computational literacy and the gibsonesque present

After an 8am class on instruction in which we started to learn about treating lessons as products to be designed, I attended a colloquium by Michael Twidale about Computational Literacy & Metacognition (here are my rough notes).

It was a pretty excellent talk about the way we teach people how to do computery things. What I liked best about it was that Dr. Twidale was coming at this from what he called an Engineering point of view as opposed to a Science point of view. The idea that rapid prototyping in research might be more useful than studying precisely how things work at a point in time is something I’m very sympathetic to. I especially loved how he discussed the unintended effects of different technologies that go beyond what their designers had in mind, such as Twitter revolutions and large touch-screens enhancing learnability and interaction because of their poor usability for one person. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the famous William Gibson line from Burning Chrome “…but the street finds its own uses for things.”

He also talked about UNIX and how in some ways it promotes social learning (even while it’s a pain in the fucking ass to learn individually, Justin says from experience). This is because the text you enter on a command line can be reviewed. You can see the history of what you’ve done and pick at it to find out what went wrong. With a GUI you’re stuck in the present. He talked about how weird it is that learning to do anything with computers over asynchronous forums works at all.

There was more William Gibsonish stuff in the talk too. Twidale talked about how he wants to research the phenomenon of scientists having $50 million research grants to help pay for dedicated teleconferencing equipment and then using Skype and Google Docs because it was just easier. There are things you need the big infrastructure for like big-pipe videostreaming. But those systems are expensive and brittle. You can use cheaper more robust tools to do 80% of what you need. And it’s not that the cheap systems are more robust because they don’t fail, but you can just grab another one for free or “near as damnit.”

This disposable tech thing also reminded me of the Bruce Sterling talk I just watched about the future of internet video and how digital simulation is all we’ll be doing in 25 years; there will be no special effects, just effects. Everything won’t just be fixed in post-, it’ll be done in post. (That’s a huge oversimplification and I recommend taking an hour of your life to go watch him do his futurist thing.)

So yes, it was a great talk, and one that got my science fiction mind churning away. (Again, here are my full, unsynthesized notes if you’re interested in more.) Afterwards, Eric suggested that doing a lesson plan on Information Literacy for CompSci students would be a good project for our Instructional class. I don’t know if I’ll take him up on that, but I can’t deny it could be useful.

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