How do you tell if the classroom computer is doing its job? One sure sign is children's enthusiasm, says Ursula Willis, technology facilitator for 13 inner-city Philadelphia schools. "That's the sign ... when they want it in their home."
Sometimes, though, you have to coax children for the information. Here are some questions computer-savvy educators suggest you ask:
*Have you had a chance to use the computer today? How much time did you get to use it - every day this week or just today? Did you use it alone or with other students?
*What did you use the computer for? (Ideally, it should be for research and creative practice, not merely for drill and practice.)
*Does the computer play music and sounds? Can it play movies?
*Does your teacher use the machine?
If you're not getting good answers, don't be shy about broaching the subject with the teacher. Remember: Good teachers don't always use computers. But if your community has paid to put the machines into classrooms, it's only fair to ask that they be used in the right way. Here are some questions you might ask at the next parent-teacher conference:
*What is your training and background in computers?
*How do you feel about bringing computers in the classroom?
*Do you use the machines yourself?
*Is there anything I can do to facilitate the learning?
Sometimes, the teacher is eager to use technology but doesn't have the support of the principal or the district. "If the software or hardware is not there, the parents could let the school board know that there's support" for the technology, says Winnifred Bolinsky, a fifth-grade teacher in Allentown, Pa.
Sometimes, parents run into the opposite problem. The school board or principal is installing computers without any clear idea of what they should do, which wastes valuable resources, educators say.
Here are some questions to ask administrators:
*Why are you buying these computers? How do they fit in with your philosophy of education?
*What's your technology plan for the next five years?
*When the machines and software become obsolete, how do you plan to update them?
The answers you get will give you a good idea whether your child's classroom computer is up to snuff.