Wednesday, December 3, 2014

“VICTORY IS MINE!” – Active engagement with computing in connected learning

I have a few comments – really just one – about the December 1 Webinar: Connected by Design:
In this session Kim Jaxon, Jaimie Hoffman, Danielle Astengo, Jeremy Wallace, and Jim Groom will be discussing various approaches to building a connected courses infrastructure for individual assignments, or an entire course. This session will showcase various sites faculty and graduate students have created over the semester, and hopefully inspire others to create their own connected course hub.

The statement, “VICTORY IS MINE” was made by Danielle Astengo at roughly 46:35 in the video. It’s the subject of an email message she sent when she’d successfully set up her own blog.

The message is quite clear: build your own. No, not necessarily from scratch – whatever that means. But at least install your own Word Press instance, and even have your students do it – much as participants in this workshop had to set up their own blogs.

And that has, in fact, been a running theme throughout the workshop. Whatever course you are teaching or will be teaching, it is important to engage with the technology in an active way. If we treat the web as a big media server and passively consume text, videos, and music, we will become slaves of the web. We have to actively engage with the web, and setting up a blog is a good way to begin.

Cognitive Evolution

At various points in human history fundamental and far-reaching changes in society and culture have been enabled by the creation of fundamentally new media. The emergence of writing in the context of agricultural civilization is perhaps the best-known case. The European Renaissance leading to the scientific revolution is another case. One school of thought attributes that revolution to the printing press. I’m inclined to think that, however important printing was, it wasn’t as important at the importation of mathematics from Asia via Muslim culture, an issue David Hays and I argued in The Evolution of Cognition (Journal of Social and Biological Structures 13(4): 297-320, 1990).

We’re currently undergoing such a shift and computing is the fundamental technology. But we must actively engage with computing. Here’s some remarks Alan Kay made in a recent interview in Time (David Greelish, April 02, 2013): is quite clear from the several early papers that it was an ancillary point for the Dynabook to be able to simulate all existing media in an editable/authorable form in a highly portable networked (including wireless) form. The main point was for it to be able to qualitatively extend the notions of “reading, writing, sharing, publishing, etc. of ideas” literacy to include the “computer reading, writing, sharing, publishing of ideas” that is the computer’s special province.

For all media, the original intent was “symmetric authoring and consuming”.

Isn’t it crystal clear that this last and most important service is quite lacking in today’s computing for the general public?
Concerning education, Kay remarked:
The education establishment in the U.S. has generally treated the computer (a) first as undesirable and shunned it, (b) as sort of like a typewriter, (c) not as a cheap but less legible textbook with smaller pages, etc. (d) as something for AP testing, (e) has not ventured into what is special about computing with reference to modeling ideas and helping to think about them.

This in spite of pioneers such as Seymour Papert explaining both in general (and quite a bit specifically) just what it is and how it can revolutionize education.

I’ve used the analogy of what would happen if you put a piano in every classroom. If there is no other context, you will get a “chopsticks” culture, and maybe even a pop culture. And this is pretty much what is happening.

In other words, “the music is not in the piano”.
The Child is Father to the Man

Now let’s go back to where this series of posts began, to child development (the Vygotsky Tutorial). The rest of this post is a slightly edited version of the final section of the article on cognitive evolution that I mentioned above. I’ve eliminated in the inline citations, which aren’t much use without the bibliography, and changed the wording a bit here and there so it doesn’t depend on some particular terms that Hays and I developed in that essay.

* * * * *

In general we assume that the growth of thinking and knowledge in individuals is epigenetic, that later mechanisms of thought are constructed from the materials made available by earlier mechanisms. In particular we remain partial to the concept of stages pioneered by Jean Piaget. The abstractions one begins learning in adolescence are based on the more concrete structures of thought acquired earlier. The preadolescent matrix will vary from culture to culture.

Let us begin by considering the emergence of literate culture. The child of literate parents will be exposed to the cultural environment of those parents. Much of that world will be as mysterious to the child as the world of preliterate adults is mysterious to a child in a hunter and gathering society. But, for example, the child in a literate world can see his parents read and write, while the child in a preliterate world cannot, for writing is a mystery which doesn't exist in that world.

Consider, specifically, the language to which a literate child is exposed. It will have a more deeply developed system of superordinate and subordinate categories, including categories such as plant and animal. The child may not have an immediate grasp of the conceptual structure underlying these categories — such ontological knowledge develops gradually — but he or she can learn to use those words correctly in many contexts and that knowledge will be a good foundation on which to construct the appropriate abstract justification for the categories. The conceptual environment of a child in a literate culture is thus significantly different from that of the child in a preliterate culture, and the difference is of the sort which will make it easier for the literate child to acquire the abstractions necessary for a literate adult.

We expect childhood exposure to computing to have a similar effect. But we do not as yet see anything significant happening on a large scale [remember, this article was published in 1990]. There may be computers in every primary school in the nation, and in a small percentage of homes, but children do not spend much time on these computers. And most, if not all, of the time they do spend is devoted to using the computer in the most superficial way, not in learning to program it. And that, programming, is where the major benefit lies. It is in programming that the child has to deal with control structure, the element which is new to the emerging level of thought.

We know that children can learn to program, that they enjoy doing so, and that a suitable programming environment helps them to learn. Seymour Pappert argues that programming allows children to master abstract concepts at an earlier age. In general it seems obvious to us that a generation of 20-year-olds who have been programming computers since they were 4 or 5 years old are going to think differently than we do. Most of what they have learned they will have learned from us. But they will have learned it in a different way. Their ontology will be different from ours. Concepts which tax our abilities may be routine for them, just as the calculus, which taxed the abilities of Leibniz and Newton, is routine for us. These children will have learned to learn the emerging level of thought.

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