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Educational Computing: How Are We Doing?

In a Silver Anniversary issue of T.H.E. Journal, it is appropriate to think about where the whole enterprise of educational computing is in its life cycle. Since this is too broad of a topic, I focus here on a special case and leave it to readers to generalize my line of thought.

In the first part of this article I offer an explanation of what I mean by life-cycle in the form of a series of examples to serve as metaphors. In the second part I look at the life cycle of a specific piece of educational technology -- the programming language Logo -- with which I have been closely associated.

  • METAPHORS FOR MEASUREMENT OF PROGRESS

How Big is the Baby?

First metaphor: suppose you have a baby and want to know how it is doing. You call a pediatrician and say "my baby measures 22 inches, is this good or bad?" If you get an answer at all it can only be because the doctor knows the age of your baby and can attempt to place its measurements in an expected pattern of growth. Yet apparently serious commentators on the development of educational technology seem willing to decide that it is doing very well or very badly without any consideration of what kind of developmental pattern is to be expected.

Second metaphor: pediatricians can evaluate the progress of a baby because observing a lot of other babies gives them a series of benchmarks. One might try to do the same here by observing the development of other technologies.

Flying Machines

The history of aviation provides a tempting metaphor for those of us who like to believe that educational technology will eventually lead to megachange in how people learn, for it is easy to ridicule in hindsight the critics who ridiculed the performance of the Wrightís flying machine in 1905. To see a flight of 22 feet as the birth of a transformative technology needed imagination much more than measurement!

However, I find this metaphor pertinent but too "technocentric" to be really useful. On the positive side, one can inject a little historical perspective into the discussion of technology in education by asking people where they would place its development in relation to the evolution of aviation from the Wright brothersí Flying machine to B'eingís Jumbo jet.

My own view is that we have gotten beyond the stage of the barnstormers and first mail flights in the twenties and are perhaps at a stage comparable to the launching in the mid-thirties of the great DC-3, the first really successful airliner. Most people in the transportation industries were still skeptical about the idea that aviation could really transform the way people moved around the planet. But at least they had a commercially viable example.

The negative side of the aviation metaphor is that it too easily leads to placing too much emphasis on the evolution of the power of a technology. Transferred to our problem of judging educational technologies, this encourages understanding the differences between the early eighties and the late nineties in terms of memory size, modem speed and numbers of available software packages. Of course these technological features are relevant, but a different metaphor d'es a better job of placing them in the context of a very different kind of feature.

Movies

Third metaphor: the precursors of what we would call a movie consisted essentially of placing one of the newly invented movie cameras in front of a stage and acting a play as if for a live audience. The evolution from theater+technology to modern cinema took about as long as the maturation of aviation to the point where it became a dominant form of transportation. But it is more instructive for our purposes in highlighting the fact that this is not simply a story of the development of a technology. It is better described as the development of a culture.

Theater+camera illustrates a natural use of a new technology: keep on doing what you did before with minimal change to make use of the new tool. The analogy with School+Computer is quite close. The first uses of computers in schools simply added a new tool to old practices. On the whole, this is still where most schools are today.

The evolution of cinema has certainly been supported by the growing power of the technological tools. But what makes the story interesting is that the use of the tools allowed a slow evolution of other dimensions of theater. For example, the idea of a "close up" must be counted as an original discovery and, like most original discoveries, encountered resistance. (It is worth doing the exercise of trying to imagine how an actor might have felt about being treated in this way!)

An even deeper transformation of the art of acting is seen in the differences between acting out a whole continuous story and the modern technique of assembling a movie from multiple shots of tiny fragments of action that might not even be made in chronological sequence.

But these are just isolated samples. A large tome would be needed even to mention all the rich components of what has evolved as cinema ... and then the story would move on to television and beyond that into the still-speculative realms of what digital technology is now spawning. And even this is only one facet: to give it full understanding the story must be placed in the context of deep changes in ways of life, in the nature of dating and family relationships, and in the symbology of Hollywood with its stars and hoopla.

This is obviously not just a story of technology helping lead to "improvement" of theater. It is the story of the emergence of something very different, better described as a culture than as a technology, which I see as the best model I know for thinking about the nature of the developmental cycle of technology in education.

  • EXAMPLE: LOGOíS EVOLUTION

Ten years before T.H.E. Journal was launched, Logo was designed as a programming language that could be accessible to children. The spirit of the enterprise was like the way the Wright brothers approached aviation: I thought of giving children the power to program computers as a tiny first step in a complex process whose details could not be anticipated.

What is most impressive for me looking back now from the vantagepoint of seeing the best recent uses of Logo, is a sense of the richness of these unanticipated developments. The three metaphors discussed earlier, especially the cinematic metaphor, serve as prisms to understand this evolution.

