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(Computationally) Rethinking the Curriculum

We at AALF have from our organizational start been guided by Professor Seymour Papert’s (considered by many as the ‘father of educational computing’) visions of learning in a technology rich world. Among these are that computers are not just for adult researchers but are the ‘children’s machine’ an idea that has been so thoroughly adopted, at least outside of schools, that it seems almost obvious (think of the popularity of the ‘digital native’ vs. ‘digital immigrant’ meme) Of course, Professor Papert didn’t predict it being the children’s machine for doing worksheets, but rather for learning in ways not possible before – providing learners with a rich environment that lets them explore and ‘mess around with’ ideas, and create, not just objects, but their understanding of the world. He often wrote and talked about ‘learning to learn’ that metacognitive ability to understand not just what we were studying, but how we approached learning, our strategies, abilities to debug our misconceptions, and new ways we devise to explore previously held beliefs. The use of programming environments, such as Logo, weren’t designed to create coders but to explore big ideas in mathematics by developing both mathematical and computational thinking, the latter an approach used to problem-solve while at the same time exploring the process of one’s own learning. Professor Papert believed the best way these explorations could happen was if students had sufficient access to computers – not once a week lab access, or access via a cart available when occasionally schedule, but by each child having his or her own personal, portable computer and anywhere, anytime learning.

Professor Papert began working with children and computers in the late 1960’s – yes, almost 50 years ago. Although the term ‘computational thinking’ hadn’t yet been coined, his approach clearly defined it. He shared his vision of a portable ‘children’s machine’ with Alan Kay, who, in 1972 sketched out the Dynabook, very similar looking to many of today’s tablets. Laptops brought the possibility of bringing the vision of each child having a computer of his or her own to reality. The first school to implement 1:1 did so in 1989-90. While there is clearly a growth in the number of 1:1 initiatives, most students still only have limited access to technology.

While we wait and debate over giving our students personal, portable, fully functional digital devices or even partially functional devices, the world is changing. Not only is information massively abundant and available in exponentially growing ways but it feels like no field is not being reinterpreted through the lenses created by big data and computational thinking. As schools somewhat cautiously begin to explore how technology connects to whatever discipline we teach, there is an explosion of examples to look to as inspiration.

I’m not just talking about disciplines that seem to have a natural connection to technology, like, biology (Biology is the New Software) or chemistry (Chemistry on computers? Nobel Prize goes to scientists who led the way ), but to almost all disciplines that define our future and understanding of the world.

For example, data analysis and computational methods are being used to predict insurgencies (Spreadsheets and Global Mayhem), to shape the thinking of journalists (Teaching Journalists to Think Computationally), to explore language and its development (Exhaustive Computer Research Shows Shift in English Language), and to get a new view of the Humanities (Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions).

And beyond traditional academic disciplines, the arts are being radically changed by computation and technology – whether it’s architecture (How Technology is Changing Architecture), visual arts (DevArt: Google's ambitious project to program a new generation of artists), music (‘Algorave’ Is the Future of Dance Music (If You’re a Nerd) ), and even fashion (New Skins: Computational Design for Fashion Workshop – The Premise and Process behind the Verlan 3D-Printed Dress). As the latter article states, “Computation is now a medium that permeates popular culture.”

So, if computation is becoming so key to some many disciplines and our very culture, what can schools do to not just prepare students in the future sense but to reflect this cultural reality? Some schools are beginning to rethink how they teach everything, for example, here’s how one school is linking not just technology but coding to all areas of the curriculum (Coding the Curriculum: How High Schools are Reprogramming Their Curriculum ). You may not be ready to code your curriculum in this way, but there’s a decided need to rethink what we’re teaching and why. Schools need to create learning environments that more accurately reflect our new digital culture as they prepare students for the world beyond school walls.
October 4th, 2016 @ 3:46PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment

Happy 25th, 1-to-1!

How long does it take for a new idea to take hold in education? It was 25 years ago – a quarter century– that the first laptop program was started. We’ve talked about the beginning of 1-to-1 in earlier posts – started in one school in Australia – not only at an all girls school, but in those pre-internet days, the girls were spending their time programming (girls & programming – what a promising start). One-to-one spread to about 80 schools across Australia before the idea moved to North America in the mid ‘90’s, where a number of forward thinking schools took what was then a very daring step. With wires strung across classrooms as the internet entered schools, they began to explore new learning opportunities for their students. But, they were the exception, not the rule. One-to-one was seen as a boutique idea, like so many short-lived education fads.

