HomeA bicycle for the mind

A bicycle for the mind

A bicycle for the mind, redux.

Electronic Learning April 1994

(interview with Alan Kay, inventor of the Graphical User interface)

Author Judy Schuster


Alan Kay is surprised by the way computers are treated as a commodity in the classroom, rather than as a material to be shaped by students and teachers. He sees computers as being marketed like automobiles, they do as many things as possible for the user without requiring an understanding of how they work. The things that students need to do are not necessarily user friendly, they require work and should present a challenge. Students should be challenged to improve their ability to make images, to think about things and to make representations of things. A lot of technology is really inverse vandalism; just people making machinery just because they can. The basic idea in education is to facilitate learning in students. The ideas are basic and do not require technology; the machinery should be a tool for learning.

Full Text

The inventor of the Graphical User interface says that real learning is not particularly user-friendly and computers should not be sold like cars

Q: Looking back to your days at Xerox PARC, and from from your current vantage point at Apple, what do you find most surprising about the way technology is being used in the classroom?

KAY: I think the thing that surprised me is that computers are treated much more like toasters, [with] predefined functions mainly having to do with word processing and spreadsheets or running packaged software, and less as a material to be shaped by students and teachers.

Q: What's the matter with predefined functions?

KAY: Put a prosthetic on a healthy limb and it withers. Using the logic of current day education, we could say that since students are going to be drivers as adults, at age two we should put them in a little motorized vehicle and they will just stay there and learn how to be much better drivers. Now, we would think that was pretty horrible. But what if we gave the same person a bike? We're not going to feel so badly [because] the bike allows that person to go flat out with his body and it amplifies that. [The bike is] one of the great force amplifiers of all time because it doesn't detract from us--it takes everything we've got and amplifies it. Most computers today are sold like cars, where as many things as possible are done for you. You don't have to understand how it works and, in fact, you don't have to understand how to think because the most popular stuff is prepackaged solutions for this and that. When you put a person into a car, their muscles wither. You put a person into an information car, and their thinking ability withers. I wouldn't put a person within 15 yards of a computer unless I was absolutely sure that it was a kind of a bike for them.

Q: What would make a computer a kind of bike?

KAY: Well, it's complicated. When we start asking questions about how students are thinking and what they're doing, we have to realize that--and this is sort of an extreme generalization, but it's not a bad one--most things that need to be done with students are not particularly user friendly. [They] require work on the student's part. Like when they're learning to ride a bike, it's not [easy]. Think how many students might reject a bike today if it were a new product because it's hard to learn. Today, computer systems are rejected unless they're easy to learn. But with young students, it's absolutely important to challenge their internals--challenge their internal musculature, their internal ability to make images, their internal ability to think about things and to make representations of things.

Q: How do educators ensure that happens with computers?

KAY: They have to learn how to ask extremely hard questions about whether there's any content there. A lot of technology is just what I call inverse vandalism, which is people making machinery just because they can. When educating, the first thing you need is ideas that you want to have the student learn. There has to be some resetting of what content actually is. If you have the ideas, you can do a lot without machinery. Once you have those ideas, the machinery starts working for you. Paradoxically, the most profound ideas I know about computers are easily done on an Apple II. Most ideas you can do pretty darn well with a stick in the sand.

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