Education and Autonomy: Literacy in Reading and Data Interpretation and programming training.

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In a TEDx conference entitled “Ecología de las Interfaces (Interfaces Ecology)”, Carlos A. Scolari historically develops the interface concept and proposes using it further to its instrumental sense of utility between an individual and the technological object, since he proposes it as a concept – a metaphor to see and think of some society dimensions. From this proposal, he applies the concept to schools, naming them as a kind of social interface and, in this way, defining their role of mediators between knowledge and individuals. On this point, he generates some tension since he points out the need to update the educational institution in relation to the needs societies nowadays have.

There he defines:

 “..The school as a social interface. An interface in crisis that has to design and modify itself to get in line with what is happening in the world around us…”sc

Starting from this definition, we can see that the social interface has to generate the conditions to get to understand and dimension the complexity of the problems the world around us presents. First to identify those problems as such in a given context, then to be able to analyze and start dividing them into parts which are accessible enough to be solved with the knowledge and resources we have and, finally, to project and create solutions, as well as new problems, which, when being socialized, allow us to have an influence on the community where we interact. In this sense, Scolari goes a little further:

“…The interface concept may be a key concept to understand what is going on and to be able to operate on that to transform society…”

Therefore, from the educational side, it is necessary to redefine some objectives to be worked on. For instance, if we place ourselves in a context where invention and development of new technologies produce transformations in the cultural habits of large sectors of the society that has access thereto, we observe how new ideas are necessary to be able to define and explain the changes produced and the issues they present. This leads us to consider which training proposals are necessary at the educational institutions not only to generate a kind of functional and innovative thinking in the framework of a social system, but also to generate the capacity to produce transformations which change life conditions and, hence, the aspects of the system.

On these criteria basis, we can start to formulate an educational proposal that trains in taking possession of technology, as well as in the cultural sovereignty of its production and use. To put it in a context on a particular issue, this implies understanding that our life traces in digital devices and environments are transformed into data, and that the Internet is one privileged area of operations of the systems of power today, as Manuel Castells states in a recent article Vigilados y vendidos (Monitored and Sold) and Douglas Rushkoff in his article CNN Unlike: Why I’m Leaving Facebook.

From this questioning, if we get back to the interface concept, we may ask ourselves: “how is our capacity of understanding and interpreting enlarged or conditioned by this configuration of possibilities enabling the interface concept–metaphor in our thought? Why do we ask this? Because, as a signifier, the interface is itself a kind of technological mediation built and/or programmed on the basis of the logic given by its designer/s. An operational logic that we accept in our own habits of use, and that becomes natural in everyday practice. A logic that, to a greater or smaller degree of critical capacity, each individual internalizes and operates with (not in) by analogy with the cultural dynamics of the society where we interact and live. In the use proper, the signs and rules to use it are recognized and the operations are solved without thinking (this interface interaction dimension is normally called as a kind of intuitive or friendly design).

If the educational system has to foster the conditions to train autonomous, critical and potentially creative individuals, it is necessary to develop strategies in knowledge fields enabling the development of these characteristics, incorporating new domains and dynamics that may question the established school culture. This implies that students be trained to be able to read and understand how the different interfaces they have to interact with work, to operate them and create their own, be them technological or social. In this sense, the collaborative work is presented as a learning dynamics necessary to the pedagogical strategy.

As a result, two knowledge fields are considered necessary: literacy in reading and interpreting data and programming training.

Below, we develop some proposal lines and examples applicable to both teachers and students of secondary education and teachers’ training levels.

Literacy in reading and data interpreting:

In his conference Leer para aprender en la era digital (Reading to learn in the digital era) (Feria de Libro 2014 (Books Fair), Buenos Aires), Ignacio Pozo held that studies tend to differentiate between two types of competences: the IT competence (to access information) and the information competence (to know how to use information, manage it and turn it into knowledge). The critical aspect of use of these technologies in the classroom is the difference between getting access to devices or getting access to devices to generate knowledge.

Taking into account this differentiation, we start from the grounds that, in the framework of a possible model of activity, students (of secondary and/or teachers’ training levels) have to understand that a company as well as a state organism needs information and data on how the specific sector where it operates works. This implies researching and getting to know the actors and agencies involved in the production of information and data in its environment. Identifying actors and agencies, we can configure the map of the information basis on which companies and state organisms depend.

