Early last month, Mike Eisenberg presented a colloquium entitled Rethinking Educational Technology: Some Early Steps. His talk could hardly have come at a better time, considering my recent excitement about possibilites for Columbine's new building. Here are a few of the important ideas I took away from his talk.
He described the conventional wisdom around educational technology as "applied cognative science." How can we find the right way to present computer science so that it takes hold in kids minds? These ideas are all good, he says, but secondary. Many kids are simply not motivated by this stuff and they secretly know that their friends will like them less for knowing it. He proposes we look anthropologically at children and search for places where computation could enhance their culture. He offered suggestions in six different areas: hangouts, economies, rooms, rituals, displays, and buddies. I'll cover only a few of these.
Kids collect coins, or baseball cards, or these days Pokemon and Magic cards. I collected a lot of Lego bricks, and polyhedral dice, and DnD books, and spatial puzzles (rubic's cubes, interlocking blocks, get-the-ring-off-the-frame). My friends collected clothes with their favorite team's mascots or comic books. These things seem to have longevity (e.g. most of my friends and I either still have our collections or are still adding to them), and a sense of rarity (Magic and Pokemon totally get the importance of rarity).
How can we enhance these kinds of collectibles with computation? Back in the 1980's there were collections of Transformers where if you had a complete set, they would interconnect into a super Transformer. Integrated circuits have gotten small enough that they are already being embeded in toys. But what if they do something more when connected together? What if there are intentionally rare elements that make the collection more compelling? He mentioned specifically examples of quilts or murals or perhaps the rarity could come from personally fabricated items.
The whole room should be an object of design. Rooms reflect the self. We collect souvenirs, trophies, mementos, and symbols of progress. Curtains, carpets, mobiles, and wallpaper could all be computationally enhanced. Among other scientists, he quoted the recollections of an astronomer who fondly remembered watching the stars and moon move across the window of her bedroom at night. Could we encourage kids to create custom Stonehenges in their rooms tracking the passage of time and the movement of stars?
Here he presented a few videos of work done by students in his Craft Technology Lab
In this first example, the program for a small robot car is written with barcode squares placed on the floor: code road
This second example, LaserBall, takes a little more explaining. The students place magnetic shapes on a whiteboard and project a digital image onto the whiteboard. They use a laser pointer to create digital balls that become part of the projected simulation. The digital balls projected on the screen fall down the screen and bounce of the physical magnetic tiles on the board. The students are able to move the physical tiles and the simulation responds accordingly. This text description doesn't really stand on its own either. But it should make more clear what's happening when you watch the video.
Rooms could also use magnetic and conductive paints with snapon computer components to do similar kinds of computation. This might be hard to visualize until you've explored some of the work at the Craft Computing Lab (see some of the links below).
I especially like that both of these examples (and many others happening at the Craft Computing Lab) take computation well beyond keyboards, mice and displays. They're not even mobile phones. Particularly compelling examples abound in the work of Leah Buechley
The folks at the Craft Technology Lab are making computationally enhanced cultural artifacts. There are many examples that might draw computational thinking into children's culture. Clothing, toys, games, cases for ipods. Possibility.
I think you're too young right now to understand. I'm writing it here where you can hopefully read it when you're older -- maybe after you have kids of your own -- and where I can remember it later.
I was stressed about time this morning while getting ready for work. Mama and I are overwhelmed making room for your sister. I've been working more hours anticipating the sleep deprivation that comes with a newborn. I'm also investing a lot of time in Columbine's rebirth. I try to remind myself time is not a limitation, only a tool for organizing, but that wisdom is an extremely difficult practice.
While I was reminding myself to breathe and hastily folding yet another load of laundry, you suggested to Mama that we all go for a walk. You had to suggest it several times before Mama and I snapped out of our routines. Mama ran her first errand alone while you walked me to work. Thank you so much for suggesting it.
All urgencies evaporated. As you said "boys sometimes walk, and sometimes pick up trashcans," I followed your cue and righted a neighbor's trashcan that had blown over in yesterday's wind. You talked about "being careful of the pokey branches" as you stepped carefully around a bush overgrowing the sidewalk, protecting your "baby sister" -- today's name for your neon blue and green monkey.
