Using Computers for Educational Freedom

Brian Harvey
University of California, Berkeley

[This article is adapted from a talk given by the author at the Second Annual Computer Conference at Lesley College, May 3, 1980.]

The computer is fast becoming an educational cure-all; depending on which expert you consult, it can teach problem-solving skills, teach basic arithmetic by making drill fun, replace the teacher, augment the teacher, or provide experiential learning. Given all these possibilities, it's hard to establish priorities when setting up a computer facility. The way to choose what to do first, from among the many exciting possibilities, is to start with a clear idea of your overall goals.

I would like to suggest one possible goal, and consider its practical implications. The goal is summed up in this statement by Ted Nelson: ``The purpose of computers is human freedom.'' [From The Computer Lib Pledge (c) 1978 Ted Nelson.] That's pretty vague, as it stands. Let me say first that it doesn't mean not to think about other goals. It does, though, establish priorities in buying equipment and in spending time on development of the facility. We have set up a computer facility at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School (we bought a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11/70 in 1979), and our choices will help explain what I understand by this goal.

The word ``freedom'' means many different things in different contexts. For the purposes of this discussion, though, I want to consider two fairly narrow components of freedom: variety and initiative.

Variety: Activities vs. Tools

It makes no sense to talk about freedom for students unless they have choices to make. And as Jonathan Kozol points out, they have to be significant choices--deciding between tuna fish and peanut butter in the cafeteria doesn't count.

Probably the first thing which comes to mind under the heading of variety is a variety of activities, as in the open classroom approach. In the context of computer education, we can provide a variety of game programs for student use, and a variety of suggested programming projects. This kind of variety is an obviously worthwhile step, but I think that the computer allows a much more profound step toward freedom: a variety of tools.

You can go to the store and buy a ``computer game'' with a name like Electronic Football. The game implies one specific activity. If it's a good game, you may play it often. But if you get bored with the activity, the device is useless to you. Alternatively, you can buy a screwdriver. This tool is not limited to one activity; in fact, it doesn't suggest an activity at all. That is, you don't say ``I think I'll go play with my screwdriver now.'' Instead, you say ``I think I'll fix that loose hinge now,'' and you reach for your screwdriver without thinking about it.

It may be overstating the case to say that the Electronic Football game actually decreases its owner's freedom, but certainly a good assortment of tools is much more conducive to free behavior. The computer lends itself to creating such a toolkit. Here are some of the tools we offer:

The most powerful of software tools is the programming language. A student who can program is truly free to use the computer in ways not anticipated by a teacher or operating system designer. The choice of programming language has a profound effect on the range of problems within the student's grasp; some languages are more powerful than others, and also some are more conducive than others to a programming style which will make large problems comprehensible to mere human beings. For beginning programming students, we use the Logo language. This language, developed specifically as a teaching language at MIT and at Bolt Beranek and Newman, Inc., is simple and interactive, like BASIC, but also allows the power of list processing and recursive procedures, like the LISP language from which many of its ideas came. The beginning programmer can type in a simple command for immediate execution (PRINT 2+2) or store a sequence of commands as a named procedure for later use. A complex problem can be divided naturally into sub-problems, each solved by a sub-procedure of the main program. A procedure can also use itself as a sub-procedure. The language contains provisions for interesting problem domains like graphics (through the turtle commands mentioned earlier) and language processing (for example, translating a sentence into Pig Latin).

Other languages we use are APL, Pascal, C, and LISP. APL is used by the Mathematics Department not to teach programming per se, but to provide as a tool to students what amounts to a calculator which understands algebra. The language hides many of the problems of control structure which are prominent in more conventional languages, and emphasizes instead mathematical concepts like functions, vectors, and matrices. Pascal is quickly becoming a very popular teaching language because it is available on many microcomputers and is designed to foster the Structured Programming style. I think it suffers as an initial teaching language from the fact that it is not interactive; the student must learn to cope with details of text editors, files, and operating systems before writing even the simplest Pascal program. However, it is a marvelous second language for the student who has mastered these details, because it calls attention to issues of data types and storage allocation which are hidden in an interactive language with dynamic allocation, like Logo. [1994 addendum: I can't believe I said that!] The C language is much like Pascal in its design, but it has the added benefit that most of the Unix operating system software itself is written in C, so a student who is curious about the inner workings of the software can read the actual programs after learning C. Finally, LISP is one of the most powerful of languages, used widely in Computer Science research. It provides a worthwhile challenge to our advanced students, and has been used in one formal course on Computational Linguistics.

