sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

SparkCBC takes on the issue of computational literacy

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 23, 2010

As I’ve explained in previous blog posts, I’m a fan of incorporating computational literacy education into the formal classroom–across curricula and content areas. So I was thrilled to see Spark Radio will be tackling the issue of computational literacy in an upcoming broadcast. Spark co-producer Dan Misener explains, using the user-friendly iPad as an example:

(T)he iPad (and its little brothers, the iPhone and iPod touch) abstract much of the computer away. Apple watcher and former Spark guest John Gruber says it’s a bit like the automatic transmission in a car:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.

And from the standpoint of the vast majority of computer users, this abstraction can be a good thing. It makes computing simpler, easier, friendlier. Why should I need to understand what’s going on under the hood of my computer if all I want to do is send email to my friends?…

But I wonder, is the same attitude towards computers dangerous? Does oversimplifying technology –removing necessary complexity — have a downside? By making technology simple, easy, and convenient, do we risk a generation of people who can’t tell the difference between this blog post and the Facebook login page?

As I ponder this, I’m a bit torn. The technology populist in me wants to say, “Of course, make computers easy! What’s wrong with making computers as simple and friendly as possible?”

But another (geekier, snobbier) part of me wants to say, “Yes, computers are hard, and that can be a good thing. I don’t want to use technology designed for the lowest common denominator.”

The question this Spark show hopes to tackle is this:

If I don’t understand how to use my computer, whose fault is it? Is it my fault for not wanting to read manuals or spend time learning a new technology? Or is it the fault of the designers and engineers who build the technology we use?

You can weigh in on the discussion at the Spark blog, then listen in live or or download the podcast of the show; information on broadcast times and podcast download is available here.

Here’s my take on this issue, which I’ve also posted as a comment on the Spark blog:

This is a thorny issue, because easier interfaces help to drop the barriers to participation, but on the other hand this shift means we give up some degree of empowerment to make decisions about which sorts of interfaces, and by extension which sorts of technologies, work best for our specific needs. Indeed, the crafting and marketing of products like the iPad is deeply, deeply political, and the embedded politics that lead to the tools we use is not readily evident to those without a degree of computational literacy. And enormous swaths of the computer-using public are lacking in this area.

On the other hand, computational literacy is very much like other forms of literacy: reading, writing, mathematical literacy, and so on. We don’t blame the math-illiterate learner who has never been exposed to mathematics education, or whose math education was lacking in significant ways. This is the exact case with computational literacy education: It’s nearly nonexistent in formal classrooms, and has become the nearly exclusive domain of those with the luxury of access to computational technologies outside of school. In some ways, then, perhaps we get the technologies we deserve.

Posted in Apple, computational literacy, education, literacy, participatory culture, politics, reading, technologies, writing | 3 Comments »

notes from the {computational} revolution

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 2, 2010

As part of an ongoing effort to design a model for integrating computational technologies into the formal classroom, I have turned my focus to computational literacy. My current model already has a space for considering computational literacy, so in this post I want to spend some time exploring my definition of computational literacy. This includes a discussion of the key features of computational literacy and how these features might be taught. The models I’ve created are included at the end of this post.

I started learning to play the flute at age 8. I kept it up for 10 years. At age 15, I took a typing class and surprised myself by how easily I mastered the QWERTY system. At my fastest (in my early 20’s, when I was a reporter), I could type more than 160 words per minute. I’m a fan of languages, studied French from high school all the way through a master’s-level class, picked up enough German during a 2-week visit to Austria to order my food, ask for directions, and hold a basic conversation with a native Austrian. I studied computer science for about a minute in college –I hated it, I was no good at it–but I’ve taken to html, CSS, and other simple programming languages that support my ongoing efforts at web-based social revolution. I don’t understand, though I wish I did, the inner workings of computer hardware. I don’t understand the difference between Newtonian and pre-Newtonian physics, though I know the pre-Newtonian stuff is naive and kinda wrong. I build web pages for fun, mainly relying on templates but recently branching off into my own web design. Fairly soon, in fact, I will be leaving Blogspot behind in order to build a brand new website to my exact specifications. I have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, with an emphasis in poetry.

I don’t understand physics. I don’t like most programming languages. I play the flute and like to tinker with language. I’m a fast typist but a slow web designer. I am a computational thinker.

Computational literacy is like all true categories of literacy: a cluster of practices whose meaning emerges as the learner deploys those practices in increasingly knowledgeable, increasingly socially valuable ways.

