Computers, Networks and Education
By Alan C. Kay  
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, star-crossed lovers,