Computer as a creative resource

Santhosh Padmanabhan

A computer is a machine that makes the work of human beings easier. In the recent past, the ability to understand and use a computer in itself has become a specialized field in education. While, the advantages of using a computer cannot be refuted, a computer by itself cannot be seen as a way of empowerment. In a classroom setting, a child learns to communicate and assimilate knowledge through various senses and actions. A computer gives one more dimension to such a classroom.

In most classrooms, the skills to use a computer are seen as distinct from learning aspects related to other subjects. (There are rigid, instructional courses on ‘typing’, ‘how to use MS Word’, etc. Upon completion of these basic level courses, assignments from the math class or social science class are usually given to children to be typed on the computer.) The problem with such an approach is that we might lead the children to use the computer only in ways we prescribe. Sometimes when teaching about the computer in a de-contextualized way it becomes more complicated than it really is. The goal should be to support the children to use the computer as a seamless resource just like writing or drawing about a topic on paper, making a play in a given space with a number of characters or re-telling or interpreting a story from a book, etc.

In Sita School we have explored a few ways in which the use of a computer could be purposeful and set in a real life context.

Introduction
The computer industry is very dynamic with inventions and developments, making current technology redundant even within a period of months! Given this situation, it would be only of pure academic interest to explore in detail the history of early computers, the inventors, etc. A more practical approach would be to focus on what a computer is, what it is constituted of, where and how is it used and what potentially it could be used for.

drawingActivities to understand and identify parts of the computer
An activity we did was to let the children switch off just one component (e.g. the monitor, the CPU, the speaker, etc.) at a time and see how the other components interact with each other through this exercise. The children quickly figured out by themselves what the input/output devices were and that the CPU is the most important part of what we call the computer.

Scope for further exploration
You can take the above exercise further to see how the work of a particular component can be substituted – e.g. what happens if there is no mouse?

How does a component work?
We then built on the understanding of components to see if the children can explore the internals of the parts (Caution: make sure that you know how to put it back if you are going to take it apart!). This should be a more hands-on activity rather than depicting it on a board or through pictures. We took apart the mouse to see the internals and understand how it works. It also gave us some insight into how a mouse is susceptible to wear and tear. We also studied an old mechanical mouse and compared it to the newer optic mouse.

Following a series of instructions
In its essence, a computer follows a series of instructions given by the user. We reinforced this view of the computer through games for the children –

  • A blindfolded child had to follow the instructions of a partner to reach a target.
  • Kids search for a hidden treasure and then depict the map as a series of instructions to get to the treasure.
  • We gave a task for the children to do on a regular basis and they made the task easier for themselves by writing down a series of instructions. E.g. making tea, taking the bus to Bangalore. We then brought it close to real life situations by introducing the idea of ‘choice’ and ‘possibilities’ – which in turn led us to the concept of ‘branching’. E.g., choosing between two routes on a bus journey. We also explored ways of depicting the instructions graphically and thus introduced flow charts in a real context. We designed a few games around these activities – E.g., filling in the missing step, ‘what can go wrong in our plan of instructions?’, etc.
  • We extended the activity to computers and gave an objective to be achieved. We then asked the kids to break it down into a set of actions or instructions. E.g. copying a file from a source to a destination.

Scope for further exploration
You could discuss this further to see how the computer understands these instructions.

learning-1Observations and discussions
An exercise we did was to get children to list the various places a computer is used in. We then discussed the similarities and differences of computer usage in the different places.

Scope for further exploration
A similar exercise can be done to explore the different types of computers. In order to arouse the curiosity of children and to make the class more interesting, pictures of various computers (really old ones, the latest and smallest devices, etc.) can be shown and discussions on these could follow.

Challenges we faced
It was actually difficult to explain the working of components in a simple manner. It was a delicate balance of not confusing the child with in-depth information and avoiding simplistic analogies that could mislead the children. We had to keep refining the content to keep it appropriate.

Learning basic operations on a computer through interesting activities
The mouse and keyboard are important input devices. The children need to get used to these devices from the beginning.

Games for repetition and reiteration
To go through routine and mundane exercises can be boring. The alternative would be to approach it with the idea of games. (E.g., getting used to the alphabet in a ‘qwerty’ keyboard). There are a number of interactive ‘typing’ coaching software materials along with games available on the Internet. It is important to explore and figure out the games and activities that suit the child’s or school’s needs. Most software is freely available. It is better that you discourage games that are violent or too competitive in nature. For the very young kids, the introduction of numbers and alphabets can also go hand-in-hand with the basic mouse/keyboard skills. There are games that children find very interesting, which reinforce concepts in counting, basic math, the alphabet, vocabulary, etc., all through stories.

learning-2 Art on the computer
Another interesting activity to enhance mouse control skills would be to try and replicate pictures on the computer using software like MS-Paint. This can slowly form the basis for doing one’s own artwork and using image processing software.

