Archive for July, 2007

Code and education

July 30, 2007

I thought I’d put out a little more about code. I’ve mentioned the technical code and Feenberg’s Questioning Technology before in relation to education as a technology. On this blog I also tried to get across the point that "computers are tools for communication, but the form of that communication is dictated by code." Lawrence Lessig in his Code Version 2.0 puts the point across with a little more authority.

Law can change social norms as well, though much of our constitutional jurisprudence seems dedicated to forgetting just how. Education is the most obvious example. As Thurgood Marshall put it, “Education is not the teaching of the three R’s. Education is teaching of the overall citizenship, to learn to live together with fellow citizens, and above all to learn to obey the law.” Education is, in part at least, a process through which we indoctrinate children into certain norms of behaviour — we teach them how to say no to sex and drugs. We try to build within them a sense of what is correct. This sense then regulates them to the laws end.

Plainly, the content of much of this education is regulated by law. Conservatives worry, for example, that by teaching sex education we change the norm of sexual abstinence. Whether that is correct or not, the law is certainly being used to change the norms of children. If conservatives are correct, the law is eliminating abstinence. If liberals are correct, the law is being used to instill a norm of safe sex. Either way, norms have their own constraint, and law is aiming to change that constraint.

To say the law plays a role is not to say that it always plays a positive role. The law can muck up norms as well as improve them, and I do not claim that the latter result is more common than the former. The point is just to see the role, not to praise or criticize it. (p.129)

Here’s some more from the book about code:

“People could communicate in ways that they had never done before. The space seemed to promise a kind of society that real space would never allow – freedom with out anarchy, control without government, consensus with out power. In the words of a manifesto that defined this ideal: “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.

In cyberspace we must understand how a different “code” regulates – how the software and hardware (i.e., the “code” of cyberspace) that makes cyberspace what it is also regulates cyberspace as it is. As William Mitchell puts it this code is cyberspace’s “law.” “ LexInformatica” as Joel Reidenberg first put it, or better, “code is law.” (p.2)

Lessig writes, "Its code, in other words, sits in the commons. Anyone can take it and use it as she wishes. Anyone can take it and come to understand how it works." (p.148) What he’s talking about specifically is computer literacy, but literacy in general works on the same principle. Really, can anyone use Unix as one wishes?

Chapter 1. Education as a Necessity of Life

July 29, 2007

Before I go on about Chapter One of Dewey‘s Democracy and Education, I should say a few things. First, I’m reading this book because I’m under the impression that it’s a founding text for “progressive education.” I say “under the impression,” because I haven’t actually read it yet. I finished a program in education and reading Dewey wasn’t necessary. Very little “source” reading, actually no source reading was necessary. Perhaps my Faculty of Education subscribed too strictly to Dewey’s doctrine of learn by doing and feared that including source readings would render its program “remote and dead — abstract and bookish.” And secondly after reading the first chapter I see a need for a rewrite of this book. Maybe someone has already done it, if so let me know, but if not, now’s the time.

Calling for the remake of a classic is dangerous ground. There are unsuccessful remakes for sure, and choosing a classic in any form is a risky move, But a chapter for chapter, subsection for subsection rewrite, would change the course of progressive education.

Dewey sees in evolutionary ideas a metaphor for life and education . He writes “As some species die out, forms better adapted to utilize the obstacles against which they struggled in vain come into being.” But the idea of progressive improvement isn’t with us today. Today when a polar bear loses her struggle to survive, no more adapted creature is waiting in the DNA of her offspring to survive in the new environment. The concepts Dewey uses to base his philosophy are false. That’s not to say his philosophy, in this sense and ideal education for creating an improved society, is without merit, but that as an articulation it fails.

The other major problem in this chapter, other than the debatability of the title, is the confusion of socialization as a broad educational process and schooling as a more formal kind of education. Education in these terms, or with this definition becomes unworkable. The meaning of “education” is culturally broad. In the title “The Education of Little Tree“, education refers to much more than the bits of formal schooling in the book. Education is synonymous with “experience” in this sense. When Dewey writes “What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life.” He may be over-emphasizing the importance of education in the formal sense by leaving the distinction between social rearing and formal tuition unclear. We can live without formal tuition, it isn’t necessary for life.

“The young of human beings compare so poorly in original efficiency with the young of many of the lower animals, that even the powers needed for physical sustentation have to be acquired under tuition. How much more, then, is the case with respect to all the technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements of humanity!”

Here again Dewey confuses child rearing and socialization, with more formal tuition. The lower animals who seem to live just fine, and as an example, the raccoon, which could be here long after our animal form has been extinguished, does just fine without technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements. Formal tuition is superfluous to life. Not that it’s superfluidity reduces its cultural importance, but Dewey seems to be basing the urgency and importance of education on a claim of necessity.

