“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
-George Santayana, The Life of Reason [1905-1906], Volume I, Reason in Common Sense, Chapter 12, 1906
Whenever I attend educational technology conferences today, I am reminded of George Santayana’s admonition to learn the history of one’s craft. At meetings, I often see young researchers and developers struggling with the same problems technology pioneers were discussing 40 years ago. In 1976, I brought the #1 Apple 1, the first one off the assembly line in Cupertino, into a classroom for the first time ever. Soon, I was part of a growing community of educators and learners who were anticipating the potential benefits and issues introduced by the advent of small, fast computing. We thought a lot and experimented as best we could. We discussed the issues among ourselves and published our ruminations in now obscure journals and newsletters.
What’s the Question?
“Does technology belong in the classroom?” is the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking; “Is the classroom the best technology for this student to learn this lesson?” The answer depends on the student and the content of the lesson more than on the wrapper – classroom, informal group or solo space with distance presentation device.
Classrooms serve several purposes. They can aggregate learning resources: books and materials, fellow students and one or more teachers. They are physical containers that wall out distractions, and house furniture and people gathered together for the purpose of study. But classrooms are also a technology of control within which a teacher can enforce disciplined behavior on children against their will. They provide teachers with captive audiences backed up by threats of confinement, ostracism or even physical violence. As computing devices become smaller and wearable, schools will become less able to ban them from classrooms. The challenge for teachers is to remain (or become) relevant in the minds of collections of learners.
This brings us to ask about new roles for teachers rather than classrooms. Is the role of the traditional classroom teacher diminished? Hardly. The Wall Street Journal article suggests teachers should “focus on teaching their students how to process that information by reflecting deliberately on how it changes their view of the world.” But this is only appropriate when the teacher is the one in the student-teacher pair who is more facile at processing information and has no fear of changing his or her own world view. In many cases the teacher is better off focusing on understanding how the student already thinks and suggesting new approaches based on existing student strengths.
In Favor of Computer Enhanced Classrooms
In her response, Lisa Nielsen advocates using the communication features of modern computing devices to bring the world into the classroom saying: “We know that any connected device provides access to information, resources and experts far beyond what a school building could ever offer students. Why would we limit learning possibilities by not fully taking advantage of that?” She mentions that one role for teachers is to make sure that students are engaged in approved activities while using their devices in class. Another advantage of group learning activities is that students teach each other. Some pick up ideas and skills from watching others. Some students are explaining their actions to both their peers and, often, the teacher. To be successful in this environment the teacher must give up the role of “sage on the stage” and become an expert “guide on the side”. That guide must be an expert at observing learners and gauging when to intervene and when to stand back and let discovery and reflection work their magic. Such a teacher is no longer serving as a single funnel of information into the heads of students. Connected devices give students much broader access to extremely well-crafted didactic instruction. But this frees the classroom teacher to observe and attend to the social and special needs of individual students. From the perspective of the teacher, classroom becomes a much more complex, and more effective, learning environment for all participants.
Arguing for “A Sanctuary of Focus”
“classrooms should be a sanctuary of focus. Children need a place to learn mental stillness, deliberation, critical thinking and human empathy”, suggests Jose Antonio Bowen in his rebuttal to technology in the classroom. Certainly such sanctuaries are sorely needed, but most school classrooms, even before the ubiquitous onrush of electronic devices, have failed to fulfill that function. Computing has increased focus, not diminished it, although students don’t necessarily focus on the topics approved by teachers. We need to respond positively to Bowen’s plea but not by banning all computer-enhanced devices from all classrooms. Rather, teachers should be encouraged to choose the environments in which their professional skills thrive and administrations should promote a variety of classroom styles within their schools. If permitted a choice, students might sort themselves into the classroom that best fit their learning styles — not by chronological age but by interest and social comfort. Sanctuary does not look the same for all students or all teachers.
