Fashion counts: Cell phones vs. Calculators

August 14, 2009 at 11:31 am 3 comments

My advisor, Elliot Soloway, appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution this week, which made me proud. Education columnist Maureen Downey wrote a piece on “Cellphone as Teacher” in which she talked about Elliot and his quest to make cell phones into useful and powerful educational tools. The idea is to “capitalize on children’s natural affinity for technology and the omnipresence of cellphones.”  The article talks about how the cell phones might be used: “Students measured the area of a school hallway, recorded the geologic stages of the rock cycle and found mean, median, mode and range from a group of numbers. They sketched and even animated on the phones.”

My kids started school this week (Georgia starts waaay early), so I’ve been spending lots of time in Target and Office Depot picking up school supplies — including calculators.  Have you looked at calculators lately?  They are amazingly powerful!  A $30 calculator provides a list interface to input sets of numbers, and then does regression analysis and solves simultaneous equations.  The $100 calculator that’s required for the high school does graphing, animation, and includes a digital periodic table.  These calculators can easily be used for everything Maureen describes.  A $100 calculator is way cheaper than a cell phone plus minutes. There’s a huge amount of curricular materials for calculators, and the teachers now do welcome calculators into the classroom, unlike cell phones. Maureen quotes Elliot saying, “Now, we truly, finally have personal computers that are going to fit in our pockets.” Calculators have been there for years.

So why not push calculators, rather than cell phones?  They are cheaper, more powerful, the curricula already exist, and teachers already accept them.  I’m pretty sure that I know how Elliot would answer: you start from where the kids are.  Calculators are not cool, are not interesting.  They are out of fashion.  As Maureen’s piece says:

“Laptops are very ’90s,” says University of Michigan researcher Elliot Soloway. “They are your daddy’s computers.”

He might as well have said, “Calculators are very ’80’s.  They’re your grandfather’s computers.”

I think about that with respect to computing education (and the next blog post I’m planning).  I’ve argued that no student gets engaged anymore by seeing the word “Hello World!” appear on the screen.  In MediaComp, the equivalent of “Hello World!” is to open a picture and play a sound.  That’s a minimally interesting unit of computation.  But what will it be next year? In five years? In ten years?

In contrast, I look at my kids’ math books, and social science texts, and even science books.  I recognize the pedagogical methods, even some of the figures and diagrams.  There is change there, but there is also a sense for what makes education work.

Will we ever get there with computing education and educational technology?  Our field is so influenced by fashion, by the latest and greatest thing.  What’s cool engages. What’s out of fashion is rejected by students.  Why does fashion seem to influence other disciplines less?  Maybe it does influence engagement there, too, and not changing is a downfall.  On the other hand, there are lots of kids taking Calculus AP, and few taking CS AP.  Math Ed seems not to be a slave to fashion.  How do we get to the point where we can talk about computing education that works, period, and that we can keep using for decades?  Or does the continual upheaval in the field force us to always be on a treadmill of creating the next trendy educational technology or computing education initiative, none of which will last long?

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Chemistry is to Biology as X is to Computing Lisp and Smalltalk are dead: It’s C all the way down.

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Miller  |  August 14, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    As I’ve expressed before, I think a way out is to give the students something they can relate to, something that *looks* familiar and interesting on the surface, but contains more powerful ideas that they can discover once they dig into it. I don’t think you will find this in the commercial marketplace. It’s all about the “flashy but useful” gadget. They don’t design them as learning systems. They design them as systems to be learned. In other words, learn “how to” do things given its features. The only way I see this happening is for people in the academic CS field to invent something for students to work with.

  • 2. Mike Hewner  |  August 16, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a second Mark.

    Are you sure that the fact that every couple of years we can come up with a whole new cool area we can use to teach CS is a bad thing? Couldn’t instead be a sign that computing is a awesome practical field with direct relevance to important but transient modern questions like – “why can’t I build a SMS autoresponder for my cell phone”? Sure it makes textbooks publishers lives easier that I took basically the same physics class that students did in 1950, and (as Papert points out) limited materials make for easy cirriculium standardization. But is that a model CS should adopt?

    If there’s one thing computer scientists are good at it’s building crazy new technology in their basements right? So why can’t we say to students “last year we all built cell phone apps, this year we’re all gonna code up our own music synthesizers that we can play with Rock Band guitars.” That’s visceral proof of what we’ve been telling students all along – learning CS transcends details of individual technology platforms.

    It could be that the problem is not that we foolishly change technology every couple of years – it’s that we foolishly hard code a particular technology in all our educational materials…making it hard when we want to try something new and fun.

    Anyways, just a thought…

  • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  August 17, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Hi Mike! You raise a great, positive way of looking at the issue. Take a look at the comments on the Lisp and Smalltalk are dead thread ( There is a sense that CS doesn’t do enough to convey a sense of history (which changes slower than progress forward) or unchanging first principles. I’m with you on the excitement of being able to do new, cool things regularly in CS1. However, I don’t think that’s where our greatest curricular challenges lay.


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