Engelbart: On Teaching Programming

Advertisement for a Commodore Pet ComputerThis is my expanded response to the Jon Udell video that is part of the Annnotating Engelbart project. I appreciate the time Jon took to participate in this work.

In Jon’s discussion with Gardner, he wonders if it is practical to teach students programming. I just wanted to add a note about programming and education. While getting my English degree from Sonoma State, I took a symbolic logic class from a professor who used programming as a form of symbolic logic – no one was meant to take calculus first or anything like that – it was fairly simple programming which was meant to infer a Chomskian view of language and thinking. It was a useful class that got us thinking about (and applying) concepts in linguistics, philosophy, and logic. Second, teaching the concepts of programming does not require students to memorize lists of commands. With programs like Scratch, from MIT https://scratch.mit.edu/, students can quickly grasp core concepts of programming. As an adult basic education instructor, I have seen first hand how a lack of technical literacy can paralyze students. The less the students know about tech, the less access they have to the benefits of tech and the more likely they will be victims of it.

Back in the early 90s, I was a Special Education Aide at a Junior High School. Our classroom had one very old computer and the students were able to get on it one at a time to work on papers. I asked for more computers for that classroom and the  attitude of the administration was that “why would special education kids need computers?” I was pretty outraged. I immediately left campus and drove to the district warehouse to talk to  them. I asked if they had any extra computers. They said yes and took me into a warehouse that had tons of unused computers – practically floor to ceiling. These computers were considered out of date and ready to be dumpstered. In that room, was the history of education technology up to that time. There were Commodore Pets, Apples II, III, and Lisas. There were every kind of printer and peripheral you could imagine including biometric inputs (“lie detector” kits). I loaded up as much of Apple II computers and gear as I could in my car and went back to the school and set them up. I started the students playing games, making art, animations – in other words playing around. The programs were written in Apple BASIC. When the students were tired of the limitations of the programs, we explored how to change them and how to create their own programs. Not everyone was interested in looking under the hood, but that class certainly did not leave that year afraid of technology. A few of the students went on to tech careers or engineering later on.

How does this tie into Engelbart? Many at the school district would say that there was no technology available for the students because they only think of tech in terms of something that has to be directly funded and “up to date.” I think the combination of resourcefulness, curiosity, and playfulness allows us to think creatively about using any available technology in new ways, especially if we start, as Engelbart does, with purpose.


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