Category Archives: Contemporary Issues

Civic Tech: Then and Now

hollerithmach-1908-locComputing in the United States started as “civic tech” with Hollerith tabulating machines used for the 1890 census. Related technologies were rapidly adapted for military applications. Sadly, most civilian government agencies, especially those that deliver services to the public, have been slow to adopt the latest information technologies. Even when a new technology is employed, government, educational and social services agencies often fail to upgrade the systems they have put in place and quickly fall behind what is available in the private and business sectors.

Enter Code for America, a nonprofit organization started in 2009 by Jennifer Pahlka with the slogan:

The two biggest levers for improving people’s lives at scale are technology and government. We put them together.

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 8.43.24 AMCode for America fellows (tech industry professionals taking a one or two year sabbatical or just donating their spare time) work with local government departments or private nonprofits to “build and stand up new applications…in about six weeks…that, if they had gone through a normal procurement process…would have cost them $2 million and taken two years.” (See, What’s the Future and Why It’s up to Us by Tim O’Reilly, Harper Collins. pp. 137-144).

Key to Code for America’s process is the concept of keeping user needs at the center of the development effort. Unlike many high tech innovations which may be the brainchildren of a few very bright but socially-isolated geeks, here, the “users” come first and are involved in every step of design and implementation. Whether a project’s “users” are ordinary citizens or governments employees, project success means somebody’s problem is solved, needs are met, day flows more smoothly, services are provided more rapidly.Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 12.32.34 PM

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 12.19.37 PMFor end users to participate effectively in the design of the IT tools they can use they need to have some inkling of the possibilities awaiting them. This is why, from its inception in 1975, LO*OP Center, Inc. has emphasized computer literacy for everyone. We all need to understand the wide range of problems that can be at least made more solvable with a little infusion of computing power. We don’t all need to become professional programmers but we do have to be able to make informed, intelligent decisions about how to employ the latest technologies. Putting this old approach together with the new Code for America reality, LO*OP Center launched a local Code for America “Brigade” in Sonoma County, CA. just a few miles from where LO*OP started so many years ago.


As happened when the LO*OP Center storefront opened its doors, the first people to show up were already on the cutting edge of the computing practices of 1975. This happened again when we launched our first Code for Sonoma County Brigade last week (June 5, 2018). Attendees were in the know about how to implement tech solutions to problems facing public and private social service organizations. But they were not the “users”, neither the people who stand to benefit most from better civic tech nor the workers who use databases and public facing applications to govern better, cut through red tape and deliver resources to those who need them. To be successful Code for Sonoma County has to enlist the participation of elected officials, government employees, compliance overseers and nonprofit workers.

More than 40 years after the launch of LO*OP Center, the general public is much more familiar with high tech devices than they were at the beginning of the personal computer revolution. But there is still a “literacy gap”. Too few of us are ready to shape the potential solutions information technology can provide because we think we have to know electronics or computer coding to make a meaningful contribution. Reality is the opposite. Good Civic Tech requires design input from those who will use what is built before the building begins. This means you are invited to join the Code for America Brigade in your home town. See you at the next MeetUp!

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Computer Literacy is not just coding

by Liza Loop

Does everyone need to know how to program a computer? This is a question we have been addressing at LO*OP Center since its inception in 1975. My answer has always been a strong “yes and no”. Yes, everyone needs to understand enough about how a computer is programmed to believe the old saying “garbage in – garbage out”. The easiest way to get this knowledge into an individual’s belief system is to give him or her the experience of writing a very simple program that puts a piece of patently inaccurate information into a computer and delivers it to anyone who look at the screen or printout. Will everyone need to write computer programs to hold down a job, raise a family or participate in civic life? No. In many cases writing code is a low-level skill within the computer industry. Today there may be strong demand for coders but in the long run coding is a dead-end skill if not accompanied by design, analytical and/or management abilities.

The computer literacy debate continues to rage even after more than 40 years. A recent article is Education week, “Teaching Computer Science Is Great, But It’s Not Enough”

It recapitulates my own point of view that our emphasis should be on understanding the impact of computing on society. The proponents of the international movement, Hour of Code, emphasize learning to program as the most important place to start. I worry that participants in this project who decide that coding is not their cup of tea will lose all interest in the field before they get the real message:

we must teach children not just to think about how to design and program a particular technology, but to consider its potential role and impact on society – Sullivan & Denner

For a contemporary look at the Computer Literacy Debate you might want to follow Computing Education Blog by computer science professor Mark Guzdial. For an historical perspective check out HCLE’s  “exhibit-in-progress”. And don’t hesitate to add your own point of view here or on our Facebook or LinkedIn pages.


Are my old lessons still needed in new classrooms?


Recently, a German friend asked me to speak to his class of German elementary school teachers-in-training about using computers in their classrooms. I worked with teachers extensively in the 1980s and early 90s but have been focused on history for several years. Computing has changed a lot in 3-odd decades. Are my messages still relevant?

The most obvious change in ed tech is that I didn’t have to go to Germany to be a guest speaker. We used Skype to make me a larger-than-life screen presence – a live “talking head” with slides. A more subtle issue is whether, in today’s world of smart phones, MOOCs and You-tube videos, classroom teachers face the same challenges we struggled with in the past. I anxiously prepared my visuals, hoping that my comments would resonate with a room-full of millennials.

In my next several blogs I’ll share the narrative content of this presentation as well as the visuals and perhaps expand some of the ideas. The slide deck I used is available here and I’ll select from it to illustrate the blogs. I hope you will let me know through your comments whether my thoughts are useful to you and where you think I’ve missed the boat.

Here are a few preliminary comments about the slides.

