World now at kid's fingertips

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 March, 1995, 12:00am

WHEN I look at what technology is beginning to offer children, I wish I were a kid again.

Children start out with lots of talent and curiosity. They are built to explore the world and figure out how they fit into it. They devote amazing energy to things that interest them. Some kids can recite dozens of crazy dinosaur names, for example.

As they get older, children lose some of their curiosity. This is unfortunate because in today's world a person with a curious mind can go further.

When a child's questions are answered in an engaging way, the questions keep on coming. This is one reason attentive teachers and supportive parents are so important.

But if an adult is too busy or can not answer a question, or if a textbook fails to meet a child's particular needs, curiosity often withers. When curiosity is frustrated time after time, the pleasure and incentive to learn may be lost.

I have held onto some of my childhood curiosity but I wish I had more of it. I am sure a lot of people feel the same way.

Today, children worldwide can look forward to tools that help sustain curiosity by satisfying it in deeply engaging ways. These 'multimedia' tools are now becoming available as people finally figure out how to marry the strengthens of the computer with the enormous need for better education. A multimedia computer can play interactive titles that combine text, pictures, video and sound.

'Interactive' means a title is organised in such a way the person using the computer controls what he or she sees and hears.

For example, a girl wondering about the solar system could use a title that let her choose any planet or moon she wanted to study. She could see photos, listen to narratives, examine diagrams and read details. If she did not know something, such as the difference between a planet and a moon, she could look it up.

For this to work, abundant information must be available almost instantly. Today this is most often accomplished by storing information on CD-ROMs, which are identical to audio compact discs except they also provide text, pictures and video.

But in a few years, most multimedia information will be delivered by high-speed information networks connecting every school and business, as well as most homes. These networks, known collectively as the 'information highway' hold the promise of delivering virtually unlimited quantities of information.

I know there is skepticism. There was a backlash against the original computers in schools because they were drill-oriented. The computers really were not used to impart knowledge. Instead, they just tested knowledge. This put the computer in a negative role, which did little good.

But when the computer can satisfy curiosity and make learning fun, the possibilities get exciting.

Kids enjoy a sense a of prowess. They are proud to know more about something than an admired adult does. A computer can feed that sense of accomplishment by reminding the child of how much he or she has learned - and encouraging more study.

Positive reinforcement unleashes a desire to find out more. Even 3-year-olds can be rewarded with surprises such as characters that pop up on the screen and applaud them. Kids get a blast out of that. I am always impressed when I watch toddlers play with great titles, like the Living Books series published by Broderbund and Random House. With just a little practice kids who are hardly old enough to string sentences together can use a mouse to explore friendly worlds - clicking here and there on the screen to see what happens.

Multimedia tools will not replace teachers and parents anymore than textbooks do, nor will they make reading any less important than it is today. But pictures and sounds add immensely to the educational experience.

Many schools already offer at least a few computers, and PCs are invading homes in impressive numbers. Recent surveys indicated about a third of all American households have a PC. In homes with a teenager, half have a personal computer.

This is a worldwide phenomenon. In Korea and Taiwan, for example, more than a quarter of PC sales are domestic. Around the world people buy more personal computers than cars. Not every family can afford a computer now, but falling PC prices may eventually rival those of televisions. Schools, libraries, government offices and community centres will have abundant computers so no child is deprived.

I am always an optimist. I believe kids growing up with access to these resources will retain more of their curiosity in adulthood. It makes me a little envious, frankly. Sometimes I get mail from kids telling me they want to be like me when they grow up. But when I look at what is going to be possible in the next few years, I wish I were a kid growing up now.