Alan Kay’s accomplishments created the foundations for so many of today’s tech advances that advocates of his work have dedicated a wiki to him, yet the foundations are so fundamental that the billions of people benefiting from his contributions probably aren’t aware of his influence. HCLE’s focus is on the history of computing in learning and education which is why we are collecting information about his work with the Vivarium Program (See our post about Ann Marion for another perspective), Smalltalk, and Dynabook.
The Vivarium Program created an innovative learning environment that was one of the earliest attempts to shift the school environment from a teacher educating passive students from a set curriculum, to students actively learning in ways that they inspired which were facilitated by teachers. Instead of reading about biology, students created simulations of biological systems that they could modify to better understand cause and effect as well as interconnectivity. It was the precursor to the personalized learning that is becoming more familiar
While there were programming languages available for the Vivarium Program, Alan Kay saw a need for a different architecture. Some students may prefer text-based programming languages, but he saw the need for a language based on objects. Our world is built from objects, and programming based on objects allowed the computer to operate on things that had a variety of characteristics. The result was Smalltalk. The concept gained wider acceptance after the user community shifted the definition slightly, and modern object-oriented programming languages were born. Though it strayed from his original intent, object-oriented programming languages have become the basis of much of today’s computing.
Dynabook Learning Today
A natural extension of Alan Kay’s desire to transform learning was the Dynabook, a device that didn’t exist at the time. He saw a need for a thin and portable computer that would fit in a child’s hands and that the child could operate. Such a device would work well in the environment that was part of the Vivarium Program, as well as outside the school. A logical choice for the programming was Smalltalk. The three could be combined to dramatically expand learning opportunities, especially with advances such as the PLATO network and other innovations he worked on at Xerox PARC.
The Dynabook wasn’t created, Smalltalk became something different, and the Vivarium Program was eventually cancelled by Apple; but their influences have come together for children who learn while pursuing their curiosity when they use and play with tablet computers. A child learning to read at their own pace from an app downloaded to an iPad is remarkably similar to at least some of Alan Kay’s original intentions. Maybe the rest of the vision merely requires a bit more patience.