Looking at creativity and culture in computer science to inspire better education

I was delighted to recently be invited to speak at the University of Edinburgh to students of their PgCert in Academic Practice. The original ‘pitch’ was:

Academic practice continues to evolve to reflect the needs and opportunities of various stakeholders including the learner, employers and the institution. Some would argue that university education isn’t changing fast enough given the pace of change within society and technology. We will explore strategies for developing an agile approach to academic practice, looking at how education can be ‘hacked’ to creatively overcome the limitations of the system. … We conclude taking a wider view exploring emerging peadagogies and technologies and how these might be used too to make education better.


As it turns out the session ended up being ever so slightly different as I found myself heavily influenced by Alan Kay and computer science history from the 1960s to 1970s, and relating this to the challenges and opportunities of education today. The edited slide deck is on Slideshare and my talk notes are included here. See what you think …

Under the influence…

Slide3

I started the session with an exercise where I got everyone to write some of the things about themselves in a blank avatar stuck to the wall. This was useful in finding out more about the audience, their background and experience. In particular I was keen to see the educational milestones of the group. I wanted to do this following an excellent CPD session given by the Scottish Higher Education Developers network (SHED) just before Christmas in which Alison Nimmo and Sam Ellis presented the draft ‘N’ model which highlights the changing identity  of a professional entering academic practice.

V3N-model slides_NimmoA141215SE
N-Model – Nimmo, A & Ellis, S (forthcoming)

Another aspect of this exercise was also to highlight the fact we all bring a diversity of interests and experience which can be used in to inspire academic practice (not forgetting the baggage that can also hinder).

Looking to the past…

CC-BY-NC-SA Stubot https://flic.kr/p/t9Mt4Y
[CC-BY-NC-SA Stubot https://flic.kr/p/t9Mt4Y]

A slightly gratuitous opportunity to squeeze in a LEGO Lovelace (a LEGO Ideas project proposed by Edinburgh’s Stuart Cormar make it real), but at the same time an opportunity to ask:

“what can education learn from computer science?”

First stop on this journey was a talk by Alan Kay in 2014 on ‘The Future Doesn’t Have to Be Incremental’. For those unfamiliar with Kay and his work amongst many things he is attributed to defining the conceptual basics of laptop and tablet computers as part of his work in the 1970s on the Dynabook.

©Alan Kay April 2014 https://youtu.be/gTAghAJcO1o
©Alan Kay April 2014 https://youtu.be/gTAghAJcO1o

As part of Kay’s talk he illustrated how when creating future concepts the present inevitably takes all of our focus making anything we do incremental rather than inspirational. Kay’s suggests that by ignoring the present, this opens us to the opportunity to take greater inspiration from the past allowing us to dream of a future not constrained by the present.

©Alan Kay April 2014 https://youtu.be/gTAghAJcO1o
©Alan Kay April 2014 https://youtu.be/gTAghAJcO1o

Within an education context this is something I find incredibly hard to do. With so many expectations around education imposed by the institution on itself as well as third parties including the learner, professional bodies and more, the present dominates. This doesn’t mean education can’t be better, it just means within the existing context it can only be incrementally better for the institution.

There is still a danger that education doesn’t get better at all … or even gets worse. To illustrate the dangers of getting locked into a particular mindset I drew on a presentation from Bret Victor in 2013. Victor’s resume includes ‘Human Interface Inventor’ at Apple and in many ways is part of the next generation of the Alan Kay’s of this world. In 2013 Victor put himself on stage asking the question what is the future of programming from a 1973 viewpoint, removing the present by placing himself in the past and considering the future.

CC-BY Bret Victor https://vimeo.com/71278954
CC-BY Bret Victor https://vimeo.com/71278954

It’s wonderful to watch Victor navigate through some of the key moments of computing in the 50s and 60s including Engelbart’s ‘Mother of all demos’ in which he and his team demonstrated a whole host of computing firsts such as shared-screen teleconferencing, now a staple of many people’s daily life. This is just one of many examples Victor gives computing innovations from this period which you can find out more about in  Victor’s talk notes (perhaps no surprise to see the overall message was inspired by Alan Kay).

