The more things change the more they stay the same…(Ruminations on Alice)

In the process of looking for interactive, educational gaming environments we’ve explored Scratch (see post from previous week) and recently Alice, which is done out of Carnegie Mellon University. It is striking to me that these tools are not so much new, although they certainly take advantage of the advancement in computing that has occurred in the last 20 years. What is striking is how they draw on a long legacy of student centered, constructivist philosophy that reaches back to Dewey and before.

Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”
John Dewey

In so many ways, the efforts to create learning environments that are focused on the learner, and not teaching or content specific issues stem from Dewey’s philosophy 100 years ago. The development of the computer and its implications for education continued this philosophy and supported it. In the 1970s the computer language Logo was one of the central products from this philosophy of how computers could support constructive learning and education. One of the central figures in this movement was Seymour Pappert, who became identified through his work at MIT Media Lab through Logo amongst other writings and projects. History of Logo here:

“The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.”
Seymour Papert

So here we are now with a World Wide Web connected citizenry who easily see themselves in conversation with the world, and creating in a community. The philosophy is not changed, but the tools and what they are capable of doing have become richer, more connected, and understand better the workings of the brain. Here is Mitchell Resnick, one of the founders of Scratch, talking about the ideas behind Scratch:

Think about this again: Pappert over 25 years ago had something to say about the kinds of tools that we could enable through computers for learning:

…they [the children] become producers instead of consumers of educational software. (p. 107)

I am convinced that the best learning takes place when the learner takes charge… ,(p. 25) 

(quotes lifted from from:

And so along this evolution comes another tool: Alice – which was designed with a slightly different cause — helping students learn computer programming (unlike one of the founding ideas behind Logo which was mathematical thinking). The numbers of students who are interested in working with object-oriented computer languages has not been very high, and particularly has been gender biased dramatically towards boys. This platform teaches the basics of object-oriented languages, through a interactive 3-D interface that is highly engaging, and has been shown to retain as well as teach boys and girls effectively. It was interesting that in the Alice blog, there was conversation about rationale for using Scratch or Alice in education. A couple of quotes from the design team on Alice on their blog (
“The general observation is that students find Scratch to be very accessible, and can do many cool things very quickly. The downside is that they will hit the limits of Scratch relatively soon. Alice has a richer set of capabilities but that students need a lot more initial support and training to fully utilize its capabilities.”
“The distinction between informal and formal educational settings is interesting and important, and yet we are finding that Scratch is starting to be used in more formal settings (as the ap-cs listserv thread clearly illustrates), and we are also finding Alice being used in more informal settings (such as the Citizen’s School project in New York City last fall.)”
I found it particularly interesting in the second quote that they distinguish that Scratch was a more informal tool and Alice was a formal tool, but they have bleeded over from both ends so that they are used in both settings now. I agree with the general idea that Alice requires a bit more tutorial on the front end, but quickly gets one up to speed in the terminology of object-oriented languages: methods and classes and the structure therein. Here is a short movie that the second tutorial walks one through creating to understand the role of methods in sequencing behaviors in a programmed environment:

So where does this take us? It is 2009 and we have moved from Dewey to Pappert to Resnick and we are still talking about ways to create self-directed, constructive learning environments. If the next 20 years play out anything like the exponential curve we see from the last 20, the opportunities for personalized, rich, powerful learning environments will only become more likely to influence education and learning. With that said, tools like Scratch and Alice offer us a wonderful place to begin now with students.
Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: BasicBooks.

One thought on “The more things change the more they stay the same…(Ruminations on Alice)

  1. I have been visiting various blogs for my Book Report Editing research. I have found your blog to be quite useful.Keep updating your blog with valuable information… Regards

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *