A version of this column appeared in the March 2001 issue of Curriculum
I recently attended attended Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs
keynote address at the annual Macworld Conference in San Francisco. Amidst
of OS X, the launch of the sexy new Titanium Powerbook and the obligatory
race between a Pentium IV and Macintosh G4 (you can guess which won), Jobs
said some things that I believe will be critically important to the future
Quotations from the CEOs of Gateway and Compaq decrying the death of the
personal computer were rebuffed by Jobs who not only asserted that the PC
is not dead,
but that we are entering a new age of enlightenment. Steve Jobs declared
that the personal computer is now the digital hub for the digital lifestyle.
While everyone is excited about new handheld organizers, video cameras, cell
phones and MP3 players, these devices not only require a personal computer
for installing software, backing up files and downloading media they
are made more powerful by the PC. The personal computer is the only electronic
device (at least for the foreseeable future) capable of multimedia playback,
supercomputer-speed calculations and massive data storage. Most importantly,
the personal computer is required for those who wish to create, rather than
be passive recipients of bits generated by others.
Jobs discussed how video cameras are cool, but iMovie makes them much more
powerful. Boxes full of videotapes are no longer lost in the attic, because
you can easily produce edited movies shareable with friends, relatives and
the world. Jobs then launched iDVD, Apples stunning new technical breakthrough
that allows anyone to create their own DVDs in minutes. Think about what
could mean in a classroom! Class plays, science experiments and sporting
events could be shared with the community and playable with state-of-the-art
on the home television. Video case studies of best practice can be used in
teacher education complete with digital quality audio/video. Zillions of
photos and scanned images of student work can be assembled as portfolios
stored on one disk and viewed anywhere.
A company representative from Alias Wavefront was brought to the stage to
demonstrate their software package, Maya. Maya is the 3D graphics tool used
by George Lucas to make the most recent Star Wars film and by all of last
years Oscar nominees for best special effects to work their artistic
magic. The quick demo showed how a flower paintbrush could be chosen and
the wave of the mouse flowers could be drawn in 3D on the computer screen.
These were no ordinary flowers though. The software knew to make each flower
slightly different from the others, as they would appear in nature. The software
also knew how they would behave if wind were to be added to the scene. Clouds
drawn knew to move behind the mountains. Until now, Maya required a specially
configured graphics workstation. It now runs on a Macintosh G4. While the
software is currently too expensive for most kindergarten classrooms, it
to me that the world will be a much cooler place when five year-olds can
use Kid-Pix-level fluency to create with the same tools as George Lucas.
then they will stop blowing up their Kid-Pix creations and express themselves
Jobs argued that iMovie makes video cameras more powerful and iDVD enhances
the value of both the video camera and DVD player. Therefore, the personal
computer not only powers digital devices, but empowers our lives. This is
a profoundly liberating and enabling vision for society.
As I left the auditorium I thought, Steve Jobs really gets it!
However my admiration for his vision and desire for the new toys was
quickly tempered by thoughts regarding the imagination gap guiding the use
of computers in schools. Not once did Jobs compare the PC to the pencil
or refer to it as a tool for getting work done. No standards for computer-use
were offered. Instead, he challenged us to view the computer as a way of
a renaissance of human potential.
Just Make Something
The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument
ever invented. It has transformed nearly every aspect of society, yet schools
remain relatively untouched. Rather than be led by technological advances
to rethink models of schooling, schools and the software industry have chosen
to use computers to drill for multiple-choice tests, play games and find
to questions available in reference books via the Internet. While the Internet
is an incredibly powerful and handy reference tool, its real potential
lies in its ability to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities
for collaboration and communication. The dominant practice is to restrict
or forbid this openness through filtering software, acceptable-use policies
and overzealous network administrators. When the paradigm for Internet use
is looking stuff up it should come as no surprise that kids are
going to look at inappropriate content.
The results of this imagination paralysis are too numerous to mention. The
hysteria over Internet use, growing disenchantment with schooling and calls
to reduce tech funding are clearly the consequences of our inability to create
more explicit, creative and public models of computers being used by children
to learn in magnificent ways. The recent dubious report, Fools Gold,
by the Alliance for Childhood, takes aim at school computer-use by illustrating
the trivial and thoughtless ways computers are used in schools. A moment of
candor requires us to admit that most of their criticisms are valid. Schools
do use computers in dopey ways. However, that is not a legitimate argument
for depriving kids of the opportunity to learn and express themselves with
computers. It is however an indictment of the narrow ways in which schools
use technolology. Experts advocating the use of handheld devices as the
perfect K-12 computer so that students may take notes or have homework
assignments beamed to them are cheating our young people out of rich learning
Itas if schools have forgotten what computers do best. Computers are
best at making things all sorts of things. Educational philosophers
including Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Vygotsky, Gardner have been telling us forever
that the best way to learn is through the act of making things, concrete
abstract. The PC is an unparalleled intellectual laboratory and vehicle for
self-expression yet schools seem ill-equipped or disinclined to seize that
Kids can now express their ideas through film-making, web broadcasting, MIDI-based
music composition and synchronous communication. They can construct powerful
ideas (even those desired by the curriculum) through robotics, simulation
design and computer programming.
While there is much rhetoric about kids making things with computers, those
projects tend to reinforce old notions of teaching. Hyperstudio book reports
or databases containing the pets owned by classmates are not what I have in
mind. Kids should make authentic things borne of their curiosity, interests
and reflecting the world in which they live.
I cannot imagine that the critics of public education and the investment in
educational technology would object to kids using computers in such authentic,
deeply intellectual and creative ways. Rather than creating unproductive standards
for computer use, educational computing organizations should be building,
documenting and sharing compelling models of how computers may be used to
inspire joyful learning throughout the land.
Seymour Papert has proposed that we view the computer as material. This
material may be used in countless wonderful and often unpredictable ways.
Teachers are naturally gifted with materials of all sorts and the computer
should be part of that mix. This change in focus should reap rewards for
We can do good and do well by exercising a bit more creativity. We can neutralize
our critics and move education forward if we shift our focus towards using
school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit
act of making things. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress
citizens desperate for academic rigor. Emphasizing the use of computers to
make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners
and lead schools into this golden age.