Computer literacy begins at home

August 5th, 2013 4:59 PM
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KansasFest 2013 is now a week behind us, and I'm still absorbing everything I saw, learned, and experienced. Moments such as interviewing Steve Wozniak and other unscripted events are memories that will last a lifetime. But of those events that stuck to the schedule — that is, the daytime presentations and official sessions — but one that really caught my attention was "Teach U.S. Kids to Program" by attendee Matt Hellinger.

Hellinger's talk was prompted by "Teach U.S. kids to write computer code", a December 2012 article by Douglas Rushkoff, digital literacy advocate for Codecademy.com, a tool I use in my own classroom. Rushkoff outlined ten reasons why programming must be an essential part of any student's curriculum, given how pervasive computers have become in modern culture and industry. The article focused on how we passively use computers, allowing ourselves to be the passenger to tools that drive our lives. Hellinger in turn reflected on the golden age of the Apple II, when users and programmers were one in the same, putting us in the driver's seat. Can that experience be replicated for today's youth?

His proposal stems from more than some nostalgic desire for his kids to grow up the same way he did. Hellinger made a compelling argument that computers have become so powerful and complex as to be impenetrable, transforming them from tool to crutch. He suggested bringing them down a notch to again make them accessible to students, providing them with an environment where they can write original programs in fifty lines of code instead of a thousand. The Apple II is just such a machine.

But there's more to that equation than the classroom. Hellinger and I approach the topic from very different perspectives: he as an IT professional and parent; I as childfree educator. Although I'll happily expose other people's children to retroprogramming, as is already happening in Milton Keynes, those lessons have to be reinforced in the home. To that end, Hellinger proposed taking away the tablet, replacing or completing the desktop with a Raspberry Pi, and limiting Internet access.

I challenged Hellinger on these potentially draconian measures — not out of opposition but curiosity, to better assess the rigor of the stance. I asked what Johnny should do when he comes home from playing Xbox 360 and surfing Facebook at his classmates' homes. Hellinger said those exceptions are no different from expecting a child to obey other house rules: different parents make different allowances for their kids. Later I followed up via email: what about when the disagreement isn't between homes, but between home and classroom? What if the student is using an iPad at school and needs one to complete his homework? Again, Hellinger made it a simpler matter than I imagined, pointing back to his basic tenets. "I would definitely recommend restricting usage (as if the kid had brought home a video game to research)," he wrote. "Disabling Wi-Fi in the house would go a long way toward resolving unfettered use."

Overall, I was pleased and intrigued by Hellinger's proposal. I hope for opportunities to test and practice his ideas in the classroom, just as he is doing so in his own household. If you want to see his theories for yourself, he has generously allowed me to embed his original slides in this blog. Watch for them to eventually be added to the KansasFest file archive.

My elementary education with the Apple II

June 3rd, 2013 12:36 PM
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My household was an early adopter of personal computers, at least compared to the rest of my grade school. Whereas I had access to the family Apple IIe whenever I wanted, for most of my classmates, their only exposure to that computer came from our weekly computer lab, which was not what I would call rigorous. The instructor was Sister Theresa, and she didn't know the first thing about programming or educational software. Too many classes would start this way: "Turn on the computer. Type NEW, return, RUN, return, HOME return, GR, return. Now draw the Nativity." And that was it: we'd be left to our own devices for the rest of class. Since our work was never checked, no one attempted the project she'd assigned us. On rare occasions, we'd be given textbooks of BASIC program listings and could type one in, but neither instruction nor comprehension occurred regarding what these commands did or how they resulted in the program we'd run.

Instead, my mastery of the Apple II occurred at home. I would pull apart Applesoft programs to see how they worked, then I'd modify them or write my own, sometimes recreating the work during class to show off to my classmates. (The result could be seen less in their admiration and more in their bullying.) I later wondered why the class couldn't be more productive. Did the administration think Sr. Theresa was the best person for this job? Or was the convent looking for a position for this old nun, and this was all that was available? Was it worth it to make her feel useful at the expense of all those computers being wasted? Having now been an educator myself, I'd be keen to see what the mission statement, classroom goals, or rubric were for that class. I suspect the syllabus was blank.

