This free Information Age Education
is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age
Education (IAE) publications.
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are
In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are
available: Understanding and
Mastering Complexity; Consciousness
and Morality: Recent
an Appropriate 21st Century Education;
and Common Core State
Standards for Education in
This issue of the IAE Newsletter is a continuation of the series on Education for Student’s Futures.
Education for Students' Futures
Part 17: Folk Computing and Folk Mathing
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
"If you want to teach people a new way
of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead give them a
tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking." (Richard
Buckminster Fuller; American engineer, author, designer, inventor, and
You have heard about folk dancing and folk
music. But, how about folk computing and folk mathing? They may seem to
you as long-stretch analogies in the use of the term folk.
However, these analogies offer interesting insights into an important
part of the future of education. This IAE newsletter provides a brief
introduction to the long-established discipline of folk math (often
called street math) and uses this as a springboard into a discussion of
Children growing up in an environment containing considerable folk
music or folk dance learn these two long-time important parts of human
culture without the benefit of formal schooling. For the most part,
they learn by observation, imitation, participation, and just plain
playing. This oral tradition of folk learning predates the development
of reading and writing.
Most students have learned quite a bit of math long
before beginning kindergarten or the first grade. This is especially
true for children growing up in homes in which numbers are a routine
part of daily conversation.
My long-time colleague Gene Maier wrote extensively about folk math
(Maier, 1976) more than 35 years ago. His papers provide numerous
examples of people with little or no formal schooling solving the types
of math problems arising in their jobs as carpenters, millwrights,
plumbers, sheet metal workers, and so on.
One of the key ideas in Maier’s writings is that children can and do
learn a lot of math without the benefit of formal schooling. Quoting
from his 1976 article:
Woody Guthrie defined folk music as
“music that folks sing.” In that same way, folk math is math that folks
do. Like folklore, folk math is largely ignored by the purveyors of
academic culture—professors and teachers—yet it is the repository of
much useful and ingenious popular wisdom. Folk math is the way people handle the math-related problems arising in everyday life. [Bold added for emphasis.]
The general topic of folk math is often discussed in the context of
street children in impoverished countries learning “street math” that
they need in selling newspapers or other goods and services on the
street, and feeding and clothing themselves. My 1/5/2015 Google search
of the expression Brazil street math produced over 2 million hits. See, for example, the article by Keith Devlin (May, 2005).
Folk (Street) Computing
My recent Google search of the term folk computing produced
about 5,700 hits. I browsed through the first 100 results, and
essentially all referred back to a 2001 paper (Borovoy, et al., 2001).
Quoting from the paper:
In this paper, we introduce Folk
Computing: an approach for using technology to support co-present
community building inspired by the concept of folklore. We also
introduce a new technology, called “i-balls,” whose design helped
fashion this approach.
We are interested in how technology can support face-to-face communication and community building.
Notice the last sentence. The aim of the project was to create a new
computer communication environment in which children could create
and share “balls of information” (i-balls). The article mentions that
the project was built on their previous five years of development work
on folk computing. However, the i-ball project is quite different from
my concept of folk computing.
In my opinion, the history of folk computing (but not its designation
as “folk computing”) goes back to the 1940’s and 1950’s when the first
computer games and early programming languages such as FORTRAN were
being developed. FORTRAN was designed for adults to help them solve
problems in engineering, physics, and other sciences. On their own,
secondary school students discovered FORTRAN programming to be a sort
of game in which they could direct the operations of a computer to do
tasks of interest to them.
I envision folk computing as an entirely different concept than the
i-ball project. I am interested in taking the ideas of folk math and
applying them to children learning to use computers. Many of today’s
children use computerized electronic toys, computerized games, tablet
or laptop computers, and Smart Phones before they enter kindergarten or
the first grade. The acquisition and transmission of learning of this
type of computer use, knowledge, and skills fits neatly into the “folk”
Folk computing learning styles are somewhat like those used by children
of earlier generations in learning folk music and folk dance by
observation and imitation. However, children learning folk computing
have an added advantage—computers can be used in a self-study,
self-play, anytime, anywhere mode, and they provide nearly instant
feedback. For example, think about a child learning to take pictures
using a digital camera, a quite sophisticated computerized device. The
cost of this fun, learn-by-doing activity may be only a few
instructions from a relative or friend followed by a period of
trial-and-error and feedback from self and others.
I am amazed by the skills that children can develop through playing
with computers. The software they are playing with might be a game. But
it might also be a creative art environment, a building block
environment, a word-processing environment, an information retrieval
environment such as the Web, a music creation and/or editing
environment, and so on. Computer apps provide children of all ages with
fun, interesting, challenging opportunities to do things, receive
feedback, and make changes to better achieve whatever they are trying
The idea of folk computing extends to adults of all ages. On a
worldwide basis, last year about a billion Smart Phones were produced
and sold. Most adults purchasing these cell phones may initially have
had a brief amount of instruction from a sales clerk or from friends.
(It is rumored that some people actually read the manual.) They also
learned to use them through transfer of learning from their previous
skills in using phones, cameras, video games, accessing music and other
information, GPS, and so on. Few, if any, received formal instruction
in a “school” setting.
What this illustrates is the power and potential of folk computing in
the education of students of all ages. If useful new products have good
user interfaces, people will learn to use the products by using the
products. See the quote from Buckminster Fuller at the beginning of
Folk Computing in Education
Educational researchers are well aware of student interest in—indeed,
sometimes addiction to—computer games and social networking learned
through folk computing. They ask, “How can we bring this intrinsic
motivation and accompanying learning into our traditional, formal
schooling system?” Thus, there are now many research and development
projects being conducted jointly by educational researchers/designers
and computer entertainment companies.
