Monthly Archives: March 2016

Computing with Purpose

Earlier today, at a birthday party for one of my daughter’s classmates, I was making small talk with a fellow parent (and for true CS/Ed geeks, note that that’s two words of small talk, with no capital letter).

As it often does, the subject of work came up, and I clarified what I did, from the overheard, “computer learning”, i.e. machine learning, to what I actually do. For the sake of the sake of the other parent, I summarized my job as helping others learn how to program computers.

The next question from this friendly person was “ah, cool, what’s the best way to learn that, then?” Rather than deluge him with a rant about the many possible ways to learn, and how it might depend on the learner, I gave what I thought at the time was a bit of a quip:

“Find a project that you want to do that requires computer programming, and learn how to do it.”

Thinking back, this is a very good answer indeed.

And it’s precisely the answer that makes sense for an adult learner (of computing, or many other things, for that matter). Why do we adults learn? Because, as mostly self-directed individuals, we’re curious. We feel the drive to learn something, or the need to learn it to enable some other drive we have. Whether it’s to improve our job performance (my next big project is to write an AI to respond to most of my emails – but that might be insulting to artificial intelligence), to build a slideshow tool for a family blog (that’s how I learned a new language, on one of the sleepless nights of my first paternity leave), or to automate the LED’s that are a part of our Halloween or community theater costume, I can concoct myriad reasons for learning to program.

But what I’ve seen fail multiple times, for myself and others, is to make the learning an academic exercise. To say “I really should learn that – why don’t I buy a book so I can,” or some version thereof.

Without a clear purpose, many well-meaning adults fail to learn that new thing.

But when someone is purposeful, about their learning, they won’t be stopped. They will persevere, learning the minutiae and early nits so they can achieve their goals.

This idea of purpose-driven learning, and purpose-driven computing, is why I care enough about computing to spend my waking hours trying to help people learn about it, and it’s an ideal that I share with Hal Abelson and others on the MIT App Inventor team. We want to make that purpose-driven learning and computing possible. We want to enable the apps that people create while learning to be real, usable, and in as many cases as possible, useful apps.

Our goal is to enable anyone, whether they start by knowing how to program computers or not, to build an app that can have real impact on their world.

Of course, there is much more to be said about the dichotomy we often see between adult, or lifelong, learning, and classroom learning (for most classrooms beyond pre-school).

How many times have we said, heard, or even heard a joke about “When are we ever going to use that?” That question does not exist for the learning I describe above – the learner is not left in the dark about the purpose of their learning, in fact, they bring the purpose. So, along with adult learning of this kind, I advocate for classroom-based purpose-driven learning.

Is it possible? Maybe; maybe not. I’d go so far as to say probably, but let’s try it and find out!

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