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The keys to success, The National, 27.01.2009

As children are exposed to computers and the internet at an increasingly young age, Jo Wadham looks at how parents can help their kids – and themselves – navigate the hi-tech world

It was reported last week in this newspaper that the Ministry of Education is preparing to increase significantly the number of computers available for state schools, and will set up an Assessment and Technology Management Centre. The centre will provide, among other things, an online learning portal and a student information system. It is widely acknowledged that there is a digital divide between the generations: children are more technologically advanced than their parents. From asking your child how to programme the video recorder, to watching a toddler change the settings on your mobile phone, it is clear that children of the 21st century are, and need to be, computer literate. As computers become more and more a part of school life and homework assignments, how can parents ensure that their children are adequately prepared?

Start them young. A brief browse through toy shops reveals that there are numerous starter computers available for children. VTech has produced a laptop suitable for children from nine months of age. It has nine chunky keys and a little mouse-shaped mouse. With lots of sound and lights, it is intended to keep them amused and to help them “develop fine motor skills as well as introducing early computer skills”.

A similar model is sold by the Early Learning Centre, suitable for children from 18 months old. From here, children aged three and older can move on to the Dora the Explorer or Wall-E laptop (both also by VTech). The Wall-E version has a QWERTY keyboard, which is ideal to help familiarise children with a keyboard layout. Leapfrog is another brand that makes technology-based, educational products for children aged nine months to 18 years. All these toys help to make the way that children interact with computers a natural process, like opening up a book. They also hone children’s problem-solving and fine-motor skills and prepare them for school.

Children as young as six are being given homework that requires them to use the internet. For some parents, the first stumbling block in helping their children is a lack of confidence. If you are really unsure about using computers, you could consider taking an IT course yourself. Another obstacle that parents face is how to keep children from accessing unsuitable sites or unwittingly giving personal details to those wishing to exploit them. According to a study carried out in the UK in 2004 by the London School of Economics, of the nine- to 19-year-olds interviewed, 48 per cent of daily and weekly users worry about “being contacted by dangerous people” on the internet, but 46 per cent of users had given out personal information about themselves. It also found that “many children are using the internet without skills in critical evaluation, and many parents lack the skills to guide and support their children’s internet use”. Indeed, the study discovered that “only a fifth [of parents interviewed] knew how to set up a filter, remove a virus, download music or fix a problem”.

Baffling though the world of computers can seem, there are a number of relatively simple things that parents can do to set up their children in a safe working environment. First, most computers enable profiles to be set up for different users. By setting one up for your child, you can customise its settings for them by installing child-appropriate filters and suitable search engines on their favourites.

Although the UAE Government actively blocks unsuitable sites, new sites are created all the time. Parents can act to restrict the information their child can access. Within the child’s profile, you can activate your search provider’s filters. Most search providers allow you to set the filter at different levels (off, low, medium, high), which will block potentially harmful content. Some search engines also have child-friendly versions (for example, Yahooligans at kids.yahoo.com or Ask Kids at www.askkids.com). On Yahooligans, children can view music videos, play games and explore encyclopedias. The Ask Kids website is aimed at children aged from six to 12 and will take them to external sites that have been selected as child-appropriate by the Ask.com editorial team. This type of site is known as a “walled garden”.

Additional filtering software is available to buy and download. Protection is then not limited to one search provider, but covers children on the internet as a whole. The website www.getnetwise.org offers useful, easy-to-access advice on what filters you can download depending on the level of protection you require. There are a number of browsers that have been designed specifically with children in mind (an example of a standard browser is Internet Explorer). These can be downloaded on to your PC and can also be found on the GetNetWise website. These types of browsers are easier for children to use (more use tends to be made of mouse skills rather than typing) and have filters to block inappropriate material from getting through. Some, such as MyWeb, can also limit the hours, or dictate the time of day, that your child is online.

Children obviously enjoy playing games as well as learning online, and there are plenty of educational websites you could put on your child’s favourites. One example is www.gridclub.com (set up by the UK government and the educational arm of the independent UK TV station Channel 4). Although you have to pay an annual fee for this, it has lots of educational resources: from short animations of classic stories, with background notes and associated quizzes, to more than 100 games linked to the National Curriculum. As my eight-year old guinea pig, Matt, informed me: “It was fun and educational. Better than PSP.” Other sites include Topmarks, BBC Learning, National Grid for Learning and Schoolzone.

It is clear from the research undertaken recently that not only should we be doing what we can to ensure that our children have a safe environment within which to explore the internet, but that parents need to participate in what their children are doing. The increase in children’s achievement when parents get involved has been documented and proven. We can also teach our children how to use the internet and the computer properly. Young children are expected to carry out some internet-based research at school and at home. The key to effective search techniques is to refine them to bring up as few responses as possible. The website www. parentscentre.gov.uk has some suggestions on how to do this. For example, a search for “spears” with “-Britney” (ie, minus Britney) ensures that only information about spears of the metal kind will come up. Similarly, using inverted commas around a search term means that the search provider will only display results that match those words in the order they were typed. Going into the “advanced search” option on a search engine website will give you tips on how to make your search more precise, and explain other types of searches, such as synonym searches or date-range searches.

There is a tendency among children to accept everything they find online as the truth. Children need to be taught to evaluate what they discover, and not to take everything they find on the internet at face value. Asking your child what they have discovered and how they think this helps their research will encourage them to think about it. They should also understand about plagiarism and citing sources.

Older children will be expected to know how to use various software programmes. For this they will need basic keyboard skills. The website www.bbc.co.uk/schools/ typing has games for seven to 11 year olds to teach them to touch type. Children will also need to be comfortable using word processing programmes. Parents should encourage children from a young age to type up short documents, from menus for their pretend café, to thank you letters to grandma.

In senior school, children will have to use PowerPoint to give presentations to the class and Excel to produce graphs, among other things. If the mere thought of helping your child use these programmes sends chills up your spine, take heart, because there is help at hand. For a start, most programmes will have some form of tutorial built in to them. Clicking “help” or “demo” on the toolbar should bring up a basic guide on how to use it. Alternatively, you could consider studying, with your child, to gain your International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL).

The ICDL course is the world’s largest vendor-neutral computer skills programme and is internationally recognised. It is compulsory in some schools for children 12 years and older, and complements the UK National Curriculum on information and communication technology. It is a modular course covering topics including basic concepts (hardware/networks), word processing, spreadsheets, databases and presentations. If your child’s school does not offer this, it might be a useful supplementary source of help. Even if it is part of the school’s curriculum, you might consider taking it, too. The course is available in each of the emirates and can be found at www.icdlgcc.com.

As Professor Tanya Byron pointed out in her 2007 review of child safety on the internet for the UK government: “Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe… children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim.” Once we have established a safe working environment for our children, we then need to help them to utilise effectively the vast resources of the internet and the software programmes available on the computer. Children mimic our attitudes to things. If parents fail to embrace IT and all it offers, how will they be able to help their children succeed in this increasingly technological and competitive world?


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