And increasingly, computational literacy is both part of and separate from other clusters of literacy practices. Computational proficiencies are similar to but distinct from those proficiencies we label “new media literacies,” and they’re similar to but distinct from those proficiencies we label, for lack of a better phrase, “traditional literacies.” They’re often but not always, and not fully, aligned with the “hacker mentality”: an attitude that treats nearly everything as potentially bendable to the user’s will.

Like all other forms of literacy, computational literacy can be taught–though not if we treat it, as Jeanette Wing does in her 2008 treatise “Computational thinking and thinking about computing,” as a set of abstractions. Wing writes that “the nuts and bolts in computational thinking are defining abstractions, working with multiple layers of abstraction and understanding the relationships among the different layers. Abstractions are the ‘mental’ tools of computing.”

You don’t have to be much of a hacker to know that Wing misses something essential here. It may be that the language of a program is abstract, and that programming is dealing in abstractions, but only in the sense that letters, words, and sentences are abstractions leading to language. Even fairly young children develop an innate sense of grammar and know when a speech act violates the rules.

This is to say that the elements of language may very well be abstract communicative units, but native speakers develop a concrete mastery over their language nonetheless. (Though this mastery is often belied by our near absolute inability to articulate a single grammar rule.)

Teaching in support of computational literacy
My focus is on the English / Language Arts classroom, or what I’ve lately been calling the “literacy sciences” classroom. In describing the categories below, then, I’ve included a few ideas about how these aspects of computational literacy might be fostered in the secondary literacy sciences classroom.

I believe that computational literacy is comprised of the following sets of proficiencies:


Programming skill: This may include proficiency with one or more programming languages; or it may include creativity with language (the primary programming language of our culture); or it may include mathematical or scientific know-how.

What to teach: Basic web design can help to foster some foundational programming skills. Students might start a blog or, working within a closed social network like Ning, build personal profile pages complete with modified color templates and extra widgets. For many, the notion that what users see gets controlled by a kind of puppet master can be both surprising and empowering.

Technical expertise: Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel might refer to this category as “the technical stuff.” One feature of new media, for example, is its modularity–the ease with which we can copy, remix, and move media elements. Technical ability includes facility with the tools that allow for this kind of work, as well as ease with unfamiliar interfaces and comfort with just-in-time learning.

What to teach: I’ll never forget hearing games and education expert Katie Salen talk about the approach her Quest2Learn school takes toward computer literacy. She wondered why we have computer classes where kids learn how to use word processing, spreadsheet, and similar programs instead of folding that instruction into authentic learning experiences. “Why not teach kids how to use Word in the context of having to write something for their English class?” she asked. And she’s right. Of course, this means that English teachers will need to start developing more technical know-how–we’re long past the days when facility with Microsoft Word was a sufficient condition for effective writing, even in the English classroom. Let’s start having students use email programs, work with social networks, do some basic image and video editing with the programs that come standard on most newer computer systems.

Hand-eye coordination: Another feature of new technologies is that they often stretch across the virtual and the physical. I busted laptop screens and frayed charging cables until I learned to work with the physical affordances of computing technologies; I’m graced with excellent typing skills; these make any task that requires text generation between 20 and 40 percent easier than they would be for the typist of a more average speed.

What to teach: Typing is of course an important skill, though many kids build up their dexterity through text messaging. I’m going to argue for the practice of building things in the English classroom. There is, for example, the brilliant piece of rhetoric embodied in this recent OkGo music video:

You can’t tell me that the building of that enormous mousetrap didn’t foster not only increased hand-eye coordination but a deeper sense of space and rhetoric, as well. We may not have the tools for building a better mousetrap in the typical classroom, but the building of small sets for video productions, the designing of costumes and backdrops and other visuals, can help support increased motor confidence in learners.

Visual literacy: Lev Manovich explains the visual basis for all digital media, and even goes so far as to explain that even the very letters and numbers we see on our computer screens have been converted into binary code, then converted back into visual representations so that we can easily make sense of the information. This brings a new imperative to visual literacy. Previously, visual literacy was treated as the ability to think critically about advertising, television, and films; today, we add a near-limitless number of visual media formats in addition to our new roles as producers of visual media in addition to our role as consumers.


What to teach: Visual rhetoric is a growing field. Many teachers are already incorporating video projects, website design, and other forms of visual rhetoric into their classrooms, and we can look to them for advice on how to proceed in this area.

