TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
If this column's earlier exercises in pitting CD-Roms against children identified one gaping hole in the market, it was for an accessory that can detach boys' hands from mice. Either that, or for computers cheap enough so that all the family offspring, daughters as well as sons, can have one each. So it was encouraging to find an all-girl class at a "Computer Camp", even if there were only three of them.

It's not really a camp, of course; no lessons in lighting modems by rubbing sticks together, or finding files with a compass and grid references; just a small classroom at the back of Just For Kids Computers in St John's Wood, London (0171-722 6878). The courses, which also run in term-time, emanate from an American franchising operation called Futurekids. Their selling point is the argument that computer skills will be a precondition of decent earnings when today's children are grown up; the summer-time rider is that computers keep children entertained as well. There are Cartoon Camps and Mystery Camps; but for parents looking for long-term returns on their investment, there's Junior Entrepreneur.

Would this latter turn out to be no more than an alternative to jet-fighter games as a conduit for juvenile killer instincts? Or a particularly crass tool from the ideological armoury of Californian capitalism? Not in the hands of the young ladies of north-west London and their teacher, Amber Wootton. On arrival, Amber invited the three girls, aged 10 and 11, to invent an imaginary business. Lianna chose a sweet shop, Caroline a speciality carpet firm, Juliette an animal hospital.

The course lasts a week, in daily sessions of 90 minutes. It uses a mixture of children's software, such as Kid Pix Studio, and standard tools, such as Microsoft Works, to introduce some of the basics of running a business. Having chosen their enterprises, the girls designed business cards and envelopes. They were then introduced to the somewhat less colourful world of invoices, spreadsheets, profit and loss.

The air of concentration, and the levels of noise, would have done credit to a religious order. While the girls worked diligently at the tasks they were set, and learned what they were supposed to learn from them, they didn't seem to think themselves into the entrepreneurial role. In fact, they were initially unfamiliar with the term itself - Amber translated the course title as "young businesswomen". Taking the opportunity to relate the assignments to the outside world, Amber found that the girls had a somewhat hazy grasp of what constituted a business. They were not inclined to think of a vet as being in business, for example. Nor did they seem to understand about how the taxes that feature on invoices are used in public expenditure - but then most voters don't either.

As for the bottom line, the girls seemed at first to feel the same bewilderment as most adults at the sight of a number with a minus sign in front of it. Conversely, I was perplexed by the invoice from Juliette's animal hospital itemising "200000kg of misapathy".

There was a curious mismatch between the children's spreadsheet software used for light relief, in which they are guided by a bug-eyed monster, and the language of the course-notes. In the final session, the students were expected to "assume the role of business consultants" and to make a "critical business decision" about buying fast-food franchises. The decisions involved whether to go for a downtown location or an outlying one, and how much to spend on advertising.

The lesson was that advertising pays. But although one of the girls made a better decision than the others, everybody got a piece of cake. Yet another demonstration that computers have nothing to do with real life.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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