At a recent meeting, discussion grew heated over whether computers and virtual worlds would ever be useful in teaching very small children. I think part of the problem many people in education have, particularly at the higher levels of education (middle school and up), is their definition of computer.
We think computer and what comes to mind? The standard desktop or laptop computer. General purpose and versatile for the average adult, but it admittedly does not stand up will to the pounding of your average child (trust me on this …. I know from experience!). Nor is it particularly easy for the very young (or the very old) to get information OUT of (my reading glasses become increasingly necessary when looking at a laptop screen).
But the view of the mainstream user is necessarily very limited. For those of us who have backgrounds in computer science and engineering, the range of types of computers far, far larger. We see computers everywhere, from your car to specialized robots used on the international space station. While some people may gripe that “computers are everywhere”, it is becoming rapidly true in most parts of the industrialized world.
Input and output devices (i.e. what you use to interact with a computer or computerized device) already have a wide range include cute little dolls like this one used with autistic children:
Who knows what we will be able to produce in 5 or 10 years that will allow teachers to work at a distance with special needs children?? We may be able to spread expertise and a capacity to mentor pre-service teachers into areas where it simply is not feasible to physically send a person. But to embrace this possibility, we may have to ask faculty to rethink the definition of “computer” to include the capabilities of both experimental and playful devices — which will become mainstream almost before we know it.