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« 7 Ways to make IT real: #1 Get local | Main | 7 Criteria for evaluating a computing scheme of work »

7 ways to make IT real: #0 Make IT unreal

One way to make ICT interesting is to make sure it is relevant to young people’s lives, and has a genuine connection to the “real world”. Indeed, these are required of Ofsted in order to achieve an “Outstanding” grade in ICT. I have referred to this as “authentic learning”. So, in the next few articles I will be suggesting ways of approaching this.

What is meant by “real” or “authentic” in this context? It means giving pupils a real problem to solve, as opposed to an invented one. For example, take that old chestnut, “Imagine you are going to open up a video shop”. You could update it by making it a DVD rental shop or an online rental or downloads business, but however you dress it up it is still an invented task which wouldn’t have most pupils jumping up and down with excitement.

Much better to make it either genuinely real or, paradoxically, definitely unreal. What do I mean by this?

Well, it seems to me you could have a lot of fun figuring out how something would work if you assumed it was possible in the first place. Let me give three examples.

The romance novel

In the 1960s there was a TV series called The Avengers. It featured impossible plots and ideas. One such idea was a publishing house which produced romantic novels by playing a piano. If the music being played was soft and sensuous, the corresponding passage in the novel would be likewise. On the other hand, for a dramatic episode, the music would need to be more strident. Being the 1960s, the result was in the form of a sheaf of papers rather than a digital file. Even so, what a great idea!

But how would it actually work? If you had to draw a flowchart to show the underlying algorithm, what would it look like? And is the idea even as impossible as it seems? How could it work?

The universal translator

KL-43 Off-line/On-line Digital Encryption (Adaptation of language translator technology) late 70s-80s (c) 1980 Ryan Somma Just about every science fiction story involving us meeting aliens involves some kind of translation device. This was a staple of Star Trek, of course. Whenever the crew landed on another planet, the people there either (miraculously) spoke perfect English, or a universal translator was used to make it seem so.

How would such a device actually work? It’s quite a problem really. It isn’t as simple as having a massive database of every language in the galaxy, because not every language would be known about in advance.

Interestingly, there was a discussion about this on BBC’s Radio 4 recently, where it was pointed out that even if such a device was possible, it may still not be of much use. They cited an episode of Star Trek in which the universal translator did its job perfectly, but what the alien was saying made no sense because he spoke in metaphors. And you could only understand those metaphors if you knew his history and cultural background.

Just as an aside, with this in mind how universally useful is Google Translate?

But figuring out how a universal translator might work would still be an interesting project in my opinion.

The homework writer

Closer to home, would it be possible to design a computer program or app that would remove the chore of doing homework? What would it need to be able to do? How could you represent that in a flowchart? What sort of error-checking would be required?

The benefits of the “unreal” approach

You could argue that all these kind of exercises are silly and pointless, but they do have three major benefits which make them ideal for teaching “computational thinking”, perhaps by way of an introductory activity.

First, because these ideas would be impossible to implement, as far as our current technology is concerned, nobody can be proved wrong. I think that frees people up to take risks.

Second, because you couldn’t actually write programs to achieve these goals, it means you have to think closely about the design stage. I think that is quite important.

Finally, I think these kind of suggestions are fun. And what’s wrong with that?

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