Computing as the Trojan Horse of Schools
(re: Behold the Trojan Horse: Instructional vs. Productivity Computing in the Classroom by Liza Loop)
Computing has been breaking down the walls of schools since the early 1960s. It lets the outside in. It lets those inside see a much broader horizon and often frees them to walk away. It challenges old methods of control. It presents new skills to master, new ways to communicate, new forms of social organization. These new opportunities are enhancements in the lives of some but threats to others. Rather than search for the one right way, the technological silver bullet for education, we can embrace both the old and the new. “If it works, don’t fix it.” Some learners thrive in traditional school classrooms with blackboards as the most modern technology. Other learners find freedom, engagement and efficiency in surfing solo through the internet. Still others may become most highly educated by a multi-year hike down the John Muir or Appalachian Trail. Whatever your preferences, computing is here to stay and we humans, young and old, must learn to deal with it. Either/or is not the question. It’s when, where, and how?
The conference is over and I’m glad we attended. HCLE (Liza Loop and I) was at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference in Portland, Oregon. Days of tours, workshops, sessions, exhibits and demonstrations were overwhelming and useful; though the people and ideas may linger longest. I gained a new perspective on the size and need for our museum, and the state of the museum culture.
Museums are in transition. Digital technologies, whether they are the web or smartphones, are changing the way museums are managed and visited. Archives can be tracked more efficiently, and frequently must include room for digital artifacts. Visitors are more likely to begin their visit online where they decide when and how they’ll visit, and during their visit, are more likely to add to their experience by pulling out their smartphone and diving into details (even if those details come from uncurated sources like wikipedia.) This is a major shift for organizations that were built into massive structures, expansive halls, with complete control over the collection and its commentary. Digital technologies usurp some of the control, which sometimes means visitors create an unexpected experience, and sometimes mean they don’t feel the need for a physical visit. Challenges are opportunities.
Other industries are undergoing digital revolutions. To quote from another of my blogs; “Digital technology allowed independent movies to revolutionize Hollywood, garage bands to challenge record labels, ebooks to shock publishing houses, . . .“
In each of those industries, new formats arose, surprised convention, and have since lived beside the earlier format; and both continue to change.
HCLE will be almost completely digital. (Details on the HCLE wiki.) The majority of our collection will be either scanned documents or heritage software. Our major physical exhibit will be a traveling show, a replica of a 1980s classroom computer lab. The other major element will be the story project where we collect people’s tales of how they learned and taught, about and with computers. We changed how we learned how to learn. We taught ourselves a new way to teach. It is appropriate that the museum is a new type of museum.
The most positive lesson I learned was that many of the tasks before HCLE have been solved for similar situations. Massive databases of digitized information are becoming the norm. The task remains as large as before, but it is encouraging to know that others have completed similar projects. Maybe none have exactly the same set of tasks, but that isn’t a surprise. And, if there isn’t a museum example, there may be other examples in other industries. As one attendee put it, (pardon me as I paraphrase), “If you think your database is large and potentially slow, go to amazon.com and search for something, anything. Their search will sort through millions of items and an amazing array of possible search terms and deliver a comprehensive result within seconds.“
Somewhere starting with spreadsheets at one end and amazon’s monster solution at the other lies what most museums need. As for user interfaces and academic access, Disney has probably solved the one and the Library of Congress has probably solved the other.
I also had my mind opened by a gentleman from Qatar. Without intending to, he made me realize that the history of computing in learning and education is international and multi-lingual. I’ve known that, but a personal conversation can have much more impact than an abstract consideration. Others, without realizing we were focusing on the earliest years of classroom computers, extended the concept to insights into modern day MOOCs (Massively Open Online Classes) and distributed synchronous learning. Our job may have just gotten bigger, again.
Throughout the conference, I was reminded by a role model. Every time I walked outside, I saw OMSI across the river. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry sat across the Willamette River from our venue. Liza and I have mentioned them in previous posts. They served as a reminder that change happens, and the easiest way to adapt is to accept it early and positively.
Now it is time to sort through the program, my notes (available on twitter @tetrimbath and #MW2013), a stack of business cards and pamphlets, and memories to allow the key solutions to become clear. We have a big task. It could be a lot bigger. But, now I know that there are solutions to problems, and one thing the conference was good for was finding solutions. (Besides, who would want to go to a conference looking for problems?) Thanks to everyone who made it happen. I hope I see you next year.
Tom Trimbath, HCLE Project Director
(For a more personal take on the conference and especially the city, you are welcomed to read my post on one of my other blogs.)
