Computing and education

I’m in the computer room at a grand old hotel in New Paltz, NY, the Mohonk Mountain House, fretting about what to say to a group of school business managers gathered here under the banner of the NYSAIS. I’m here to talk about computing and education. (At the Berkman Center, this topic is one of our three core thematic areas of inquiry, along with Internet & content issues like IP and Internet & democracy. Charlie Nesson, JZ, and Colin Maclay do a much better job than I do in keeping this issue in the foreground of our work.)

The best part about attending a similar event last Fall was meeting several inspiring and insightful teachers. Some of them not only blog themselves, but think hard and well about computing and teaching. One of those teachers is Arvind Grover, whose blog I was scanning by way of research for some of those inspired thoughts I recall him having. For one, he thinks that “We need to be training our students to be problems solvers, not fact-repeaters. I advocate for computer science starting lower school and going all the way through college. The effect of technology on the world has been dramatic and it continues. … If your school does not have a computer science program, you must ask yourself why not? If your school does have a computer science program, you must ask yourself is it the right one?” He refers us to a ComputerWorld article on the future of computer science.

I agree. But I’m also puzzling over another, related question. If you are teaching today’s Digital Natives but not using technology to do so, why not? And if you are, what’s your purpose in doing so? You may well have a good reason NOT to use computing in any way in the teaching process. A professor at Harvard Law School, Elizabeth Warren, makes a compelling case about how she teaches using the Socratic method and the extent to which that method is about a highly focused, person-to-person exchange in the classroom (and associated benefits to onlookers who are not looking at IMs and smirking about what someone just sent them). Absent a specific pedagogical reason of this sort — and there are many — I think any educator, at any level, has to ask themselves if they are in fact engaging students in the digital environment in which a large percentage of their students immerse themselves. It does not mean everyone has to teach computing, or the law of computing, or some off-shoot of it. But I do think that it’s becoming increasingly important to join the issue in schools of all levels. What is your strategy for using computing as part of the teaching and learning process? If you ignore computing, are you effectively preparing your students for where they head next? Are you engaging them where they are right now? Are you, and your students, contributing to the emerging digital commons of shared knowledge? And are you making the most of your community’s digital identity? Charlie Nesson asks, “What’s your cyberstrategy?”  The answer might be no, or I don’t have one, or I don’t care, but failing to ask the questions strikes me as the big potential mistake.

Maturation of blogging

This morning, we are hosting an eminent group of academics here at Harvard Law School for a symposium on blogging and legal scholarship. Prof. Paul Caron is leading off right now. You can tune in to the webcast, if you are not local to Cambridge. (If you needed any further incentive to watch, Prof. Michael Froomkin promises to announce a new project just after 11:00 a.m.)

Meanwhile, a Maine blogger has been sued for $1 million for blog posts critical of the advertising campaign of a state agency in Maine. The Boston Globe reports: “Warren Kremer Paino Advertising LLC, an agency hired by the Maine Department of Tourism, filed suit in US District Court in Maine last week, alleging the blogger, Lance Dutson of Searsmont, Maine, outside Camden, violated the agency’s copyright and defamed the agency in blog entries self-published at” My view is that a lawsuit of this sort should have to clear a very high bar before a court awards damages to the design firm, especially where the core discussion is a matter of political speech in which a citizen is commenting on the activities of a state agency of his home state.

And, today, we are releasing a brand-new blogs server at Harvard Law, running a new instantiation of WordPress. It reminds me of the heady days when Dave Winer, back in Christmas Break 2002, first joined us at the Berkman Center and pulled us all into this business as the pied piper of citizen-generated media here at Harvard. Core to Dave’s blogging initiative here was to put up the first-ever community blogs server at a university.

I am reminded of an article that the Harvard Gazette published back in 2003, in the early days of the initiative. I think it’s safe, now, to say that this blogging initiative has been a big, maybe even unqualified, success — with several hundred members of the Harvard community blogging, whether on our server or otherwise; a vibrant group whose (completely open set of) members still meet every Thursday night at the Berkman Center; the first series of podcasts and extensions of that tradition; and so forth. Come a long way, since then, with lots of great people picking up the legacy and extending it, like all those working on Global Voices. Thanks, Dave.