by Joseph B. Giacquinta and Jane E. Levin

All too many children when left to their own devices use educational software mindlessly. That is, they "go through the motions of use" without much questioning of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they could do it more effectively. This is true at least in part because they view computers as game machines and, therefore, approach them with expectations incompatible with serious educational use. That educational software most often purchased by parents and even by schools is of an "edutainment" format does not help, especially since the educational aims of such programs are often easily ignored in favor of their entertainment features.

The mindful use of computers for education is not as easy. Children must understand that to use computers for serious learning (even if they enjoy what they are doing) they must consciously question what they are doing and why. Our research shows that without adult support, few children are motivated or able to engage in this kind of thinking and computer use. Parents cannot lose sight of this fundamental fact.

What specifically do parents need to do to encourage their children's mindful educational uses of computers and software? Parent-child interaction around the computer is really no different than it is for doing traditional homework or learning a musical instrument or learning a sport. Parents must engage in sustained and constructive social interaction: helping their children to understand the goal, demonstrating how to do something, helping their children to carry out certain tasks, challenging them to think further about what they are doing, and keeping them on task.

Unfortunately, in too many homes parents have distanced themselves from the computer activities of their children, often far more so than in their children's other activities. This seems to be partly because parents tend to think that when it comes to their children's educational computer use, their only necessary role is to provide the software.

In our judgment, while acting as a provisioner is important, it is too limited a role. A parent can encourage their children engaged in an educational exercise (support), show them how to do something (model), or help them do things that they cannot do alone but with time can be helped to do themselves (coach). To play these roles in general with their children may seem daunting enough to many parents. But now to add computer-related educational activities as well may seem even more "paralyzing." And, quite frankly, depending upon the number of children and the number of learning areas, it can be. However, in households where there is more than one adult and/or there are older siblings, these roles can be shared. One may be much better at cheer leading while another is better at modeling or coaching.

The point is that parents need not play all of the roles, but they do need to get involved in one way or another. Clearly, the kind of parental help depends upon many things including the software, the task, the age(s) of the child(ren), how skilled the parent is with computers, and how well the parent knows the software package a child is using. Nearly every parent can act as a cheerleader by encouraging children to try harder and by praising their final screen or printed products.

Parents need to ask themselves: In educational matters in general, how much encouragement, modeling, or coaching, do I give or expect to give? How much is wanted or expected by my child or children? And, how can I begin to have the same (or maybe even more) involvement in my child's or children's educational computing?

Our research on children's educational computing at home has led us to the conclusion that mindful home educational computing is far more likely when parents engage in certain kinds of computer-related behavior and that parents need to understand how vital their varied roles are in their children's constructive use of educational software.

Unfortunately, what we now know leads us to the conclusion that most parents do not want to become too involved, if at all, in their children's educational computing at home. In our next column we will outline what the typical obstacles are to parental involvement and some steps that can be taken to overcome them.

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See also: Beyond Technology's Promise

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