Computational thinking, computational values, and academic freedom

March 23, 2012 at 8:13 am 3 comments

Hal Abelson gave the Friday keynote at SIGCSE, as the 2012 winner of the Outstanding Contributions to CS Education award.  He spoke on computational thinking, and how it drives computational values, and should lead us to appropriate actions.  His talk slides are available, as is a transcript of his talk.  LisaK in her interdisciplinary computing blog and Nick Falkner in his blog have both written nice pieces summarizing his talk.  It was a great talk, and one that really got me thinking.  But I didn’t agree with the whole chain of reasoning.

One of Hal’s claims in his talk was that “computational thinking” leads to “computational values.”  He describes computational values like this:

It’s having the values not only that these are cool ideas but that these ideas should be empowering and that people should be able to exercise these great things in thinking about their world and having an impact on the world.

He gave some intriguing examples about “generative platforms,” systems that let you play with ideas and build new ideas in them.  He also gave several examples that he considered contrary to computational values, like closed app stores.  He explained that that’s why he did App Inventor — so that students could build things for their own cell phones, outside of these “walled gardens.”

This was the first part of the talk that I had trouble with.  Computational thinking doesn’t necessarily lead to computational values, in the sense of free and open access.  Despite the beliefs of Steven Levy’s “Hackers,”  it is not the case that information wants to be free.  Information doesn’t want anything.  The people who built the “walled gardens” know a lot about computation — they have computational thinking, but they don’t necessarily share Hal’s values.  People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates led to the creation of wonderful software, but that doesn’t mean that they will or even want to share it or make it open source.  There is value to “walled gardens.”  Isn’t that how civilization and cities began, by putting up some defenses and setting up rules of behavior?  No, it’s no longer as wild and free, but you can be wild and free outside the walled garden.  The walled gardens have their purpose.

Hal talked a lot about these values and how they are related to academic freedom.  He talked about how important it is that great universities share research work:

We’ve got a policy that says it’s our values, it’s our values as a faculty that we think our work should be disseminated as widely and as openly as possible. The MIT policy says that if you come to MIT, you have granted MIT a nonexclusive license to distribute your works for purposes of open access.

That policy feels like the opposite of academic freedom, to me.  If I’m a professor at MIT, my work will be made public for me by my institution?  What if my work leads to a  book that I’d like to publish?  Does this mean that the professor no longer has control and copyright over his own book?  What if I want to start a company?  Does this mean that MIT takes away from me the ability to control access to my inventions? No, it’s not a company profiting from my work, but it’s the University deciding who gets access and how to my work.

I thought about Rousseau’s Emile, for which I named my dissertation environment.  The book Emile, or On Education isn’t really about education — it’s about the tension between the rights of the individual and the rights of the society.  I completely buy all of Hal’s examples, about how ridiculous it has become that a few publishers control access to so much important research.  But a policy of enforced open access just replaces one bully for another.  Does the professor as an individual own any of his or her own work?  Can the professor choose any of how its used or who publishes or develops it?

Hal is well-deserving of his award, having done wonderful things for CS education.  I greatly admire the work he does for open learning and open access. I found his talk thought-provoking.  I just don’t agree with all his answers.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Darrin Thompson  |  March 23, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    I think the important point is that we don’t standardize a policy like that across all institutions.

    Out here in commercial land, software work is by default owned by the employee so we have to create NDA’s and contracts to set up employer ownership of work. Those contracts vary a lot. I’ve never signed an intellectual slavery agreement but I’ve been told by weasels that they are “standard.” I’ve turned down work to avoid signing a slavery contract. I’m glad there’s variation in those contracts.

    I’m glad that some research institutions are opening up. For your sake I’m glad that some institutions allow individuals to retain some rights to work done at others’ expense. It’s not something all of us enjoy.

    Reply
  • 2. guy  |  March 25, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    After viewing the overheads, I wanted to see the presentation. Searching YouTube, I found what appears to be an older, but similar
    presentation. I guess I’ll have to read the transcript to see how much the presentations differ. In any case, what I found was inspirational; check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_4PThuB8PU

    Reply
  • […] computer science (Answer: Not all that much)”.  It’s going to be an exciting day. Hal Abelson and Mitchel Resnick are both on my schedule.  I’ve already received a note from Richard […]

    Reply

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