Information Age Education
   Issue Number 9
January, 2009   


This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

"Don't worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn't violate too many of Newton's Laws!" (Alan Kay; born May 17, 1940.)

Alan Kay is one of the Pioneers in the field of Information and Communication Technology in Education. He was a child prodigy, and he was a National Quiz Kid at age ten. He is known for his early pioneering work on object-oriented programming, laptop computers, graphical user interfaces, and dedication to improving the education of children. I strongly recommend the 2003 Alan Kay 28 minute video titled Education in the Digital Age, available at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1109203988787201616&hl=en.

Looking Back

HistoryAn intact human brain is naturally curious and has an innate ability to learn. This includes an ability to learn oral communication and to learn by imitation. For tens of thousands of years, people depended primarily on oral communication and learning by imitation for such important tasks as:



  1. Preserving and passing on accumulated information from the past. (This includes learning to make and use tools.)
  2. Developing, sharing, and implementing one’s ideas and plans.

The first written language system was developed about 5,200 years ago. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are very powerful aids to doing 1 and 2 listed above. However, it takes a considerable effort on the part of both teachers and students for a student to develop fluency and literacy in a symbolic language system.

For many thousands of years after the development of symbolic written languages, only a very small percentage of the population learned to read, write, and do arithmetic using the written symbol systems. This situation continued well past the time of the invention of movable type printing presses, first in China and then much later by Gutenberg in Europe.

Here is a key idea that is emphasized by Alan Kay and many other educational leaders. One person or a small number of people working together can invent movable type printing. Once invented, quite a few printing presses can be built and lots of books can be mass-produced. However, learning to read is a one person at a time activity. It takes years of concentrated teaching and learning effort for a person to develop a reasonable level of reading literacy.

Similarly, it takes years of concentrated teaching and learning effort for a person to become reasonably skilled at writing, and using writing to do arithmetic. To summarize this situation, we can mass-produce books, but that is quite a bit different than mass-producing literate people. Each new child represents a new teaching and learning challenge.

Looking at More Current Times

CurrentOver the past 175 years, humans have developed the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, sound and video recording devices, cell telephone, digital still and video camera, GPS, and other aspects of our current computer-based Information and Communication Technology.

As Alan Kay was doing his graduate studies in the late 1960s, he encountered Seymour Papert ideas of using computer technology with young students. Papert is best known for his work in helping to develop the Logo programming language and efforts to integrate Logo-based problem solving into the curriculum. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logo_(programming_language).

His interactions with Papert led Alan Kay in the direction of helping to design and develop laptop computers and computer environments suited to the needs of relatively young students. See http://iae-pedia.org/Alan_Kay. Kay’s many years of research and development in the areas of laptops, graphics, window environments, telecommunications, and the education of children have lead to his current understanding of several very important ideas:
  1. We can develop ICT that people can use with little formal education. However, it takes substantial formal education and deep learning to make effective use of ICT as an aid to representing and helping to solve the complex interdisciplinary problems faced by people in our current world and societies.
  2. One can draw a good parallel between reading and writing literacy, and computer literacy. Computer literacy is built on and extends the symbol sets and ideas of reading, writing, math, and other academic disciplines. It takes considerable hard work over an extended period of time to develop reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking, and problem solving literacy in the ICT environments. Most ICT users have not moved beyond the augmentation (lowest level) use of this technology. (See issue #8 of the IAE Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2008-08.html.)

 Looking into the Future

The FutureAlan Kay and many others point out that our current education system is antiquated and ineffective in light of the current and future potentials of ICT. As with books, we can mass-produce ICT. What we have not learned to do is to mass-produce students who are well educated and functionally literate in using ICT to represent and help solve the complex and challenging problems that they will face as they strive to be responsible adult citizens of the world and the countries in which they reside. Moreover, the continued rapid rate of change of ICT makes the educational task even more daunting.


About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org,  and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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