The key points of Victor’s talk is ask why did these leaps in computing happen during this period and why did the momentum not continue. In the talk Victor explains programming was in a pre-paradigm phase:

they didn’t know what they were doing, so they tried everything

The problem for the next generation of programmers is they perceive the fundamentals are correct and continue to develop along these principles. The next generation of programmers  shown only one way to programme which they go on to teach to the next. You could argue that education has a similar problem, the next generation of teachers will no doubt be influenced by their own personal experience as a student. The next generation of teachers  thinking it’s all been figured out … the danger being we get stuck:

The most dangerous thought you can have as a creative person is to think you know what you’re doing. Once you think you know what you are doing you stop looking around for other ways of doing things.

Here is a short clip from Victor’s talk I used to highlight this point:


What is the future of education? Are we already making the mistakes of programmers from Martin Hawksey on Vimeo.

[In Victor’s talk notes he also highlights two other reasons computer science moved so quickly in this period: funding; and drugs]

Hacker culture and community…

Something from this period not touched upon by Victor was the founding of hacker communities which evolved from MIT in the 1960s. In my talk I wanted to contrast that the term has very different connotations in the 21st century where the term ‘hacker’ has taken on a more sinister definition referring to those subverting computer security.

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Image Left: CC-BY-NC Thomas Hawk https://flic.kr/p/fiGngo
Image right: Courtesy of MIT

In the 1960s Richard Greenblatt along with Bill Gosper are widely considered to considered to have founded the first hacker communities.  At the heart of hacker culture is the value placed on finding new and innovative ways to do things:

The hacker culture is a subculture of individuals who enjoy the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming and circumventing limitations of systems to achieve novel and clever outcomes – Wikipedia

First established in an academic context hacker communities also embraced openness and co-operation. Whilst open source licences and the free software movement didn’t appear until the 1980s hacker communities would openly share and contribute to code (this wasn’t limited to hackers, many of the early computer manufactures like UNIVAC and IBM would distribute source code for various reasons including security).

CC-BY David Lofink https://flic.kr/p/7BX4hX
CC-BY David Lofink https://flic.kr/p/7BX4hX

Perhaps I’m being overly nostalgic but the 1960s hacker mindset and culture is a fascinating period and alive and well today and influencing other movements, you only need to look at the maker community (and conveniently if you want to see how this intercepts with education Howard Rheingold is running a Maker-Ed: Tinkering, Inventing, Learning series).

[I was also recently watching an interview Alan Kay did with Gardner Campbell for ThoughtVectors and I was hit by Alan’s comment on one of Doug Engelbart’s doctrines:

the most important things in history are really done by communities of people working together

Alan citing the role of the Royal Society in creating a forum for ideas to be shared and tested under peer review].

Distributed communities…

As a segue back to modern times, which fatuously echo’s the importance of community,  I hopped from Paul Baran’s distributed communications network sketch from the 1960s (which begat ARPANET, which begat the Internet) to consider the shape of education.

©RAND Corporation 1964
©RAND Corporation 1964

The question here was ‘what does the world look like?’ followed by ‘what does education look like?’. This concept of a more distributed education was captured by Bryan Mathers in some ‘visual thinkery’  following Catherine Cronin’s #altc keynote (If you haven’t seen Catherine’s ‘Navigating the Marvellous’ talk or read the talk notes I highly recommend that you do as it eloquently captures many of the issues and opportunities of networked learning).

