|Home computers, they tell us, are the ideal vehicle for education - but what exactly supports this claim? Sandy Dewhurst, computer studies schoolteacher, sifts through the pages of various literary texts devoted to the subject.|
The first, and possibly most important thing an educational computing text must be is 'reader friendly' (sorry - just my computer humour). If it's a book for children, there needs to be the degree of informality needed to communicate with children on their level rather than the more usual artificial adult-imposed level. This requires a careful blend of both style and vocabulary. If the book is for teachers it needs to be clear and succinct. Busy teachers have little time for the wordy ramblings of computer enthusiasts.
One unfortunate aspect of many texts is that it's not altogether clear who they are for. The situation in computing today is such that the distinction between teacher and student is not as clearly defined as in other subject areas - and this is particularly so in primary schools. In many cases the pre- knowledge of the student is greater than that of the teacher. I don't intend to apologise for the authors of computing texts, but this must lead to confusion on their part. Far too often they counter this situation by simply writing a bland general text, with no real idea (or indication) of who should be reading it. Some books dealing specifically with the Spectrum are included in this category. A typical example of this is the Spectrum publication in the Learning to Use ... series. In the publisher's own words, it is for "... potential users, established users, teachers, students and businessmen ...". Is there anyone else? I think that just about covers the entire population of the world (except businesswomen!). In fairness to author Robin Bradbeer, I don't think it was
ever written specifically for the education market; but it does demonstrate
how general many of the books are. |
A clearly defined purpose is essential for any text and for some this is more easily done than for others. Two books I looked at simply contained listings of programs - hence providing that clear and very specific purpose. Educational Programs for the Spectrum by Ian Murray and 4O Educational Games for the Spectrum by Vince Apps both provide a wide variety of programs. They also include quite extensive notes on each program, giving detailed program descriptions, explanations of how to play each game, programming hints and even some educational notes!
However, their use is limited by their very specific purpose. I've often questioned the validity of books containing nothing other than listings - surely it would be quicker and easier for everyone concerned if the programs were put on cassette and sold as a software compendium. Someone in Century Publishing must have had similar thoughts, as cassette versions of the programs in Ian
Murray's book are now available. The
problem is, of course, the chances are
you don't know this until after you've
bought the book! |
The listing in Ian Murray's book have obviously been printed, via an interface (see Getting Into Print, YS issue 2), on a professional printer. Unfortunately, a ZX Printer has been used to provide the listings in the other book, and several others I've looked at have done the same. The reproduction from such printouts is not up to a satisfactory standard for book publishing. It's a great pity that publishers haven't seen fit to obtain quality printouts of program listings. A little extra money in production would make quite a difference to the end product. In many cases the listings are illegible, and therefore totally useless. This is particularly the case when inverse video characters are used in the listing.
are supposedly designed with the student in mind. The first thing a text of this kind has to do is not speak down to the reader. Shiva has recently published Programming for REAL Beginners - Stage 1 & 2, which although not specifically saying 'educational text book', certainly implies it through the presentation. The major failing of these two is the fact that they are not machine specific and therefore there's a limit to the level the reader can progress with their own machine. Again, this is a case of trying to keep everyone happy, including the publisher's bank manger.
The presentation has been quite carefully planned - I was going to commend it until I saw the cartoon, on page 78 of Stage 2. Pardon my high horse but it's sexist and not at all relevant to the rest of the text. The less obvious one on page 82 of Stage 1 is equally bad. Publishers should not be able to get away with such rubbish, and their use in the classroom should be limited.
Books focusing specifically on programming for children originated in the United States. Although good in their simple step-by-step development of programming skills, they lost a lot through their 'americana' style presentation - what I generally call 'gee whizz books'. Fortunately, they tended to be specific to American machines (Tandy, Apple, etc), so Britain was shielded from them to a large extent.
One final point on programming books - do they have to be in book form at all? One company, EDU-CAL, markets programming workcards, but unfortunately only for the BBC machine. A workcard is much easier to handle at a keyboard than a book, and it might well be worth investigating the possibility for the Spectrum (publishers, take note!).
Whichever of these opinions you believe, it's unfortunate that the result is a lack of diversity in computing books in education. It's even more unfortunate when one considers the wide variety of
texts available in other areas of educational publishing. One of the few
publishing variants is Usborne, a company that, following on from similarly
presented books in other fields, has produced bright, reader-friendly books on
several subjects within the computing
field. These are packed full of colourful
illustrations - something that's all too
frequently absent from other books in
this field. |
One book which didn't impress me at all to begin with was Learning with your Computer by Susan Curran and Ray Curnow one of the Clear and Simple home computer series). However, subsequent readings have convinced me otherwise. There's a brief section on the background to educational computing and anything of a highly technical nature has been omitted, although not to the detriment of the text. If anything, this proves a positive move which gives the reader, an informative but general overview of a complex subject. It's all that anyone, apart from a real enthusiast, would want.
One very important section in this book is the chapter on software selection where again the friendly, yet informative approach has been adopted. One thing though, all the suggestions offered involve obtaining information on programs from other sources - for example magazines and user groups. There's no effort made to advise readers on how to assess software themselves. The 'high priests' syndrome lives on: "We are the chosen few, we have the knowledge, and we're keeping it to ourselves"!
The one factor that would keep it off a Spectrum user's shopping list is that old recurring problem, namely, that it isn't Spectrum specific. In fact, although it is a general computing text, all the program listings are for the Dragon 32. All right, so they only need minor adaptations to get them working on other machines, but again, what busy teacher has time for this sort of activity?
Both titles mirror each other quite closely, even to the point of having some identical chapter titles. The first few chapters of each provide some basic ideas on computers and their educational applications, and these are
followed by an introduction to programming. Eric Deeson tends to
develop this to a higher degree, although
there are two very useful chapters on
the use of graphics in Tim & Co's book;
In fact, they probably achieve the same
results, programming-wise, by developing programs in specific subject areas
of the curriculum. |
Space is also devoted to the actual use of micros in schools. Eric's book focuses on the theory and historical context of micros in schools, whereas Christine Johnson contributes an enlightening couple of chapters in her book on the use of micros in a much- neglected part of the education system - the infant school. Another useful area in Educational Uses ... concerns itself with software evaluations. It's useful because as well as all the previously mentioned sources of information, it actually explains how, without much effort, teachers can evaluate software themselves. So, there's no need to consult a 'high priest' after all!
I've always found a good guide to the quality of a computer book is to decide whether I would have it off my shelf. I say 'off', because books like these need to be used, not left on shelves. Top of my usability list would be Educational Uses of the ZX Spectrum, simply because it is the book I would find most useful as a primary teacher. If I was a high school teacher, however, I might well find the approach in Spectrum in Education more suited to my needs. I think I would also have Educational Programs for the Spectrum on my list, or better still, write off for cassette versions of all the programs.
Apart from these, there is very little that I could honestly recommend. It looks like education is the loser once again. I really look forward to the time when educational computing authors break free from their chains and follow the lead of some of their counterparts in the software field.
By the way, do you know what CAF is? It's worth buying Eric Deeson's book just to find out. His views on the future are very interesting. Read them. You may never view computers (or classrooms!) in the same light again.