Yes. Let them Hack


The conversation about the LA experiment with iPads prompted me to finally establish the blog. Time has been a problem, but I have also hesitated to avoid talking without clear focus. This article and subsequent discussion cleared a path for me. The concept of hacking reminded me of one of the “form exercises” that make up my design studio that I am currently teaching. We are working now on what we call planar flowform. It is a project to yield an abstract object from thermoformed plastic (polystyrene or Spectar®). We use a vacuum former to produce these projects. It is not a project where you conceive an idea and proceed to physically construct it. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The construction is improvisational, really. Then the object is to find “the grain in the stone” after you are left with a thermoform. Hacking comes into play because what we want is for the students to “turn the machine inside out” in a way, experiment with its capability, figure it out from a point of ignorance. They discover with abandon then. More students results coming up in the next post.

More Than A Two-Way Conversation

The last time I read Personal Dynamic Media, I blogged about the resonance of Kay and Goldberg’s flute metaphor for the possibilities of creating and communicating with the internet and new media.  As a recovering musician with an interest in how music is created and perceived in times of political and social upheaval, I find […]

Think Again 2013-10-24 18:46:11

I named the blog “Think Again,” reflecting on some comments in the preface of The New Media Reader:

Rethink Something

“New media’s biggest breakthroughs haven’t come by simply expending huge resources to tackle well-understood problems. They have come from moments of realization: that a problem others haven’t solved is being formulated in the wrong way, or that a technology has a radically different possible use than its current one, or that the metaphors and structures of one community of practice could combine with the products of another to create a third. That is, breakthroughs have come from thinking across disciplines, from rethinking one area of inquiry with tools and methodologies gained from another…”

“Moments of realization.”  I like that.  Breakthroughs.  I love it when that happens.  Beyond computers and computer science, it reminded me of Edith and Charlie Seashore and their work in Organizational Development to lead groups of people to their own “breakthrough moments.”





DCOG, Scratch->Snap

Did y’all know that Alan Kay (like a few other of our authors for this semester) is a Turing Award winner?! I got to see him and Hal Abelson at the computer science education conference in Raleigh a few years ago (2012).

Anyways, I like Alan Kay, and this reading. Some points:

  • (p. 2/394) They recognized an aspect of Human-Computer Interaction that was a bit before its time, “There should be no discernible pause between cause and effect,” and, “children really needed as much or more computing power than adults were willing to settle for when using a timesharing system,” and finally, “if the ‘medium is the message,’ then the message of low-bandwidth timesharing is ‘blah’”
    • even still today when designing and implementing new software, some may argue that details such as how quickly it responds to the user’s input are unimportant, but even more than 30 yrs ago, Kay and Goldberg new better.
  • (also p. 2/394) They argued for personal computers at a time when timesharing was the norm, and interestingly the pendulum is finally starting to swing back away from personal computing and towards timesharing again.
    • think “The Cloud”
  • (p. 3/395) “a pointing device called a ‘mouse’”
    • the pace of adoption of technologies was much slower than today, Engelbart demo’ed a working mouse in 1968, and still here in ’77 Kay has to explain his meaning. In contrast, a recent visitor to CS@VT (alumn Bo Begole, now of Samsung), explained that barely a year ago a team at Samsung decided on a design for a smart watch, the “Galaxy Gear” and it is already on the market!
  • (also p. 3/395) “Different Fonts create different moods…”
    • despite this understanding and the corresponding implementation on personal computers for years, it wasn’t until 2011 (at about 14 years of popular usage) that the web began to have custom font capability through (what’s now called) Google Fonts
  • throughout this and other related readings, I’ve been thinking about these works as the predecessors to DCOG
  • examples that have followed from Kay and Abelson’s interests in teaching computing to kids are abundant. See for example, SNAP
  • (p. 11/403) “… any owner could mold and channel its power to his own needs…”
    • is this possible today?
    • in Kay’s research the hardware, Operating system, programming language, and all applications were developed by the same research team…

Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, and the Potential of Computers

When reading Kay and Goldberg’s Personal Dynamic Media I found myself, again, surprised by how much they got right. This time it was less of a surprise, as it was written nearer today’s time and they helped create the technology we know, but I was still struck with a sense of “wow, they got it!”

Alan Kay and the prototype of Dynabook, pt. 5Most of the piece was focused on things the Dynabook could do, which was certainly cool to read, but I found I had less of a response. Instead of “let me point out how this is like today’s tools” I kept thinking “yes, that’s obviously there.”