CC-BY-ND Bryan Mathers https://flic.kr/p/p2UJ5d
CC-BY-ND Bryan Mathers https://flic.kr/p/p2UJ5d

This opened an interesting discussing about how a teacher could regulate and control a network. One answer is that within a network there can be nodes with higher centrality which can influence or orchestrate the network, however, depending how the teacher has established themself it may not be them. Another consideration is distribution does not necessarily mean online or in the open. You could for example develop a closed distributed network within a classroom context. Having a closed space can be important when you consider how vulnerable the learning process can be. It can be daunting to put your hand up in the perceived safety of a classroom, paralysing when it’s the world than might question your view.  In commenting on ‘The vulnerability of learning’ George Siemens says:

Learning is vulnerability. When we learn, we make ourselves vulnerable. … While the learning process can’t be short-circuited, and the ambiguity and messiness can’t be eliminated, it is helpful for educators to recognize the social, identity, and emotional factors that influence learners. Often, these factors matter more than content/knowledge elements in contributing to learner success.

It’s impossible to eliminate vulnerability but you can counter it with confidence. There are various ways to build learner confidence and in an open/distributed context Alec Couros’ conceptualisation of ‘thinning the walls’ illustrates what is required in scaffolding an experience from a classroom or course to a more open/distributed setting.

CC-BY-NC-SA Alec Couros https://flic.kr/p/64ZQkd
CC-BY-NC-SA Alec Couros https://flic.kr/p/64ZQkd

At this point the talk has diverged away from computer science history and will spare you the details until some other day. As promised is the talk description I concluded with identifying some resources for exploring emerging pedagogy and technology. I had chosen these resources before fleshing out the rest of the talk and by chance there is some overlap with the ideas from computer science and education.

Slide38

Horizons Report  2015 Higher Education Editionhttp://www.nmc.org/nmc-horizon/

Advancing cultures of change innovation … In order to breed innovation and adapt to economic needs, higher education institutions must be structured in ways that allow for flexibility, and spur creativity and entrepreneurial thinking … [There is] the need for universities to establish policies that spur more creativity and encourage more risk-taking, collaboration, and activities that more accurately reflect the contemporary workplace

[Creativity, collaboration and risk-taking are the keywords remembering that “the most dangerous thought you can have as a creative person is to think you know what you’re doing”]

Innovating Pedagogy 2015 – http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/innovating/

Computational thinking – Solving problems using techniques from computing. In the case of computing, as we learn its principles and languages, we also acquire a set of problem solving skills. Together, these are known as Computational Thinking. The value of these skills and their associated concepts, practices and perspectives, is widely recognised. … In England, the National Curriculum states that children should be offered high quality computing education that will equip them with skills in computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world. …

‘Computational’ does not imply that humans are being taught to think like unimaginative machines that can only solve a problem when supplied with a set of instructions to follow. Computational thinking is a way in which humans can think when they are trying to solve problems. The approach can be set out as a set of clear steps, but separating and navigating these steps is a creative human activity.

Although this way of thinking was developed in the context of computer programming and computer science, it can be applied more widely. Some definitions specify that it is used for the development of problem-solving procedures that can be mechanically interpreted. This appears to be an unnecessary restriction. Computational thinking provides a way of formulating problems and their solutions. It enables people to deal confidently with complexity and with open-ended problems. It is essential when developing computer applications, but it is also valuable in any discipline.

[So as well as the culture around computer science developments in the 1960s and 1970s the associated skills, concepts and practices could be valuable in other contexts]

Hack Education Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015http://2015trends.hackeducation.com/indie.html

Indie Ed-Tech – indie ed-tech underscores the importance of students and scholars alike controlling their intellectual labor and their data; it questions the need for VC-funded, proprietary tools that silo and exploit users; it challenges the centrality of the LMS in all ed-tech discussions and the notion that there can be one massive (expensive) school-wide system to rule them all; it encourages new forms of open, networked learning that go beyond the syllabus, beyond the campus. It’s not only a different sort of infrastructure, it’s a different sort of philosophy than one sees promoted by Silicon Valley – by the ed-tech industry or the (ed-)tech press

[Here I see us going into hacker culture, “the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming and circumventing limitations of systems to achieve novel and clever outcomes”. In taking more ownership of connections, content, and data; circumventing the dominance and limitations of the LMS will certainly take clever techniques but importantly a community to develop and share these]

So there you go folks. I drop the mic on the floor and calmly walk away wondering did that sound stupid…