Tuesday, March 2, 2010

notes from the {computational} revolution

As part of an ongoing effort to design a model for integrating computational technologies into the formal classroom, I have turned my focus to computational literacy. My current model already has a space for considering computational literacy, so in this post I want to spend some time exploring my definition of computational literacy. This includes a discussion of the key features of computational literacy and how these features might be taught. The models I've created are included at the end of this post.

I started learning to play the flute at age 8. I kept it up for 10 years. At age 15, I took a typing class and surprised myself by how easily I mastered the QWERTY system. At my fastest (in my early 20's, when I was a reporter), I could type more than 160 words per minute. I'm a fan of languages, studied French from high school all the way through a master's-level class, picked up enough German during a 2-week visit to Austria to order my food, ask for directions, and hold a basic conversation with a native Austrian. I studied computer science for about a minute in college --I hated it, I was no good at it--but I've taken to html, CSS, and other simple programming languages that support my ongoing efforts at web-based social revolution. I don't understand, though I wish I did, the inner workings of computer hardware. I don't understand the difference between Newtonian and pre-Newtonian physics, though I know the pre-Newtonian stuff is naive and kinda wrong. I build web pages for fun, mainly relying on templates but recently branching off into my own web design. Fairly soon, in fact, I will be leaving Blogspot behind in order to build a brand new website to my exact specifications. I have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, with an emphasis in poetry.

I don't understand physics. I don't like most programming languages. I play the flute and like to tinker with language. I'm a fast typist but a slow web designer. I am a computational thinker.

Computational literacy is like all true categories of literacy: a cluster of practices whose meaning emerges as the learner deploys those practices in increasingly knowledgeable, increasingly socially valuable ways.

And increasingly, computational literacy is both part of and separate from other clusters of literacy practices. Computational proficiencies are similar to but distinct from those proficiencies we label "new media literacies," and they're similar to but distinct from those proficiencies we label, for lack of a better phrase, "traditional literacies." They're often but not always, and not fully, aligned with the "hacker mentality": an attitude that treats nearly everything as potentially bendable to the user's will.

Like all other forms of literacy, computational literacy can be taught--though not if we treat it, as Jeanette Wing does in her 2008 treatise "Computational thinking and thinking about computing," as a set of abstractions. Wing writes that "the nuts and bolts in computational thinking are defining abstractions, working with multiple layers of abstraction and understanding the relationships among the different layers. Abstractions are the ‘mental’ tools of computing."

You don't have to be much of a hacker to know that Wing misses something essential here. It may be that the language of a program is abstract, and that programming is dealing in abstractions, but only in the sense that letters, words, and sentences are abstractions leading to language. Even fairly young children develop an innate sense of grammar and know when a speech act violates the rules.

This is to say that the elements of language may very well be abstract communicative units, but native speakers develop a concrete mastery over their language nonetheless. (Though this mastery is often belied by our near absolute inability to articulate a single grammar rule.)

Teaching in support of computational literacy
My focus is on the English / Language Arts classroom, or what I've lately been calling the "literacy sciences" classroom. In describing the categories below, then, I've included a few ideas about how these aspects of computational literacy might be fostered in the secondary literacy sciences classroom.

I believe that computational literacy is comprised of the following sets of proficiencies:

Programming skill: This may include proficiency with one or more programming languages; or it may include creativity with language (the primary programming language of our culture); or it may include mathematical or scientific know-how.

What to teach: Basic web design can help to foster some foundational programming skills. Students might start a blog or, working within a closed social network like Ning, build personal profile pages complete with modified color templates and extra widgets. For many, the notion that what users see gets controlled by a kind of puppet master can be both surprising and empowering.

Technical expertise: Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel might refer to this category as "the technical stuff." One feature of new media, for example, is its modularity--the ease with which we can copy, remix, and move media elements. Technical ability includes facility with the tools that allow for this kind of work, as well as ease with unfamiliar interfaces and comfort with just-in-time learning.

