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Technophobia and the School Playground

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Parents worry. Maybe they always did, but there's a lot to get anxious about these days. Environmental catastrophe, economic meltdown, ever-increasing competition for jobs and the unstoppable advance of technology.

The pace of change - to borrow a phrase - is exponential, and trying to prepare your kids, to borrow another one, for a future we cannot yet imagine is, well, a little daunting.

What is self-evident to many is that kids play with new technology with a confidence their parents can only marvel at. If you're hitting or have crept past 40, you may remember the sweet satisfaction of teaching your parents how to programme the video recorder. Watch a two- or three-year-old play with an iPad and project forward a few years when they start making music, videos and their own games...

Research just published in the US shows that 39% of two to four-year-olds have used a smartphone, video iPod,I Phone/iPad or similar device. More surprisingly, an astonishing 10% of infant to one-year-olds have done the same: touchscreen technology has, in a couple of years, transformed our children's relationship with technology. As an example of this, my youngest daughter recently strolled up to our new TV and tried to swipe the screen to change the channel. Her mild disappointment at realising this wasn't an option was both funny and instructive. Powerful, responsive and always-on technology is here to stay, and most likely to creep into every area of our lives. Kids love the tactility and responsiveness of touchscreens, and parents now find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: how much time should they spend on these devices, and what constitutes 'positive' screen time?

This thorny issue is one that I believe is going to only get more pressing as a new digital divide emerges: parents who say 'yes vs parents who say no. The refrain 'Mum, can I play on your phone/Dad, can I go on the iPad' echoes through homes all over the world, and you can hear the emotional as well as the intellectual cogs turning before an answer is given.

On the one hand, a happily occupied kid gives overstretched parents some much needed time. On the other, there's a shiver of guilt if the device only occupies them with repetitive, passive games. As parents, we want our kids - at least some of the time - to be engaged with things that develop as well as entertain them, and educational psychologists have long warned of the effects of excessive, passive screen time.

As CEO of London-based start up Stealth Education, I now find this issue playing itself out in the playground where I have become the target of angry parents. "You make computer games for small children don't you?" they ask, through gritted teeth and icy smiles. Subtext: "You want to turn my child into a socially isolated, monosyllabic tech zombie". My response, honed with every use, is always defensive: "Well, sort of. We're very keen to make sure the kids are getting some education as well as having fun...We think it's important to give them experiences that take them away from the screen as well etc."

If I have the time, I'll counter these emotive accusations by explaining that far from being a negative experience, well-designed apps and games can massively enhance the scope of a child's learning, providing not only access to limitless information, but the chance to develop multiple, high value skills. Good apps and games will develop creative and collaborative capacities, as well as problem solving, story telling and communication skills. And these, incidentally, are the skills that employers and, evidently, the world now need in abundance. And on top of that, these are the capacities and skills that are rarely - if ever - explicitly taught in formal education.

By this point in my rant most parents have either shuffled off for a coffee or run for the bus...But those left listening generally look a bit less combative and maybe start thinking slightly differently about those seductive devices in their pockets.

I've set myself the task of building a company that makes apps and games that keep everyone happy: the parents are buying education, the kids get to play. And although we've got some great people helping us to do this, including respected education experts and the Godfather of the UK games industry, Ian Livingstone, I have to acknowledge it's a big ask.

However it plays out, I am convinced that technology and mobile in particular will prove to be a disruptive if not transformative force in education - in the best sense - just like it has been for music, publishing and broadcasting.

Jack Taub, a man who has had a huge influence on my thinking said that "Every child is born a miracle of curiosity with a genetic need to learn" and he believed that technology has the potential to turn every child's desk into "an intellectual Disneyland." So if you're a parent, try not to worry too much, and let's see if we can embrace a new era of learning, one that better equips our kids for the astonishing, terrifying and ever-changing times we now find ourselves living in.

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