Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor
Discovery-Based Learning And Teenagers
David Thornburg is an author and speaker who has been heavily involved with the personal computer field since 1978. His main interest is in making computers responsive to people's needs. He is the inventor of the KoalaPad graphics tablet and is the author of nine books about programming including Computer Art and Animation: A User's Guide to Atari Logo, The KoalaPad Book, and Exploring Logo Without a Computer (Addison-Wesley). His 101 Ways to Use a Macintosh will appear soon from Random House. He has been called "an enthusiastic advocate for a humanistic computer revolution," and his editorial opinions have appeared in COMPUTE! since its inception.
On the Saturday before the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, I was speaking at a Logo workshop in northern California. Much of the emphasis in one of my talks was on the importance of discovery-based learning for all ages, not just for the child in elementary school. While I have been emphasizing this topic in my talks for several months, most people seem content to let Logo be a tool for the younger computer user.
As I drove to the airport to catch my plane to Chicago, I wondered if this reluctance to bring the power of educational environments like Logo to older students was also evident in other educational software. After all, the mention of educational software usually conjures up visions of activities for the younger child. Whether these activities are drills associated with a specific subject or are open-ended activities designed to teach problem-solving skills, the fact remains that only 2 percent of the current educational software appears to be directed to teenagers. Some people might argue that, once a child has entered the teenage years, educational software isn't needed. If a teenager wants to use a computer, why not just let him or her write programs.
In fact, there are several reasons why teenagers should have access to good educational software:
- Teenagers are in the process of forming career decisions. Controlled exposure to computer environments can demonstrate the richness of this field in a way that transcends purely recreational applications of computers.
- For those students who are already interested in computers, computer-based instruction in problem-solving methods and the development of programming style can help these students use computers more effectively in their jobs.
- Students of all ages benefit from becoming better problem solvers. So much of our focus has been on problem-solving software for the young (including such excellent programs as The Factory by Sunburst) that we can easily lose sight of the fact that the acquisition of problem-solving skills is important for learners of all ages.
To see what can happen to educational software for teenagers, we should first look at the other two areas where these children use computers—at home and at the arcade.
As I look at popular computer activities in homes and arcades, there seems to be a major distinction emerging between the two. Arcade software has continued its focus on coordination and skill games. As the technology has advanced, these games have become more sophisticated. For example, several popular games use computer-controlled video disks. Except for advances in technology, however, these games seem to be stuck in a niche that one might characterize as interactive television.
Popular home software has taken a different approach. The home user is not able to run out and buy new technology every three months or so, and the challenge has thus been to make the existing technology become ever more useful with each new wave of products. While it is true that popular home titles continue to stress entertainment value, the most popular computer games appear to be those that let the player create his or her own levels or game fields. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the overwhelming popularity of Brøderbund's Lode Runner. Every Lode Runner enthusiast I know spends most of the game time creating new levels to play.
The Fourth Generation
The popularity of construction set software is not new, as readers of this column know. Programs like Pinball Construction Set (Electronic Arts), Rocky's Boots (The Learning Company [TLC]), and Dancing Bear (Koala Technologies) have been popular largely because they allow the user to make unique creations within the context of a predefined activity. The task of creating new games in Lode Runner or Pinball Construction Set is, quite simply, the task of creating a computer program. Construction sets are examples of fourth generation programming languages, and the fact that these programs are so popular in the home market is quite heartening.
These programs are helping their users develop problem-solving strategies and other higher-order thinking skills. Since they can (and are) developing these skills at home, they should probably also be able to develop them at school as well. Unfortunately, some teachers can't see past the game aspects of these programs, and have thus banned them from the classroom. This makes as much sense as banning humorous literature from the English classroom. Teachers should look for the deeper significance in the newer computer games.
With this background in mind, I walked through the massive computer exhibits at the CES looking for some sign of educational software that would appeal to the entertainment and cognitive skill levels of the teenage user. Not surprisingly, I found the answer at the home of Rocky's Boots—TLC. Long known for their support of the young computer user, TLC decided to create a product for the older child. The result of their effort is Robot Odyssey I, an entertaining adventure game that is also a sophisticated programming language. As the first product in TLC's "DigiWorld" series, it represents a significant contribution to open-ended educational software geared to the teenage (and older) market.
Players begin by falling into Robotropolis, a futuristic underground city inhabited by robots. The object is to escape this world and return to civilization. This is accomplished by constructing robots that help the players work their way upward through several layers of this underground city. Each layer has new obstacles and antagonists that require robots with different skills to help in the escape. As players get closer to the top, the challenge becomes more difficult.
What distinguishes Robot Odyssey I from other multilevel adventure games is that the player must construct robots that are programmed to display certain behaviors needed to avoid or neutralize obstacles. The task of creating these robots involves learning how to "wire" the robots to perform certain tasks. A special environment called the Innovation Lab lets the player work on robot design. There are three robots at the player's disposal. Each robot resembles a spaceship and has four thrusters to move it in four directions. The robot also has a claw that can be used to pick up things, and bumpers to tell when the robot has bounced against a wall or other obstacle. By interconnecting the bumpers with the appropriate thrusters, the player can create a robot that solves simple mazes.
More elaborate programs can be created with the aid of integrated circuit chips built from standard logic elements (AND, OR, XOR, etc.). Once an array of these elements has been interconnected and brought to the desired pins on the chip, the resultant circuit is burned into a final chip that can be carried inside a robot to be connected with the rest of the circuitry. Amazingly, a finished chip can be carried inside another chip, and this recursive nesting can take place up to 40 times. This allows the creation of quite complex circuits.
Each of the three robots becomes, in effect, a fully programmed entity. All three robots can carry out their tasks simultaneously. This is like having a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and a videogame running on your computer at the same time. But one of the neatest aspects of these robots is that they can send messages to one another using their antennae. For example, each robot could be programmed to look for fuel crystals. As soon as one robot finds a crystal, it can send a message to the other robots to stop looking for fuel and to find the first robot instead. This type of programming in which computational objects send messages to each other is reminiscent of the sorts of things one expects from Smalltalk, LISP, or Logo—not the sort of thing one expects from a videogame.
To properly explore Robot Odyssey I would take far more space than I have. Suffice it to say that if teenagers have only 2 percent of the educational software, this program shows that they won't need much more.