Thank you for the way you kept holding my hand even after we'd crossed an intersection. Thanks for the few minutes we took to watch the mighty front loader moving a pile of rocks for the flood mitigation happening at Elmer Two-Mile Park. Mostly, thank you for drawing my attention back to The Here and Now and helping me let go of The Urgent.
In recent months I have become deeply involved in the formulation of a new instructional program at Columbine. What I see with new eyes tonight is that a community is a different sort of organization. Businesses and governments depend on money like most living things depend on fresh water. A community depends on time and commitment. Volunteers are the engines of community.
Wednesday night four representatives of the programmatic visioning team met with other non-Spanish-speaking parents who either have kids at Columbine or might have kids there in the next few years. Our goal was to collect three lists from our constituents: a list of core values and a list of things we want in an elementary school and a list of things we hope our kids will remember at graduation. The meeting was quite successful and I'm pleased by those lists. But I'm especially happy that it was composed entirely of volunteers. It wasn't Government, or Business. It was a bunch of neighbors getting organized around our interest in education.
The most surprising part for me was witnessing community taking root. I felt like there was some striking sense of connection developing between us, though most of us were strangers and the connections are still tentative. That wasn't what I expected, and it may be the most valuable outcome of the evening. The experience has brought back some memories of other experience with community and tied those experiences together in this new insight.
While I was a student at the College of Architecture and Planning, the school was hiring a new instructor of computer design technology. During his interview, the man who was eventually hired, Mark Gross, asked me about the computer community at the school. To my knowledge at the time, I was it. After he was hired, he set about developing community. For my part of that effort I helped to organize a group of students to provide volunteer support for our new computer labs. There were many other ingredients, but a community grew and only a few years later we began to see some compelling application of computers in student projects and various student research projects grew in the Sundance Lab. Many students began to develop programming skills among other things.
When I graduated I asked Mark for suggestions about teaching myself LISP. He replied that, like human languages, it is very hard to learn a programming language without a community. If I were not in a LISP community, why bother learning LISP?
Another language that interested me at the time was perl. I knew it was a common tool for sysadmins. I occasionally found uses for MacPerl at my first job and became active in the online community of MacPerl users. That was my first exposure to online community and what would come to be known as open source software. I now make my living programming in perl with a strong LISP accent.
In a later job I learned to program in Java as part of a small team, but also became a Turbine committer. What is especially interesting about the Apache Software Foundation is their expressed focus on the community of software developers. Their mission and purpose is more about the community of developers than it is about their specific code. Although their code is important, what is most important is the community that supports the code base.
Through my volunteer work, I have earned a right to participate directly in the creation of a new vision for this school. Through my demonstrated commitment, I have earned the respect of my peers, and neighbors, staff and teachers at the school, and administrators at the school district. I'm not sharing this to brag, but to highlight these unexpected benefits of volunteering. When I set out on this path I wasn't expecting to find myself in a position of influence. I just wanted to help solve some problems, to create something of lasting value. Yet in the process, I find myself playing a leadership role in my neighborhood.
Anyone who has participated in an open source project will immediately recognize what I described in that last paragraph. At the Apache Software Foundation they call it meritocracy: those who actually do the work get promoted by their peers to have a direct influence over the code base. The Sundance Lab, MacPerl, and Turbine were my first sustained volunteer efforts and all three cases followed a similar pattern. I'm happy to report the same can also be true outside of code.
Open source, although something relatively new, has radically transformed the landscape of software development. In fact, the core software systems that make the Internet work are all open source: domain name servers, email servers, web servers, TCP/IP stacks and even complete operating systems. I hope that in a few years we will look back and see that a local community, like the one taking root around Columbine, can transform the landscape of public education and local government. I also hope to help my community learn to use some of the power tools enjoyed by open source developers for organizing even very complex community projects.
