Making the Tech Tool Work

A classmate of my daughter was too shy to present her social studies final project. So my daughter offered to record her presentation at home, boost the voice, and give the recording to the teacher. Brilliant. The teacher has accepted.

It’s wonderful that this is not a particular remarkable use of technology these days. But in this case, my daughter and her classmate are special-needs students. I try to take to heart Alan Kay’s maxim that if technology works well for kids, it will work well for everyone, and doubly so for everyone who faces challenges. I cannot express how very proud I am that my daughter is using technology to give her friend a voice.

It takes a lot of work by technologists to make a success like this possible at all. It further takes a lot of work by technology advocates to make the possible a more commonplace part of our everyday culture. We all benefit when every one of us has the widest possible set of tools available to us, and it is advocates that make that happen. It makes me sad that critics of what they call technology solutionism would fail to do everything possible to enlarge everyone’s toolset.

Child's Play

Croquet leader Alan Kay has noticed that making technology work well for children is often a good way to make technology work for everyone. This concept has informed his recent work with VPRI, SqueakLand and the One Laptop Per Child project.

We’re starting a project in Croquet called KidsFirst, in which we push the limits of ease-of-use and collaboration to the extreme by focusing on the three legs of an early-education community of practice: very young children, busy teachers, and non-specialist parents.

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Open-Source Curriculum

M.I.T. decided couple of years ago to put their entire curriculum on-line. Anyone can use it for free. They feel that the value they provide as an institution is not threatened, but enhanced by making their materials publicly available.

Our preschool, Little City Kids, is now doing the same thing. There’s a lot of stuff we do charge for – individual child-care, franchising to help you run your own Little City Kids, and educational toys that for schools or for home. We have a lot of folks using our curriculum, and quite often, it brings them to our other services as well. That’s plenty. For example, we have quite a few home-schoolers use our curriculum, and they buy toys to go with it.

One of my themes in software development is that platforms tend to not directly make money for their creators. I think a curriculum is the equivalent of a platform for schools. It’s expensive to produce, but necessary if you’re doing something different that doesn’t let you use someone else’s. However, I no longer think it’s wise to expect open-sourcing to reduce costs. It can happen in some fashion, but it shouldn’t be the driver. Instead, you produce the platform because you need to, and you share it because it’s a good idea for helping you with your real product. I think wider use can help improve the quality of the platform, and that this applies to our curriculum. But we are not, at this time, trying to provide a means for people to directly contribute to the curriculum content itself. (More about this later…)

What's the Matter?

My daughter has been studying “matter” in science. This is the unit that discusses physical changes between phases (arrangements of molecules,) versus chemical changes between compounds (arrangements of atoms). It also discusses electrons, protons, and neutrons.

She wasn’t getting it. It was all just so many meaningless words, and symbolic coding isn’t her forte. Not everyone learns the same way, and everyone can benefit from working with the same material presented in different ways. In dealing with this, it is necessary to use not just different words, but different input entirely, which are processed by different parts of the brain. My daughter thinks very geometrically, so we were able to construct a series of visual scenes portraying the material. Napoleon said, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and Mindard’s famous map of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia shows that a diagram can sometimes be worth a thousand pictures.

In the phase-change scene, we draw a bucket of water in the middle, a tea-pot on one side, and tray of ice cubes on the other. We drew labeled arrows from solid to liquid and liquid to gas, and back again. (“Melting,” “Evaporation,” “Condensation,” and “Freezing.”)

We also drew the classic old 1950’s nuclear energy picture, with angry-faced (negative) electrons in an elliptical orbit around smiling (positive) protons and neutral neutrons.

It worked.

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The Shared Experience

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This is a picture of a three way iChat. My friend Preston Austin travels quite a bit with his business. Here we see Preston in the bottom display, cleaning bicycle parts in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His wife is folding laundry in Madison, Wisconsin. A third computer has a TV tuner attached, providing a live feed from “Sex in the City.” Preston and his wife have watched movies “together” this way several times. He reports that the experience allowed for more rich interaction than just long video calls and certainly better than separately watching TV.

Preston has been emphasizing to me the value of the shared experience almost since the moment I met him. When he first told me about shared virtual movie theaters, I didn’t really get it. But now I see my kids gathered around the TV or the computer running a DVD, and talking to each other about what they’re seeing. Or they’re on the phone discussing the same TV show that they and their friends are separately and simultaneously watching.

I think the principle here is that every(*) experience can be enriched by sharing it. Regardless of where the solitary activity is in the range from passive to active, the activity becomes more active when shared. This has value for education, training, and entertainment.

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