“As formal teaching and training grow in extent, there is a danger of creating an undesirable split between the experience gained in more direct associations and what is acquired in school. This danger was never greater than at the present time, on account of the rapid growth in the last few centuries of knowledge and technical modes of skill.”

Dewey ends Chapter One with a warning. This split is “one of the weightiest problems with which the philosophy of education has to cope.” Am I wrong to think Dewey is equating conscious learning with direct associations and unconscious learning with what is acquired in school? This too is a problem.

Computers in the classroom or literacy and GUIs

July 27, 2007

What follows is a response to Chris Sessums blog so it might read a little out of context. I put it here because I wanted to add some links to it. ::

Here are a few people in opposition to computers in the classroom.

A back-to-nature movement to reconnect children with the outdoors is burgeoning nationwide. Programs, public and private, are starting or expanding as research shows kids suffer health problems, including obesity, from too much sedentary time indoors with TV and computers. The post could use some formatting, or maybe that’s just part of the anti-computer ethos.

Theodore Roszak The Cult of Information “...the best approach to computer literacy might be to stress the limitations and abuses of the machine, showing the students how little they need it to develop their autonomous powers of thought.” (p.242) The first edition 1986 the second edition 1994

Neil Postman Technopoly…technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology – from the IQ test to the automobile to a television set to a computer – is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control.” (p.185) 1992

I’m not quoting these “progressive” “left” or “ultra-left” critics/activists out of complete agreement, more out of respect for the diversity of the back-to-basics movement(s). The neo-luddites are more than neo-conservatives (who can also have us nodding our heads in agreement to their arguments here and there) they’re also ultra-progressives. Dewey didn’t use a computer. Like Roszak says, we don’t need it.

I disagree almost completely with Roszak and Postman, while I strive towards their end goals with my work, I wonder also about the possibilities of these machines.

To your question What can computers really do for kids in the classroom? Stephen Downes answers They can teach them how to use computers.

Downes is completely correct that the computers themselves could teach children how to use them. GUIs are so intuitive, that computers are easier to use than the timer on the oven in your kitchen, not to mention older technology like the 8-track tape (who ever got the hang of those things?). This freaks teachers out that a machine can replace them so easily. Why is it that kids learn more, easier, faster, better in the glow of a GUI? Another question is “do they?” but what we hear is that kids are learning slaves to the machine, and unteachable by humans.

So the question is literacy. Most teachers are politically illiterate, at least in Canada where the governments and media squash them at will and with frequency. Most teachers are computer illiterate, and as such are unable to teach through the machines. If teachers are being replaced (not today, but maybe a not-so-distant tomorrow) it won’t be the machines, but coders who are their replacements. In this day to be politically and technologically illiterate is to be philosophically illiterate, and that’s a whole lot of illiteracy in those claiming to teach literacy to our children.

So yes, the computer itself will teach children how to use it. The fear is that the coders are unaccountable. What are the values they code into the machine? And really how does this differ from Dewey’s constructed environments? Did Dewey propose a system in which those being educated were unconscious of the preferred result? With the computer interface are the graphics using or being used? This interface could be a very powerful metaphor for teaching, but students need to learn to use a computer beyond using programs. And of course the problem with this is a person with the knowledge to code/script/program a computer has an earning potential and interest area that excludes public school teaching as an option.

This is the second time I’ve typed this out and I’m still meandering, but if I’m trying to say something it’s that computers are tools for communication, but the form of that communication is dictated by code. Knowledge of the code allows the users to infuse the form of communication with a personal set of values. This understanding is key for promoting the tool in the “progressive” sphere. All the players in education should be critical of the tools, programs and their uses; they should also have the knowledge to alter those programs to create forms more consistent with their values.

Experimental Personal Method

July 15, 2007

I talked to a friend the other day and she mentioned something that’s got me thinking about identity. That’s not completely true, on some level I’m constantly rolling the concept of identity around, (which blogger doesn’t?) but this friend’s comment, and a personal identities struggle, has pushed me to write something… We’ll soon see what that something is, where this something goes.

Identities split under any culturally controlled examination or expression. Take my three blogs (which no longer exist) , there’s a place for friendly chatter (like here) and a place for something more text-based and maybe even work-based, but the boundaries are far from clear, at least for me. For me, everything is personal. It’s the free expression of the personal that allows our “I”s (how do you pluralize I?) as others sane expression. Without the personal we can never be ourselves. With the personal as taboo we can never be free.