Challenges we faced
Finding the right games was a difficult task. Just using the ‘arrow’ keys alone will not enable children to improve their skills with the devices. We had to balance some fun with learning also. So, we did end up playing games that children liked which had fewer opportunities for learning skills or concepts. However, this can also be a way of arousing interest and enthusiasm in children to use the computer with ease and comfort.

Learning to use the computer in a real life context
Copying sentences or passages to practice typing from a ‘typing’ manual might not hold the child’s interest in doing exercises. Using a prescribed set of instructions to create a pie-chart or a presentation can also get mundane. It might even be harmful if the activity is construed as boring and cumbersome! Instead, if we make it a part of a larger interesting project/exercise that interests the child, the child will be more engaged in the task. The key is to make the project or exercise purposeful and set in a real life context. For example, one of the kids typed a description of a couple of festivals in his village – https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0B2BpqV2C2v8wYmJkOTJlZDQtOTNlZC00OTRkLWE2ZTgtNDAyMDBiZGUwNDI1&hl=en

Creative writing and art
We came up with numerous ideas to encourage children to write creatively and then type the same to be displayed. When typing their own work, they are often excited about finishing up an entire exercise on their own.

  • Children were asked to explore the surroundings to capture four different images. Then, using these images the children had to create a story of their own. They first wrote the story on paper with their own illustrations. This was later typed and drawn in the computer.
  • Children typed poems, riddles and songs that they had written. At a later point, some of them created their own music and recorded songs.

Scope for further exploration

  • Different languages could be used to do the same (typed in Kannada first and then in English).
  • Image processing software and a scanner can be used to merge real images with the child’s imagination. Again, the opportunities to build and add on to these examples in similar lines are endless.

Statistics and presentation
Various exercises involving collection of data can be integrated with computer skills training. The children used spreadsheet software like MS-Excel in the following ways:

Scope for further exploration

  • To track weather patterns in the area – collect rainfall data, high/low temperatures, etc., on a daily basis and make curves and charts.
  • To track the school budget or project expenses and interpret the data.
  • To track attendance patterns over the years in the school.
  • To make presentations or a slideshow of photos on various topics – e.g. history of the village, the child’s family, etc.

Interfacing with other devices – camera, microphone, speakers, etc.
The children can get comfortable with modern digital devices the more they use them and also learn to interface them with the computer. As part of a larger project, they can learn how these peripheral devices communicate and exchange information with the computer.

It is very important that children understand the importance of taking adequate care and precaution when using these costly devices.

A digital camera was used to create activities and projects for groups of children –such as:

Scope for further exploration
You could make a collection of images of various types of insects on the campus.

A webcam/microphone was used for:

  • Making an audio recording of music performances of the children. Trying to mix these sounds with other music to give an original production.
  • Recording a play by the children and screening it for the school.
  • A fake news channel (to sensitize children on the possibility that not everything seen on TV needs to be believed) and false but humorous advertising.
  • A news channel for the school.

Scope for further exploration

  • Doing interviews with the children and staff of the school to make a movie about the school.
  • Creating their own games where other children have to guess what a particular sound or close-up video depicts.
  • Recording video of a natural phenomenon – e.g. a sunbird sucking nectar, or a bee on a flower – then play it in super slow motion to see what happens.

learning-3 Challenges we faced
Since the children were not well equipped with computer skills, it took a long while for them to complete a task. At times they lost patience and requested us to complete the task for them so as to see the end product! We tried breaking down the project in such a way that they could see tangible results as they went along. E.g. we recorded parts of the video for the news channel and then finally put them all together with music etc. This approach kept the excitement up, and the kids were willing to spend more time constructively.

Using external software resources
Children like moving images with rich sounds and music. Learning material that is interactive, with an interesting storyline, characterization and vivid animation can capture the child’s interest and attention for long periods. We can even give independent work for the children with minimal adult intervention when we have quality e-learning material that is –

  1. Highly interactive – It should not be a movie screening and should engage the child to think and respond.
  2. Exploratory – It should arouse curiosity and create an urge to know more.
  3. Fun – It should have a healthy dose of games and activities that are fun for the kids to do.
  4. Dynamic in content – The automated software can be flexible enough to adapt to children’s competency levels based on their responses.

We have tried a few CDs from the Azim Premji Foundation (APF). Some of them are very good in content when used judiciously and appropriately. As a teacher, it is important to see it as an add-on resource for your classroom rather than a distraction to keep the kids occupied. The material should be reviewed and used by the teachers to determine its appropriateness for each child’s learning level, contextual understanding, etc. The CDs from APF also gave the option of viewing the content in various languages (Kannada, Hindi and English). It can also be effectively integrated with a lot of the activities detailed above. Similarly, virtual encyclopedias, the National Geographic series of DVDs, interactive e-books and various kinds of e-learning material are available for use. Cost and access can be a problem – but, we need not always depend on such material for the curriculum. Such materials can be seen as an additional way to bring variety into the classroom.

