Building A Computing Education Museum

There’s an irony and an everyday lesson in building a virtual museum for how computers and computing became part of learning and education. Almost every step requires learning, and it requires a style of learning that didn’t exist prior to computers – which is yet another reason for a museum that saves the lessons from that transition.

I’m not a computer expert, nor am I a neophyte. I’m a geezer geek, someone who was an expert but whose specific expertise faded in importance with each software and hardware cycle. Want someone to program Fortran IV from punch cards? How about a bit of assembly code on a Harris via tape? Okay, yes, I use real computers with monitors, keyboards, and disk drives; but, soon they may give way to virtual displays, virtual keyboards, and cloud memory. The only way any of us maintain our computer skills is from usage and a reliance on Help menus, user forums, and a lot of trial and error. Those learning skills are accepted, usually grudgingly, as part of our normal routine.

Decades ago, the normal routine for learning a skill was: listen to lectures, do homework, maybe experiment in a lab, take tests, and wait for an authority figure to decree a verdict on at least pass or fail. On-the-job training existed for the hand crafts, but the rest was book learned first and exercised later. It was a model that worked for centuries. It worked because change was slow.

Computers changed all of that. In the pioneering years, computers were custom built by hand, probably by the people that would become the programmers. They had no reference books. Eventually, the computers became products that could be bought, delivered, and installed – and even had user manuals, but the programming was unique and frequently poorly documented. By the 1970’s and 1980’s stability came to hardware and software, at least enough to allow teachers to arrange classes about computers and eventually used computers for classes. But, it didn’t end there.

Now, we expect hardware to become obsolete within a few years and software upgrades to be delivered every few months. Very few take classes to manage the changes or new features. The upgrades include self-paced tours, which can’t convey all of the changes, just a few the producer wants to emphasize. We train ourselves by experimenting when our previous techniques fail. We scroll through menus hunting for remembered commands, hoping they haven’t been renamed. Calls for Help via social media may be more useful than perusing a Support web site. And the changes continue.

That self-learning describes most tasks in building a Virtual Museum. Our sites span this blog, a wiki, Facebook, Google Drive, Google+, Google Hangouts, Twitter, and the general suite of programs we use for the normal basic office functions. No conference call is immune from at least one digression as someone tries to find a file or a function or an operation. (My camera’s little green “On” light continues to glow after our meeting this morning and I can’t figure out how to turn it off without rebooting.)

Our acceptance of the self-learning task may not be apparent to anyone who entered school after 1990. I am glad I witnessed the transition, if for no other reason than I can appreciate the paradigm shifting changes that faced the pioneering teachers. No one told them how this would turn out. They helped define what to teach in-person and what can be taught by computer.

When Machines Teach by Arnold Keller

Their work is the core of what we will save with the Virtual Museum. How they dealt with transition, how students accepted the new environment, and how we all live and learn differently now will finally have a home.

I’ll be blogging more about the process and progress of how the museum is being built. For now, we’re established those footholds and foundations in this blog, our wiki, and our newborn social media platform. Each has been a learning experience. Each is an opportunity for you to watch what we’re doing and for you to share your stories and contributions. Stay tuned. There’s a lot more to come.

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