Network: All his own work (with a little technical help)

A PC helps Sue James's son to impress the teachers, but some of them are suspicious
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ever since the PC and small boys got together, the cry of "It will help me with my homework" has provided the justification for parents forking out for a state-of-the-art computer. Once the machine has been bought, the original rationale is forgotten and it often turns out to have been just a way of getting a games machine. But what happens when you call your children's bluff and encourage them to use it for their schoolwork?

When our son, Sam, started secondary school last September, we asked whether it would be acceptable for him to use his home computer for his homework. The instant response was "Of course", but as the school year comes to an end, we and the teachers have all learnt more complex lessons.

The obvious way in which a PC can be used by students is in wordprocessing written assignments. This helps Sam enormously, as it liberates him from laborious and untidy handwriting and poor spelling and allows his ideas to be presented clearly without these distractions.

It is important to realise that using a wordprocessor is not just an easy option. Not only is there the skill of typing to master, plus the extras such as using a spelling checker and online thesaurus, but there is also the "perfection trap" - going over the work time and time again to make small corrections in a way you just wouldn't do with pen and ink. Even after a dozen or more revisions, the need to print it out just once more to correct even the smallest of mistakes is strong, so homework that should have taken 30 minutes occupies hours!

The paradox is that this PC-induced obsession with achieving perfection isn't generously rewarded. We get the impression that Sam's teachers are not convinced that the neatly presented efforts are all his own work. You can sympathise with their point of view - work done in class is produced at a slow rate and is liberally sprinkled with minor errors and their corrections; the work done on the PC is superior in quantity and quality. There is the suspicion that it would be very possible for someone else to take over the keyboard and leave no trace of their helping hand. After a while, you begin to learn that perfection is not the target: it is quicker and more credible to deliver an early draft.

After the wordprocessor, the most used application is a drawing package. This is never used for art homework - nothing but traditional materials will do for this - but for numerous sketches and illustrations that are part of most assignments. Last week, it was drawing a room plan for his French homework, the object of the exercise being to give rooms their French names.

There is a fine dividing line between when the use of a drawing package is reasonable and when it borders on cheating. Lots of Sam's homework involves copying drawings or colouring them in before labelling them. Colouring is a tedious and difficult task if you are not artistically gifted. Having a scanner and picture-editing software at his disposal, Sam devised a method for copying and colouring drawings using the computer. This is a fiddly and time-consuming, but the results are impressive and far better than he could achieve manually. At first, we wondered if the teachers would consider it cheating. Far from it. Sam's geography teacher, in particular, fully approves and seems disappointed when Sam resorts to manual drawing.

Our rule of thumb is that a drawing package and scanner are a reasonable approach to any homework where the drawing is not the direct object of the exercise. This sounds like a good principle, but what about the question of sketch maps? When asked to draw a map of some part of the world, it is quite easy and tempting to just copy and paste a map from clip art. The result would be a perfect map in seconds, but it would do nothing to help the student remember the basic shapes. If the task was to add details to an outline, however, then perhaps the computer approach isn't so bad.

The same sort of moral dilemma presents itself when other applications provide an alternative approach. For example, the spreadsheet comes out from time to time - to draw graphs of measurements taken in science, to record weather readings for geography, and do a chart of a traffic census for maths. In all of these instances, the results were better than could have be achieved on paper, but took just as much time and effort. However, every now and again Sam is asked to draw a graph manually, just to make sure he knows how to! Of course, he is also learning how to use wordprocessors, drawing packages and spreadsheets, but there is little room for his teachers to acknowledge this in their marking schemes.

A more obvious role for the computer in homework is the ability to look up information to answer specific questions. A multimedia encyclopaedia comes into its own for subjects such as religious studies and classics, where homework is frequently to go away and find out about esoteric topics. Microsoft Encarta is the one that Sam finds best for his needs. Over the school year it has shed light on Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the Bahai faith, assorted Greek myths and the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Encarta has two obvious advantages over a conventional printed encyclopaedia: it is cheaper and does not require shelf space; it also makes it very easy to take a thread and follow it through related topics. As a result, Sam often learns more than he ever intended to about a topic, and the homework really does fulfil its aim of being educational.

There is, however, a potential danger in using such electronic sources: it is too easy to copy and paste complete paragraphs. At least when copying out from a paper source there is a natural desire to shorten and so process at least some of the information it contains. With copy and paste, there is no need to even read the entire chunk of text, let alone edit it! This is such an obvious potential "cheat" that teachers and parents are going to be aware of it. It is up to the students themselves to avoid bringing the PC, and the whole of their computer-aided efforts, into disrepute by falling into this trap.

The Internet, too, can contribute information and pictures. In general, the quality is not as high as the polished presentations you find in a multimedia encyclopaedia, but the range and immediacy of the information make up for this. Net pages tend to have more text than commercial multimedia products and this forces Sam to read some very advanced material. The urge to use the Net is sufficiently high to keep him following links and reading pages well beyond the point at which he would have given up in a book.

The final role for the PC in Sam's homework schedule is keeping the schedule itself. Keeping up with homework is a big problem when you move from a primary school that did not set any homework to a secondary school that sets three or four subjects a night A homework book supplemented with an organiser - Lotus Organizer, to be specific - makes it much easier to see what has to be done and when. This is particularly useful when teachers do not follow the set pattern and a collision of tasks occurs. Learning about project management is an unintentional spin-off.

One year down the line, all those involved are getting used to the idea that the computer plays a positive role in Sam's homework. Given the number of families that own PCs , we find it odd that our approach to homework is still very much an isolated example. It seems to be an example worth following, as the results are rewarding in terms of educational input and satisfaction with output. But don't make the mistake of thinking it is the easy option.