21 JULY 2006
Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham

To my great surprise, the University of Sussex, where I spent 27 years between 1964 and 1991 (except for a year in Edinburgh) decided to award me an honorary degree of Doctor of Science in July 2006, along with three other ex-Sussex people.

After the event I wrote out an expanded version of my 'thank-you' speech and made it available here. The expanded version included, as Part 3, a section explaining the dream some of us had in the mid 1970s about what computing could do for education (not what education could do for computing, which is what too many people think about) and why that dream failed disastrously.

This file contains only that portion of the expanded speech. It is Part 3 of the whole document..

NOTE added 19 Nov 2006:

This topic has hit some news headlines recently. See these comments.

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Our vision for computing in education.

During the early 1970s some of us, especially Max Clowes and I, partly inspired by the work of John Holt, Ivan Illich and Seymour Papert, developed a vision of the future of computing in education, which I summarised in the Preface to my 1978 book The Computer Revolution in Philosophy, as follows:
Another book on how computers are going to change our lives? Yes, but this is more about computing than about computers, and it is more about how our thoughts may be changed than about how housework and factory chores will be taken over by a new breed of slaves.

Thoughts can be changed in many ways. The invention of painting and drawing permitted new thoughts in the processes of creating and interpreting pictures. The invention of speaking and writing also permitted profound extensions of our abilities to think and communicate. Computing is a bit like the invention of paper (a new medium of expression) and the invention of writing (new symbolisms to be embedded in the medium) combined. But the writing is more important than the paper. And computing is more important than computers: programming languages, computational theories and concepts -- these are what computing is about, not transistors, logic gates or flashing lights. Computers are pieces of machinery which permit the development of computing as pencil and paper permit the development of writing. In both cases the physical form of the medium used is not very important, provided that it can perform the required functions.

Computing can change our ways of thinking about many things, mathematics, biology, engineering, administrative procedures, and many more. But my main concern is that it can change our thinking about ourselves: giving us new models, metaphors, and other thinking tools to aid our efforts to fathom the mysteries of the human mind and heart. The new discipline of Artificial Intelligence is the branch of computing most directly concerned with this revolution. By giving us new, deeper, insights into some of our inner processes, it changes our thinking about ourselves. It therefore changes some of our inner processes, and so changes what we are, like all social, technological and intellectual revolutions.

This sort of vision led us to develop new kinds of teaching that allowed students to explore ways of giving computers human-like capabilities in order to deepen their understanding of those capabilities and in order to teach them to think creatively and analytically about complex structures and processes and how they interact. Our work led to the development of the Poplog system a multi-language development environment for teaching and research, whose successful marketing helped to fund the growth of COGS in the early years (thanks to the genius of its chief architect, John Gibson, building on earlier work by Steve Hardy and Chris Mellish).
[Note added 11 Aug 2006:
A summary of some of what we did to support student-driven learning first in the Pop-11 system then later in Poplog is now available here as part of a contribution to opposition to patents for ideas about e-learning.

Wikipedia entries (added 2014): ]

The teaching and research tools we developed are now freely available online at the Free Poplog web site. Now, as then, they can be used to help many people, including school children, learn to design, implement, test. debug, analyse, explain, compare and criticise, working systems, instead of merely copying and rearranging what others have created, which is what many people use computers for.

This new mode of education also began to flourish in some schools with the spread of BBC micros. Many highly creative teachers inspired new adventurous and disciplined forms of learning in their pupils -- though many teachers had no idea what to do with computers because they had no suitable training.

Politicians, parents, school teachers, and industrialists all started claiming that computers should be used to teach schoolkids how to use the tools that were being used in industry. This was a world-wide folly.

So instead of learning how to THINK, children all round the world now use the potentially most powerful educational medium that has ever existed merely for the mundane task of learning how to USE the packages that run on Windows on a PC, such as word processors, browsers, email tools, databases and spread sheets --- most of which will be out of date by the time their own careers are launched.

As a result many intelligent school leavers who have never encountered programming or artificial intelligence now don't see how computing could possibly be a university degree subject: they think it's like cooking -- you learn to use a computer as you learn to use an oven. I hope to show how wrong that is. But it will not be easy. Most people are now brainwashed into thinking that a computer by definition comes with Microsoft windows on it and the idea that people, including people like them, can actually design and modify the tools and packages that run on computers never enters their heads.

I was intrigued to hear a senior Microsoft person on the radio a couple of weeks ago lamenting the fact that there are so few people coming out of schools wanting to study computing, because they think it is cool to use computer systems but don't realise it is cool to create new ones. He claimed this was seriously damaging the economy. He did not mention why this is happening.

If some of the people now graduating can be made to understand this message, then perhaps when they are teachers or politicians or parents they will not make the same drastic mistake as was made by the previous generation.

Alas, this may now be irreversible, world wide: a great tragedy of our time. Even if politicians recognize the mistake, it will take decades to produce enough teachers who have the competence to teach people to create working systems instead of merely using them.

I have one small hope regarding a way of reversing this trend. If it makes progress I'll add a note here later. But I am not very hopeful.

I've elaborated a little on these points in a paper for a conference on Grand Challenges in Computing Education in 2004. The paper is here.

For anyone interested, the full `expanded' speech is available here.

Maintained by Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham
Last updated: 19 Nov 2006