I originally wrote this in an email following a pretty damaging exchange that took place on Columbine's Visioning committee this time last year. The original email is here. I'm reposting it now (May 5, 2010) with the original date and time.
At last Tuesday's visioning meeting, I tried to make a point about the challenges of being in the visible minority. That proved to be volatile coming from me (as The Rich White Male in the room). A week later I believe even more strongly that this demands attention and discussion.
Back in February (Black History Month), there was an article on Talk of the Nation, Op-Ed: Holder Shouldn't Have Called Us Cowards interviewing Charles M. Blow, New York Times visual op-ed columnist, about race (given the topic, I'll just add that Charles M. Blow is black):
One particular part of the discussion has really stuck with me. I'm paraphrasing at length here because I found this dialog so revealing.
A black woman from South Bend, Indiana said it's difficult to discuss race with her friends, most of whom are white, because they're hypersensitive. Paraphrasing, the caller said:
Any time I mention that I long to be around more black people, they kind of shut it down by saying, "well, we're your friends; it doesn't matter that you're black to us. It doesn't matter to you that I'm white; We like what we like, and we like you, so why does that make a difference?" It's the whole colorblind argument that they throw. Any time there's any kind of discussion of race, it's kind of shut down, and to me, I feel that's not acknowledging who I am. I'm black; I'm an African-American female; it's a part of me; it is my life. I have experiences that I would like to discuss, and share, and I feel like it's denied for the sake of being "colorblind."
Charles M. Blow replied:
First, A couple of studies have shown that whites are very, very reluctant to engage in any race-related conversation because they fear they will say something that will peg them as prejudiced. That is such a strong reaction that one scientist using brain scans and tests following just a basic conversation between whites and people of other races found that whites were cognitively and emotionally exhausted just after having a conversation, not even about race, with a person of that race. You have to understand that's happening.
Second, this is the perfect opportunity for someone to have a discussion about race. Her white friend could have asked "So why is it so important for you to be around other black people, and what difference would that make for you as a person?" And then start to explore the reasons.
This conversation will not be comfortable. Forget about the idea that you're going to be comfortable. Everybody is going to be exhausted after this. The caller probably will say things that her friends will find offensive. There is a certain kind of tribalism embedded in all of society, not just American society; people have been grouping themselves according to common ethnic backgrounds and religions and whatever throughout history. But why do we do that?
That can be a jumping off point for some interesting dialogue. If someone finds something offensive, my suggestion is to say, do you understand how someone including me could find that to be offensive? Then the caller could explore why that person might be taking offense, if indeed they are. That just opens more conversation and keeps drilling down to why we hold the beliefs that we believe. I think keeping it on this very personal level is the most constructive kind of conversation we can have.
I definitely experience the fear of saying something racist and it's a relief to know that the stress I experience is supported by measurable evidence of cognitive and emotional exhaustion. A Latina friend has described her own experience of exhaustion in being around white people and trying to figure out how she is being seen. So I think this mental stress goes both ways.
Some part of us prefers Columbine the way it is. Just as the caller longs to be around more black people, Latinos can enjoy a school where they are among their own, and Anglos choose other schools where they are also among their own. But at Columbine and similar schools around the country, the language barrier magnifies everything. Discussing race requires every ounce of nuance and discretion I can muster. Worrying about how much of that nuance will be lost in translation adds a whole extra dimension to the challenge.
Integration might be the more noble path, but whatever our rationale for our choices, given the choice, most of us choose our own tribes. The district's goal of destratification is The Right Thing ™ to do, but incredibly difficult because we are working against our own nature, working against the powerful force of feeling like an outsider.
Although I enjoy every dimension of privilege and status in our society: I'm white, male, blue-eyed, a college graduate, a native English speaker, a US citizen, tall, athletic, and wealthy (not relative to the rest of Boulder, but definitely relative to the rest of the world), none of that privilege makes it any easier for me to face the feeling of being the outsider.
