Three years ago, in a cold North London classroom, I asked some skeptical 3rd-graders three questions:
- “Who here has seen the inside of a computer?” No hands went up.
- “Who here can tell me how a computer works?” The room burst to life. “It thinks with electricity and sends waves to the Internet.” “It uses a SIM card to make pictures.” Excitement without understanding.
- “Who here thinks they could make a computer?” Silence again.
Then came the prestige: “Well today, you’re going to build your own computer. You’ll fill its memory with new ideas. You’ll talk to the Internet with simple words. You’ll wire up a speaker. And you’ll do it all without me saying a word.”
We gave each student a prototype Kano computer kit to build and code: a box of open-source bits, and a simple storybook. In an hour, they’d built the hardware, hacked the desktop, and programmed Minecraft instead of just playing it. With code, they created their own games, songs, and shortcuts. They built virtual castles in one-click, instead of placing one block at a time. Making was the game.
Around the same time, a Los Angeles school district was asking its principals a different question: “If you could design the school of the future, what would it look like?”
The answer from most: Shiny screens! eLearning! Kids flinging polymonials like Angry Birds across magic tablets!
The district bought thousands of iPads from Apple for more than $100 million. The powerful, shiny, closed screens were used to deliver good content that would have cost a fraction of the price if printed black-and-white on A4 paper. What’s strange is that not a single child will ever see the inside of what their $100 million investment bought. (Now they’re trying to get a refund.)
I think it’s time to change how we approach technology in the classroom. Computing is something you do, not just use, or buy. When we were kids, we learned biology by planting beans and hatching eggs. Today, we teach computing by handing out finished plants and full-grown chickens, then dare kids to work backwards to the ideas beneath.
After the iPads were returned, Los Angeles schools turned to Chromebooks, the more affordable browser-only laptops, which run on open-source. But since these awesome web machines are designed as a direct funnel into Google, they won’t let you install native software, nor teach you much about what’s under the hood. Hacking the Chromebook is tough. Alphabet will pay you up to $2.71828 million if you figure out how.
Why, in the age of computational creativity, when every school district, mayor, and R&B frontman wants to get your kids coding—creating with technology, not just consuming it—do we keep putting iPads and Chromebooks in students’ hands?
We still live in a world whose most popular operating system (Android) was written and shared freely by hobbyists and amateurs, in a solar system whose largest man-made satellite (the International Space Station) runs open-source code.
Most agree that computing in class is a no-brainer. A window into the Internet is worth more than all the elementary school libraries in the world. But most kids have, or are soon to have, powerful networked devices in their pockets. So why double up when there are alternative ways to expand learning, outside of these closed devices, that can provide even more value, fuller preparation for the future? Computing should be about creation, as well as vocation, and to do so means intertwining open tools, tablets, and yes, even programming languages.
Today, we can do more. When USA Network hacker dramas are incorporating Raspberry Pi plot points, you know “making” is about to go mainstream. It’s time to drive that movement from the bottom-up, with classrooms that converge with makerspaces, and teachers that accept and enjoy that their students can and will surprise them with technology–not just with how well they use the pre-packaged features, but how quickly they break and remix them.
“The unwashed masses don’t know the difference between eight and sixteen bits,” quipped Maurice Goldman, a 1980s Apple ad guru, “much less between a mouse and a green screen.” Today, kids and creatives want to know the difference. They can be inventors, not just users.
According to Cisco, there are over 8 billion devices connected to the Internet; according to IDC, less than 50 million computer programmers worldwide. This big gap throws us employment and inequality woes. So much of the modern world is made by so few, in closed labs and accelerators.
But there’s hope. At an early age, with screens all around, a young mind is well primed to start making—not just swiping. With Kano’s online world, a “kids GitHub,” beginners in over 86 countries have created and shared thousands of digital creations on top of an open-source brain. In just over 9 months, with open, hackable hardware, a sense of play, and a simple story, that’s over 7.7 million lines of code. We introduce game mechanics and open playgrounds, and speak in a human voice. Then we let kids do the rest. In Sierra Leone, Kano has been turned into a radio station by a teenage hacker; in Oklahoma, a time-lapse camera to capture blooming flowers; in Kosovo, a solar automation station; in Minnesota, a game console.
Steve Jobs once called computing a “mind bicycle”. Woz would have sold you a Mac in pieces, with a screwdriver. Today, we trust kids to swipe and tap for fun, but limit their creative screen-time. We’re turning code into a purely technical, pre-vocational skill, something for the Silicon Valley gurus. We present computing as something you only buy, but never do.
An iPad app that teaches Python is good—if your only goal is prepping for a programming job. A teacher, a story, and an open toolkit—say a Raspberry Pi, an Arduino, a Microbit—is better. They can make “making” into more than “something the factory does.” We should show kids how technology connects with the arts, with history; how they can wield it to make a song, a game, a robot, a time-lapse camera, or a generative artwork.
As Dr Seymour Papert put it, computers in the class should not be “machines for processing children, but something the child himself will earn to manipulate, to extend, to apply to projects—thereby gaining mastery of the world.”
Maybe it’s the fear of hacker stereotypes (the brogrammer in the basement, the boy getting shocked by a drive) that ushers so many sealed screens into students’ hands. Their one-size-fits-all simplicity works well for classrooms that don’t like surprises.
There’s a place for machines that “just work.” In your left hand, you can hold a pre-made world—an iDevice to connect you to anyone you’ve ever met, to consume any form of media. But in your right hand, you should have a computer you make, an invention machine that asks a little bit more of your mind and soul—so you can do more than “just work.”
The new generation, immersed in screens from birth, need the opportunity and inspiration to look under the hood. Our students need learning machines they can open up, build, code, and remix. As for our generation? We can start presenting technology as a medium for imagination—not just the shiny bribe that makes old-school learning seem temporarily fresh.