Classic Computer Magazine Archive HI-RES VOL. 1, NO. 4 / MAY/JUNE 1984 / PAGE 56

The Academic A

by Lloyd R. Prentice

The Titans of science have taught us the "things" in the universe are much less interesting than the forms in which they are combined. Hold a "thing" under close scrutiny and the sense off "thingness" gives way to form or process patterned structure in time and space of yet more elementary things. Mountain yields to rock formation; rock yields to crystalline structure, crystal yields to atomic matrix; atom yields to system of particles.

Facts are the "things" of education. Out of context, a singular fact is a bit of an embarrassment, a sort of mental fifth wheel or odd man out with little power to stir human imagination, passion or action. "The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776." So what. Disembodied facts pile up in the litter bins of the mind, of little use to anyone except the odd trivia buff or game show contestant.

But examine the structure implicit in the fact. Trace the processes that generate it. Make connections with what's previously known. Draw the inferences. Question, probe, relate. Suddenly the fact becomes a springboard into a larger universe, a ticket to a grand tour, a tasty morsel from a gourmet meal. Understand "Independence" in the context of human oppression. Connect "Declaration" with martyrdom and courage. See "1776" against the widescreen of history. Suddenly you've discovered the stuff that swells the heart and brings tears to the eyes. This is what education is about. Or should be, anyway.

Good teachers know how to make these connections.

But suppose you focus on "structure" or "process" at the expense of fact? Suppose you melt down the concrete impressions and experiences of life to extract "pure form" or "pure process" -- the logical, mathematical or aesthetic essenses of the connections between things? Suppose you divorce relationships and processes from stuff that you can see, hear, feel, taste or smell?

Now you enter a world of abstraction, theory, logic, philosophy, mathematics, music, experimental poetry and art. Take a wrong turn and you enter the world of delusion, hysteria and poppycock. If you have a mind for it, the abstract landscape can be exotic, and striking. But stray too far and reason becomes disembodied -- at best, brilliantly focused like a laser beam, cutting through appearances, laying bare ever more exotic landscapes; at worst, deranged and incoherent; or, more often, sane, but hopelessly out of touch with the gritty, life-affirming surfaces of consensual reality.

Most people have little taste for it, preferring the raw experience of a sunset or the companionship of a friend.

The computer is the product of formidable abstract thinking. But as an educational medium it can take us in either direction -- toward palpable fact or ineffable abstraction. At one extreme the computer is a channel of communication from the instructional designer to the learner, conveying a highly structured message of fact piled upon fact -- an interactive audiovisual medium. In this mode, often called the tutorial approach, the learner is largely receptive, passive. Learner involvement is limited to signaling comprehension in terms defined by the program's creator.

At the other extreme the computer is a medium of expression or discovery, putting the initiative in the hands of the learner -- a tabula rasa, pregnant with potential for self-directed insight. A programming language provides the crudest example of such a learning system. With sufficient fluency the learner can explore content in many domains. The logic of the language itself becomes a tool with which to unveil mysteries. The youngster provides the facts and the computer stands in for the teacher in helping to make connections. But look carefully, the logic of the language and the inadequacies of the computer impose their own constraints on thought. The syntax of the command set structures expression in much the way the interstate highway system structures travel across the continent.

These two ways of using the computer, then, are something like the difference between a museum and a paint-by-number set -- the difference between being exposed to art and doing it.

The notion of using the computer as a medium of discovery, or as a "tool to think with," is wonderfully seductive, but difficult in practice. The best demonstration, Seymour Papert's Logo, was more than a decade in the making. Many designers are exploring possible formats. A small hint of some of the difficulties can be seen in Spinnaker Software's KinderComp, a "collection of learning exercises" for kids three to eight.

KinderComp includes six exercises -- Draw, Scribble, Names, Sequence, Letters, and Match. Three of the exercises are biased in the direction of discovery learning. The other three are conventional drill-and-practice activities dealing with number sequences, capital and lowercase letters, and pattern recognition. The educational objective of the discovery learning exercises, it seems, is to encourage youngsters to use the computer and to become comfortable with the keyboard. But it's far from rigorous. Says author Doug Davis, KinderComp was written for our daughter Amy. I wrote it because I wanted her to have fun with the computer."

The conventional drill-and-practice exercises are Sequence, Letters and Match.

In Sequence, five numbers are presented in numerical order. The learner has to fill in the next number in the sequence.

In Letters, a lowercase letter appears on the screen. The learner is rewarded for pressing the uppercase letter on the keyboard that matches the letter on the screen.

Match involves matching one of three patterns with a fourth pattern.

Each of these three exercises is simple and clear. Responses for right and wrong are appropriate. Graphics are simple, adequate, but not outstanding.

The three discovery learning games are Draw, Scribble and Names.

In Names, the youngster types in a name of up to 15 characters. The computer then plays with the name on the screen, creating a colorful pattern and movement. Unfortunately, the pattern is always the same., so Names quickly becomes tedious.

In Scribble, the user types a character. The computer then repeats the character for a full line. Typing a new character at the beginning of each successive line enables the user to create Patterns on the screen. If the youngster is using an Atari computer, he can change the color of the characters by typing the Atari logo key or the CAPS/LOWER key.

Draw is a simple Etch-a-Sketch program with a fill function. It enables the user to draw pictures on the screen using a joystick. The user can change the width and color of the brush and the color of the background. Pictures cannot be saved. Says, Davis, "Draw . . . is our pride and joy."

The best test of a program like KinderComp is to put it into the hands of the intended user. Since I did not have a convenient tot at hand, I have to pass on the question of whether or not the program is indeed fun. I do not doubt the first time through it meets the goal, but I have some question about repeated play value. Draw is the most open-ended exercise, but I feel it has two drawbacks: 1) the joystick offers the user very poor control of the drawing process. Even with adult motor control, I could not always place the lines where I wanted them. Moreover, since I could not find an easy way to turn off the trace, or brush, I could not make drawings that involved discontinuous lines, for example, the eyes in a face. 2) Even if I were able to create a successful drawing, I could not save it to show later to grandma or my friend next door.

The big question with Draw, Scribble and Names, however, is what do they teach? What connections do they inspire? Some things are obvious. Names and Scribble encourage keyboard exploration and letter recognition skills. Scribble encourages left to right scanning and Draw has the potential for developing motor-control and right brain functions.

The value of KinderComp may well rest in the fact that it contains six different exercises and in this way gives the youngster the feeling of "a lot to do." The balance between structure and free exploration also is a plus. Moreover, it may indeed help encourage a youngster's innate interest in the computer and help them develop keyboard skills. But the big problem is the exercises greatly limit the scope of the child's explorations. They quickly put the mind in a playpen rather than encouraging free exploration of new horizons. They promise much, but do not unleash the potential of the medium. For connections to matter, they must add up to something.

KinderComp is available for Atari computers.