Fear of the personal is clearly a fear of something against liberty. Removing the personal is cultural, a subtle means of conforming individual identity to a group identity. One question is the possibility of an unconformed group identity. Who has the courage to be free? There was the media driven “doocedphenomenon (that now seems to be winding down). How many times have you read that you should censor your personal voice?

I’m not suggesting you call your boss an asshole under the banner of liberty, what I’m saying is our lives are our own personal experiments. And we should have the freedom to experiment with concepts and actions, to test creative solutions to personal problems and share the result with whoever may be interested. It’s well know that creativity can get us ostracized. But creative freedom is what we need to even begin to tackle our simplest social problems.

Jamais Cascio writing on privacy

“Privacy isn’t just about keeping stuff secret, it’s about maintaining control over information about yourself that others could use to hurt you, physically, financially or emotionally. Threats to privacy, then, arise from decreasing ability to control one’s information without a corresponding decrease in the threat arising from that loss of control.”

Unfortunately the best way to control information is to not generate information. There may be information that you’d like to keep secret, like a job search, but there may be information like the kind exposed in a divorce that could harm you at work. There is fear and shame associated with a lot of information that is common, but for some reason we continue to hide these commonalities in shame.

I like to think of privacy as something you give, not something you have. Of course you’re not up against me. Cascio’s proposed solution is to “push for social changes that reduce the threat arising from disclosure of personal information.” Maybe there’s more about what those social changes might be at one or the other of his websites. But I also wonder how much our fear of exposure is a symptom of our collective psychosis.

Preface to Democracy and Education

July 10, 2007

The Preface is incredibly brief and straightforward, but the problems in it can only grow throughout the book. I question Dewey’s “endeavour to detect and state the ideas implied in a democratic society and to apply these ideas to the problems and enterprises of education.” What ideas does a democratic society imply? Would those implications have changes since 1915? (Not that this matters.) The idea that an actual democratic society has ideas implicit in it and that one can go about detecting and stating those ideas is not an idea at all but misconception based on an idealization of democratic society. This misconception can only lead to a polemical argument. What ideas are actually in play in our specific democratic society? To be of any practical use to the problems and enterprises of education any ideas applied should not be implied but in play.

Dewey clearly explains that “the philosophy stated in this book connects the growth of democracy with the development of the experimental method in the sciences, evolutionary ideas in the biological sciences, and the industrial reorganization, and is concerned to point out the changes in subject matter and method of education indicated by these developments.” I wonder if his philosophy and purposes are a problem? I am not an expert on Dewey, but wouldn’t be stretching it to say he launched the progressive education movement in the States. The progressive movement is today stalled. Could it be that the simplistic philosophical foundation of the movement is it’s problem? Dewey confuses possibility with progression. He sees implicit in growth, development, evolution and reorganization a progressive improvement. We now know (and Dewey could have known then) that the possibility of improvement will not necessarily actualize. What does this mean for the philosophy stated in this book?

Defining the personal

July 7, 2007

I went for a run this morning. I haven’t run in a few months and the lack of activity is starting to reveal itself in a very unappealing manner. I have started riding quite a bit recently though and I think I’ve gotten into a bit of a groove that should last the summer at least. This morning we, as a family of six, were going to drive to Second Beach for everything that little slice of heaven has to offer. That was why I went for a run, I wasn’t going to ride, and like I said I can use the exercise. But after the run the non-cyclist dropped out, so we packed up the bikes and pedaled across the city. Right now my legs feel like they should after two and a half hours of exercise.

I ran for a half hour. I need OS X 10.3.4 before I can post my nike+ipod statistics and make it even easier for “tech-savvy stalkers” to track my every move. This brings me to the main topic of this post.

So yes I’ve been considering the problems of writing a personal blog in the abstract. First it’s boring as hell for readers, not that I have many, more on that later, and it’s not much fun to write. Second, my personal life, is not only my own but a series of connections to other personal lives. Not only that my children have two mothers, so the assumption that there is only one mother in any abstract family means that the abstract can be misleading. So I need to be more clear, if I’m going to blog at all. The thing is I’ve got StatCounter on this blog and I know that in the past two days only one person has looked at this blog, and I know exactly who that reader is.

Since the beginning this blog has been a directionless bit of compartmentalized writing. I started to other blogs (which no longer exist). They’re an attempt to gain some sort of focus, but this here is more personal and my person is an unorganized curious sort.

Yesterday we went to Second Beach as well, we met a neighbour there. It’s nice to go across the city and run into someone you know. I’m thinking that this blog can also be seen as social, somehow. We’ll see. My kids love going to the beach. We could go every day and it would never get old. We picnic and they love it. My son can’t get enough of taking things out of a cooler. The pleasures in life are really very simple at five. Sand, water, buckets and eventually something to eat are all they need.