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I've got kids in middle and high school. And I worked in a large county educational computing facility in the early 80's, that had every kind of computer and piece of educational software for teachers to try out. My observations:

1. The computer is the "distraction machine." It is just vibrating with distractions. Even the supposedly educational websites have things that move, different colors, links, and so forth. Keeping my kids focused on their lessons requires constant supervision. Most of the time spent at the computer is recreational.

2. I think the content tends to be superficial, possibly because making the underlying mechanics work detracts from actually creating content. A lot of the software that I saw in the early 80's was glorified flash cards, and I'm not sure it's much better today. I'd estimate kids spend twice the time on half the content.

3. The bright side is, I think there's some tech, that is qualitatively different than a textbook. It tends to resemble "real" software that grown-ups use, such as programming tools, computer algebra systems, and so forth. Schools rarely use this stuff.

The computer is the "distraction machine."

Dead on. It's evolved to that point even for those of us that started in the 80s. Nothing but bright shiny things...a click away.

I suggested an idea to my son, who struggles greatly with the distraction machine. Even just having Microsoft Word open is bad enough because there are so many fonts, settings, the help system, and so forth. This, compounded by a bit of writers block, and probably the inherent boredom of the work.

I proposed to set up a Linux system with all apps disabled save for a plain text editor. I told him that it's not a punishment, but just a experiment in finding a practical solution to a problem that he acknowledges.

Your example of MS Word is interesting. Not only are these "playable" features distracting, they don't help with learning to write non-trivial texts either. I'd like to see them use a simple semantical text editor where they indicate the structure of the text, which then is automatically formatted. Formatting then is not a seemingly integral part of writing anymore, but a separate task.

More importantly, I think, is that a lot of educators and parents seem to value "having fun" as an important characteristic of education. I am doing research on innovative mathematics education in primary school, and, when asking teachers to evaluate the lessons or instructional materials, they always point out how much fun the children had (compared to the usual instruction). If I asked further and inquire about the actual learning of the students, most teachers aren't able to express anything beyond the superficial, either related to class management or to regurgitating parts of the curriculum.

The kids in my CS class use putty to access Ubuntu servers, then write up their coursework in markdown. The only way to view their formatted text is to look at the GitHub README.md files online.

As a result, there are very few distractions. They have putty and GitHub open on their screens, and nothing else.

FWIW, this is what a LaTeX editor might give you. You write paragraphs of text, with some tags to indicate the semantics of the text, and converting that into 'pretty' text on a page is (generally) a second step.

I was more thinking about something like LyX and hide the typesetting engine / markup language for a while. Although when children have experience with an editor like this, supporting them to learn something like HTML (of LaTeX) is probably a lot easier as they understand the concept of structural elements.

Depending on your son's age the Alpha Smart Neo (despite being discontinued) might make sense as an extremely bare bones word processor. I used an earlier model when I was in grade school and it was convenient for busting out first drafts and some light editing. The trick of the device, at least back then, was that it would present as a keyboard to transfer the text to a computer.

It's really unfortunate that this is the case too. It seems like almost all of the services I use, namely Facebook, are designed to distract me. And, upon reflection, they are. Facebook makes more money if I'm distracted and waste time on the site.

Reading your post, I couldn't help but think of the web usability classic "Don't Make Me Think".

We've been working for over a decade to make computer use as mindless, er, easy as possible.

I agree with your points, especially #3. Unfortunately that type of technology doesn't actually get much love in education, the irony :)

Speaking of such software, I've built a ton of it:

www.jasymchat.com (a CAS with text chat built in.) www.appynotebook.com (Awesome digital binder) www.schoolnotez.com (static portable version of Appynotebook)

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