Tolerance for tinkering: Pastimes like crocheting, woodworking, and gardening took up time but didn’t necessarily take up all of our attention. When we weren’t counting or focusing on a particularly difficult maneuver, we could talk or watch TV or sing a song. Coding doesn’t allow for this split of attention. Neither does building a digital scrapbook or designing a webpage or building a virtual model. At best we can devote all of our attention for a time to the code, then shift our full attention away, then shift our full attention back again. Mimi Ito and her colleagues talk about “geeking out,” and part of geeking out is hours passed immersed in one activity or another, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. As a culture, we haven’t really had much tolerance for geeking out, though that’s starting to change. What we need now is to build up a tolerance for geeking out in our learners. There are those who argue that we lost something when young people stopped reading books–that those children lost the ability to immerse themselves in an entire world. It’s possible that what’s been lost in the decline of books can be compensated for through the emergence of computational thinking–of geeking out.

What to teach: Immersive, lengthy projects. We might consider trying to turn the classroom into a structured workshop space, much as fine arts programs balance studio time with critique. We’re already halfway there with peer review and collaborative activities; if we can just shift the focus away from critique and toward construction of powerful projects, we can easily build a tinkering-tolerant learning community.

I’m not saying it’s easy to support computational literacy in the formal classroom. What I am saying is that it’s necessary.






Posted in education, Joshua Danish, literacy, reading, social revolution, teaching, writing | 5 Comments »

update: model for integrating technology into the literacy classroom

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 14, 2010

I’ve upgraded.

As part of an ongoing assignment for a course I’m taking called Computational Technologies in Educational Ecosystems, I’ve been designing and modifying a model for the role of technologies in the classroom. A previous version, a cellphone picture of a drawing on a sheet of notebook paper, looked like this:

Well. This is for a class on computational technologies, so a hand-drawn model would never do. Besides, one of the more useful affordances of new design technologies is the ease with which designs can be modified–not the case with hand-drawn designs.

So I upgraded. The upgrade looks like this:

(You can click the image to enlarge it; if it’s still too small, you can open a powerpoint version here.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m focusing in on the English / Language Arts classroom–what I’ve begun to call the “literacy sciences” classroom. I’m calling it this to reflect my vision for the kind of learning that can happen in the ideal ELA classroom. It’s a community where class activities reflect the real-world practices of people engaging in authentic, valuable and valued reading and writing practices. In the real world, reading and writing practices cross multiple media and platforms; and they’re all bound up in the context for which they’re necessary and useful.

Which is why this version includes one tiny but important addition: The open door leading to other content areas. This addition was inspired by reading I’ve done this week on participatory simulations and wearable computing. Vanessa Colella’s 2000 piece, “Participatory Simulations: Building Collaborative Understanding through Immersive Dynamic Modeling,” describes one aspect of these types of simulations: That they treat the classroom as what she labels a “cognitive system.” Colella describes the cognitive system as one comprised of all people, tools, data, and discourse that are both part of and a product of class activities.

What Colella doesn’t point out is that the simulations she describes call for a cognitive system not bound by any specific content domain. Her simulation is of a fast-spreading virus similar to HIV or influenza, and though students’ primary goal is to solve the problem of how the virus spread and to whom, related social and cultural implications are hinted at and have educational potential.

Indeed, the real-world literacy practices of literacy science are not bound to any domain. It’s hard to imagine what “pure” literacy science would look like: A solitary reader, engaging in literary analysis in a room by herself, without any tools other than her eyes and her mind and her memory? Though the cognitive systems that surround literacy performances are not always clear and not always stable, one thing we can say is that they extend far beyond the domain of English / Language Arts.

We must, therefore, prepare learners for this reality by opening up the doors and letting content bleed across boundaries, and letting readers move between contexts. The problems learners must be prepared to address–the deep, thorny problems of our time–call for a breaking down of content silos.

One other addition here is the citations around the borders. These are linked to varying extent to course readings; I’ve added a few other names where relevant. Upon completion of this project, I’ll post a list of all relevant resources, in case you’re interested in perusing them.

Posted in academia, education, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, Joshua Danish, literacy, patent pending, reading, schools, teaching, writing | Leave a Comment »

my first vlogpost: how blogging has shaped my reading and writing practices

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 27, 2009

You guys, I think this is my very first vlogpost.

According to Wikipedia, video-blogging, or vlogging, is

a form of blogging for which the medium is video.Entries are made regularly and often combine embedded video or a video link with supporting text, images, and other metadata. Entries can be recorded in one take or cut into multiple parts.

The open content site at public radio station WGBH clumps vlogs with blogs and offers one definition for both; presumably, this means that both offer the same kind of content, using different media delivery formats.

In that case, here you go: my very first vlogpost, a video project (filmed and edited by me!) explaining how I read and write through my primary identity as a blogger.

Posted in blogging, graduate school, literacy, reading, writing | 2 Comments »