Computing labs in schools have not changed much since many of us studied computing ..
But computers have ..
Radically so ..
Yet, school computing labs still look the same – with rows of PCs lined up against a wall.
The physical place i.e. the lab itself is valuable. For instance, the lab could be a place where some who have no access to computing could access a computer. For example, in the early days of computing, that’s exactly how Bill Gates started programming tic-tac-toe on a time-shared computer provided by the Lakeside Mothers’ Association and the Lakeside Mathematics Department
But computers themselves are changing and so is the access to computing for students outside the lab.
So, how could computing labs in schools evolve?
Today, there are many notable attempts to introduce Tablets to schools. The introduction of mobility, for example due to tablets, has some direct benefits in itself. For instance, it is possible for learners to be able to collaborate when devices are not tethered to a physical location (as PCs are)
But Tablets are just the first step.
Today, in the age of the iPhone, we take a sanitised view of computing. We work with iPhones and PCs which work seamlessly. However, that viewpoint obscures a bigger picture. When we speak of Computers and Mobile phones, we are confined by our vocabulary. One could argue that the word ‘Computer’ itself is limited because a computer does more than ‘compute’ (i.e. calculate). Similarly, the term ‘mobile phone’ is also limited because most of us use mobile phones for Internet access (and not for making phone calls).
Thus, it is easy to be carried away by the world of computers and devices that work ‘perfectly’. However, behind the scenes, there are many changes to computing itself. These changes also impact how computing is taught because increasingly, we see a blurring of traditional boundaries.
Here are five ways in which Computing labs could evolve. We use these ideas and more in our venture Feynlabs which is designed to teach the concepts of programming languages to kids first (as opposed to a specific programming language). By abstracting the common elements of programming languages, our goal is that learners will be able to learn any programming language.
‘Tempt learners to make’ by introducing devices like the Raspberry Pi and other interactive devices to the classroom
There are some fundamental changes in computing that are taking place around us. The last two decades saw a dominance of business led computing i.e. major innovations in computing arose from the enterprise and then migrated to the consumer domains. With mobile devices, that changed. For the first time, we see a consumer technology (mobile phones) grow to become mainstream and then migrate to the Enterprise.
These trends have many implications including on education especially in the teaching of programming languages. Software is already ‘embedded’ many devices from washing machines to toasters. However, this is just the beginning. Through open source hardware such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino, a whole new class of grassroots devices are being created that use computing power in radically different ways.
These trends are also leading to a new type of computing based on Interactive devices i.e. that is -physical objects that intelligently respond to user input and enable new types of interactions. By introducing Interactive devices like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino – we introduce learners to the next wave of computing and by tempting them to make something through devices like the Raspberry Pi, they could develop an interest/desire to pursue a career in computing
Taking a more experimental approach
I am an avid fan and collector of comics. As a child, one of my favourite comic characters was a mad scientist called Gyro Gearloose – the operative word here being the emphasis on the ‘mad’ (for comic book fans – Gyro was created by the legendary Carl Barks the ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ of comic books ).
If we inculcate the spirit of the hacker (i.e. someone who understands technology ‘behind the hood’ and can try to enhance it to create new innovation) we re-introduce the spirit of experimentation la Gyro
Why is the experimental approach relevant to computing?
- Both hardware and software are becoming Open Sourced. Value will lie in human innovation where we will use a combination of HW SW and Algorithms to create value. If you accept this future for computing(as opposed to monolithic platforms that do not talk to each other), then Arduino, Raspberry Pi etc are key devices and they will shape the future of computing.
- As the separation between the machine, the programs and the algorithms blur, the nature of programming is changing. Software is already ‘embedded’ in Telecoms, mobile, video games, mp3 players, digital cameras, DVD players, GPS receivers, printers, household appliances (microwave ovens, washing machines, dishwashers), home automation devices, Transportation systems and medical equipment (PET, SPECT,CT, MRI) etc. However, this is just the beginning. For most part, these devices are not ‘hackable’ ex you cannot easily change the code in your microwave oven. Through open source hardware such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino, a whole new class of grassroots devices are being created that use computing power in radically different ways.
Explore relationship to other sciences
Mathematician and technologist Conrad Wolfram has an insightful TED talk about teaching mathematics to kids in which he says that Maths as taught in schools looks very different from maths as is used in practise.
While there are not many devices today that mirror ethos of Raspberry Pi, in another era at the start of computing, we have more interesting analogies with ‘hobbyist computers’. As Raspberry Pi inventor Eben Uptonsaid in an interview (emphasis mine) in the 1980s, “most schools has one or more BBC Micro Computers, similar to a Commodore 64 which were largely used to run educational software to teach kids about other subjects – not about computers”. Today, children do not have an opportunity to pursue hobbyist computing and this affects academia, research and industry in the long run. Furthermore, Eben Upton adds, “Even people who aren’t going into computer science or engineering programs, should be exposed to computer science. Programming teaches you how to take problems, break them down into smaller problems, and solve them. Any kind of job that involves problem solving can benefit from computing.”
Adapt to a faster rate of change
Initiatives like Khan Academy (and also Feynlabs albeit we are still in an early stage) create whole new avenues for learning computing. They are relevant because they are more aligned to the rate of change in computing. Ofcourse, a school Lab cannot adopt the same rates of change due to the sheer logistics, but labs will increasingly incorporate content from many diverse sources.
For example, we use some excellent YouTube videos and then encourage the learners to create their own content using tools like Explain everything based on the videos. I will post more examples of this later but this strategy makes the learners as creators.
Ultimately, there are many political factors that inhibit the introduction of more open text books in schools and textbooks are still a cartel. But I believe that the sheer rate of change will mean that labs and classrooms will have to adapt to a wider set of content and this content may not be
Labs and Schools fight the battle of keeping social media out such as banning facebook in schools. But social media allows us to incorporate multiple viewpoints indeed understanding different viewpoints is the basis of scientific evolution – Thomas Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions. If we accept the view that learners in computing and science need to be exposed to diverse viewpoints, then the challenge is not banning social media but rather acquiring skills to engage with cyber culture. Howard Rheingold, in his book netsmart sees the ability to engage with cyberculture as a core skill – much like driving a car for the current generation. This ability will be an asset to acquiring mastery. Howard classifies these skills into five competencies: Attention, Participation, Collaboration, Critical consumption of information (crap detection) and network smarts. Attention is a core skill on the web and critical evaluation of information is the key to the future of the Web itself as an information source.
This means, the lab of the future will have ‘social inside’
The paradigm of a ‘next generation computer labs in schools’ is useful to encapsulate our vision at Feynlabs
As I mentioned before, we use these ideas and more in our venture Feynlabs which is designed to teach the concepts of programming languages to kids first (as opposed to a specific programming language). By abstracting the common elements of programming languages, our goal is that learners will be able to learn any programming language.
I welcome comments and feedback at Ajit.jaokar @ futuretext.com
Image source: Walt Disney / Wikipedia