And then I came to the passage that struck a conversational chord:

“For educators, the Dynabook could be a new world limited only by their imagination and ingenuity. They could use it to show complex historical inter-relationships in ways not possible with static linear books. Mathematics could become a living language in which children could cause exciting things to happen. Laboratory experiments and simulations too expensive or difficult to prepare could easily be demonstrated. The production of stylish pose and poetry could be greatly aided by being able to easily edit and file one’s own compositions.” -p403

And there it is. Throughout the article Kay and Goldberg point out that learning could be made to feel more real, that instead of doing arbitrary assignments and making things for fabricated audiences, a “Dynabook” could enable learning situated in real life contexts. That text didn’t necessarily need to be linear in an electronic format. That tools for learning didn’t need to feel like toys.

And when I think of the technology influenced classes I’ve worked with, I see the manifestation of Kay and Goldberg’s work. Here are some examples:

Public Writing

More often than not, when I’ve taught, I’ve had a blogging component. Sometimes it’s to create opportunities for reflection. Sometimes it’s for metacognitive purposes. Sometimes it’s to give students a “hook” to real world situations to make the in class content more meaningful. In all of these cases the students have an audience way bigger than me, and sometimes bigger than their classmates. The quality of writing and thought was, in many cases, measurably improved.

Building an encyclopedia

I’ve done this in my own class, but also worked with a sociology professor on a similar project. In these cases, using Mediawiki (the same software that runs Wikipedia), the students created encyclopedia entries on the topic of the class. In the simplest implementations students make a new one each semester. In more complex (but more interesting and more scaffolded) examples, one class has a wiki on the topic, but each section and each semester builds on the previous students’ work.

Making a magazine

Working with a foreign language teacher, students created a magazine in WordPress, with a magazine like theme and a few language customizations, for the public to read. The target audience was high school students interested in the language, as a tool to help them learn, and opportunity to leave comments in the language, and a recruiting tool to the college program. The faculty member also had colleagues who natively spoke the language leave comments as well, raising the bar on the quality of work students posted.

Making a (physical!) book

These technology enhanced pedagogical techniques aren’t always about the web, though. One class I worked with was doing a project on the history of the university. In this case they used university archives to find content, conducted oral histories, then put all the content together to make physical books. This project couldn’t have been done without the technology available at the time, but it wasn’t a technology project. My favorite part of the work is that the book is now in university archives for people to reference in the future.

Recording Podcasts

A number of faculty I worked with were interested in student created podcasts. Some of this was, in no doubt, due to iTunesU. Some of this was due to a knowledge that students worked with text in a lot of classes, images/powerpoint in a fair number, and even video in some rarer cases. Audio seemed like a useful auxiliary skill to offer, and in terms of the content included, has a lot in common with the “gold standard” of a term paper. Interestingly, in recording the podcasts, many students noted that they thought about the content differently when explaining it verses writing about it, and spent more time on the final product as they didn’t have a template in mind when they started as they often did with papers.

Making Movies

As alluded to before, movies were popping up at the point in which I was doing this work. In some cases students would be asked to make videos in lieu of writing a paper. In my own class I spent a few semesters offering a video as an alternative to a paper (with modified expectations) and in one I required it. Uniformly students said it was more work, but several students said they were thankful for the opportunity to learn a new skill. Several also indicated they had to think more about how to display the information in a video, which caused them to remember it better than they might have otherwise.

Interacting on a Collaborative Platform

The culmination of all this work, for me, was teaching Wake’s first online undergraduate course. I used Google Sites in lieu of the course management system, Google Docs for course documents and assignments, I made extensive use of YouTube to introduce content and to have students report their progress back to me, used Google Forms for formative assessment throughout the course, and generally plugged in any type of media I could from images to slide decks to screencasts. I constructed this course in the way that I did to meet the learning objectives of the course as well as the instructional culture of the institution. Students reported it felt like more work, but that they (largely) really liked the format. I felt like I got to know the students better as people as well as had a better grasp of how well they knew the content. Win win.

In all of these cases, when I worked with other faculty on these projects, the idea came from the individual faculty member. I just helped them find the right tools to meet their goals, worked with them on what it would look like in the class and for the students, and remained engaged in case they needed support as the semester went on. In all of these the class engagement was high and the outputs were interesting and sometimes surpassed our expectations. And none of this could have been done without the tools Kay and Goldberg envisioned over thirty years ago.

