Computer literacy begins at home

August 5th, 2013 4:59 PM
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Filed under Happenings, Musings;
2 comments.

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.

Teaching retroprogramming

September 13th, 2010 9:09 AM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage, Musings;
3 comments.

The annual Beloit College Mindset List, which outlines the world in which the incoming class of college freshman grew up, indicates that for members of the class of 2014, "The first home computer they probably touched was an Apple II or Mac II; they are now in a museum."

Fortunately, for students in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, England, their experience with retrocomputers is more recent — and eminently practical. BBC News reports:

As a former teacher, I can fully get behind this classroom curriculum. It wasn't long ago that I suggested a lab of Apple II computers could be an effective and modern learning tool. Although the computers featured in this video are not Woz's brainchild, they are its contemporaries and teach many of the same lessons my proposed lab would. As one student said, "The old machines have a lot to teach us. They run a lot slower, and you can actually see the instructions executing in real-time."

What I hope the students learn is how to make the most of limited hardware and software resources, though this quotation makes me wonder if they missed that point: "It makes you a lot more efficient, and you think more about your code, because it's harder to type it all in." Although the arduousness of input can indeed be a powerful motivator against error, I don't think it's a programming environment that one need tolerate on even a classic computer. The Apple II worked around this limitation with Beagle Bros' excellent Program Writer for Applesoft BASIC. Such utilities don't encourage sloppy programming but instead improve the rate at which you can learn from your mistakes, whereas modern machines and their gluttonous resources permit sloppy programming that would never fly on a computer whose memory is measured in kilobytes.

This classroom's demographic reminds me of the demoparty I attended this summer, where most attendees were younger than the computers they were hacking. KansasFest likewise has an increasingly youthful attendance, with Apple II users still in or recently out of undergraduate programs. This next generation of retrocomputing enthusiasts has great potential to apply modern programming techniques and structure to classic design. For example, put these students into a limited-time programming contest, and you'd have HackFest. I wonder how they would fare?

I couldn't help but take umbrage when the reporter says that the student's work almost looks like a "real video game". Of course it's a real video game! Software doesn't need rockstar programmers or cutting-edge technology. The original versions of Lode Runner and Oregon Trail have more staying power than any jazzed-up modern adaptations. I wouldn't be surprised if these kids are the next programmers to recapture the fun and wonder of these classic games.

Because BBC is awesome, their story also has one of their own news reports from Oct. 17, 1986, that showcases the computers of the day, including the Apple IIGS. That video is not embeddable, so I encourage you to watch it on their site.

(Hat tip to Slashdot and Mitch Wagner)