by Bernard Golden

My Visit to the MIT Media Lab

May 08, 2008 4 mins

I had the opportunity to visit the MIT Media Lab last week, and it was truly a great experience.

I was invited to participate in a two day session exploring the role of technology in education, hosted by the Kellogg Foundation. I have been working with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, helping them with an open source initiative they are pursuing. As a result of that work, Kellogg invited SVEF to participate in the session. The other participants came from a variety of organizations, including the United Way, the San Diego Zoo, and a charter school in Hawaii. The charter of the session was to discuss the intersection of IT and education.

I don’t suppose it comes as any surprise that IT and the education industry (if I may so use the term) have an uneasy coexistence. Many challenges face schools in their use of technology: little investment available for IT, a teaching model that finds it difficult to incorporate computing-based education as anything other than an adjunct to traditional methods, difficulty in recruiting top IT talent, a national model more focused on measurement than learning — these are just some of the problems.

However. There is another alternative, one in which IT is a central part of learning. It was no accident that Kellogg based the meeting at the Media Lab. It has an initiative called Lifelong Kindergarten, focused on education and technology in which technology is used as a critical part of an individual’s growth. The Principal Investigator of Lifelong Kindergarten, Mitch Resnick, spent some time with us outlining the kind of work his group had done. Resnick, by the way, has the coolest title in academia: LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research. The LEGO professor — how great is that?

Beyond the content of the session, I had another interest in attending the meeting. One of the outputs of Lifelong Kindergarten is Scratch. In essence, Scratch is a way to learn computer programming without any idea that’s what you’re doing. It is a totally visual program that enables you to build interactive interfaces populated with figures (referred to as sprites), accompanied by movement and sound, all controlled by a graphical programming construct that enables you to control the actions of the interfaces without needing to learn any syntax or worry about getting semicolons or periods in the right place. Scratch totally rocks, and I have the perfect evidence: my 8 year-old son who discovered Scratch six months ago and would, if allowed, spend eight hours a day playing with Scratch. I’ve been watching him turn into a programmer by stealth. From his perspective, he’s not learning programming, he’s playing. And Scratch has a social component as well. When a child finishes a Scratch project, he or she can upload it to the Scratch site where others can view it, comment on it, and even download it to hack it.

What’s really interesting about Scratch is how it bypasses most of the barriers present in adapting computing for learning. Teacher not familiar with programming? Not a problem. When I first showed Scratch to my son, I thought I’d have to spend a couple of days showing him how to use it, how to put statements into the proper pane, and so on. I gave him a quick tour and then got distracted by something. When I was ready to resume the next day, it was too late: he’d already figured

it out and was merrily on his way. Poor infrastructure and no budget to purchase software? Not a problem. Scratch is a client-only tool and available for a free download. Frustrated that current teaching emphasizes rote in place of exploration? Scratch offers nothing but an opportunity to explore and invent — the range of projects built in Scratch is a testament to the creativity of children, far more capable of growth than our current national curriculum believes.

I don’t expect that Scratch will address all the problems of education and technology. But it’s a great example of what is possible and an inspiration to fuel further experiments.