Future Tense

Why I’m Teaching My Kids That Computers Are Dumb Machines

A mouse and a keyboard can solve lots of remote learning problems, but here’s how Slate’s director of technology tackles the rest.

A kid sits at a table with a workbook, colored pencils, and a laptop. He has his hands to his head in frustration.
Sam Thomas/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A few days before virtual learning started in D.C., I watched our 5-year-old try to scroll on the Dell laptop we had just picked up from the school. He dragged his two fingers down the track pad, but his fingertips are so small that the computer thought they were one finger, and the cursor just moved up and down. So I guess that’s the first lesson of kindergarten, before “raise your hand” or even “mute your microphone”: Hold your fingers a little bit farther apart when attempting to scroll down to find the “join” button for today’s video chat with Señor C.

I’m the director of technology for Slate. I manage the software engineers, write software, and also manage our IT department. I’m also the de facto IT helper for my family, the in-laws, and a lot of other adults. But now, pandemic-induced virtual learning has introduced me to a whole new set of potential IT frustrations, and this time it’s with little people who aren’t nearly as capable of controlling their emotions.

Our son was clearly frustrated by this new device that couldn’t differentiate between his two fingers, but hardware like that track pad is probably the lesser of the computer problems children are facing in virtual school. As anxiety-inducing as adult-size track pads can be for tiny hands, the software they’re encountering suffers from many more issues. In several cases, it wasn’t made for children. Even if it was, it very likely wasn’t made for children of all ages. The math program available to our son (after the school retracted his favorite one two weeks into school) only has buttons in English, with no symbols, to get you to the next exercise. He is 5. He cannot read. And that’s just the beginning.

Microsoft Teams, which both our second grader and kindergartner use for video conferencing, is designed for businesses but has been warped into use for school. Teachers and students use about one-eighth of its feature set, but all the features are floating around the interface waiting to confuse and confound students—or lure them away. Even second graders quickly learned to create a “back channel” to chat in while the teacher is talking. Teachers can’t seem to turn it off, so any of their students who can read and write are sending messages and GIFs, and the rest are spewing emoji as quickly as they can click.

Then there are the learning management systems, which both kids use for accessing assignments and prerecorded videos. These systems purport to do it all. They allow for attendance reporting, tracking homework, creating quizzes and assignments, grading, and more. The one that D.C. Public Schools is using is especially awful, but they all probably are. The most particular annoyance we’ve encountered is that the only way for the attendance tracking to work is for students to both log in and out every day. This makes sense from a programming perspective: The school is tracking attendance using the login event, and without a logout event, there would be no login event to track the next day. Of course, good luck explaining that to a second grader who can easily see that it’s a waste of time. Within the first week, my daughter was groaning: “Why can’t they just know I’m here because I’m on camera? Or because I clicked on ‘Social Studies?’ ”

We’ve all been frustrated to tears by a bad website (looking at you, expense report filing systems), and now our kids are sitting in front of shoddy user experiences for hours and hours every day. They’re understandably exasperated. But there are a few different approaches I’ve found to combating this anxiety. Of course, everyone’s mileage may vary, and the ages of our kids (5 and 7) means they have a different set of anxieties from, say, teenagers. But this can be a start.

For hardware, there are some cheap solutions. If kids are having trouble with the track pad, you can get a cheap mouse for $8. If they keep accidentally hitting the track pad with their hands, you can get a keyboard for $17. If your school provides computers, use them. Not only will they probably have better restrictions in place than the ones you’d set up yourself, but they will also have the same hardware that most of the other students have. This means that when teachers or other students are trying to help your child fix an issue, they’ll at least be familiar with the computer and have no excuses about it not being a school-issued laptop. Yes, it might be underpowered, but the school shouldn’t be asking them to do anything that they can’t do on a school computer anyway.

Software is a different ballgame. A lot of these programs are being used in ways that neither their creators nor the educators anticipated, so issues that pop up for your kids may be new, at least to their teachers. Some of the teachers at our school were only trained on these programs the week before school started. You can help your kids by talking to their teachers about the software issues they’re encountering. The teachers are just as frustrated if not more frustrated with the software and they will understand. If you work with them to find ways around the frustrations that don’t cause the teachers more work, everyone wins.

In week two, our 7-year-old scored a zero on her math quiz because instead of just typing the answer, she typed out the whole equation. I even watched her painstakingly figure out to hold shift for + but not for = as she entered all 12 equations. The next day, the teacher asked students to type the whole equation, but our daughter got them all wrong again because she didn’t put spaces between the numbers and symbols.

Any teacher would have given her credit if this had been on paper. But the computer, of course, only knows what you tell it, nothing more, nothing less. Quizzes are graded immediately upon submission, and seeing her score of zero, our daughter frantically turned on the microphone and sobbed to her wonderfully patient teacher that she’s getting them all wrong.

“Don’t worry! We get all the answers printed out and I will score it again. It’s OK.”

I understand why it’s like this. The learning management system doesn’t support multiple correct answers. Even if it did, entering every possible correct combination of symbols and spaces would take the teacher all night.

But a 7-year-old should be learning to read and write, not to navigate a “learning management system.” She should be learning math, not Microsoft Teams, pop-ups, and the concept of a “chat.” I find our second grader concentrating more on typing the letters than on actually thinking about what she’s typing. Her brain is trying as hard as it can, but it’s focusing on how she’s learning instead of what, because the how is so new.

So I tell her to stop. Write down the answers on paper. If she can do that, I’ll type them in for her. Or we can take a picture and send it to her teacher so she can get credit for having done the assignment.

I want my kids’ first experience with a laptop, which this is, to be fun, not stressful. When I was growing up, I might have occasionally had to muddle through the early word processing program WordPerfect to type and print something for school, but otherwise I used it for drawing or to play Myst. Eventually, once we got a modem, I might have used it to chat with a friend on AIM. But the computer never stood between me and learning something. It was a toy, and thus, not scary.

So I let my kids play with their new tool. I want them to learn by experimentation—not by sitting through the 30-minute video on how to find their class in Canvas. If they’re scared that one wrong click will ruin their day, they might be afraid of computers the whole year and maybe their whole lives. I let them try all the buttons in Microsoft Teams to see what they do. If they make a mistake, we can usually undo it or go back to where they were. Starting over from the beginning is the oldest trick in the IT manual, so if they really mess things up, we reboot or reinstall. I want my kids to understand that computers are dumb machines that will do only what you tell them to do.

After two weeks, both kids are navigating their little universe of educational apps with only three or four hiccups a day. I watch over their shoulder as they try to get past notifications and pop-ups that intercept their attempts to get to the actual thing they’re supposed to be learning. I listen to the 7-year-old stress out at bedtime about whether she remembered to log out so that her attendance is counted. And I weep for their lost innocence. They shouldn’t know this bullshit yet. They shouldn’t be adapting to this terrible system of logins and passwords and websites that work one second but don’t the next because their “session on Clever has timed out.” Even when things are working smoothly, I don’t want them to be good at this. I want them to be good at reading and math and to just be good people, not good at navigating cluttered interfaces that have been hurriedly foisted on our overworked educators. But last week the 5-year-old figured out that he can hold down the mute key so that the sound goes on and off really quickly and makes his teacher’s voice all choppy. Maybe they know more about having fun than I do and will figure out a way to turn the computer into a toy no matter how hard the software tries to make school a chore.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.