Educational Computing: How Are We Doing?

Article excerpt

In a Silver Anniversary issue of T.H.E. Journal, it is appropriate to think about where the whole enterprise of educational computing is in its life cycle. Since this is too broad of a topic, I focus here on a special case and leave it to readers to generalize my line of thought.

In the first part of this article I offer an explanation of what I mean by life-cycle in the form of a series of examples to serve as metaphors. In the second part I look at the life cycle of a specific piece of educational technology--the programming language Logo--with which I have been closely associated.


How Big is the Baby

First metaphor: suppose you have a baby and want to know how it is doing. You call a pediatrician and say "my baby measures 22 inches, is this good or bad?" If you get an answer at all it can only be because the doctor knows the age of your baby and can attempt to place its measurements in an expected pattern of growth. Yet apparently serious commentators on the development of educational technology seem willing to decide that it is doing very well or very badly without any consideration of what kind of developmental pattern is to be expected.

Second metaphor: pediatricians can evaluate the progress of a baby because observing a lot of other babies gives them a series of benchmarks. One might try to do the same here by observing the development of other technologies.

Flying Machines

The history of aviation provides a tempting metaphor for those of us who like to believe that educational technology will eventually lead to megachange in how people learn, for it is easy to ridicule in hindsight the critics who ridiculed the performance of the Wright's flying machine in 1905. To see a flight of 22 feet as the birth of a transformative technology needed imagination much more than measurement!

However, I find this metaphor pertinent but too "technocentric" to be really useful. On the positive side, one can inject a little historical perspective into the discussion of technology in education by asking people where they would place its development in relation to the evolution of aviation from the Wright brothers' Flying machine to Boeing's Jumbo jet.

My own view is that we have got ten beyond the stage of the barnstormers and first mail flights in the twenties and are perhaps at a stage comparable to the launching in the mid-thirties of the great DC-3 the first really successful airliner. Most people in the transportation industries were still skeptical about the idea that aviation could really transform the way people moved around the planet. But at least they had a commercially viable example.

The negative side of the aviation metaphor is that it too easily leads to placing too much emphasis on the evolution of the power of a technology. Transferred to our problem of judging educational technologies, this encourages understanding the difference between the early eighties and the late nineties in terms of memory size, modem speed and numbers of available software packages. Of course these technological features are relevant, but a different metaphor does a better job of placing them in the context of a very different kind of feature.


Third metaphor: the precursors of what we would call a movie consisted essentially of placing one of the newly invented movie cameras in front of a stage and acting a play as if for a live audience. The evolution from theater+technology to modern cinema took about as long as the maturation of aviation to the point where it became a dominant form of transportation. But it is more instructive for our purposes in highlighting the fact that this is not simply a story of the development of a technology. It is better described as the development of a culture.

Theater+camera illustrates a natural use of a new technology: keep on doing what you did before with minimal change to make use of the new tool. …


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