As an aside, if you’re at Virginia Tech and want to work on a project like one of the above, or even something that makes use of newer tools and technologies (like twitter, infographics, location based services, etc) I’d love to talk with you!

Wikipedia’s Challenges

A fascinating article in the latest issue of MIT Technology Review details some of the challenges facing Wikipedia, the  wildly popular online encyclopedia whose ambitious goal is to “compile the sum of all human knowledge.”  In short, Vannevar Bush’s memex on mega-steroids.

The sixth most popular website in the world, Wikipedia is totally unlike the others in the top ten, mostly because it has never been commercialized.  Run by a leaderless collection of dedicated volunteer editors bound by a byzantine set of  operating guidelines, every month it gets 10 billion (yes, that’s a “b”) hits in the English version alone, and it has grown to over 4 million entries.  Although it continues to be decried by dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists who question the value of crowd-sourced knowledge, it has nonetheless managed to establish itself as an authoritative voice, so much so that Google (another internet powerhouse) and Siri often pull information directly from the massive site as though it is accepted fact.

If you are like me, you have come to rely more and more on Wikipedia as a quick-and-dirty way to find info the info you need.  It is not unusual for me to query the site several times a day, and I even use it professionally (if carefully) in my teaching and research.  So it pains me to learn that the number of editors has declined, that new editors are being discouraged from contributing, that the contributor’s interface remains decidedly un-userfriendly, and that the coverage continues to be heavily skewed toward the interests of the current editors and administrators, who are estimated to be 90% male.  That translates into obsessive detail on individual Star Trek episodes (and, according to the author of the Technology Review article, female porn stars), but scant coverage on things like poetry, art, literature and any number of topics that fails to stand out on the average geeky male’s radar screen.

Wikipedia represents the highest hopes of those who originally envisioned the personal computer and the internet: authoritative knowledge freely available to anyone connected to the web, carefully curated by an self-less community of committed volunteers striving to continually improve on its quality and quantity.  No commercials.  No paywalls.  No monthly fees.  Of course, the reality of Wikipedia has always been much more complicated than that, but it would be a shame if that dream were allowed to completely wither and die.

Outpacing our imaginations…in our lifetime

Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg’s piece “Personal Dynamic Media” was, in many ways, a demonstration of how completely visionary ambitions for technology can and have been surpassed by the explosion of technological capabilities in the last twenty years. As the discussion text around the article noted, we’re not only able to use these personal computing devices to organize our lives and customize them to our needs and interests, we interact with each other on them constantly. In color, no less! We keep asking what the next wave is, and of course I don’t have any profound insight to offer on that question, but I did find the news coming out of Disney this week that researchers are trying to make it so that you can feel digital images with your fingers through vibrations to be interesting and exciting ( I could see some exciting pedagogical possibilities in that!

Google is sexist?

I just saw this series of ads from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and immediately thought about the question of technology making us smarter (or dumber).  This series of ads beautifully depicts the fact that ignorance travels with us into the digital world and that no tool, technological or otherwise, is advanced enough at this point to do anything more than reflect our women

Outsourcing our memory

This weekend, I read a fascinating article about Clive Thompson’s book Smarter than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better.  In the book, Thompson expands upon Bush’s memex and Engelbart’s theory of augmentation, arguing that “outsourcing” some of our memories enables “extraordinary dot collecting…by access to knowledge beyond what our heads can hold–because, as Amanda Palmer poignantly put it, ‘we can only connect the dots we collect,’ and the outsourcing of memory has exponentially enlarged our dot collections.”

Thompson’s analysis fits in well with our discussions: he traces resistance to technology throughout history, including Socrates’ objection to writing and its effects on memory and the creation and development of libraries as places to store and organize knowledge.  He notes a difference now, however:

The history of factual memory has been fairly predictable up until now. With each innovation, we’ve outsourced more information, then worked to make searching more efficient. Yet somehow, the Internet age feels different. Quickly pulling up [the answer to a specific esoteric question] on Google seems different from looking up a bit of trivia in an encyclopedia. It’s less like consulting a book than like asking someone a question, consulting a supersmart friend who lurks within our phones.


Kids Learning by Hacking

Apropos to our discussion in the New Media Seminar yesterday, here’s a link to a recent post in Slate about how quickly students learned to hack school-supplied iPads.  There’s also some discussion about how much they can learn simply by being allowed to explore on their own.  Who’d a thought that could happen?