Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Capacity focus, 47: A glimpse at what "computing for everyone"/"computer literacy for everyone" might look like -- using live code based transformations to analyse how we see and how we hear

Mark Guzdial is a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, and focuses on computing education. 

It turns out that making computing relevant to people who are interested in using computers to create things that in the end are communicative -- text, sounds, video, pictures, diagrams, etc -- and hopefully interesting -- not to mention: desirable and affordable enough to pay for! -- makes a significant difference to how people who are not primarily interested in being programmers can learn enough about programming to add this emerging dimension of literacy for C21.

In a recent TED talk reported in his Computing Education blog, he therefore looks at how computing can be made relevant to people whose main interest in computers is to communicate.  He does so by looking at how working code can allow us to investigate and manipulate sounds and pictures, live:

In this talk, we see how a computer allows us to investigate visual and aural information, by transforming them into samples distributed in time (for sound) and space (for pictures: little clustered triads of red, green and blue light -- just like on our TV screens). Where, the picture samples are called picture elements, or pixels for short. 

But once these samples have been made into numbers distributed in time and/or space, they can be manipulated by program instructions that, step by step tell the computer's execution units to transform the inputted or stored numbers into something else that is useful. Computers, after all, "simply" process whatever has been coded as strings of numbers to base two: on/off, high/low, true/false, north pole/south pole etc. 

Indeed, the very text of this post is based on converting the "glyphs" of our Roman alphabet into seven-digit strings of such binary digits, called ASCII code. For instance, A -- capital A -- is: 100 0001, and common a is: 110 0001.

Guzdial remarks on how we use microscopes and telescopes (and cameras) -- and, we can add, microphones -- as instruments to allow us to see and hear our world in fresh, illuminating ways. And of course, it is no accident that the invention of key instruments (such as the telescope and microscope) several hundred years ago was pivotal to the scientific revolution, revealing to us things we had never before seen about our world. 

(Just think about how this sort of software and processing -- perhaps run on a US$ 100 or so Tablet PC or a US$ 25 or so Raspberry Pi -- could change how we study science, even in schools. Not to mention, how we do product development work in farms and business enterprises.)

The implication is that the digital age we now have entered is going to be similarly transformative, so we need to know enough about it to understand what is going on in a world of bits plus atoms. Or else -- putting on our political and economic thinking-caps for the moment -- there will be those who will be all too eager to exploit our ignorance to their advantage and our disadvantage.

From our own educational perspective as well, this dimension of education helps equip us to be creative, insightful and effective digital producers, not just consumers.

Which, will be vital if we are to thrive in the days ahead. And, of course, this also means that we are looking at one of the things we need to factor into the educational initiatives under consideration. (As in, this is a thought-sparker, more to follow . . . )

Let us think for a day or so on how some of this could be put into a first computing course based on Java, as was considered here at KF some months back.  END