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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Five Ways Your Old PC Can Help Create Super-Kids!

Being someone who works with and reviews a lot of computer gear, I have a fair collection of old, junky, really freaking slow entry-level PCs. Those nettops and netbooks that seemed like such a great idea when they debuted a few years ago? Got those. Old dual-core desktops in an age of quad- and six-core? Check. The Logitech Google TV unit that totally tanked here in the U.S.? Installed and in use. I've even got three VGA LCD monitors. Not DVI, not HDMI, not DisplayPort. Just old school VGA. You know what the difference is between VGA and VHS? Me neither.

However! I've also got two elementary school-aged kids, and they don't need to run eight browser windows alongside Photoshop, the entire MS Office suite, two more instances of OpenOffice, and iTunes, all while running active ripping software in the background. (Yes, that's my usual app load every day.) All they want out of their computing lives is to run browser-based games, and for that most of my secondary systems will work perfectly.

I'm willing to compromise with the kids on their computer time. They can have their gaming time, yes, but in return I want them to learn. There are so many gaping holes in their education, it's appalling. I'll try not to get into my long-winded rant about our K-12 educational system here, but suffice it to say that a) I think most parents are on their own when it comes to filling in these holes and b) after so many years of personal computing, most of us now have at least one or two such secondary systems laying about and gathering dust. Here are five uses I've found for such "mostly dead" machines that could make a world of difference in your youngsters' lives.

1. Typing. 

I don't know about your school system, but mine still seems to think it's 1986. Cursive gets taught to third-graders (and promptly discarded by fourth grade). Fifth graders have never even heard of PowerPoint. Students can't construct blogs for class projects because the district bans all student access to such sites. So far, the only purpose I've seen for the computers in my kids' school is to help quiz them on standardized tests. The machines aren't supposed to teach them anything, only help the school meet its state benchmarks...which, by the way, it fails.

I have always deplored handwriting, especially cursive. It's slow, untidy, laborious, and open to misreading. Compared to computer-based typing, it's simply an inferior method of written communication. Even worse, it's a bottleneck. Of course, all writing is a bottleneck. You have ideas in your head that need to get to the page, but there's this translation thing in the middle that has to happen, and sometimes that translation happens so slowly that you get bored or frustrated. This happens to my boys constantly. Handwriting stifles their creative development because it's so inefficient. People have told me that "some studies" have shown how the constant motion of handwriting helps to stimulate a certain region of the brain. Last time I checked, typing involved equally constant motion of the fingers. I bet no one tested that, though.

Solution? At the end of 2010, I paid $10 for a downloadable copy of Typing Instructor for Kids Platinum. (The price has gone up to $20 since then.) Ever since, I've had my boys practice with the software two or three times per week, 15 to 20 minutes per session. It's a fun mix of basic skills building plus video games. I wish the designer would update the software with more current-looking and challenging games, but the software suffices as it is.

The result is that, one year later, my nine-year-old can type at 30 WPM and my just-turned-seven-year-old is hitting above 25 WPM. [Correction: Thirty minutes after posting this, the little one also passed his 30 WPM challenge. Nothing motivates quite like sibling rivalry.] I have an incentive system for them to help with motivation, but the bottom line is that they're both now skilled enough to make typing their primary mode of written communication -- and both of them enjoy it! They think it's a blast to express themselves through a keyboard. In contrast, neither of them has had a kind word to say about handwriting as taught by their school. Ever.

2. Music.

Unless you're studying track mixing, it's obvious that nothing can replace learning to play music on a real instrument. Still, any musician will tell you that there's a lot of theory that goes along with true musical understanding, and this is where the Web can help.

As an example, check out Theta Music Trainer. Rather than try to chain your kid to some boring music textbook, why not let him learn the theory intuitively through game play?

Alternatively, don't underestimate the power of YouTube and streaming video. There are untold numbers of how-to videos on YouTube, but they can tend to be a bit scattered and haphazard in their quality. For something more systematic, look for subscription services, such as the one offered by Next Level Guitar. Compared to a one-on-one tutor at $30+/hour, such videos can't provide the same sort of personalized feedback, but if you're on a budget, getting all-you-can-watch lessons for $29/month or $75/quarter is not a bad deal.

3. Foreign language.

The same idea holds true for foreign language studies. I grit my teeth every time I think about my boys doing colored paper cut-out projects rather than learning Spanish or Mandarin. Once again, it falls to the parents to fill in the skills our children will need later in life that the schools are blatantly ignoring. Can that old PC help? If it can play YouTube, absolutely.

One of the best free sites I've found so far is SpanishDict. Short of having a live classroom or shelling out major money for a package such as Rosetta Stone, SpanishDict's collection of sequential videos, flash cards, reference resources, and more make this an excellent starting point for Spanish learning. I'm sure similar sites must exist for other languages, and if they don't, they will soon.

4. Math and science.

If you've followed or known me for any length of time, you know I'm a die-hard Khan Academy fanatic. There are many, many other sites for learning math and science, but this is far and away my favorite, with the cleanest interface, most effective lessons, and best management tools. The site is so good that, with only a $5 investment in a pair of small whiteboards and dry erase pens, both of my kids were able to complete arithmetic and move into pre-algebra long before their peers. My youngest boy even asks to pull up random Khan Academy science videos as a reward for good behavior. Last night we watched the video on whether the real universe is smaller than the observable universe and both of them found it interesting. Can you imagine an elementary school kid being exposed to ideas like this in the classroom? And there are literally thousands of videos and exercise modules -- all free, all for you.

5. College preparation.

Imagine if your child could get a free pass to sit in as many MIT classes as she pleased. You'd freak out, right? "A free MIT education?! No way!" But that's exactly what MIT's OpenCourseWare effort provides. There are over 2,000 courses from the eminent school's catalog, many with videos of every lecture, course notes, reading lists, on and on. The only things missing are the tests and homework feedback. And the labs. OK, and the parties. But you get the idea.

No employer is saying, "So you watched all of the course work necessary for a degree in Biology, but you didn't do the work? Well, that's good enough for us." But if you were a high school kid wanting to build expertise in a field and you had some spare time, or even if you were an adult wanting to bolster your knowledge in a field that could impact your income, wouldn't you take the time to study some of this material? Could you possibly find a better or more authoritative source?

If MIT doesn't suit your taste, check out the list of other institutions involved in the OpenCourseWare initiative: Tufts, University of California, Paris Tech, Kyushu University, on and on. And again, all it takes to participate in this mind blowing, world class educational opportunity is a cast-off computer with enough horsepower and Internet bandwidth to run YouTube.

You know how competitive and globally "flat" the economic landscape is becoming. My children's prospects for the job market in 10 years or so are daunting to say the least. If our kids don't have these skills and knowledge, rest assured that their international peers, all of which will be able to telecommute over the Internet just as easily as we can, certainly will. Most of us have the gateways to these digital assets sitting idly in a corner or closet. Brush them off, plug them back in, and turn your kids loose into a world of learning that none of us had the chance to enjoy and leverage when we were young.

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to add Starfall.com


    for learning to read to the list too... Solly started reading things on his own the day after he started using that site. (he had just turned 4)