Monday, January 24, 2011

ET Phone Home!

I was intrigued to hear a report on the radio on Monday that a British company is planing to launch a satellite they hope to control using a mobile phone (See this report on the BBC website for more information: Mobile phone to blast into orbit). They are not using the parts from a mobile, they are putting the actual phone into the satellite as is and using its built in features - for example they plan to use its camera to take pictures.

When we heard this, my wife wondered out loud if they were using an iPhone. I said, probably not and that it was more likely to be an Android phone because they would need something they could hack, which is indeed what they are doing.

It got me thinking again about a couple of the comments made by people at the Learning Without Frontiers conference. Specifically, Evan Roth (see Evan Roth, Graffiti Research Lab) who wants children to have computers they can hack and David Braben (see LWF11 - David Braben, Founder, Frontier Developme...) who remembered his own formative years when computer systems came with programming manuals. How can we give children a way in to programming with current systems?

On of my favourite quotes is from Arthur C. Clark:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
But I often say to my students, that one of the jobs of a computing teacher is to open the magic box and show them the smoke and mirrors inside. The problem is, current operating systems generally do too good a job at hiding what is going on but, as I've said elsewhere, while the computing industry is saying, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!", I want teachers to lift the curtain and show pupils what the levers do. All sorts of things conspire, however, to make this difficult, for example the managed systems that most schools use where you can't install any software and even tweaking a system setting is difficult/impossible.

I think David Braben's Raspberry Pi project could be extraordinarily useful in this respect but while we are waiting for it to arrive, how do we give children the opportunity to hack systems? How do we let them gain the experience of coding that came with early micros like the Spectrum and the BBC Micro? Or I suppose I should have started with the basic question - do you agree that children should be encouraged to re-configure or re-program their own devices and devices available in schools?


IGH said...

Since you ask, I think that children definitely need to hack and reconfigure devices, software, etc. My poor computing (as it was called in those days) teacher did try to teach me the essentials of programming. However, the very small amount of understanding I retain of this field is almost entirely a consequence of discovering just how limited the BBC Micros were at school and an old Texas Instruments machine at home. We used to compete to find the most elaborate ways to get the things to crash.
Any technology is much better applied once you know its limits and the best way to explore the limits of a thing is to test it to destruction. Once you've explored the limits of a thing it's so much easier to imagine how to go beyond them.

David said...

Hello IGH

On the competition to make things crash front, we had a flight simulator on the BBC that was so hard to work we gave up trying to fly the plane and instead competed to see who could get it to crash into the ground at the highest speed!

Despite the locked down nature of school machines, it is interesting to see how the pupils keep pushing to try and find ways round the limitations.

David said...

Comment from @GrahamBM via Twitter:

@DavidDMuir interesting post - it should be noted that the iPhone was successfully hacked & jailbroken first by a 13 year old #lwf11 @fi5e

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