Challenges we faced
The children often skipped various screens in the interactive content to head straight to the games. Once in the game section they started randomly guessing answers. If only they had spent time in the interactive session, they could have applied the understanding to do better in the games. Selecting material that moved on with an interesting ‘story’ rather than just a broadcast of information helped a lot as the kids did not want to skip the content.

Using computers as a holistic resource
As the children get comfortable with the basic skills of typing, handling the mouse, keyboard, microphone, camera and other peripheral devices, we can slowly introduce more involved and intricate projects.

Scratch
‘Scratch’ is a fun, animation based software created by students of MIT (it’s an open source software available on the Internet – scratch.mit.edu ) as an introduction to programming. The language interface comes in English, Kannada, and Marathi. (There is an active online community helping with an ongoing effort to bring it out in many more Indian languages.) As the children get used to the interface, they can slowly progress from small activities like making a simple animation to doing a story, creating an interactive game, making a slideshow with animation, importing videos, recording voice-overs, etc. It involves concepts from mathematics, logical reasoning and can be helpful in reiterating many more classroom concepts.

Some of the animation stories we made in school –
The Foolish Crocodile: http://scratch.mit.edu/projects/scpadman/1107501
The Hungry wolf: http://scratch.mit.edu/projects/scpadman/1107508

Other continuous or long-term projects
The children used the computer to do a news channel of their own. They are also doing a video documentation of their favorite places in school and in the village.

Scope for further exploration
The children can also use the computer to make their own digital school magazine or newspaper. Children can create their own audio studio to record songs, compose music, or make their own short movies. Eventually, the children could be encouraged to set up their own DTP center for the local area.

Internet
All the activities and projects mentioned above are without the use of the Internet. The children should get comfortable with the basic computer skills, with the teacher and should perceive the computer as a tool to achieve various objectives before embarking on a journey through the Internet.

It is important for the children to understand the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of using the Internet and an orientation and basic set of ground rules should be put in place. Parental blocks on websites based on the age of the child might be appropriate. Adult supervision might be necessary in the beginning and focus should be on using the Internet as an endless library of resources for the children to complete their objectives or goals. For example, when looking to understand more about space exploration they could use ‘Google’ or ‘You Tube’ to get interesting material to add on to their presentation.

We did a video conferencing through Skype (and other free video conferencing facilities) with a school based in England. It was a wonderful experience for the teachers and children as they exchanged questions on culture, lifestyle, climate, food, etc. We later had a discussion on England and also on how communication happens. What is the Internet? How is it possible to interact with people across the seas?

A report as typed by one of the children –

  1. What did you teach them?

    I told them about our school. Our school is like a house. Nearby, there are many trees. There are mango trees, guava trees, custard apple trees, and sapota trees. There are many flower bushes. A pond is also there. A lot of space is there in the middle. We have a library. There are Kannada, Hindi, and English books. We also have three computers here. We sit on mats and work on the desk.

    Four pupils are in my class. In the school there are thirty five children. There are thirteen small children. There are six teachers who come every day. Santhosh anna and P***** akka come to school once a week. A***** akka comes and teaches dance once in a while. I like school because we have good teachers.

    We clean the school. We do gardening in the mornings. We get ready for prayer and sweep floors. We also fill the drinking water drum.

    In the end, I showed some fruits and flowers that grow in our school.

  2. What did you learn from them?

    In England they wear thick clothes because it’s cold. Their school uniform is orange in colour. They learn English, French, and Japanese. In school their group grows beans, carrot, beetroot, and potato. In houses they wear jumpers, shirts, raincoats, pants, and skirts. Their houses are made of cement and bricks. Their houses are big. They have a garden. They have their own bedrooms. They like to eat pizza and pasta.

Challenges we faced
The children need to develop enough confidence in themselves and in using the computers before they can think of creative projects and tasks on their own. Long-term projects are most effective when the children come up with the idea on their own. But that will take time and as we keep demonstrating, there is no limit to using any resource (not just a computer) creatively, children will be able to apply their thinking and problem solving skills in a better way.

Finally, no specific examination or evaluations need to be done to understand whether the child has progressed in learning computer skills. An alert and observant teacher will understand from the work of the children itself, which areas need more attention. Potentially, there could be a great flexibility in giving various activities based on the learning levels of the children. A good student to teacher ratio would ensure that continuous assessment happens in the classroom. It’s always a good idea to share the work of a group or child with the rest of the class or school. This will assure a sense of appreciation for the child’s efforts in itself. We observed that the children were proud to present and talk about their work. This also gave them confidence and enthusiasm to do more.

The author qualified as a computer engineer. After five years as a CAD engineer in the computer industry, he started pursuing his interests in running and education. At Sita School, he has been a part of the physical activity initiatives especially related to running and games. He also spends time with the children in helping them learn computer skills. He can be reached at santhosh.padmanabhan@gmail.com.

About Sita School: Sita School is a small school located in the north of Bangalore that uses alternative educational methods to encourage children to learn at their own pace without pressure of exams or fear of failure and disapproval.