harel and Papert, 2000). This project enabled students to firmly grasp complex concepts through ways relevant and meaningful to them. One student, Debbie, who initially “hated fractions,” was finally was able to understand fractions through her programming efforts. After dividing in half and coloring all the objects on her screen, she added text that read, “This is a house. Almost ever shape is 1/2! I am trying to say that you can use fractions almost every day of your life!” (Harel and Papert, 2000). Debbie, and other children who program, don’t encounter intellectual developmental problems because of the use of the computer. On the contrary, the computer (in combination with the programming software) allows for her to truly grasp an idea that was once too abstract for her to understand.
In addition to the creative aspect of programming that facilitates intellectual development, children programmers also participate in debugging their programs. When a program does not run correctly or does something unexpected, the young programmer is forced to figure out what they did to cause it. They learn that, “the question to ask about the program is not whether it is right or wrong, but if it is fixable” (Papert, 1980). Debugging is an incredibly worthwhile intellectual skill for children to develop, especially since it can be applied to their life outside of the computer realm. It helps build critical thinking skills and promotes working through difficult problems.
Distraction from Meaning
Making intellectual connections is definitely an extremely important aspect of learning, but there are individuals who believe that the computer culture is distracting children from the material they are supposed to be taking in. The dean of education at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, Jeffrey Kane, claims, “that teachers, parents, and children may be too dazzled by classroom information technologies to focus much at all on the child’s inner experience of meaning” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000). Whether he is referring to a personal or intellectual meaning is unclear, but computer programming can make a strong case against either claim.
Programming for children is all about meaning. It is about creating an environment that allows children to come up with a project within a certain subject area that is personally meaningful to them and helps them to obtain a firmer grasp on the concept. Education coordinator at the Computer Museum in Boston, Natalie Rusk, “has the children build something they care about—for example, a dinosaur on wheels. Then they decide what they want their creations to do—the dinosaur should roll forward, then roar, then turn. Finally, they figure out how to make it happen with the computer” (Aycock, 1991). With regard to the individual meaning, programming offers greater freedom for projects, and therefore deeper personal connection and significance. In terms of intellectual meaning and comprehension, programming is especially useful in turning abstract ideas into concrete understanding. Programming is not like other computer software that entertains, dazzles, and distracts children. It concentrates them on the subject at hand, and requires them to comprehend difficult processes by doing them in small steps. In contrast with the typical classroom style of lecturing on an abstract concept where children can easily miss the relevance of the lesson, programming is all about real life application. The distance between the student and the lesson or concept is drastically reduced when they can see its practical use. Best of all, because they understand the concepts more deeply, they can easily draw upon their new knowledge in the future.
Patience for challenges
Another concern about today’s computer culture is that children have and will become used to instant gratification and are therefore be less equipped to deal with challenges and frustration. Some speculate that this inability to deal with frustration may manifest itself in anger among young children. Alliance for Childhood notes, “Many people worry that computers sugar-coat learning and ultimately this will cause children to lose motivation and shut down when they encounter challenges” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000).
Is programming guilty of sugarcoating learning as well? Does it give instant gratification in a way that opposes patience for challenges? Someone familiar with programming software would likely say no. Programming encourages the child to work hard through difficult problems, frequently forcing them debug several times, before their completed program runs smoothly and gives them significant gratification. Since the big payoff of their work is given at the end, children have a great incentive to stick with their work—even through obstacles. In a workshop where children built and programmed LEGO creations one girl and her father worked on a project to demonstrate friendship by programming two dolls to hug. When they “completed” the program, the dolls appeared to be hitting each other rather than embracing. Because the value of friendship was very important to the girl, “she debugged her program and played with the mechanics until she came up with a movement that looked very much like a hug” (Bers and Urrea, 1999). Instead of giving up and settling for an imperfect project, which the young programmer could have easily done, she worked patiently and diligently through her setback and ultimately learned more and produced a better product.
Risks to Moral Development
Some researchers fear that increased computer usage will interfere with children’s moral development. They worry that computers fall short of steering children along the path to becoming well-rounded, mature individuals and fail, “to bring all the resources of the culture to help them experience meaning, identity, purpose, and responsibility in the whole of life” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000). Childhood is a very critical time for the development of morals, ethics, and values, and some people believe that increased computer time leads to isolation from conversations with peers and teachers as well as experiences in the world. Ultimately, they are concerned that this isolation will harm the development of personal identity and morals.
Although children who program spend much time on the computer, it is unlikely that this will cause any disturbance in their development of values. Since most programming curriculum stresses projects of personal meaning for children, they are obliged to explore different areas that interest them. And as they work on their projects they are exposed to the work of their peers and engage in conversations with adults and other children about what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why it is important and meaningful to them. Take, for example, the girl who created the hugging dolls. Not only did she use programming to demonstrate a value that was important to her, but she also wrote a story to accompany it, and participated in, “an in-depth discussion about value issues such as what friendship means” (Bers and Urrea, 1999). As opposed to interfering with moral development, discussions, like the ones brought about by programming, absolutely build the framework for strong identities and values.
Computer Centered Learning
As computers are introduced in every educational setting, there is a great fright that the learning will become centered on using the computer rather than focusing on the student. It is dangerous to look at the computer as a panacea that will automatically increase the intelligence of all children who use it. Although this is a legitimate concern, it is not applicable to computer-programming which centers itself on the child. The software doesn’t do anything on its own; it completely relies on input from the young programmer. This insures that the learning revolves around the child who will only get out from the computer what they put in.
It is undeniable that with each passing day our society is becoming more computerized, and because of our increasingly computerized culture, criticisms and concerns about the effects of computers on the lives children have risen and will continue to surface in the future. Risks associated with health, intellectual, moral, social and emotional development, motivation, creativity, patience, and meaning have already been cited as criticism of extensive computer use among the younger generation. But these risks do not apply to every use of the computer! When children program, using software like Logo and Microworlds, their interaction with the computer is completely different. The child is the inventor and the teacher, instructing the computer to do what they want it to do. Because programming is flexible, children are able to create meaningful projects and be active social participants in their learning—this undisputedly encourages rather than hinders development. After bringing up and addressing multiple concerns surrounding the children’s use of computers with regard to computer programming software, it is clear that many of these worries are unnecessary; however, it is important to take into consideration the health concerns surrounding computer use that cannot be alleviated at this point. When it comes to computer programming and children these seem to be the only fears that remain applicable. Other criticisms seem to be irrelevant, as programming curriculum tends to promote the development, motivation, creativity, patience, and understanding that some researchers say extended computer usage may detract from.
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