First, barely a mention. Next, a short meeting or two. Within a few years, labs, field trips, seminars, workshops, and pages of possibilities – and then barely a mention. So went the integration of computers into the psyche of OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry). OMSI was one of the first organizations in the country, and maybe the world, that paid attention to what many considered a fad. And now, computers don’t generate as much attention because they have been so well integrated that we no longer shine spotlights on them. The people at OMSI helped their members then, and they are helping HCLE now.
HCLE’s founder, Liza Loop, and I are in Portland, Oregon attending the Museums and the Web conference (MW2013). Being within walking distance of OMSI was definitely a bonus.
OMSI was nice enough to let Liza Loop spend hours (I helped a bit) sifting through decades of records. The staff had even found a volunteer to collect newsletters and quarterly catalogs back into the sixties. Then, four of the staff offered their conference table as a temporary work space. Hours later, dozens or hundreds of photos had been taken to document OMSI’s public relationship with computers.
I was intrigued by what I found. Every time we found a mention of computers or programming, especially if education was specified, we took a photo of the page. In the early sixties there was very little. Flip through a lot of aging paper before setting them aside to be photographed. In the seventies, the mentions were more common, once or twice per newsletter, usually for a recurring meeting or class. There were enough pages to photo that it just made more sense to work standing. By the eighties, there were classes for kids and adults. Instead of a 1 1/2 hour class about computers, there were drawn out courses on specific programming languages. Assembly was taught to adults. Graphics programs were taught to five year olds. The course listings went on for pages and my camera’s batteries ran out. But I noticed that it didn’t seem to matter. Within a short while there were fewer photos to take. OMSI had ridden the wave from everyone’s a novice, to crowds dividing out of crowds to specialize in programming versus usage versus general interest, to where we are now.
Now, most people use computers without knowing binary math or assembly. Few have to deal with compilers and motherboards. We know the computers won’t work perfectly, but rather than debug and fix, we leave the diagnostics to experts, who may also not know the fundamentals of the situations they are asked to resolve. We rely on trust, perseverance, and sometimes acceptance of imperfections to get the job done. We’re trusting the computers to the point that, from at least one perspective, we’ve put them in control.
We’ve come a long way in a short time.
OMSI does pioneering work; and, they save their history. By building HCLE’s archive and database with such resources, we’ll be able to better understand how people and organizations adapt to rapid change. Rapid change is now the norm. Looking back at the history of computing in learning and education it becomes obvious that we, as a society, passed through phases; and, that we’ll pass through similar phases in other fields.
OMSI and HCLE use the past to help others adapt to the future. I thank OMSI for their help. They’ve provided a wonderful example of how a few documents can provide rich insights. We worked through dozens of folders. The HCLE collection contains about ten thousand artifacts. We know that many times that is out there in corporate archives, people’s garages, and even in other museums. Many are only stored in people’s minds. We look forward to your stores and stories being added to the HCLE database, and we look forward to the experts who will know the right questions to ask of such a resource.
For now, I’m glad I found some spare batteries, and that leafing through so many old records refreshes my memories of learning FORTRAN, the first time I used a terminal instead of punch cards, and why I was so glad that inkjet printers were so much quieter than the chatter of fan fold and dot matrix.
I want to design an exhibit for the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum that showcases the work done by early public access computing sites. Today I had the privilege of being hosted at OMSI by curator, Lori Erickson. Lori found old newsletters and photos from the ‘60s and ‘70s for me to comb through looking for details about OMSIs pioneering work in providing kids with an opportunity to learn about computing. Thank you, Lori. Below is a taste of what I discovered.
Although no year is printed on this newsletter, OMSI was already ahead of the curve in creating interactive science experiences in the ‘60s.
The slide rule was still king but OMSI knew that some kids needed better access to science and math education than they were getting in school but progress was slow.
By 1973 Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, CA, was the only one of 12 museums, including OMSI, that received mention of computing in an article entitled “Science Museum Programs for the Young” in Science and Children magazine*. The story changes by 1975. That year OMSI receives high praise for its innovative support of aspiring student programmers.
The records in OMSIs files are spotty. Clearly the staff was too busy planning new exhibits and classes to worry overly about documenting what they were doing. That’s one reason HCLE is important.
This same 1975 report** goes on to show that real partnerships developed between OMSI and the budding geeks they hosted.
I’ve only gotten part way through the ‘70s in Lori’s box of goodies so keep watching as this story unfolds. OMSI did more to lead the way to inspiring a generation of young programmers and engineers.