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.

What schools don't teach

March 18th, 2013 11:18 AM
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Computers play an important role in education, be it in programming or game design. Retrocomputers like the Apple II can be especially valuable in any of these disciplines, especially programming. The finite, knowable universe of an 8-bit machine provides the perfect canvas on which budding programmers can craft their first algorithms.

But in many schools, the question isn't with what computers should programming be taught, but whether programming should be taught at all. Demand for programmers has never been higher, with the number of positions growing at twice the national rate. Yet ninety percent of schools offer no programming courses at all, leading to colleges graduating fewer computer science majors than they were a decade ago.

The non-profit Code.org is bringing attention to the need for more programming education in this country with a public service announcement (PSA). For this five-minute video, they have recruited the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and will.i.am, as well as some less likely suspects.

(There are also one-minute and nine-minute versions of this PSA.)

When I was in high school, a required course was geometry. I found it a challenging course, but reasonably so. The theorems and corollaries about alternate interior angles and their kin weren't intended to train me to be an architect; rather, they were lessons in logic, teaching me how to think and solve.

Programming is the modern geometry, offering similar value to students, whether or not they seek careers in computer programming. I do not consider myself a programmer, yet I have benefitted immensely from the languages I taught myself outside of school. I have occasionally tried to pass on these lessons to friends, showing them some (literally) BASIC concepts on the Apple II, such as variables and FOR loops. They remain completely mystified, with one going so far as to marvel at my own capacity to grasp programming: "You're a creative person, Ken, yet you can program. I've never met anyone whose mind can switch between those two modes so effortlessly."

But programming is creative. A relative who doesn't realize that basic tenet recently characterized programming to me as "Doing the same thing, over and over". How he confused programming with data entry is beyond me. But the fusion of creativity and logic is perhaps best found on this digital landscape, and students would benefit from being introduced to that sandbox — whether or not it's on an Apple II.

Generational hardware gap tres

September 3rd, 2012 12:43 PM
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Last month, the Commodore 64 turned 30 years old. Normally, that'd not be an appropriate topic for this Apple II blog; in fact, the wrong readers might take it as an opportunity to burn me in effigy, minus the effigy.

But the way in which Mat Allen chose to commemorate the occasion offers a cross-platform look at the way different generations interact with classic technology. Having seen this concept explored first in France and then in the USA, Allen invited several young Brits to play with his C64, to demonstrate that the game system of his youth was as entertaining and relevant today.


The video focuses primarily on the loading times, which is so obsolete an experience as to almost have faded from memory; I'm not surprised Allen's audience wandered away. Still, I wish he'd run a second experiment where the game was already loaded, so that the kids could provide feedback based more on interacting with the software instead of the hardware.

It was cute to hear the students couch their words to be as delicate as possible; referring to the C64's rudimentary graphics, one child commented, "For them, it must've been pretty incredible."

Apple's return to education

January 23rd, 2012 1:51 PM
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Last week, Apple announced iBooks textbooks and iBooks author, two iPad applications designed to redefine education.

Although I still favor physical literature for leisure reading, the elimination of physical textbooks in favor of e-books has been a long time coming, as outlined in this 2009 column by Mike Elgan who proposed that "education reform should begin by burning all the textbooks." And Apple may be just the company to get the ball rolling. Some pundits are seeing this move as a return to Apple's origin: the iPhone and iPad, which have been aimed at consumers and the enterprise, overlooked that "schools have been one of Apple's biggest market since the days of the Apple II", writes Ryan Faas for Computerworld.

Others are less optimistic, saying that Apple's methodology is fundamentally flawed by being based on false assumptions and failing to address long-standing issues. Glenn Fleishman, a senior contributor to Macworld, remembers hearing these same promises in the days of the Apple II and cites a nine-year-old study that questions the value of technology in education (in contrast to a recent pilot program by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

It is not yet clear how much computer-based programs can contribute to the improvement of instruction in American schools. Although many researchers have carried out controlled evaluations of technology effects during the last three decades, the evaluation literature still seems patchy.

Lindsey Turrentine, editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews, says that no matter how elegant the software, the problem of hardware remains the same as it has the past three decades: "There was an Apple II in my third-grade classroom. We used it to play Oregon Trail. Then it died. Therein lies the problem with iPads in high school: devices break."

iPads are expensive, and they do break. And it may be true that Apple is simply trading one set of problems (the expense, weight, and outdatedness of textbooks) for another. But much of Apple's early success was found in the education market; "Education has always been a big part of Apple's DNA," said Eddy Cue, senior VP of Internet software and services, in the above video. Millions of today's adults may not be able to tell you exactly what they learned by playing Oregon Trail, but they remember the experience and the introduction it gave them to the computers that demand familiarity from today's workforce. Don't today's students deserve the same opportunities with today's tools that my generation had with the Apple II?

Generational hardware gap deux

December 19th, 2011 7:36 PM
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Remember those modern kids confronted with ancient technology? They were, for the most part, baffled by archaic storage media and entertainment devices. It was an amusing demonstration of the changes in interfaces and expectations across the generations.

Here's another example of the clash between new and old. Four American kids, all siblings, are given three devices from their mother's attic: a tape deck, a Commodore Plus/4, and an Atari 2600.

It's great fun to see the girl's delight at getting the Commodore to work. Today's computers may be more elegant and inviting, but there's a far greater sense of accomplishment at mastering the rudimentary commands of yesterday's machines.

By contrast, it's challenging to believe the young man couldn't figure out how to fire in a game that has one button, it's not surprising that he and his brother would find the Atari games challenging. In 2009, I brought a 22-year-old to the American Classic Arcade Museum at Funspot. Bred into being a multitasker by today's complex and staccato media, she was confused by the simplicity of the coin-ops of the 1980s. Surely there was more to it than that?

I'm glad there are retro enthusiasts out there who are not only holding onto their tech but are willing to share it with their kids. May we always remember the way things were — the better to appreciate the way things are!

(Hat tip to ComputeHer, 8 Bit Weapon)