I find it interesting to think about the long-term implications of
extending the basic ideas and uses of folk computing into our formal
educational system. For me, this
raises the question, “What content might best be taught by folk
computing and what might best be taught by more formal computer
teaching systems and/or human teachers?” See Moursund (2014a, 2014b.)
In my mind, I think of the meaning of “best” both in terms of
cost effectiveness and in terms of preserving human values and the
essence of us as human beings. The socialization and social development
of children is a very important goal of education. Every subject we
teach in schools is rooted in human history and values. This is true
even in math, one of my favorite subjects. One of the more important
math education books published in the 20th century is Mathematics, a Human Endeavor (Jacobson, 1982).
My question raised above about the role of folk computing in education
has no simple answers, and the answers we develop will change over time
through continued progress in the capabilities of computer technology
and the changing educational needs of people.
The Tool Is the Teacher
In two recent IAE newsletters about the future of teaching machines, I
explored the idea that a tool itself can be thought of as an aid to
learning to use that tool (Moursund, 2014a, 2014b). Computerized tools
can be specifically designed both to help solve particular types of
problems or accomplish particular tasks, and also to help their users
learn to use the tools effectively. In my two newsletters I built on
Marshall McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message” and on
the quote from Buckminster Fuller given at the beginning of this
newsletter. I summarized the theme I developed by the statement, “The
tool is the teacher.”
The next three sections provide some insights into the folk computing tool as a teacher.
What can children learn when they are provided access to a computer but
with little or no instruction about what it is and what it can do?
Sugata Mitra began to explore this idea in 1999. Quoting from the
Wikipedia article on Mitra (n.d.):
In 1999, the [Sugata Mitra’s] Hole in
the Wall (HIW) experiments in children's learning, was first conducted.
In the initial experiment, a computer was placed in a kiosk in a wall
in a slum at Kalkaji, Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely.
The experiment aimed at proving that children could be taught by
computers very easily without any formal training. Mitra termed this
Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The experiment has since been
repeated in many places; HIW has more than 23 kiosks in rural India. In
2004 the experiment was carried out in Cambodia.
View two TED Talks by Mitra by clicking here and here. He won a $1 million prize from TED that he is using to continue his research.
Research on Educational Computer Games
My Google search of the expression educational computer games
research produced over 290 million hits. There are a number of major
research centers in the U.S. and other countries that are doing
research on video games in education. The Education Arcade
at MIT provides an excellent example. One of their major successes is
the development and widespread dissemination of a “modern”
graphics-oriented programming language for children. Children from
throughout the world share their programming projects and ideas through
this MIT website.
Here is an example of current work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison:
Designed to measure children’s learning in real time while rewiring their brains to help them be more empathetic, Crystals of Kaydor
[a new game] offers a potentially transformative response to two
cutting-edge questions now being debated in the world of testing:
whether digital games can effectively blur the line between instruction
and assessment and how educators can better gauge children’s social and
emotional skills (Herold, 8/6/2013).
Notice the emphasis on social and emotional skills. These are certainly
an important aspect of a good education—but they are not directly
taught in most schools. Notice also that improving competence in a game
is a good measure of learning that is occurring in the game. The line
between instruction/learning and assessment is blurred in computer game
Folk computing can be likened to a bed of roses. It is sweet, but
thorny. Sherry Turkle is a professor in the Program in Science,
Technology and Society at MIT and the founder and director of the MIT
Initiative on Technology and Self. Quoting from the introduction to her
TED Talk (Turkle, April, 2012):
Described as "the Margaret Mead of
digital culture," Turkle has now turned her attention to the world of
social media and sociable robots. As she puts it, these are
technologies that propose themselves "as the architect of our
intimacies." In her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,
Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis are
confronting us with a moment of temptation. Drawn by the illusion of
companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and
online sharing with authentic communication. We are drawn to sacrifice
conversation for mere connection. Turkle suggests that just because we
grew up with the Internet, we tend to see it as all grown up, but it is
not: Digital technology is still in its infancy and there is ample time for us to reshape how we build it and use it. [Bold added for emphasis.]
I believe the most important point in her TED Talk
is that people are being greatly changed by the computer. If you have
ever seen a group of children sitting in a room and communicating with
each other through texting or a social network, you have seen the idea
of Alone Together (Turkle, 2011). Many children are growing up without gaining good skills in face-to-face voice communication.
Folk computing has added a new dimension to education. It is
making a major change in children, and it brings children into our
schools who are quite different from children of earlier years. Our
schooling system faces a major challenge as it works to design and
implement an educational system that incorporates the best features of
what human teachers can provide with the best features that computer
technology can provide.
Although the history of the use of computers for teaching and learning
in schools is now over 50 years old, we are still at the beginning of
integrating computer technology into education. Folk computing is
producing children who enter formal schooling knowing far more about
certain aspects of computers than do most of their teachers. Our formal
educational system faces a future of continuing change as it is trying
to keep up with these changes in our students, as well as in research
and development in computer technology, brain science, and a host of
other major worldwide changes.
Borovov, R., Silverman, B., Gorton, T., Klann, J.,
Notowidigdo, M., Knep, B., & Resneck, M. (2001). Folk computing:
Revisiting oral tradition as a scaffold for co-present communities. MIT Media Lab. Retrieved 1/24/2015 from https://llk.media.mit.edu/papers/folk-computing.pdf.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.
David Moursund is an
Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and
coeditor of the IAE Newsletter.
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007,
Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free
online educational materials via its IAE-pedia,
IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login link below and sign in.
If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help