Today 1-to-1 is getting to be almost mainstream, with large districts, states, and even whole countries implementing or planning to implement some form of 1-to-1 for their schools and students. So 25 years - is that fast or slow for change? Since ideas don’t develop in a vacuum, it’s hard to gauge. Other changes have strongly influenced and enabled the spread of 1-to-1. The widespread use of cell phones, tablets, netbooks, laptops and technology, in general, in all areas of our lives, massive amounts of new content and digital learning materials available, much of it free, social media and the growth of online learning communities, MOOCs, and other forms of collaborative learning have provided both the tools and rationale for ubiquitous technology in schools. They have contributed to the growth of 1-to-1 and the dawning recognition of the potentially significant value for learners to each have at least one device to use for learning at school, at home, virtually.

But just having a device is only a start, the baseline for change. Necessary, but change shouldn’t stop there. Schools are only just beginning to explore how technology and its accompanying materials and communities let us rethink education, learning, and the role of school within this new learning environment. One-to-one isn’t and was never just about device deployment. It always is about providing unlimited opportunities for young people to learn anytime, anywhere. So, 25 years and counting as the real potential of 1-to-1 begins to be explored.
January 5th, 2015 @ 2:37PM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment

BYOD the Next Big Thing? I Do Not Think So!

When I went to school way, way back in the previous millennium, I would find there pencils, paper, crayons, and everything I needed to do my work. As I got older, sure, I had to bring a binder as well as pens and pencils, but everything else was there for me to use.

Flash forward to when my kids first went to school. Someone had figured out a great way for schools to save money – have each child bring in his or her school supplies. Each year, starting from kindergarten, we parents received a list of all the items we needed to send in with our child – from pencils, to notebooks, to markers and glue, to boxes of tissue, hole punches, and cleaning supplies.

Was this funding shift celebrated? No way. It was met with sadness and many an article bemoaning the sad state of public school funding now that public school was no longer ‘free’. For too many, ‘free’ public school was beginning to be costly. Funding organizations organized charity drives to collect donated supplies for children who couldn’t afford these ever-growing lists of essentials (and, no one denied that at least some of these items were essential). Yes, many people had pencils and paper at home already, it’s true, but the extensive list of what to bring to school was burdensome, and often incredibly detailed, including things like ‘1 box 184 count Kleenex and ‘Crayola 7 inch pre-sharpened colored pencils - 12 count’. And, although the pencils used at school didn’t impact any larger system or create added work for any technician, the type of pencil was clearly specified. No hard no. 5 pencils, no way. No. 2 Ticonderoga pencils, only, please.

Unfortunately, no one coined a cute name for this practice. No catchy sound-bytes. No major BYOS (Bring Your Own Stuff) announcements. Big mistake.

Flash forward to today. School supply lists continue to grow; no one is happy. But, then something else gets added.

“You have some type of digital device lying around at home? Add it to the school supply list. Oh, you don’t? – come on, every child has some type of digital device in his/her pocket, even if it’s phone-sized. Type of device doesn’t matter as long as it can connect to the internet.”

“But,” you ask, ‘If one kid has a Macbook Air and another a phone?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’ll work it out (although the kid with the phone usually has more to ‘work out’.) Plus, now the kids have ‘voice and choice’ - they can ‘choose’ to use what they want to use and are already familiar with.” (While in reality, they ‘choose’ what they can afford, even, if given a real choice, they’d select something else.)

But - instead of quietly adding this item to the already long supply list, some clever wordsmith decided to give this funding ploy a catchy name - BYOD - and make it a ‘thing.’ Now it’s no longer an old uncomfortable pattern of shifting the funding of certain items to parents, a pattern that we’ve learned to tolerate – it’s now the NEXT BIG THING.


Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to believe that the next big thing will be, I don’t know – a BIG THING, something truly transformative.

BYOD, a funding tactic, doesn’t seem to qualify and shouldn’t become an end in itself (or the topic of endless conference sessions). Talk of this ‘big thing’ is distracting too many people from focusing on the bigger, more challenging ideas, like what does all this technology make possible in terms of learning, what are the new roles of educators and students now that technology is permeating every aspect and fiber of our lives, and what does all this mean in terms of the meaning and role of school. Educators need to focus here – no one is better prepared than they to tackle these questions.

Work these out and you’ll really have the Next Big Thing.
June 17th, 2014 @ 11:30AM | 0 Comments | Post a Comment