Regardless, I did enjoy these classes and the special permission Sr. Theresa gave me to borrow from her archive of Scholastic Microzine on Friday afternoons to bring home for the weekend. I would wake up early every Saturday to play this trove of new games I'd been bequeathed, both before my three older brothers would wake up and before the Microzine would have to go back to school on Monday morning. I was likely the only student who ever went to see Sr. Theresa outside our designated lab time, and we grew friendly. But my education had taught me to never question authority, so despite our relationship, it never occurred to me to suggest that her class could be run in any other way.

St. Leo's SchoolI don't know how much that aspect of the school has changed since then. I remember hearing in the early- to mid-nineties that they were "upgrading" all their IIe computers to IIc's. Whatever expert they hired for that advice steered them wrong, as the Apple II line was nearing the end of its official support by then, and switching to Macs or PCs would've been a more long-term investment. I wonder what came of their Apple IIe or IIc labs — no one called me when they disposed of either. Maybe they're still there, teaching modern students the fine art of retrocomputing.

Can a quick Google search tell us for sure? Visiting the St. Leo's School Web site — which is running on a five-year-old version of Joomla — I see that "computer" is one of the required classes, and that "Computers are incorporated into daily classes, starting in Pre-Kindergarten." Not the most detailed curriculum outline.

Granted, this is a grade school in suburban Leominster, Massachusetts. At that age and with the resources available, it may be more reasonable to expect the students to focus on the basics: "Religion, Mathematics, Reading — Literature, Language Arts". But computers can be tools by which to inspire creativity in all those areas and more. Think of all the lessons, exercises, and tools that computers could be bringing to the classroom: Programming! Applesoft BASIC! iBooks! Game-playing! Game design! And more!

The issue, in many ways, is academic, as it will be a long time before a grade school's curriculum again has direct influence on my family. But whenever I do evaluate a school's academic rigor for its ability to inspire a generation of creative and competitive professionals, I'll be sure of three things: that computer literacy is as much a priority as other "core" areas; that there is a passionate, knowledgeable teacher in charge of executing that mission; and that she be willing to share her library of Microzines.

A world without BASIC

June 27th, 2011 10:16 AM
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Filed under Musings, Software showcase;
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The computers that Apple II users grew up with were nowhere near as user-friendly as today's machines. They had unintuitive interfaces, inscrutable error messages, and limited capabilities.

But those same limitations also made them an excellent tool for learning such important concepts as problem-solving, game design, and especially programming.

The Apple II was especially practical for that last function, as it came with BASIC in ROM. Without any other software, a user could turn on her machine and start building a virtual world of her own design. The lack of advanced features meant that the user was playing in a sandbox of conceivable limits yet infinite possibilities.

Yet by 1997, when I started college as a computer science major, I was getting laughed out of the classroom by using BASIC where other students were relying on Java and C++, as I related in Juiced.GS. Today, BASIC is almost nowhere to be found, as detailed in the leading item on Computerworld.com last Thursday "How are students learning programming in a post-Basic world?"

The story is an interesting look at the variety of languages with which to introduce modern students to programming. For some parents and teachers, the old methods work best; "My son's math textbooks contained exercises in Basic, but we could not do the problems until we bought an old Commodore 64 online," said David Brin, author of "Why Johnny Can't Code". Others prefer more popular scripting languages, such as Python; still others use a language designed more for educational than practical use, such as MIT's Scratch, the language of choice of the computer science teacher where I used to teach. She's offering a camp this summer to introduce 13- and 14-year-olds to programming, using a different format from last year's camp: "I changed the language from Alice to Scratch. Alice was too glitchy for me. Scratch is easy to pick up, and hopefully will be fun for middle schoolers."

