Sugar Labs @ NDSU

Building a smarter computing culture in Fargo, ND

Processing how learning happens


Yesterday, Kevin and I (Chris) got back into the “research van” and drove over to Madison with the intent on talking with the Tech Team about their experience with Etoys so far. We learned one of the main features that the students (4th and 5th graders) all seemed to enjoy: the ability to create moving objects, even though only one or two students started to play with these programming features. The other students who had not started to play around with those features noted that even though they had not reached that level yet, they liked the idea that they could learn.

Interestingly, our observations of the tech team while they worked on their projects in Etoys seemed to indicate that it was very difficult for them to overcome differences in the interface and navigation, as well as creating their objects. Ultimately, we learned that Etoys in Sugar is not the first activity to introduce to students, since it’s one of the more complex programs. The students were able to learn the basics relatively fast, but when it came time to start programming, Kevin and I couldn’t help too much, so invariably we were all left scratching are heads. Yet, despite these difficulties, most of them expressed interest to continue working on their stories.

I think these findings start to unravel Negroponte’s claims just as other critics are doing. Notably, I just read an article by Kentaro Toyama called “There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education” reposted by the OLPC News (and found at edutechdebate.org). Toyama discusses his argument that technology is no substitute for good educators, and one of his major claims against Negroponte’s claim of just give the tech and the kid will do the rest is that

Computers can help good schools do some things better, but they do nothing positive for underperforming schools. This means, very specifically, that efforts to fix broken schools with technology or to substitute for missing teachers with technology invariably fail.

With what I have seen so far, I agree. It would take some very special students to achieve their potential on their own without guidance. I do not think these students would learn programming on their own without the proper help and scaffolding. Yet, I think Sugar and its activities can bring computer programming into schools.

I think computer programming is an important and new kind of literacy. I think we need to develop savvy programmer-users, instead of passive users. With all of this in mind, here comes the large challenge of keeping ahead of these kids with this new tech and new ways of learning. Hopefully we can work on developing some relationships with some folks in the Computer Science department, so we can begin to develop some of our own activities to share with the students at Madison, because they are ready to learn!

2 comments on “Processing how learning happens

  1. Brian M. Slator
    January 8, 2011

    I would like to make two somewhat related points. First, Negroponte and Toyama are directly opposed to each other, and they are both wrong. Negroponte’s faith that kids will just pick up the laptops and run with them has proven to be overly optimistic — only a fraction of the kids really do that (I will make up a statistic and say 15-20%). Toyama’s claim that computers ‘do nothing positive’ is overstated and stupid. Good on talk radio I suppose, but quite wrong.
    Second, there is a high degree of similarity between Sugar and Logo, and there is a reason why Logo has not been embedded in the grade-school curriculum for decades. Because, there are only a fraction of the kids who start with logo, learn to love programming computers, and sustain that interest throughout their schooling — I will use the same made-up statistic, about 10-15% since some of the higher number are the artsy-gamer types who love their laptops but never feel the need to learn programming.
    I believe laptops in the schools can be a powerful force, and I believe they should be used to build things, and to ‘learn by doing’ things, but I do not believe that trying to teach programming is the best way to do that. I believe that providing ‘learning applications’ is a better idea: programs where students do things and learn ‘how’ to do things (like cook a meal, diagnose an automotive problem, or explain an environmental disaster). Hardware WITH software, that’s the ticket.

    • Chris Lindgren
      January 8, 2011

      Dr. Slator, thank you for your thoughts. I have just started down this road and it’s interesting to hear that Toyama and Negroponte have been seemingly foil characters in this trending debate. I, too, do not find myself in either of their camps. If anything, I’m in the overly optimistic camp that wants to believe that schools and educators would see the value of incorporating these types of programming and pedagogies into their curricula.

      My personal rationale for teaching basic programming skills doesn’t stem from learning by doing things, but rather I have been trying to connect it with Roland Barthes’ notions of the Author and Writer. From my understanding of his text, “Authors and Writers,” Barthes argues that their are varying levels of mastery of the structure of language in its written form–the aforementioned two types of author/writer. He contends that the Author is able to transcend the structure of language to construct a reality that questions the way in which we see it, i.e. the writing doesn’t harbor a goal or a means to an end. The Writer, on the other hand, simply uses the structure of language as a “vehicle” for communication/thought with a goal in mind from the onset. Now, how do these apply to this conversation?

      I feel as though there are not enough programmers, as it relates to a skill such as writing. I imagine there is a large gap between the number of users to programmers, and I suppose the more cynical side of me thinks this may cause a larger problem down the road, if this trend continues.

      If the public doesn’t know how companies like Google, Apple, Intel, and Microsoft create these programs, even on some basic level, then how are they going to know when their information freedoms are being exploited? I know this opens up a different “can ‘o worms”, but at least anyone who can read a traditional text can write one on some basic level. In the case of software, most users can only use.

      From what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t seem like we have enough educators with enough energy or interest in developing activities that teach, at the very least, basic programming skills. I’m sure my hobbyist-based knowledge of programming limits my understanding of just how much these programmers actually do or do not teach programming. Yet, I would like to believe that this type of literacy, as I believe it to be, would find its home in educational institutions eventually. How that looks, I do not know, but I’d like to keep thinking about how it might be realized.

      If you have some more time, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on my (very preliminary) thoughts about this matter.

      Thanks, Dr. Slator!

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This entry was posted on January 7, 2011 by in Etoys, OLPC, pedagogy, Sugar and tagged , , .

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