Slide 3: Let’s talk about

This is the overview of the presentation. I always like to understand the participants in a seminar so I start by exploring their thinking. The event as originally given, online and in a foreign language from the students’ point of view, did not elicit the lively discussion I had hoped for.  I would very much like to hear from you as you view this presentation asynchronously. I do not have pat answers to the questions posed and the topics are worthy of slow pondering. Take your time with them and let’s use this social media platform to share our ideas and responses.

Slides 5, 6, 7: Questions

Most of us use our own learning process as a standard to inform the way we teach. These questions are intended to help bring personal learning to a conscious level. By being aware of our own learning we can harness our self-model to benefit those of our pupils who think and learn as we do. This awareness will also free us to adapt new models to help us reach students’ whose minds follow paths different from our own.

Slides 8, 9, 10, 11: 21st Century Skills

Actually I don’t think the skills mentioned are new in any way. Humans have needed them throughout their existence. The “21st century” label is just a way to highlight how essential they are. The questions offered in this section are my suggestions for teachers to pose to their students as ways to exercise these skills.

Slides 12, 13, 14: Beyond Screens

It’s easy to view ed tech as an alternative to teachers giving lectures, but there is so much more we can do with it. This section provides some hints for activities that don’t require each pupil to have a separate screen and keyboard.

Slides 15, 16, 17: Transferring learning from games

Not all students spontaneously transfer what they learn in one context to another. These slides set the stage for discussing how teachers can use simple games (Tic Tac Toe, for example) and complex computer applications (Mindcraft) to acquire skills they can use beyond the game setting.

Slide 18: References

I’ve included links to other web sites throughout the slide deck. Don’t forget to click on them. This last slide offers several more sites I thought might enrich your teaching practice. Please let us all know which ones you found useful and add other personal favorites the rest of us may not have discovered yet.

Computing for truth and lies

Would you agree that a computer, like an empty blackboard, is a blank slate which can be used to transmit both truth and lies? The internet is not just one computer, it’s a huge amalgamation of thousands of connected computers, but one can experience the principle of  ‘garbage in-garbage out’ through learning to program a single, small, general-purpose machine. Once you have programmed a computer to repeat “The moon is made of green cheese!” to anyone who will glance at your screen you are on your way to developing immunity to the huge wave of garbage the internet exposes us to. Even more powerful is the disconnect between you who composed the message and whoever reads it. Unless you choose to disclose your authorship you can make a computer tell any lie you like and no one will be the wiser. Heady stuff for a 10-year-old learning to write her first computer code. Headier still for someone who wants to influence the US presidential election.

In a recent blog, posted on “Internet applications and technology and their LarryPressphoto.jpgimplications for individuals, organizations and society”, Larry Press notes:

Trump supporters seem to worry a lot about voter fraud. They advocate easing mechanisms for challenging a voter’s registration and encourage strict requirements for proof of identity and residence. There is more evidence of demonstrably fraudulent political information on the Internet than fraudulent voting. If their concern is genuine, they should support a real-names policy for domain registration.

It is through the ‘domain registration’ that you can find out who actually is behindICANN.png something you find on the internet. Most domain registration is handled by ICANN, a “not-for-profit corporation (the “new corporation”) managed by a globally and functionally representative Board of Directors”. Larry points out that fraudulent articles posted on the internet before the election may have misled many voters. Current international policy permits individuals to keep their domain information a secret. Just like the mischievous 10-year-old, any one can post anything anonymously. But instead of  reaching only those standing within view of your little screen these messages are delivered to billions of people across the globe.

How is this phenomenon related to HCLE? We are providing an historical backdrop for the contemporary issues and policies you and your children must deal with. What do we need to teach our children today so that they can better distinguish fact from fiction as they surf the web? What were we exposed to during our formative years that left us so vulnerable to the lies computers forward to us? Was this problem anticipated? What did the Educational Technology Pioneers think we should do about it? And what should we do about it now? If you care, read more of what Larry Press has to say.


Does the US Election tell us anything about Computer Literacy?

by Liza Loop

It’s strange how current events bring up old questions. Today, in the aftermath of the US Presidential election, I came across this comment:

(Source: Trump Exposes A Fatal Flaw In User-Friendly Design)

The author,  Cliff Kuang, is keying off a previous piece, Max Read’s article for New York, “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.” Follow these links to read their points.

My point is that there are two kinds of Computer Literacy: Technical and Social. There has always been (since the 1960s) a tension between these two.  Some argue that learning to code (write programs that control computer-based devices) and/or build/repair them will lead to modern jobs. This technical approach appeals to STEM types (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) but turns off  most of us.

The Social approach is much more important and accessible. It emphasizes understanding a) how a computer can suggest, say, a list of like-minded Facebook ‘friends’ and b) that designing computer code always requires a series of value decisions on the part of some human. Learning some very rudimentary coding gives one that heady and powerful experience of controlling the computer and makes it possible to take in these messages. But even 10-year-old can get here without a semester-long course in coding. By combining a little coding with a broad look at how computers are used across our daily life activities, the social approach to computer literacy can serve as a vaccine against the kind of group-think that has been rampant on both sides of today’s political divide.

These issues were often the subject of lively debates among the Ed Tech Pioneers we are documenting at HCLE. Some of us worried that using computing to make things smooth, easy, and automated would make it harder to uncover the algorithm, the recipe, the program that drives what the computer delivers to each one of us. These two articles suggest that we were right.

I’m not advocating that computers are evil or should not be used. Quite the contrary; they are giving an immense boost to human productivity, saving and enhancing the lives of billions of people. I am saying that their very existence necessitates more thoughtful and analytical education of today’s citizens. I am saying that to neglect Social Computer Literacy is to create a naive public whose opinions are silently manipulated (whether intentional or not) by those who design the programs.