I suggested yesterday that it would not be a particularly brilliant thing for a home educated teenager to spend all day on the computer. The average child spends about four hours a day glued to electronic media and a lot more than this during the school holidays. I have long had a suspicion that home educated children probably spend far more time on their computers than do those at school, although of course it would be hard to gather data on this. Certainly on the lists, there is a lot of mention of the great benefits of computers. They give children an intrinsic reason to learn to read, they sharpen up maths skills, allow them to research topics which are of interest to them. You wonder really, why schools employ teachers at all! perhaps they should just install banks of computers and let the children get on with it.
I have to say, that whether watching the occasional television programme about home educated children, reading books about it and reading the comments on the lists, computers seem to feature far more than practicing the cello, reading Tolstoy or studying history. They do seem to be the educational method of choice for an awful lot of home educating parents. My daughter and I were amused to hear Fiona Nicholson on Woman's Hour, when asked to describe a typical day in her son's education. It apparently consists of the boy getting up, having breakfast, arguing with his mother and switching on the computer. As my daughter, who is the same age, remarked wryly, "Nice work if you can get it!" She is up at 6.45 each morning in order to take a country bus ten miles to college. Not that either of us were very surprised to hear that this was a typical day. One would have been a good deal more surprised to hear that a home educated youth had breakfast and then opened a textbook!
Still on the theme of computers and home educated children, I have mentioned before a book on home education by a woman called Deborah Durbin. This is officially endorsed by Education Otherwise, who say of it, "Should be in every library in England". (A somewhat skewed and Anglocentric viewpoint, but we shall pass over that!). According to this book, playing online games on a computer are great for many educational purposes, from mathematics and English, to hand-eye coordination. They are even handy for social skills, apparently. Many of us would think that meeting and talking to human beings in the flesh would be better for this, but seemingly a computer screen is a perfectly adequate substitute.
For many children and young people, computers have become the default setting when there is nothing else to do. They browse aimlessly, check out their friend's updates on Facebook, listen to music, play games and so on. Nothing wrong with this of course. It is certainly no worse than their parents slumping on the sofa watching Coronation Street! However, while we accept that watching soap operas and reality television is nothing more than mindless entertainment, we tend to accord a little more respect to our children's similarly brainless activities on the computer. Part of this is that we do not wish to appear backward looking old fuddy duddies. We want to be down with the youth and show that we too are with it. Hey, what does it matter whether they get their information from a leather bound book or from wikipedia, we say. How cool does that make us sound?
The fact is of course that the vast majority of what our children are doing on the Internet has very little to do with research and education. Human nature has not changed that much over the centuries and with so many distractions on offer on the Internet, it is inevitable that the fun things should distract greatly from the educational. Imagine if you will, that when at school you were provided with a pile of academic books and mixed in among them were comics, Enid Blyton books, games and toys. Suppose now that you were left alone in a cubicle and given a free choice of how much time you spent reading the textbooks and how long you spent reading the comics, doing the puzzles and playing with the games. This is precisely the situation faced by young people on the Internet. Human nature being as it is, it is perhaps inevitable that the entertainment and amusement part of the package should dominate their time online.
One of the great advantages of a book on biology is that while a child is reading it he is unlikely to be playing solitaire or Tetris at the same time. Nor is he likely to be texting his friends, looking at pornography or reading about football. The problem with allowing a child to 'learn' mainly from the Internet is that you really have little idea of what the time is actually being spent on. I have a suspicion that the enthusiasm which so many home educators display for computer based learning is that it enables them to get on with things while their children are occupied on something 'educational'. No harm in that, as long as we don't deceive ourselves as to what is really happening.