But none of these languages will offer the same experience as learning BASIC. Author Lamont Wood had once dabbled in BASIC programming but had fallen out of practice until his recent experiment with Python:

The thrill was not the same as in 1979; it hadn't taken months to get the hardware to work, and it sure ran quieter … with Basic, I felt like I was rummaging through a small box containing a few crude tools. With Python, I felt I had pushed open the door to a massive but unlit tool warehouse and was darting in to grab the few that I could see.

I learned BASIC by doing: I was running a Warp Six BBS and needed to make modifications. Eventually, I was inspired to write my own door game, though since it was a port, I had to concern myself only with the coding, not the design. In either case, I always had either the code or design to work with; I never had to conceive and build entirely from scratch (no pun intended).

My challenge in adapting those BASIC programming skills to a modern environment is not so much choosing a language as it is choosing an instruction method. Just as I learned BASIC to run a BBS, I've set a goal of learning PHP to help me run WordPress, a modern equivalent of an online community. But elementary concepts such as functions and arrays seem more confusing than they did twenty years ago.

What's the best computer and language to teach programming — and where does one go from there?

The history of game design

November 22nd, 2010 11:11 AM
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My alma mater offers a major in interactive media and game design, a field that didn't exist during my time there as a student. It's one of many such programs that have popped up across academia in the past decade, in response to the growing popularity and cultural acceptance of video games as an industry and pastime.

Yet electronic game design predates its study by decades. When there were no templates, exemplars, formulae, or rubrics, creative programmers experimented with creative and risky innovations, setting the course for thirty years of successors. Although modern games can still be ingenious, such variation from popular game design is often relegated to low-budget "indie" games and not the big-budget blockbusters sold at retail, which are almost always sequels to existing intellectual properties (IP). This was not the case with the Apple II; visionary games such as Lode Runner, Oregon Trail, and Choplifter were enormous successes and are remembered fondly today.

When today's students are educated in game design and theory, it only makes sense to reflect on historical successes as well. Some academic institutions have wisely chosen to complement their modern game design with this retrospective look. Such a course was once offered at Stanford as the "History of Computer Game Design".

This course provides a historical and critical approach to the evolution of computer and video game design from its beginnings to the present. It brings together cultural, business, and technical perspectives. Students should come away from the course with an understanding of the history of this medium, as well as insights into design, production, marketing, and socio-cultural impacts of interactive entertainment and communication.

The course's required reading includes Dungeons & Dreamers, a book I gave high marks to when I reviewed it for Juiced.GS for its analysis of the 1970s and the era's intersection of popularity in Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and personal computing. Considering such engaging assignments, I have to wonder why Stanford's course wasn't popular enough to have become a regular part of the school's curriculum; sadly, the "History of Computer Game Design" course does not appear to have been offered since 2005.

This class was part of an accompanying interactive project that has likewise not been updated in nearly a decade. It had an ambitious and socially relevant mission:

The aim of this project is to explore the history and cultural impact of a crucial segment of contemporary new media: interactive simulations and video games. Once the late-night amusement of nerds and hackers who built "Space Wars" and the "Game of Life" in the 1950s and 1960s, video games and interactive media have emerged as one of the most vibrant elements of today's entertainment industry. However, despite the growing popularity and legitimacy of video games, the importance of the medium itself has all but eluded notice by most scholars and media critics. As a result, this project seeks to ground the history and study of video games within a framework of rigorous academic discourse.

While Roger Ebert may contend that video games are not art, others have suggested the better question is: "Can artists express themselves through the video game medium?" I feel the answer to that is an obvious "Yes!", as demonstrated by games from the Apple II to today. It's only a matter of time before game design history is as common a field of study as art history, film theory, and music appreciation.

In addition to the aforementioned Dungeons & Dreamers, other books providing academic perspectives on game design's history include Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort, and Dungeons & Desktops by Matt Barton.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)