What to teach: I'll never forget hearing games and education expert Katie Salen talk about the approach her Quest2Learn school takes toward computer literacy. She wondered why we have computer classes where kids learn how to use word processing, spreadsheet, and similar programs instead of folding that instruction into authentic learning experiences. "Why not teach kids how to use Word in the context of having to write something for their English class?" she asked. And she's right. Of course, this means that English teachers will need to start developing more technical know-how--we're long past the days when facility with Microsoft Word was a sufficient condition for effective writing, even in the English classroom. Let's start having students use email programs, work with social networks, do some basic image and video editing with the programs that come standard on most newer computer systems.

Hand-eye coordination: Another feature of new technologies is that they often stretch across the virtual and the physical. I busted laptop screens and frayed charging cables until I learned to work with the physical affordances of computing technologies; I'm graced with excellent typing skills; these make any task that requires text generation between 20 and 40 percent easier than they would be for the typist of a more average speed.

What to teach: Typing is of course an important skill, though many kids build up their dexterity through text messaging. I'm going to argue for the practice of building things in the English classroom. There is, for example, the brilliant piece of rhetoric embodied in this recent OkGo music video:

You can't tell me that the building of that enormous mousetrap didn't foster not only increased hand-eye coordination but a deeper sense of space and rhetoric, as well. We may not have the tools for building a better mousetrap in the typical classroom, but the building of small sets for video productions, the designing of costumes and backdrops and other visuals, can help support increased motor confidence in learners.

Visual literacy: Lev Manovich explains the visual basis for all digital media, and even goes so far as to explain that even the very letters and numbers we see on our computer screens have been converted into binary code, then converted back into visual representations so that we can easily make sense of the information. This brings a new imperative to visual literacy. Previously, visual literacy was treated as the ability to think critically about advertising, television, and films; today, we add a near-limitless number of visual media formats in addition to our new roles as producers of visual media in addition to our role as consumers.

What to teach: Visual rhetoric is a growing field. Many teachers are already incorporating video projects, website design, and other forms of visual rhetoric into their classrooms, and we can look to them for advice on how to proceed in this area.

Tolerance for tinkering: Pastimes like crocheting, woodworking, and gardening took up time but didn't necessarily take up all of our attention. When we weren't counting or focusing on a particularly difficult maneuver, we could talk or watch TV or sing a song. Coding doesn't allow for this split of attention. Neither does building a digital scrapbook or designing a webpage or building a virtual model. At best we can devote all of our attention for a time to the code, then shift our full attention away, then shift our full attention back again. Mimi Ito and her colleagues talk about "geeking out," and part of geeking out is hours passed immersed in one activity or another, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. As a culture, we haven't really had much tolerance for geeking out, though that's starting to change. What we need now is to build up a tolerance for geeking out in our learners. There are those who argue that we lost something when young people stopped reading books--that those children lost the ability to immerse themselves in an entire world. It's possible that what's been lost in the decline of books can be compensated for through the emergence of computational thinking--of geeking out.

What to teach: Immersive, lengthy projects. We might consider trying to turn the classroom into a structured workshop space, much as fine arts programs balance studio time with critique. We're already halfway there with peer review and collaborative activities; if we can just shift the focus away from critique and toward construction of powerful projects, we can easily build a tinkering-tolerant learning community.

I'm not saying it's easy to support computational literacy in the formal classroom. What I am saying is that it's necessary.


The Untwitterable said...

Comment Part 1

I love the idea of building up a tolerance for tinkering, especially as you couple it with the visual image of a classroom as a giant workshop. You may want to consider taking a look at a Reggio Emilia designed/inspired school if you ever get a chance (they have a few in Indianapolis) but its originally from Italy. And part of the curriculum is emergent from the children's own interests, and part of it is the shaping of these interests through large interactive projects that sometimes take weeks to complete. The schools, however, are for younger children and they're not a direct translation into the newer 'project-based schools' we are now starting to see with older children, but they both foster or cultivate a disposition for learning through sustained tinkering.
That OK GO video was pretty darn amazing - i think i'm most amazed by the camera guy following everything around at the right time and in such a way that the later surprises weren't revealed earlier.

The Untwitterable said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Untwitterable said...

