Computers, Networks and Education
Globally networked, easy-to-use computers can enhance learning, but only within an educational environment that encourages students to question "facts" and seek challenges
by Alan C. Kay
 

T he physicist Murray Gell-Mann has remarked that education in the 20th century is like being taken to the world's greatest restaurant and being fed the menu. He meant that representations of ideas have replaced the ideas themselves; students are taught superficially about great discoveries instead of being helped to learn deeply for themselves.

In the near future, all the representations that human beings have invented will be instantly accessible anywhere in the world on intimate, notebook-size computers. But will we be able to get from the menu to the food? Or will we no longer understand the difference between the two? Worse, will we lose even the ability to read the menu and be satisfied just to recognize that it is one?

There has always been confusion between carriers and contents. Pianists know that music is not in the piano. It begins inside human beings as special urges to communicate feelings. But many children are forced to "take piano" before their musical impulses develop; then they turn away from music for life. The piano at its best can only be an amplifier of existing feelings, bringing forth multiple notes in harmony and polyphony that the unaided voice cannot produce.

The computer is the greatest "piano" ever invented, for it is the master carrier of representations of every kind. Now there is a rush to have people, especially schoolchildren, "take computer." Computers can amplify yearnings in ways even more profound than can musical instruments. But if teachers do not nourish the romance of learning and expressing, any external mandate for a new "literacy" becomes as much a crushing burden as being forced to perform Beethoven's sonatas while having no sense of their beauty. Instant access to the world's information will probably have an effect opposite to what is hoped: students will become numb instead of enlightened.

In addition to the notion that the mere presence of computers will improve learning, several other misconceptions about learning often hinder modern education. Stronger ideas need to replace them before any teaching aid, be it a computer or pencil and paper, will be of most service. One misconception might be called the fluidic theory of education: students are empty vessels that must be given knowledge drop by drop from the full teacher-vessel. A related idea is that education is a bitter pill that can be made palatable only by sugarcoating-a view that misses the deep joy brought by learning itself.

 

Another mistaken view holds that humans, like other animals, have to make do only with nature's mental bricks, or innate ways of thinking, in the construction of our minds. Equally worrisome is the naive idea that reality is solely what the senses reveal. Finally, and perhaps most misguided, is the view that the mind is unitary, that it has a seamless "I"-ness.

Quite the contrary. Minds are far from unitary: they consist of a patchwork of different mentalities.

STUDENTS at the Open School: Center for Individualization, in Los Angeles, are creating a dynamic simulation of ocean life (right) and doing math (above) with the help of Macintosh computers, which are set unobtrusively into the desks. In the Open School, which already had a strong curriculum before it obtained computers, the machines do not substitute for teachers. They are thought of as "just another material," like books, paints and clay, that can support the children's activities. In the next few years, notebook-size computers are expected to become available; then children will be able to carry their computers anywhere they go.

ALAN C. KAY has been a fellow of Apple Computer Inc. since 1984. Before joining Apple, he was a founder and fellow of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and, later, chief scientist of Atari. One of the pioneers of personal computing, he is the original designer of the overlapping-window user interface and Smalltalk, the first completely object-oriented language. Kay has worked with children for most of his career because, he says, "the media that powerfully shape our ways of thinking must be made accessible as early in life as possible." His interests outside of computing include musical performance and instrument design and "trying to learn more about the world in which we find ourselves." He also plays tennis whenever he can.