The Utilitarian CS Ed Imperative and HyperCard on the Web

July 12, 2010 at 11:25 am 4 comments

I just discovered TileStack, which is HyperCard on the Web.  Very cool, but the first comment on the introductory stack is something I heard a good bit these last few weeks at my workshops:

Python, for instance, is very easy to pick up.  You might make the argument that it’s much easier to learn Speak [the HyperCard-like language in TileStack], but even if it takes twice as long to learn Python to do the equivalent of making a Stack with Speak, you can at least apply what you learned in many other places other than  Just seems pointless for people to waste their time learning something that only applies to a single website when they could learn something that they could use for many other applications.

via TileStack – Intro To TileStack – Start Here!.

Based on my experience, most computer science teachers (much more at the undergraduate faculty level than at the high school level!) believe that they only things worth learning in computer science are those that can be used to make applications.

  • As soon as I started teaching about JES and Jython, a set of faculty in every workshop I taught this summer (five workshops, all pretty much full!) asked me, “But how do I build applications?” or “How can I run this outside of JES?”  I explained that this was all possible, but that we don’t teach in the first semester how to build standalone applications.  Several faculty insisted that I show them how to run Jython with our media libraries separate from JES, and were frankly not interested in listening to anything more I had to say unless they could be convinced that what I was showing them could lead to building standalone applications.
  • Several faculty asked me, “But this isn’t Python 3.0, is it?  When will you be covering Python 3.0?”  That one particularly got my goat.  I started responding, “I’m barely covering Python 1.0 in here!  I’m trying to teach computer science with the minimum language features, much less whatever special features are in the latest version of a language!”  That response seemed to carry some weight.

I was really surprised about that.  I hear people regularly decrying the fact that computer science in most states is classified under vocational education.  But it’s certainly the case that many university faculty buy into that model!  I regularly was told by faculty at these workshops that computer science is only worth learning if it leads to job skills and application-building capabilities.  CS education is purely utilitarian, in this model.

Why do we teach people the difference between mitosis and meiosis, or about evolution, or that planets orbit the sun?  None of those are job skills, and they certainly won’t lead to building marketable products.  Isn’t knowing about computer science and one’s virtual world at least as important as understanding this level of detail about the natural world?  I’m going to bet that, if someone were to do a survey, most university faculty don’t really believe in computational thinking, that knowing about computing at some beyond-applications level is important for everyone.

Grumble, grumble…

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  July 12, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Hi Mark,

    I think what might be going on is more the huge conflict between the built-in “instrumental reasoning” vs. “learning for enlightenment” for tools and ideas that is so unbalanced in the human population (one estimate is 95% instrumental vs 5% enlightenment). This is very correlated with the known human universal of “coping” (as opposed to the idea of “progress”).

    One of the side effects of there not being much of a job market for computing in the 60s was that most of the people in it back then (especially research) were from the 5% “enlightenment” sector, and this made a huge difference in most of the computer culture.

    I’d love to see the field again if the monetary rewards were small and the only people in it actually loved it.



  • 2. Hélène Martin  |  July 12, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    I echo your grumbling.

    Thanks for sharing TileStack. Seems like something I can use!

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by TATSUMI, Takeo:辰己 丈夫, Max Steel. Max Steel said: The Utilitarian CS Ed Imperative and HyperCard on the Web […]

  • 4. lespinal  |  March 24, 2011 at 6:46 am

    I echo your grumbling as well. I believe you clearly put the problem I have with current CS teaching:

    1. it is utilitarian in absolute terms, and
    2. they insist in building applications as soon as possible (to the detriment of everything else.)

    It is a sad state of affairs indeed.


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