The first published criticism of this project, at about the time of the birth of T.H.E. Journal, was in the spirit of those who dismissed the Wright brothersí flight on the grounds that a hop of 22 feet was of no serious importance.[1] The conclusion that should be drawn is that simply injecting any single idea into an otherwise unchanged school situation would not have transformative effects.[2] It says something about the culture of educational psychology that the actual conclusion drawn was that "Logo had failed."

To bring out the differences between "injecting a single idea" and "the growth of a culture around a new technology" I look at several steps in the development of Logo at the Hennigan Elementary School in Boston, Mass.

Early Uses of Logo

At the start, Logo was being used mainly for writing programs to produce geometric figures in short-term projects that would be completed in, at most, a few hours of work. We were relatively satisfied with the fact that children were interested and were picking up concepts of programming. Both forms of satisfaction were exploded, however, when new developments opened our eyes to something richer.

One of these was the development (to which Steve Ocko and Mitchel Resnick made important contributions) of a new use of programming by interfacing Lego constructs to the computer.[3] (Lego constructs are interactive, physical objects built with Lego plastic blocks, gears, pulleys, etc., which are then controlled by a Logo program on the computer.)

Giving children the opportunity to program behaviors into vehicles, robots, dinosaurs and other constructs of their own design opened a new horizon onto the possibility of engagement: many children who were mildly interested in the graphics programming showed high degrees of enthusiasm in this new sphere. At the same time many kinds of program structure that were not spontaneously picked up in the old context now seemed obvious to the children. The conclusion to be drawn was not that Lego constructs were better objects for programming than graphics, but that variety offered more chances for more children to relate to more concepts.

Uses of Logo Mature

The second development was based on a concept introduced by Idit Harel.[4] Instead of thinking of Logo work as a series of isolated programming projects in a computer lab, Harel proposed the metaphor of children working for much longer periods of time (for example an hour a day for most of a school year) on designing and producing "real products."

In the first round, each student had the assignment of producing a piece of educational software -- meaning not only the programming but the instructional design, a userís manual and publicity materials saying why it should be used. In the following round, Yasmin Kafai took over from Harel and changed the assignment to making a complete video game with all the supporting materials.[5]

At Hennigan Elementary, the Lego direction and the software studio direction were operated as separate activities. In more recent developments, the two are being put together, thus creating even more opportunities for a wider range of forms of engagement and forms of computer competence to grow.

But with this greater complexity of activities comes greater problems of access to knowledge: the problems and difficulties that come up are increasingly beyond what a teacher can be expected to handle.

Logoís Tomorrow?

The entire process would eventually grind to a halt in intellectual gridlock but for a new line of development. Michele Evard working at Hennigan Elementary School has pioneered what I see as one of the most important new techniques in educational computing. This is a first shot at creating an on-line consultation system that allows a student who encounters a problem to throw it out to a virtual community of other students (or in principle, simply other people) who collectively know much more than any teacher possibly could!

  • CONCLUSION

Looking at the complex texture of Logo development (of which I have mentioned only a sample of what already exists and barely a foretaste of what might come) provides a new perspective on the problem of deciding not only whether Logo succeeded or failed, but whether all endeavors in the field have succeeded or failed.

The problem is not so much solved as dissolved: the real problem is not whether Logo "succeeded," but understanding the growth of a computer learning culture in which Logo plays an important, but not determining, part. D'es this mean we can simply drop Logo? Yes -- but only when Logo is given its ultimate success by the evolution of the next stage of programming systems for children.


Seymour Papert was born in South Africa in 1928 where he studied mathematics and mathematical models of thinking in between activities in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1956 he moved to Europe where he continued research in mathematics and began a long collaboration with Jean Piaget. Since 1963 he has been at MIT in various formal positions: Professor of Applied Mathematics, Co-Director with Marvin Minsky of the Artificial Laboratory and, at present, Lego Professor of Learning Research. At MIT a growing proportion of his time has been devoted to working on the idea that new technologies would not improve school but rather make obsolete anything resembling the present day institution. He is widely known as the originator of the Logo language and of the idea that programming computers would become part of the intellectual lives of children.


References:
 

  1. Pea, R., and Kurland, D.M. (1984), "On the Cognitive Effects of Learning Computer Programming," New Ideas in Psychology, 2, pp. 137-168.
  2. Papert, S. (1987), "Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking," Educational Researcher, 16(1), pp. 22-30.
  3. Resnick, M., Ocko, S. and Papert, S. (1988), "Lego, Logo and Design," Childrenís Environmental Quarterly, 5(4), pp. 14-18
  4. Harel, Idit (1991), Children Designers, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.
  5. Kafai, Yasmin (1995), Minds In Play: Computer Game Design as a Context for Children Learning, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Books by Seymour Papert:

  • Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, New York, NY: Basic Books, 1980.
  • The Childrenís Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, New York, NY: Basic Books, 1992.

The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap, Atlanta, GA: Longstreet Press, 1996.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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