This placement into context is the introduction of the activity where the concepts of information and data, and that of big data and open data are presented and differentiated. After this introduction, a research activity can be proposed to students on a sector of production and/or of government, surveying their primary sources of data and information in the web, social networks and communication media.

Once these sources are identified, we survey the existing data, whether they are available or not, the format they appear in and how we get access to them.

As an example, in the public data website, there are different data sets available related to many areas of the national government (health, economy, education, social services, etc). This allows us to work with concrete data in view of the design of a previous activity proposal; to name:

  1. Introduction to the subject with an approach to the case-problem to be solved.
  2. Questions guiding the research.
  3. Information and data sources to be surveyed to solve or interpret the problem.
  4. Final conclusion where it has to be developed by means of a visualization, computer graphics and/or graphics.

In the above mentioned website, for instance, there is a set of Results of the National Survey on Information and Communication Technologies of the home micro-data basis by jurisdiction and subdomain, accompanied by the module of registration and composition of the micro-data structure:

This document presents the survey and the nomenclature of results, which allows us to start from the analysis of what a survey is, to later continue on how it is designed by virtue of what is sought to be analyzed and what for. This implies working on how data are produced as well.

The instructions to be developed of the proposed activity model would be the following:

  • Investigate which State organisms completed the survey.
  • Investigate which aspects were surveyed (in this case, data on radio, television, phones, computers and Internet access at households).
  • Population surveyed, universe surveyed, where and how the survey was made (national urban population resident in particular households).
  • Purpose, goal: This instance enables refection and analysis to work with students; for example, from the question: “why is it useful for the country to count on this information?”. In this particular case, there is the possibility of questioning on the importance of education and equal conditions, or the lack of access to technology, information and knowledge. This would also allow us to propose reflections on inclusion and the necessary conditions for development in society.

The learning goals of the activity are focused on the fact that students get in touch with the data sets and learn how they are generated and organized from the instruments producing them (a survey, in this case).  From a technical point of view, we strive for their understanding the data sets normalizing operations, and their going deeper into the logic of use of tools such as open refine. From an analytical–conceptual level, we strive for their learning to read them and exchange them by representing them with graphics, computer graphics and visualizations to communicate their analysis and conclusions. In this sense, working with geo-referentiation and using free software tools such as Cartodb is a useful and feasible dimension according to the communicational goal.

When looking for designing and improving proposals like the one sketched, we strive for generating the conditions so that students can identify data as a raw material to understand aspects with high incidence in the configuration of the functioning of the world we live in. This implies developing a type of reading from which texts presented in supports and formats involving a non-linear design logics present in digital reading environments can be produced. In this way, conditions are given for the identification and understanding of patterns and structures in data and information fluxes we are daily exposed to. With this kind of work, we promote the development of understanding in relation to the degree of abstraction certain problems require to be identified and analyzed.

Programming training

We know that, at a cognitive level, programming learning develops a type of computerized thinking that the International Society for Technologies in Education (ISTE, given its acronym in English) and the Computerized Sciences Teachers’ Association (CSTA, given its acronym in English) have defined  as“…a process to solve problems that includes, but is not limited to, the following features:

  • Formulate problems that allow the use of computers and other tools to be solved.
  • Organize data in a logic way and analyze them.
  • Represent data by means of abstractions, such as models and simulations.
  • Automate solutions by means of algorithmic thinking (a series of ordered steps).
  • Identify, analyze and implement possible solutions with the objective of finding the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources.
  • Generalize and transfer this problem-solution process to a great diversity thereof …”

MSAs a supplement, in an interview he granted to me, Mariano Sigman, Doctor in Cognitive Sciences and Director of the Integration Neuroscience Laboratory of the Di Tella University defined three aspects that programming learning fosters in cognitive development.

  1. The capacity to split problems into smaller problems. “… Almost all problems we have in life, and many times at school, are complex problems. If I ask you to solve 173 x 279, for instance, it seems difficult, but the key is to split such calculation into 9 x 3 = 27 and so on. That is to say, I have a procedure to split this problem into smaller fragments, each of them more accessible to my capacity…” Writing a program implies dividing it into functions made up of smaller functions. “…That is the organic structure of a program…”. Learning how to program is learning how to organize complex tasks by splitting them in simpler ones, which derives in organizing your thought. This mental exercise is transferable to other knowledge domains, and hence to life.
  2. Programming is based on languages having their own construction rules. Learning and using them implies a cognitive development: “…We know that multi-lingualism (…) generates great cognitive versatility. There are lots of studies showing  that children who are trained to be bilingual, do not only have a better language but also work cognitively better; they think better. Nobody has done so with IT languages, but it is very likely that it works alike; since it is a language with the features of languages, so it is very likely that it has to do with this kind of training …”
  3. Programming is expressed with a system of symbols. Learning how to program requires exercising a cognitive domain proper of mathematics, which is normally a difficult instance for students. Learning how to program implies specifically training this kind of thought.