Finally, an important role for the teacher in all this is as a sort of human tool; he is a consultant on ways and means, rather than an initiator of activities for students. I spend my time helping individual students debug their programs, rather than lecturing to a large group. I also encourage students to use one another as consultants and as tutors.

Initiative: a Political Issue

Educational freedom means, first of all, that students can make significant choices from a variety of alternatives. But if the choices are always made from a list invented by a teacher, the freedom is of a very limited sort. The example of using the computer to typeset the Promethean illustrates a very different sort of choice, in which students meet their own needs (the newspaper is an extracurricular activity, not a course) using the computer as a tool. That's what initiative means.

There is a clear relationship between this notion of initiative and the availability of a variety of tools. The more traditional variety of activities encourages what might be called ``passive freedom''; students are free to choose, but not free to initiate. In Paulo Freire's terms, students are still objects of an education provided by their teachers. But a variety of tools encourages students to become the subjects--the actors rather than the acted-upon--of their own education.

Any attempt to make initiative a guiding principle in teaching will confront two psychological barriers: first, it is hard for adults to permit student initiative; second, it is hard for students to accept the burden, an unusual one in a high school, if we encourage them to take initiative.

Many of the experts who write articles or talk at conferences about the use of computers in education give the impression that simply introducing computers to the classroom will automatically lead to increased freedom for learners. The truth, I think, is that the use of computers can go either way. When Ted Nelson says ``The purpose of computers is human freedom,'' he really means that that is what the purpose should be. In practice, most computers are better described as dedicated to human slavery! The computers at the IRS check up on income tax cheaters; the ones at the bank send you bills (or your paycheck, which is more pleasant than a bill but a more important form of economic slavery). More sophisticated research computers at the universities are used to study pictures of Vietnamese jungles to help figure out where to drop the napalm. Similarly, many computers in schools are still used exclusively for administrative computing; students don't get near them. If students do use the computers, it is often only for teacher-directed drill and practice, no matter how cleverly disguised as a game. Better uses of the technology are possible, but they aren't inevitable.

Consider an analogy. Most teachers probably agree, in principle, with the idea of educational freedom. Students learn best through intrinsic motivation, not through force. What you learn under pressure doesn't last past the exam. Everyone says these things, and yet almost all teachers continue to give grades. Why? ``It's required''; ``The colleges need grades''; ``The parents wouldn't stand for it''; ``It's the way things are.'' In short, the reasons for grades are political. The same political reasons make educational freedom through computers a difficult goal. If students are left to their own devices to initiate projects, how do we evaluate them? How do we know they aren't just wasting time? Remember, many school computers are funded through federal grants, and the feds always insist on evaluation of the program. That means coopting the computer into the usual school routine of assignments initiated and evaluated by teachers.

An even more frustrating barrier is that the students themselves are not accustomed to being without instructions from an adult. Many students will find valuable projects on their own, but many more will have to be weaned away slowly from dependence on explicit assignments. One of my early students taught himself four different programming languages, and learned a great deal about issues of programming style and structure in his senior year. He'll probably learn less about computers in four years of college. But he told me every day that I'm a terrible teacher, because I didn't make him learn anything. I didn't stand in front of the room and impart information, I didn't send in skip slips if he didn't show up, and I didn't punish him when he acted obnoxious. Well, it's not much fun to hear all this. It was tempting to say ``OK, if that's what you want, sit down and shut up!'' But I doubt if the most effective classroom manager in the world could teach this student as much in a year as he learned on his own--he would start directing his efforts into a power struggle.

What does all this mean as a guide to action? Well, our computer was installed for a full year before I started working on curriculum materials or organizing a course structure. I spent that year collecting and building tools, and kids spent the year learning on their own, or by asking questions. Two years later, we have a computer course in operation based on self-paced curriculum units, with no grades and with many different options in the actual course content. And about 50 kids have keys to the computer center, and use it evenings and weekends without adult supervision. The path from there to here was far from smooth, but it's been exciting.