|Two hundred years ago the Federalist
papers-essays by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay arguing
for ratification of the U.S. Constitution--were published in newspapers
in the 13 colonies. Fifty years later the telegraph and its network shifted
the goals of news from depth to currency, and the newspapers changed in
response. Approximately 100 years after that, television started shifting
the emphasis of news from currency to visual immediacy.
Computers have the same drawbacks as other media, and yet they also
offer opportunities for counteracting the inherent deficits. Where would
the authors of the Constitution publish the Federalist papers today?
Not in a book; not enough people read books. Not in newspapers; each
essay is too long. Not on the television; it cannot deal with thoughtful
content. On computer networks? Well, computer displays, though getting
better every year, are not good enough for reading extended prose; the
tendency is to show pictures, diagrams and short "bumper sticker"
sentences, because that is what displays do well.
But the late 20th century provides an interesting answer to the question:
transmitting over computer networks a simulation of the proposed structure
and processes of the new Constitution.
The receivers not only could run the model but also could change assumptions
and even the model itself to test the ideas. The model could be hyperlinked
to the sources of the design, such as the constitution of Virginia,
so that "readers" might readily compare the new ideas against
the old. (Hyper linking extends any document to include related information
from many diverse sources.) Now the receivers would have something stronger
than static essays. And feedback about the proposals-again by network-could
be timely and relevant.
MODEL CITY was built by third
graders at the Open School after
months of planning. Although the
children erected the buildings by hand,
they turned to their computers for assistance on a number of jobs. For
instance, the computers helped the students simulate the formation of
smog in their city.
Five years ago, intent on studying firsthand
the strengths and weaknesses of computers as amplifiers for learning,
my colleague Ann Marion and I, in collaboration with the Open School:
Center for Individualization, in Los Angeles, set up a research project
called the Apple Vivarium Program. We and the principal, Roberta Blatt,
were not trying to improve the already excellent school by introducing
technology. We were trying to better understand the value computers
might have as supporting media.
Children are bused in and, as is the case with other busing schools
in Los Angeles, are selected by lot so that the racial balance is roughly
in accord with that of the city as a whole. Parents have to be interested
enough in their children and the school's teaching approach to put their
children on the list for consideration. Parental interest and involvement
are key factors that have made the school a success. One could even
argue that the educational approach in a classroom is not nearly as
important as the set of values about learning found in the home. If
those exist, almost any process will work, although some may be more
enjoyable and enriching than others.
We particularly wanted to investigate how
children can be helped to understand that animals, people and situations
are parts of larger systems that influence one another. We therefore
focused much of our work on the study of biology and ecology. Studies
of the design and functioning of large cities also give children an
awareness of such complexity. Doreen Nelson of the California Polytechnic
Institute has been teaching city design to children for many years;
on the basis of her work, our study group introduced a large-scale city-building
project for the third graders. We also helped the school develop a major
theater program, so the children might see how art and systems work
from the inside.
What does it mean to learn about biology as it relates
to us and our world? All creatures consist of and are part of many systems
that range from the molecular to the planetary. A weak way to approach
this romance-in which we are at once part of the scenery, bit players,