In the article LAprender a programar: Programar para aprender (Learning how to program: Programming to MRunderstand, Mitchel Resnick  proposes that we should understand programming languages and the action of programming as an extension of writing, that is to say, as a means of

systematization and expression of ideas. This consideration allows us to understand programming, like reading and writing, as a cultural device that can transform our mental actions and functions. This transformation is produced as a consequence of an enlargement of the functioning capacities of the human mind through learning and communication. In this article, we can find examples and testimonies of children that account for this situation from their own learning and interactive experience “…learning strategies to solve problems, design projects and communicate ideas…” in the Scratch programming environment. This allows us to think that intelligence is not limited to the capacity of solving problems of the external world, but that it also implies modes of interaction with others who share cultural aspects, who have knowledge and experience and who act based on them.

It is useful to take up again how Ignacio Pozo places this into context in the above mentioned conference:

IP“…In our society, a person who does not have access to literacy is deprived of a major part of his/her development, of interacting, of participating in many environments in society. This is not only happening with respect to reading and writing and to mathematics notation but also, and every time more frequently, with respect to all the new ways of literacy. Today, it does not suffice for students to learn to read, write, calculate; we want them to use these systems to learn, to transform their minds and, in this way, to transform society…”

We think of training with the new technologies to approach the complexity needed by the current world to be interpreted and transformed. We think of generating experiences where students learn that a computer is a set of tools to construct and not just to be a user-consumer of. If going back to Scolari’s metaphor, we want to change the social interface,  it is necessary to be able to program its code or to have the collaborative capacity to create a new one. In this sense, programming training would also be an educational strategy of social inclusion.

However, the difficulty arising is the following; Nobody can teach something he does not know of. So, how do we implement programming training in the educational system when there aren’t enough teachers who know how to program?

Again, the society dynamics questions school organization. This is healthy, since under these conditions, there appears the possibility of a terrain of experimentation according to each context. In Argentina, after the implementation of the net-book assignment program called Conectar Igualdad as of 2010, to students of secondary school and of the teachers’ training college, conditions were given to start the program called ProgramAR (see program fundamentals) where, little by little, some teachers interested in programming start training themselves together with their students in itinerant workshops.

Some specialists propose different modalities, which supplement each other. For example, the mathematician and scientific spokesperson Adrian Paenza, in his article Educación Horizontal (Horizontal Education), posed the following question:

AP“… and what would happen if students and teachers learn together? I mean, what would happen

 If, everyday (…), they spend an hour where education is transformed into something “horizontal” in every school and college in the country: everybody learns at the same time. Of course, there can be (or better said, there should be) enough (easy) reading material so that we can all try to solve the problems presented there. Some may go still a bit further. Others may not. Some would need more help, other would not. However, within the same school (or college), there will be groups that will be able to cooperate with those having more difficulties. In such a case, age, course and “hierarchy” differences should be set aside. Are we ready for this? As a society, are we ready to learn together and at the same time with our children?…”

Should this be the case, that is, that even as a society or within it, those responsible for the educational system were willing to face this challenge, it would be useful to consider the examples of training communities and environments that are already working on this horizontal type of organization. In this sense, we should approach the case of communities of collective knowledge construction such as Instructables, which Valentín Muro in his article ”Sobre la reapropiación de la tecnología. Otra forma de evitar ser programados” (Taking possession of technology: Another way to avoid being programmed)’ uses as a reference to discuss on the idea of communities with mentors. The idea is that the apprentices-teachers community itself offers their knowledge and experiences to orientate other peers conceptually and instructively. The spaces for so doing would be a virtual platform as well as meetings in person in hackaton format, which is a mixed modality or blended learning.

This kind of proposals poses a challenge for network teachers’ training in higher education, since they generate the conditions for future teachers, as students, to be trained by means of a horizontal educational experience that they, in turn, will transfer to their future students in a practical way.

This article was initially published in the bulletin Nr. 102 (March, 2015) of the SCOPEO Observatory of the Salamanca University, Spain.



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