Don’t mess with the appliances: Is the iPhone bad for CS education?

April 26, 2010 at 5:17 pm 5 comments

I don’t buy the argument (made in the below referenced article) that the iPhone discourages students from pursuing computer science because it’s a “closed” platform.  So are cars, cable boxes, credit cards, and the weather, yet kids still get interested in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, banking, and meteorology.  You don’t have to tinker with something to get interested in knowing how it works.

However, this second argument (that I think is the point of the quote below) is more intriguing to me.  Do students start to see the iPhone as an appliance, as something that is not only not-knowable, but it’s not even interesting to know it?  For several years, I asked people who might know the answer: How does a microwave oven work?  The answer I got back almost all the time was, “I don’t know, and I’m not particularly interested.”  (I have an idea now how it works, but am not absolutely sure that I really get it.)  As an appliance, a microwave becomes unworthy of consideration or study.

What’s more, you rely on an appliance.  I tinkered a lot as a kid, but not on the family television, refrigerator, or oven.  Not only were those things dangerous, but I knew full well that things I tinkered with didn’t still work the same after I was through.  I didn’t want that to happen to something that was important!

Does the iPhone make the technology simply disappear?  From a usability perspective, that’s great.  From getting kids interesting in computing?  It’s pretty hard to get kids excited about something that’s invisible to them.

“We have a generation growing up that’s extremely comfortable with technology – no problem using it. But they don’t seem to be that interested in understanding it,” Harle told silicon.com.

“People can use their iPhone… but they don’t want to delve into it, they don’t want to understand the depths behind it. And I have a sneaking suspicion this is partly because we’ve got to the stage now with computing, computer science, IT, whatever you like, that it’s now such a black box, such a complex thing that you can’t really fiddle in the same way as people used to.”

via Why the iPhone could be bad news for computer science | Software | silicon.com.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gflint  |  April 26, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Could we be teaching the wrong programming assignments? iPod apps, Droid apps and, in the near future, Win7 Phone apps might be the great attractor we need to get kids into intro programming classes. Write an app, put it on your own phone, post it in the app store of your choice. What more could a teacher ask for to get students involved in what is happening in the tech world of today?

    Reply
  • 2. Alan Kay  |  April 26, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    To me, the main point is much larger than the iPhone, or even computer technology. Up through the forties and well into the fifties, most artifacts were made in a way that allowed their parts to be both seen, disassembled, reassembled, and made from scratch.

    My memories from back then are that most people also lacked curiosity about how most things worked — but the central point is that those who were curious could do something about it, and there were opportunities to boost curiosity amongst the blase.

    Computer HW and SW are pretty hermetically sealed, but software need not be, and hardware can be represented in software.

    So we are really discussing ethics here. I think that it should be an ethic to make technologies that can reveal themselves.

    An early paper about this was called “Opening The Hood Of A Word Processor”. The theme was that even if the “Ferrari” part was hard to understand, one view with the hood open should show the system in a “Model-T” form. (And this relates again to the “Models” I’ve been urging in another post.)

    Ignoring Apple’s confusions about what should be on the iPhone for a moment, we could readily imagine an app whose purpose is to reveal the interior of the hardware and the software of the iPhone in Model-T form so that curious children and others could explore a good model of the processes inside, and to make a simple app right on the device.

    And I claim that making these models would also serve the purpose of greatly improving the design and clarity of the Ferrari parts.

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply
  • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  May 7, 2010 at 10:56 am

    I wonder if the problem is one of education in that students know know that they can create software for many of these devices. Take video games for example. Students know that they can write for their computers but assume that they can’t write for their game consoles without being professional developers. As I see students finding that with XNA they can actually write for the Xbox they get very interested in creating for it. I think that if we show students that they can create their own tools for phones (Windows Phone 7 allows both Silverlight and XNA programming) they will get excited about that as well.
    The key is to challenge them to do better than the apps they can buy. High school and many college students by nature think they know it all and can do anything so encoraging them to try and prove it may be a great motivator.

    Reply
    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  May 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm

      Hi Alfred! I agree with your point (like Alan’s) that it’s about making the platforms accessible. I wonder if it even has to be “better than the apps they can buy.” I was impressed that the CS students I met in Qatar just want to build something. I didn’t get a sense that they were aiming to do better. They wanted the sense of individual accomplishment, of being able to build for platforms they knew and valued.

      Reply
      • 5. Alfred Thompson  |  May 7, 2010 at 1:22 pm

        Great point about students wanting to create something. Almost anything will do if they can put something of their own personallity in to it.

        Reply

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