Coding for all – why?

I understand that many are excited by “coding” and are looking for ways to insert bits of coding experience into the classroom activities they offer students. I am concerned that coding will be another educational fad that comes and then goes unless the goal of coding experiences is carefully defined. In an attempt to encourage deeper thought on this topic, consider this challenge.

The coding for all thing was original 25+ years ago and it made more sense then than now. I will attempt to explain why this is obvious to me, but may not be to many educators who have a short history with technology. I began working with “the personal computer” mid career (in the 80s). My interest was always in the educational potential of technology, but the context for this interest was very different. What might be difficult for those under 50 to understand was that at this time there was very little software. When I obtained the equipment (Apple IIs) to first pursue my educational interests, I had to develop programming skills in order to create software. I assume this was a fairly typical solution. We purchased magazines that contained code you could save and execute. Entering and attempting to understand these simple programs in combination with the review of multiple books (no Internet) and just hacking was the way we learned. Along the way, I learned BASIC and some assembly language, FORTRAN, some weird language for the PDP 11-34, hyperscript, PHP and MySQL. I was and do not consider myself a programmer any more than I consider myself a professional photographer. I have learned what I needed to know to use the tools that interested me.

A little later, there was a push to teach students to program. Seymour Papert convinced many that learning LOGO would develop programming skills and in the process encourage critical thinking and a computational approach to content areas (e.g., geometry).

What happened between then and now? Obviously, software became much more available, diverse, and customizable. Professional programmers did this allowing most of us to focus on applying the software in an increasingly diverse number of ways. We all no longer need the skills that I was required to develop.

What about teaching most students to program? There was certainly a decline in this focus. I am less certain as to why. I read the research to indicate that the general benefits did not seem to appear – students might learn some basic programming skills, but these skills seldom seemed to generalize to other academic areas. Since it became obvious that not all needed to be a programmer and there was pressure to focus in other academic areas, I assume educators shifted their attention.

I believe programming is an important vocational skills, but I am less certain that programming for all is the way to prepare the specialists that are needed. As a starting point, educators should recognize high school programming as a course meeting science or math graduation requirements. If you do not have a programming course in your school and do not count this course toward graduation, work on such goals.

Decline of the textbook monoculture

I have been reading MediaActive (Dan Gillmor) which offers a vision for more participatory journalism (more on the book in another post). Gillmor cites a 1999 presentation by Andrew Grove (Intel) to newspaper editors. Grove draws on his own experiences with Intel in an effort to help editors counter the decline in their industry. Gillmor returns to the Grove comments to explain why even with warning established industries find it so difficult to innovate when innovation is demanded for survival.

Grove and Gillmor offer a couple of interesting insights. First, Gillmor argues it is difficult for industries that are essentially a monoculture to break out of the shared perspective of the industry. Second, Grove argues that the tendency to cut back in the face of a decline dooms an industry to decline. What Grove contends is the necessity to spend on innovation.

The monoculture thing may be a foreign concept. I am familiar with the term in reference to agriculture and the concern that standardizes on a common strain (say a type of wheat) puts the entire industry in jeopardy should some threat (a disease) be particularly well suited to destroy that strain. I suppose with newspapers the concern was that all papers were fairly similar.

I tend to translate (or perhaps transfer a lot when I read). I am less interested in journalism than I am in the generation of instructional materials. The participatory position Gillmor takes with journalism is related to one opportunity I see for the future of textbooks. Once seeing this connection, the similarities in Grove’s comments regarding newspapers and my observations regarding textbooks were an easy extension. Twenty some years ago, I remember reading a criticism of physics textbook that argued all books tended to approach the topic in a similar fashion (sorry there is no reference, 20 years is beyond my memories capacity for physics). The argument at that time was not related to the future of the book, but the notion that physicists were being trained from a similar perspective and innovation would be more likely given greater diversity in how professionals were trained to think about the content of the field. This is not the concern I have. In my field, educational technology, there are still books focused on standard tools (say Microsoft products) and there are others that take a broader perspective. Some take a “how to do it” approach and others attempt to offer a broader context including the justification for different proposed activities. Hence, the monoculture concern does not apply to the content of the books. It does, however, apply to the format the books take. The publishers seem reluctant to move away from full length books. I have long suggested that this is not appropriate to the topic – learning with technology is not modeled well using a book, nor is it appropriate to a field that advances very quickly.

Grove’s other concern is also obvious in the textbook industry. There is little innovation – little of what I would label R&D. This deficiency relates to the need to break out of the monoculture.

Like Gillmore, the transitions an industry faces are an opportunity for those with vision. The need for instructional content has not diminished.

I still haven’t found what I am looking for (with apologies to U2)

I still haven’t found what I am looking for (with apologies to U2)

I have attended 5 EdTech conferences in the past year. How and why will be explained in a separate post. I am searching for specific ideas and as the title of this post suggests I typically cannot find what I am looking for. I am assuming most attendees have different needs and thus come away satisfied. What I am searching for involves the logic behind the activities teachers describe. My interest is in what I describe as “multimedia authoring to learn” and “teaching to learn”. These are phrases of my own creation, but related to familiar concepts such as writing across the curriculum or writing to learn. These terms alone do not explain why author to learn or teaching to learn are beneficial, but I can provide the details if necessary. I want to understand what the presenters argue is the rationale for any learning tasks they describe.

Most of the presentations I watch fall into two categories. The first is a “tips, tricks or new stuff” kind of presentation focused on the new and the novel. While I continually hear “it is not about the technology”, the popularity of these sessions would argue for a different conclusions. It seems most of us want to be in the know when it comes to new things. The other category is a derivative of the first – it includes a description of a tool or several tools and then a couple of examples of here is what my students did with these tools. It might seem that these examples would meet my expectations but this is not the case. Here is a “Glogster” with some pictures from our unit on xys. Here are students from my class describing their drawings. etc.

I might offer a potential mechanism by which these “external activities” require productive “internal or cognitive activities”. The presenter does not and probably does not think this way. I think it matters. The context, the details, and the expectations make a big difference in the processing of the learner. A common phrase that captures this concern might be “hands on is not necessarily minds on”. I want to consider the context, the details, and the teacher expectations to evaluate whether I think the students have minds on. Maybe this is assumed, but I do not think such assumptions are always justified.

You know your students and the situations you describe. Just tell me what thinking you think has occurred as the result of the activity and why you think this,

Tweet Button

If you are a Chrome user and frequently use Twitter to share resources you have discovered with followers, you may find this Chrome extension useful.

Chrome button is an extension that allows the user to tweet the address of the page visible in the browser. Add the extension. Connect the extension to your Twitter account. Tweet away.

The button will appear in your extension / plugin bar (see red square in upper right hand corner).