A PZ reader recently pointed me to an article on the growing debate about issuing laptop computers to young students. I found these two snippets in the article on the positives of laptop programs interesting:
"...the laptop has helped her twelve-year-old son master critical professional skills like how to compile a PowerPoint presentation."
"...proponents of the programs argue that constant computer access teaches students skills critical to their success in college and at work, such as how to organize multimedia presentations and conduct research online."
Here's one citing a typical downside noticed by many parents today:
"... having a laptop has encouraged her thirteen-year-old son to spend more time dazzling up presentations with fancy fonts instead of digging through library books. "They need to be able to learn to research beyond what is accomplished by Googling a word or phrase."
Whether or not young kids issued laptops in elementary school get a better overall education by the time they graduate high school compared to students who never had their own laptop to carry around is debatable. To me it comes down to a question of whether or not we're asking the young students to use laptops to learn ephemeral applications (pull this menu down, copy here, paste there, etc.) out of our fear that they'll be "left behind," or whether we believe/know that all the time with the computer really helps improve a young student's mind, her critical and analytical thinking, her creativity, her knowledge of science and of the world, in addition to improving basic important math and reading/writing skills. If it's the latter, then I say fine. But does all that time with slideware as a kid teach her about design fundamentals, storytelling, how best to display data, how to edit effectively, etc? With the right teacher, perhaps it does. But I also wonder how much has changed since Alan Kay expressed these concerns in 1994:
"I think the thing that surprised me is that computers are treated much more like toasters, [with] predefined functions mainly having to do with word processing and spreadsheets or running packaged software, and less as a material to be shaped by students and teachers."
— Alan Kay (1994 interview)
There's no question that a kid and a laptop *can* be a very good thing, but does time spent with an app like PowerPoint as a sixth-grader make it more likely that when the student is, say, 25 she'll be a better thinker and a better presenter, especially when the electricity goes off and she's left with nothing but a whiteboard and some pens? Or think of it this way: does a personal laptop in the school function as a bicycle for the mind, amplifying the student's own capabilities and new knowledge or is it more like a car with pre-packaged formulas that allow the student to become soft in the head while appearing to really go places? I suspect much depends on the specifics of the particular school and program, of course. I am by no means the best judge since I teach university and do not have children yet, so I'd love to hear your own personal experiences with this issue. Whether you are a teacher, student, or parent, what has been your experience?
The audience laughed at the Microsoft slide (right), but it was not a jab at only MS but at all software developers (including Apple) and us consumers as well. We can not rely only on the tools to show us the way much like a car with a navigation system. The best software in many cases does not so much point the way as it does a great job of getting out of the way, helping us to "amplify" our own abilities. Are you using your computer like a bike or like a car? This was my question to the audience.
The computer is like a bicycle for the mind
More than twenty years ago, Steve Jobs and others at Apple were talking about the great potential of computers and how the tool should be designed and used in a way that enhances the potential that exists within each of us. Take a look at this video clip of Steve Jobs from Memory and Immagination.
"What a computer is to me is it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with, and it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”
— Steve Jobs
(Watch video of Steve Jobs talking about how the bicycle is like a computer for the mind.)
Can computers teach kids how to think?
Is the application of computer technology today helping kids learn how to think, reason, and create better than their parents or grandparents did when they were the same age? Picasso said that computers are "useless" because they can only give answers. I tell my college students that I am more interested in their own questions and their analysis than in their answers memorized from a book. The genius often lies in the questions students ask not in the answers they've learned from others.
"Most computers today are sold like cars, where as many things as possible are done for you. You don't have to understand how it works and, in fact, you don't have to understand how to think because the most popular stuff is prepackaged solutions for this and that."
— Alan Kay
"Understanding how it works" doesn't necessarily only mean knowing the nuts and bolts of hardware or writing software, etc. (although some understanding there too would not hurt even for non-techies). What I am suggesting is that in the realm of presentations it's important for students to understand principles of design not merely software application rules to be obediently followed or the "tips and "tricks" of the day. The fundamental principles of design and visual communication, etc. can be applied broadly and not limited to the narrow world of presentation design only. Teaching students about design from an early age, challenging them, and exposing them to wonderful examples from around the world from several disciplines such as graphic design, art, architecture, industrial designs, etc. is something that they can really build on as they develop.
"It's absolutely important to challenge [students'] internals — challenge their internal musculature, their internal ability to make images, their internal ability to think about things and to make representations of things."
— Alan Kay
Today business people are accustomed to enduring some pretty awful so-called PowerPoint presentations. I think there is hope for otherwise smart and talented adults who present badly. But the real hope long-term resides in the young students of today who have not yet learned the bad habits of their parents. As Alan Kay said over ten years ago, we've got to challenge the kids not just give them formulas and "time-saving" shortcuts to mediocrity. If a laptop in the hands of a 10-year-old child helps her develop her "internal musculature" long-term — if it serves like a bicycle for her mind — then a laptop is a very good thing. What say you?
A note about Japan
I teach one marketing class to about 25 Japanese students, all about 20-years-old. Only four have a computer of their own and most have never used PowerPoint. As freshman they even "lack basic computing skills" by US standards (though their cell phone surfing aptitude surpasses anything in the US). But it does not matter. By the end of the semester most of the students give presentations (using PowerPoint for visuals) that are as good or better than those of foreign students here who may have had their own computer since childhood. The PPT tool itself is easy to learn, especially when students realize that they can ignore about 90% of its menu options and focus more on research and putting their findings together in a strong, compelling way. And given the freedom, Japanese students can be quite creative indeed. The so-called "PPT savvy" students have to struggle initially to unlearn bad habits such as presenting with slideuments. The business students with no real previous PPT knowledge spend more time on research and internalizing (not memorizing) their material; the visuals tend to serve a stronger supporting role.