Comment Part 2
I'm having trouble posting my whole comment so let me delete and repost this as smaller parts

On a soon-to-be-related note two psychologists studying environmental preference (what makes a scenic view of trees scenic for example?) have noted two qualities in an environment that catches people's interest - legibility and mystery. By legibility they refer to environments that have some sort of landmarks, that could say be used for orientation if one were to go exploring (say a mountain, or a unique looking tree). By mystery they refer to how scenes invite travelers in further through the promise of gaining a deeper perspective through varied vantage points (for example we might think of how a meandering stream might look differently from one angle or another, perhaps the scene offers us a view from its banks or a view up high looking over it all, or perhaps it offers us a wooden bridge across the stream from which it will give us a vantage point of looking straight down the stream). Anyway my point for including this is because it applies to both of the above discussions. It aptly characterizes the design of the OK GO mousetrap room with the four musicians in distinct splatters of colors serving partly as our legible landmarks, and with all the different vantage points and angles explored as the mystery of the room, in addition to the legibility viewers already had going for them if they're familiar with mousetrap and the mystery inherent to mousetraps of not knowing how its going to end or how each component will affect the other components.

The Untwitterable said...

Comment Part 3

And secondly, and here's the real kicker, I think that legibility and mystery are crucial qualities that allow for one to become engrossed in their work and their tinkering projects. Without mystery we're bored, there's nothing to look forward to or to delightfully surprise us. Without legibility we're lost, there's nothing to orient or guide us. Forget Mihaly Csikzmihaly and his theory of flow, what seems crucial is legibility and mystery. Not that the right level of challenge that comes with flow is unimportant, but challenge without these two other things - legibility and mystery - is unrewarding. what's the point of being challenged if i'm not excited to move forward and advance through the 'mystery' of a place or activity or tinkering that's currently capturing my fascination. and what's challenge without legibility - there's actually a term for it, learned helplessness. someone could make typing out this comment extremely challenging by making the computer delete the comment when i try to post it, but if there's no legibile or discernable way to determine how and when and why the computer is doing this deletion of my comment, then i am left worse than frustrated, i am helpless because i cannot find my way in making sense of this computer and resolving my problems. But to pay my respects to Mihaly Cskizmihaly I will keep his word 'challenge' and his insight about 'flow' to suggest that curriculums and projects can better capture students' attention and sustain their fascination if they are designed to incorporate 'legibility' 'mystery' and 'challenge' now i just need to write a grant to go out and test this to see whether its true or not. If the level of 'legibility' 'mystery' and 'challenge' are the manipulation given to each group treatment, then tolerance of tinkering or some measure of fascination and perhaps even a learning gain for the curriculum to be manipulated (with varying levels of legibility, mystery, etc) would be the dependent variables. And voila, now we can see if we can foster a tolerance for tinkering.

Jenna McWilliams said...

@Untwitterable, I'm really excited about the insights you offer here. I agree that mystery and legibility seem essential. I think, for example, of my experience working with crochet patterns. At first, the pattern is confusing and I can't make sense of it, but after a few rows it falls together nicely and I can see the method behind it--it has become legible. Yet the final product is far from visible early on. I wouldn't necessarily call it "mystery," but there's something to the kind of curiosity that drives me to complete even the most mundane crochet pattern: I'm curious as to how it'll all turn out, even if I know it's an afghan or a scarf or whatever.

I've heard of the reggio emilia school but don't know much more about it. I'm going to look into this approach--thank you!

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post!

I especially liked your consideration of "geeking out" and getting immersed into an activity. I also like Untwitterable's interpretation of how this is relevant to attraction through legibility and mystery. This choice of vocabulary, though speaking about a similar notion of Cskizmihaly's "flow" of experience, still better captures the subjective quality of engaging experience without losing the original notion.
You might like to look at the book Technology as Experience by McCarthy & Wright. It provides an interesting perspective on technology in our everyday felt-life and provides a holistic framework to analyze experience and designing for experience. In their sense-making notion of experience they mention anticipation, connecting, which are relevant to legibility and mystery that Untwitterable mentioned.

Ammar :)


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