Computers, Networks and Education
By Alan C. Kay  
But these are just words. Now the children can make dynamic models of animal behavior patterns to test Tinbergen's concepts themselves.

Can nine and 10-year-old children actually capture and understand the mentality of a complex organism, such as a fish? Teacher B. J. Allen-Conn spent several summers learning about intricate ecological relations in the oceans. She searched for ways to express how an individual's behavior is altered by interactions with many other animals. At the same time, Michael Travers, a graduate student from the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was working with us, built several animal simulations, among them fish behaviors described by Tinbergen. Then Scott Wallace and others in our group turned these various ideas into Playground, a simulation construction kit for children.

Children are particularly enthralled by the clown fish, which exhibits all expected fishlike behaviors (such as feeding, mating and fleeing from predators) but also displays a fascinating way of protecting itself. It chooses a single sea anemone and gradually acclimates to the anemone's poison over a period of several days. When acclimation is complete, the clown fish has a safe haven where it can hide if a predator comes hunting.

It is fairly easy to build a simple behavior in Playground, and so the children produce simulations that reflect how the fish acts when it gets hungry, seeks food, acclimates to an anemone and escapes from predators. Later they can explore what happens when scripts conflict. What happens if the animal is very hungry yet there is a predator near the food? If the animal is hungry enough, will it start eyeing the predator as possible food? Do the fish as a group fare best when each animal is out for itself, or does a touch of altruism help the species overall?

For an adult, the children's work would be called Artificial Intelligence Programming Using a Rule-Based Expert Systems Language. We researchers and the teachers and children see the dynamic simulations as a way of finding out whether theories of animal behavior apply to the real world.

Computers in the Open School are not rescuing the school from a weak curriculum, any more than putting pianos in every classroom would rescue a flawed music program. Wonderful learning can occur without computers or even paper. But once the teachers and children are enfranchised as explorers, computers, like pianos, can serve as powerful amplifiers, extending the reach and depth of the learners.

Many educators have been slow to recognize this concept of knowledge ownership and to realize that children, like adults, have a psychological need for a personal franchise in the culture's knowledge base. Most schools force students to learn somebody else's knowledge. Yet, as John Holt, the teacher and philosopher of education, once said, mathematics and science would probably be learned better if they were made illegal. Children learn in the same way as adults, in that they learn best when they can ask their own questions, seek answers in many places, consider different perspectives, exchange views with others and add their own findings to existing understandings.

The first benefit is great interactivity. Initially the computers will be reactive, like a musical instrument, as they are today. Soon they will take initiatives as well, behaving like a personal assistant. Computers can be fitted to every sense. For instance, there can be displays for vision; pointing devices and keyboards for responding to gesture; speakers, piano-type keyboards and microphones for sound-even television cameras to recognize and respond to the user's facial expressions. Some displays will be worn as magic glasses and force-feedback gloves that together create a virtual reality, putting the user inside the computer to see and touch this new world. The surface of an enzyme can be felt as it catalyzes a reaction between two amino acids; relativistic distortions can be directly experienced by turning the user into an electron traveling at close to the speed of light.

A second value is the ability of the computers to become any and all existing media, including books and musical instruments. This feature means people will be able (and now be required) to choose the kinds of media through which they want to receive and communicate ideas. Constructions such as texts, images, sounds and movies, which have been almost intractable in conventional media, are now manipulatable by word processors, desktop publishing, and illustrative and multimedia systems.

Third, and more important, information can be presented from many different perspectives. Marvin L. Minsky of M.I.T. likes to say

 

EXCERPT FROM A NEWSCLIP
is part of a newspaper tailored to the interests of a single individual; the
text was produced several years ago by the software program NewsPeek, which
the author and Walter Bender designed when they were at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. The program is an early prototype for one kind
of "agent," a system that can learn a user's goals and retrieve
relevant in formation on the person's behalf. Such agents will one day be
essential for navigating through the mass of information that will be available
on networks.