Selling electricity

December 28, 2009 at 6:43 pm Leave a comment

My wife’s grandfather died last Wednesday. He was 96, and though he had been fading for years, he had lived an amazing life. The memorial service, with many of his 20+  grandchildren and 40+ great-grandchildren attending, felt less like mourning and more like a celebration of his life. Many wonderful stories were shared.

Barb’s grandfather had worked for Thumb Electric (look at a map of Michigan, and the rural area called the “Thumb” sticks out like a sore one). Barb’s grandfather was part of a crew that literally brought electricity to this part of Michigan.  One of his jobs was to get farmers to “sign up” for electricity. If he could get a whole street to sign up, then the wires would be brought in.

I remember him telling me stories about how hard it was to convince farmers to buy into electricity. What did they need electricity for? Their farms worked, just as they had for years. Some farmers might have heard about some new-fangled device (say, a milking machine) that they wanted.  But most farmers were happy with what they had.  He was selling a dream of what things might be like if they had electricity.

It seems hard to believe, in hindsight, that farmers might not want electricity. Until it was ubiquitous, there weren’t that many devices that needed it.  Until the devices came along, it’s usefulness was unproven.  Buying into electricity was paying a cost with uncertain benefit. Grandpa Hund was selling a dream.

Selling real computing education to teachers at the high school level or as part of a general education requirement in college feels like a similar challenge.  Andy diSessa has been talking for years about what it would be like if there was ubiquitous real computer literacy.  Seymour Papert had a vision for “mathland,” realized through computation, where students would learn math naturally, with the involvement of a community of elders (like in a Samba school).

The first challenge to overcome, like with electricity, is to show that there’s something more to be gained.  “My students make their own Excel spreadsheets. Some of my kids make Flash animations.”  How do we convince that teacher that real computation is so much more powerful?  How do we show that knowing how to program, not at a professional level but with real understanding, allows students to explore ideas in ways that no application will ever support?

The second challenge, again like electricity, is to show that the price is affordable.  “Programming is too hard.  My students can’t stand all that syntax. Programming is a menial task that is being off-shored.”  This challenge is made greater by computer scientists who encourage the view that real computer science is  reserved for the wizards.  Only those who know the mystic arts of diagrams (like UML) and archetypes of spells (like design patterns) should be allowed to speak the magic words (as arcane as we can make them, like “public static void main.”)

Really knowing computing can be as powerful as electricity.  Selling it can be as hard.  Since Grandpa Hund’s funeral was lit up with electric lights and warmed with electric heating, he showed that there is a way to sell it.

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