Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, and the Potential of Computers

When reading Kay and Goldberg’s Personal Dynamic Media I found myself, again, surprised by how much they got right. This time it was less of a surprise, as it was written nearer today’s time and they helped create the technology we know, but I was still struck with a sense of “wow, they got it!”

Alan Kay and the prototype of Dynabook, pt. 5Most of the piece was focused on things the Dynabook could do, which was certainly cool to read, but I found I had less of a response. Instead of “let me point out how this is like today’s tools” I kept thinking “yes, that’s obviously there.”

And then I came to the passage that struck a conversational chord:

“For educators, the Dynabook could be a new world limited only by their imagination and ingenuity. They could use it to show complex historical inter-relationships in ways not possible with static linear books. Mathematics could become a living language in which children could cause exciting things to happen. Laboratory experiments and simulations too expensive or difficult to prepare could easily be demonstrated. The production of stylish pose and poetry could be greatly aided by being able to easily edit and file one’s own compositions.” -p403

And there it is. Throughout the article Kay and Goldberg point out that learning could be made to feel more real, that instead of doing arbitrary assignments and making things for fabricated audiences, a “Dynabook” could enable learning situated in real life contexts. That text didn’t necessarily need to be linear in an electronic format. That tools for learning didn’t need to feel like toys.

And when I think of the technology influenced classes I’ve worked with, I see the manifestation of Kay and Goldberg’s work. Here are some examples:

Public Writing

More often than not, when I’ve taught, I’ve had a blogging component. Sometimes it’s to create opportunities for reflection. Sometimes it’s for metacognitive purposes. Sometimes it’s to give students a “hook” to real world situations to make the in class content more meaningful. In all of these cases the students have an audience way bigger than me, and sometimes bigger than their classmates. The quality of writing and thought was, in many cases, measurably improved.

Building an encyclopedia

I’ve done this in my own class, but also worked with a sociology professor on a similar project. In these cases, using Mediawiki (the same software that runs Wikipedia), the students created encyclopedia entries on the topic of the class. In the simplest implementations students make a new one each semester. In more complex (but more interesting and more scaffolded) examples, one class has a wiki on the topic, but each section and each semester builds on the previous students’ work.

Making a magazine

Working with a foreign language teacher, students created a magazine in WordPress, with a magazine like theme and a few language customizations, for the public to read. The target audience was high school students interested in the language, as a tool to help them learn, and opportunity to leave comments in the language, and a recruiting tool to the college program. The faculty member also had colleagues who natively spoke the language leave comments as well, raising the bar on the quality of work students posted.

Making a (physical!) book

These technology enhanced pedagogical techniques aren’t always about the web, though. One class I worked with was doing a project on the history of the university. In this case they used university archives to find content, conducted oral histories, then put all the content together to make physical books. This project couldn’t have been done without the technology available at the time, but it wasn’t a technology project. My favorite part of the work is that the book is now in university archives for people to reference in the future.

Recording Podcasts

A number of faculty I worked with were interested in student created podcasts. Some of this was, in no doubt, due to iTunesU. Some of this was due to a knowledge that students worked with text in a lot of classes, images/powerpoint in a fair number, and even video in some rarer cases. Audio seemed like a useful auxiliary skill to offer, and in terms of the content included, has a lot in common with the “gold standard” of a term paper. Interestingly, in recording the podcasts, many students noted that they thought about the content differently when explaining it verses writing about it, and spent more time on the final product as they didn’t have a template in mind when they started as they often did with papers.

Making Movies

As alluded to before, movies were popping up at the point in which I was doing this work. In some cases students would be asked to make videos in lieu of writing a paper. In my own class I spent a few semesters offering a video as an alternative to a paper (with modified expectations) and in one I required it. Uniformly students said it was more work, but several students said they were thankful for the opportunity to learn a new skill. Several also indicated they had to think more about how to display the information in a video, which caused them to remember it better than they might have otherwise.

Interacting on a Collaborative Platform

The culmination of all this work, for me, was teaching Wake’s first online undergraduate course. I used Google Sites in lieu of the course management system, Google Docs for course documents and assignments, I made extensive use of YouTube to introduce content and to have students report their progress back to me, used Google Forms for formative assessment throughout the course, and generally plugged in any type of media I could from images to slide decks to screencasts. I constructed this course in the way that I did to meet the learning objectives of the course as well as the instructional culture of the institution. Students reported it felt like more work, but that they (largely) really liked the format. I felt like I got to know the students better as people as well as had a better grasp of how well they knew the content. Win win.

In all of these cases, when I worked with other faculty on these projects, the idea came from the individual faculty member. I just helped them find the right tools to meet their goals, worked with them on what it would look like in the class and for the students, and remained engaged in case they needed support as the semester went on. In all of these the class engagement was high and the outputs were interesting and sometimes surpassed our expectations. And none of this could have been done without the tools Kay and Goldberg envisioned over thirty years ago.

As an aside, if you’re at Virginia Tech and want to work on a project like one of the above, or even something that makes use of newer tools and technologies (like twitter, infographics, location based services, etc) I’d love to talk with you!

8 thoughts on “Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, and the Potential of Computers

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