Telling the computer what to do

"Those who have been required to memorize the world as it is will never create the world as it might be. - Judith Gooch

There’s a blog post by Miguel Guhlin in which he says something like, “For the most part, with black and brown kids, the computer tells them what to do. Only white kids get to tell the computer what to do.”

I’ve paraphrased those lines dozens of times since, and now I’m launching the idea as a book proposal to myself. It’s also the name I’m proposing for our digital storytelling series for the coming 2011-2012 school year, and the model for that series began to emerge Thursday, when we had our first full day collaboration between our Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) Fellows and our Advanced Leadership Institute (ALI) Fellows.

Each year, for about 6 or 8 years now, the ISI takes on organizing a Spring Conference, at which each Fellow presents on the Inquiry they prepared during the summer, and ALI participants organize a Fall Conference, at which they do the same. The ISI folks attend the Fall Conference as one of their Continuity Days, and many ALI participants attend the Spring Conference, whether for personal learning or collegial solidarity, or both. So having the face-to-face meeting broadened, deepened, and personalized the collaboration we had built into the structure.

And it occurred to me as the ALI folks were outlining the topics on which they would present at the Fall Conference that I should present on digital storytelling then, and that that workshop could become a required “registration/orientation” session, the initial meeting of a DS collaborative that would carry through the 2011-12 school year. My goal is to organize a cadre of experienced digital story practitioners who will do push-in classroom visits to the teachers who sign up for the program, and those mentor/coaches and their mentees will all participate in an online forum, within which we’ll support each other as we explore implementing these ideas in the face of relentless bureaucratic, technical, cultural, and policy obstacles to authentic learning through student-centered, project-based, socially meaningful activities.

Which brings me back to my book title: “Telling the computer what to do.” The statement that most black and brown and poor students’ experience with computers in schools in our part of California, and I believe in a great many other places, is of sitting in front of screens running “drill and kill” atomized skill-based practice programs may sound hyperbolic or exaggerated, but I saw it with my own eyes when I recently did a long-term substitute job in a second grade classroom. I did manage to carve out a few hours here and there from the kids’ after-school program to stay (on my own time) and do some digital story projects, but my efforts to get PhotoStory installed in the lab and to create a school-wide digital storytelling initiative were not supported. The change that’s happened because of the catastrophic adoption of test-score-driven rote learning approaches as a result of NCLB was expressed most poignantly by a teacher from the ALI who works as a reading specialist at a “Program Intervention” school: “I remember how the kids used to line up excitedly, waiting for their turn in the computer lab, clutching their papers with the stories they were going to transcribe onto the computer. Now they just stand dully in line.” They used to tell the computer what to do; now the computer tells them what to do.

When I first began learning about computers, in 1991, it wasn’t anything about the computer itself that interested me. I was pretty Luddite, really, never having been particularly mechanical or adept with tools. But I’d heard about this thing called the internet, and I earnestly believed that enabling my Mexican-immigrant students to communicate directly in Spanish with native Spanish-speakers around the world would help to raise the prestige of Spanish literacy and motivate them to develop their skills, as well as provide a real-world context for using those skills. All of my digital explorations since then spang from that initial hunch about the power of networking – until I discovered digital storytelling.

I had a similarly revelatory instantaneous flash of insight and inspiration on first seeing the term “digital storytelling” in print, sometime around the fall of 2005. I had not then ever seen anything formally called a digital story, and had only the vaguest understanding of what the term actually meant, but I knew immediately that I would be devoting the rest of my academic career to pursuing multimodal composition.

Leslie Rule’s free introductory workshop, offered through KQED in San Francisco, was enough to get me started. I naively tried to promote the idea to the technologists at our County Office of Education, and was told that digital storytelling sounded like “too much fun.” The proliferation of buzzable vocabulary around the field speaks in part to pandering in the face of such prejudice, but also reflects authentic efforts to understand the meaning, rhetorics, and conventions of these new modes of discourse. At its core, for me, digital storytelling is about empowering our students to tell the computers what to do.

Who gets to tell the computer what to do is also a crucial question for understanding the faux dichotomy between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” and also for developing the appropriate tactics to overcome the digital divide. There was an interesting discussion thread on Kelly Tenkely’s blog about the “native/immigrant” terminology. One of the commenters, an adult who was claiming the “native” moniker for himself, lamented how “education as a whole is starting to discourage the arts and creative thinking.”

“Telling the computer what to do” has, of course, the more literal meaning: that’s what a programmer does, the ultimate authorial authority behind the machine, the software creator. While digital storytelling is way to harness the creative power of the computer age for authentic communication, and we need to give all students equal access to those capacities, we also need to give them the tools to choose high tech careers they may never have even considered of interest or within accessible range.

Another poignant story from our ISI: a teacher at a continuation high school shared how a student had articulated to her his goal: to go to prison. I had heard from another teacher at the same school about a student who listed incarceration as his goal, and was flabbergasted, and uncomprehending. But my colleague this summer had explored how her student came to have this ambition. His father and uncle had both gone to prison, and come out with marketable skills in auto body work. He didn’t know that there was an auto body class available at the local community college. He was articulating a sensible aspiration and exploiting the resources which he knew to be available.

Spreading the word about what’s possible in this world is what education is supposed to be about. We need schools where students begin their literacy experiences being exposed to the full range of opportunities a networked world affords. We need students who tell the computers what to do.


Fred is a Teaching Artist, an arts integration advocate & a social justice activist. He is near completing a two-month Residency as String Game Performance Teacher at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville, CA, and performed at the 2015 Santa Cruz Storytelling Festival. He also serves as Teacher Consultant for Professional Development with UCSC's Central California Writing Project and as their Technology Liaison to the National Writing Project. He is a Connected Learning Facilitator and coordinates Face To Face Drop Ins on Connected Learning biweekly at Arts Council Santa Cruz County. He teaches self-directed & connected learning via real-world projects & string games through his Original Digital Project, an Associate of the Arts Council.

Posted in Fred's
2 comments on “Telling the computer what to do
  1. KevinHodgson says:

    I agree — that’s a title that shifts the “authority” from machine back to the person, and it’s a nice counterpoint to some of the elements of Kevin Kelly’s arguments about the affordances and evolution of machines (computers, technology).

    • fmindlin says:

      Thanks for the reference to Kevin Kelly’s work–I will look up his post and reflect some more. I still have some trouble with that word “affordance” — there’s something non-intuitive to me about the way it’s used regarding computers and networking. I always think it’s got to have something to do with budgets and spending. Perhaps that’s it! A computer affordance allows one to “spend” less time or attention on a task than one would have to budget for that without it…
      Cheers, Fred

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