Part of me thinks I'm spending entirely too much time on something that's completely obvious. On the other hand, I haven't heard many people pointing to this experience to explain why our community has divided itself up along lines of race and language and class. Perhaps in searching for some colorblind explanation for stratification, or perhaps in fear of talking about race, we overlook this most simple of explanations: we're trying to overcome thousands of years of human behavior. Not that this hasn't ever been done before. But I don't think it has ever been easy.
At the May 4th visioning meeting, Manuela, a Latina parent representative said to Jennifer, an Anglo parent representative, "I love learning from the beauty of your culture" (as it was interpreted with a little emphasis from Yolanda, teacher representative). What an optimistic message. That's really the point, isn't it? Learning the beauty of another culture is one of the most powerful opportunities at Columbine; an opportunity that somehow gets lost in the conversation in our English-speaking neighborhood, undermined by the force of our underlying tribalism. If we can change the conversation to focus on the joy of learning from the beauty of another culture, perhaps the extra effort of crossing these divisions will seem immediately worth the extra effort.
This dialog from Terminator 2 still sends chills down my spine.
SARAH: I need to know how Skynet get built. Who's responsible?
TERMINATOR: The man most directly responsible is Miles Bennet Dyson, Director of Special Projects at Cyberdyne Systems Corporation.
SARAH: Why him?
TERMINATOR: In a few months he creates a revolutionary type of mircoprocessor.
SARAH: Then what?
TERMINATOR: In three years Cyberdyne will become the largest supplier of military computer systems. All stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne computers, becoming fully unmanned, Afterward, they fly with a perfect operational record.
SARAH: Uh huh, great. Then those fat fucks in Washington figure, what the hell, let a computer run the whole show, right?
TERMINATOR: Basically. The Skynet funding bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn, at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. eastern time, August 29. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.
SARAH: And Skynet fights back.
TERMINATOR: Yes. It launches its ICBMs against their targets in Russia.
SARAH: Why attack Russia?
TERMINATOR: Because Skynet knows the Russian counter-strike will remove its enemies here.
Hey Politican! I'm not moved when you whine about the other politicians playing politics. You say it with such conviction, but did you really miss that part of the job description when you were campaigning for office? Is it really a surprise?
Didn't think so.
In that case, do you really think I believe you're the good guy, or the innocent victim of wicked politics and they're the bad guy, the cynical politician?
You may be underestimating our cynicism about the nature of your business.
(Just in case it's not obvious, I'm looking at BOTH of you, Barack Obama and Dick Cheney. Not that you were talking about each other, but I've heard both of you whining exactly this way.)
I'm sure the rabid democrat agrees when a democrat accuses a republican of playing politics. I'm equally sure that the rabid republican agrees when a republican accuses a democrat of playing politics.
I'm pretty sure that most of us in the middle, left or right of center, see through this rhetorical flourish as a bunch of finger pointing that reveals as much about the accuser as it does the accused.
Back in the early eighties, one of my best friends introduced me to a bunch of music I really wasn't ready for at the time: Dead Kennedy's, Suicidal Tendencies "before they sold out", Butthole Surfers, and a bunch of others who's names I can't remember now. Shannon had run away from home. He was squatting in an abandoned house in Denver with some other punk rockers and skin heads. I seem to remember that he had some respect for Metallica at the time, but I didn't know that band for probably another decade. He also left some vinyl records with me including The Who's Next and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
One especially memorable night I was hanging out with him and his friends. Now understand... there was absolutely no way I could ever have been allowed in this punker home without Shannon's introduction. I was a total preppy at the time, collar up and everything. I was listening to pop music of the time like Howard Jones, Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, Brian Adams, Loverboy, or some older seventies stuff like Styx, Boston, Eagles, ELO ... do you have the picture? Could not have been a less likely crowd for me to hang with for even a few hours.
Fast forward a few years to 1989. I transferred to CU in the spring. My brother and I were on our way out to a fancy dinner with my mom and uncle -- we were dressed in ties and maybe coats too (which will be important for the story later). We ran by my dorm to drop off my stuff. I think I spent that weekend at Mom's house and came back to the dorm a day or two later. When I arrived one wall of the room had been newly decorated with a sheet painted with all sorts of punk rock images and slogans. I recognized the DK and punk snot dead and Sex Pistols. Black Flag's logo seemed familiar from somewhere (tho' didn't know at the time it belonged to Black Flag). I wasn't sure what to make of the "Die Frat Boy Scum." Could have been a band name, or just something keeping with the theme.
