Sunday, July 31, 2005

hidden sociological drama

There is a narrow, technocratic view of the computer that it is primarily a productive tool (nothing wrong with that) that we adapt to our needs without fundamentally changing ourselves. In this non-vision humans are in control and the computer is a productive tool that serves our will.

Then there is the revolutionary transforming view that as well as being a remarkable productive tool the computer in the course of our interaction with it changes the way we live and view ourselves in a fundamental sense.

There is nothing new about either of these views but I would contend that we hear about the former more than the latter in recent times, that the computer revolution has been assimilated into the system perhaps in an uneasy truce, but one that overall favours the status quo.

Within the education system this takes the form of the computer being used to enhance or enrich the existing curriculum. Conceptually the computer is “just a tool”, sure it can enrich what we do but the curriculum is the real guide that determines what we teach.

Seymour Papert put it in an eloquent way over a decade ago, in 1993:
The shift from a radically subversive instrument in the classroom to a blunted conservative instrument in the computer lab came neither from a lack of knowledge nor from a lack of software. I explain it by an innate intelligence of School, which acted like any living organism in defending itself against a foreign body. It put into motion an immune reaction whose end result would be to digest and assimilate the intruder. Progressive teachers knew very well how to use the computer for their own ends as an instrument of change; School new very well how to nip this subversion in the bud. No one in the school acted out of ignorance about computers, although they might have been naïve in failing to understand the sociological drama in which they were actors.
- The Childrens Machine

In those days Seymour was promoting virtual "objects to think with", such as the turtle, using the programming language LOGO, a dialect of LISP. Since then we’ve seen the amazing development of the world wide web (www) which has spawned a whole new generation of equally interesting objects to think with. The uptake by schools has been cautious and measured. As Murray Gell-Mann put it last century, "education is like being taken to the world’s greatest restaurant and being fed the menu"

(This is part of an unfinished essay I wrote last year. It became scrappy when I went on to concretely discuss the various blocks preventing the computer being used to its full potential in schools.)

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