Computing and education

I’m in the computer room at a grand old hotel in New Paltz, NY, the Mohonk Mountain House, fretting about what to say to a group of school business managers gathered here under the banner of the NYSAIS. I’m here to talk about computing and education. (At the Berkman Center, this topic is one of our three core thematic areas of inquiry, along with Internet & content issues like IP and Internet & democracy. Charlie Nesson, JZ, and Colin Maclay do a much better job than I do in keeping this issue in the foreground of our work.)

The best part about attending a similar event last Fall was meeting several inspiring and insightful teachers. Some of them not only blog themselves, but think hard and well about computing and teaching. One of those teachers is Arvind Grover, whose blog I was scanning by way of research for some of those inspired thoughts I recall him having. For one, he thinks that “We need to be training our students to be problems solvers, not fact-repeaters. I advocate for computer science starting lower school and going all the way through college. The effect of technology on the world has been dramatic and it continues. … If your school does not have a computer science program, you must ask yourself why not? If your school does have a computer science program, you must ask yourself is it the right one?” He refers us to a ComputerWorld article on the future of computer science.

I agree. But I’m also puzzling over another, related question. If you are teaching today’s Digital Natives but not using technology to do so, why not? And if you are, what’s your purpose in doing so? You may well have a good reason NOT to use computing in any way in the teaching process. A professor at Harvard Law School, Elizabeth Warren, makes a compelling case about how she teaches using the Socratic method and the extent to which that method is about a highly focused, person-to-person exchange in the classroom (and associated benefits to onlookers who are not looking at IMs and smirking about what someone just sent them). Absent a specific pedagogical reason of this sort — and there are many — I think any educator, at any level, has to ask themselves if they are in fact engaging students in the digital environment in which a large percentage of their students immerse themselves. It does not mean everyone has to teach computing, or the law of computing, or some off-shoot of it. But I do think that it’s becoming increasingly important to join the issue in schools of all levels. What is your strategy for using computing as part of the teaching and learning process? If you ignore computing, are you effectively preparing your students for where they head next? Are you engaging them where they are right now? Are you, and your students, contributing to the emerging digital commons of shared knowledge? And are you making the most of your community’s digital identity? Charlie Nesson asks, “What’s your cyberstrategy?”  The answer might be no, or I don’t have one, or I don’t care, but failing to ask the questions strikes me as the big potential mistake.

22 thoughts on “Computing and education

  1. “If you are teaching today’s Digital Natives but not using technology to do so, why not? And if you are, what’s your purpose in doing so?”

    John, I think your questions are important ones, and are questions we have been discussing in the New York ed tech community for some time. There was an interesting discussion going on over a nation-wide educator e-mail list where someone said that they were afraid students were missing out on quality learning time with textbooks. My position is that textbooks were invented centuries ago for a time when they were indeed the most advanced technology. The transition from oral learning to learning from reading must have been a difficult one. I can only imagine the comments: “How can students learn without me telling them?” etc.

    We are at a similar point, except for we have the most powerful tool for communication ever known: the internet. If we are not using it, we are just going along with the old ways, just because we know them, not because they are better necessarily. So many brilliant teachers out there, many are finding ways to capitalize on these new tools, the same way the pioneers who brought in the textbooks did.

  2. […] wayne not back yet from talking dembow. bec here for breakfast then getting her toes painted with fern. palfreys blog about learning to code and to understand what code is from the bottom up and keep on learning, scratch now an element of our course. we want a grant from our provost’s fund to ask marvin and his lego robots to start us off, mitch resnick for an interview. recorded all mixed in with chayes trash in ways that seem mysterious even to me. […]

  3. This blog entry is great, and really makes me want to spiel about something that’s been on my mind for a while, so here are my 2 cents.

    As a student at the college who came from a very small high school with small, active, discussion-based classes, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lecture business. For all the talk about participatory culture in the fields of television, art, music, etc…why hasn’t the fad hit the field of education yet? The traditional lecture strikes me as the best example of why passive consumption of media is ineffective and unengaging. If everything you learned in lecture can be presented in an outline, then why not just read a book? I for one find myself unable to stay awake through most lectures, no matter how interesting the material, simply because the way of presentation doesn’t work with my mind; thanks to tabbed browsing, I really don’t think linearly very much anymore. I need to think in different directions! To work with this, I sometimes bring my laptop to class and look stuff up on Wikipedia while the professor lectures one thing at a time.

    So, why do I think computers are important? Because they bring a level of interactivity, of taking charge of your own learning, and hopefully of radically changing the way lectures are given. Teaching the technology is important, but more important is implementing the essence of teaching the way it’s supposed to be. It’s about using technology to raise the quality for a larger quantity…or so I think.

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  5. As a student at the college who came from a very small high school with small, active, discussion-based classes, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lecture business. For all the talk about participatory culture in the fields of television, art, music, etc…why hasn’t the fad hit the field of education yet? The traditional lecture strikes me as the best example of why passive consumption of media is ineffective and unengaging. If everything you learned in lecture can be presented in an outline, then why not just read a book? I for one find myself unable to stay awake through most lectures, no matter how interesting the material, simply because the way of presentation doesn’t work with my mind; thanks to tabbed browsing, I really don’t think linearly very much anymore. I need to think in different directions! To work with this, I sometimes bring my laptop to class and look stuff up on Wikipedia while the professor lectures one thing at a time.

  6. Pingback: 21apples | arvind s grover » Blog Archive » An interview with John Palfrey: Rumors, Cyberbullying and Anonymity

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