I thought to myself, "Cool. My roommate must be a punker." It was really a beautiful bit of punker graffiti art.
It was another day or more before I actually got to meet my roommate, his friend across the hall, and a woman they hung out with often. All were in jeans, t-shirts, and painted leather jackets. The friend across the hall wore his hair in a short mohawk, the woman was shaved on one half and long purple and black on the other half. My roommate was just starting to learn guitar. We had a long and pretty interesting conversation about a lot of things, but mostly music and where we were from. At some point my roommate asked "Are you an ATO?"
"I don't know. Can you be one without knowing it?" I replied. It seams one of the guys down the hall saw Greg and I when we moved my stuff in and assumed by our dress that I was in a fraternity and really gave Steve a scare -- thought he'd seen an ATO pin on one of our lapels. That more or less explained the "die frat boy scum" thing, anyway. Whenever I think about this it makes me laugh out loud at the tragic horror that must have filled that dorm room as my roommate and his friends decorated that sheet, laying down the anti-establishment ground rules from the outset. I also can't miss the irony of just how well I would have fit the part of frat life, if I'd known anything about it at the time. It must have been a huge relief that I mostly knew who Jello Biafra and Sid Vicious were. It was cool hanging out with punkers. I went been to some local shows and played in the mosh pit on at least several occasions.
Another few years on, my own tastes had migrated to big hair bands. I had lived with another musician, Scott, who was a guitarist in a local heavy metal band. Greg had also introduced me to Metallica and Queensryche and Megadeath and I pretty much became a head banger -- hair down to the middle of my back and everything. I think it was around this time that I caught up with Shannon once again and got to tell him about my short life living with punkers.
I think it was at that time that Shannon described a poetic jacket he'd seen some years before. It was clearly very beaten up and had obviously once been thoroughly painted. Only one glyph was left on the sleeve. The faded words "punk snot dead" around which was a more freshly painted tombstone embossed with R.I.P. I've never been able to get that image out of my head and so tonight decided to see if I could recreate something like it. Kind of a present to Shannon for having been the first to broaden my musical horizons beyond pop radio and a thank you note to anarchists everywhere.
There's a little more to tell in this story too. When I was living in Las Vegas in the mid 1990's, I went to see The Offspring in concert with a specific interest in seeing what punk rock looked like back from the grave. It was a huge and pretty fun show. I think there were three different mosh pits going at one point. I'm pretty sure that's the last time I moshed. Except for those pits, it seemed an awful lot like a big hair band arena sized concert.
And to add just a little more contrast to my musical influences... I also learned some ballroom dance and especially the Lindy Hop with the UNLV Ballroom Dance team. When I moved back to Boulder, I was quite active in the Denver Lindy Hop scene. Mom couldn't believe I was dancing my socks off to the music her father loved!
Only of interest for perl programmers, and from 2003 so there's some chance you've seen this before. This node at perlmonks is beautiful, even if it does illustrate the rampant re-invention of wheels that mostly defines perl culture:
We have our own style of objects in bOP. At their core they're all blessed array refs, but it's not quite as simple as that.
What to do with 18 to 24 inches of snow in the yard? When I shovel our driveway, I always pile the snow up on the lawn, especially when it's good packing snow. This heavy wet storm... fantastic stuff. Last night, I decided to take one more pass at the driveway before the heavy wet snow froze overnight. Usually I'm thinking about getting some much needed water to our trees. Last night I was thinking about Halloween and Elliott's recent interest in mazes. Inspiration took hold of me and I spent an extra hour making a labyrinth with the Great Pile as the destination.
Not sure how long the thing will last under the attention of an energetic four-and-a-half-year-old on a snow day. But at least I have some pictures to show for it.