The new Digital Technologies Curriculum in Australia means that schools around the country at every year level from year 10 right down to teeny tiny preppies (I swear, they get teenier and tinier every year) have to shoehorn technology into their already crowded and frantically busy class time.
This is pretty challenging for teachers with no training in teaching tech. So for those of us with tech skills, and more importantly, those of us with educational tech skills, it’s really important that we are as supportive as we can be of those who haven’t got the skills but are genuinely committed to giving this whole tech thing a jolly good go.
And it worries me – it worries me a lot – that there is a loud and, to me, inexplicable, message out there that hardware is a nice, easy, friendly way in to the tech space.
Grab some Arduinos. Tada! Tech just happens.
Grab some Lego robots. Tada! Tech just happens.
Grab some raspberry pi boards. More magic tech materialises out of nowhere.
This is both a triumph and a desperate failure of marketing.
These things, despite their marketing, are not easy to use.
They require significant tech skills to master – or a huge amount of time, and trial and error.
Sure, they are fabulous for the kids who are heavily into this sort of thing and prepared to spend forever bashing their heads against a keyboard and a soldering iron in order to make things happen.
But for the kids who aren’t really into this stuff and need to be persuaded, they can be massively off-putting. For the teachers who have to support the kids who aren’t really into this stuff, they can be even worse.
I am co-supervising an honours student at the moment by the name of Jarred Benham who is looking into the usability of these kits. He has surveyed teachers who use them (If you are a teacher, you can fill out the survey here), and I won’t gazump his results except to say that teachers tend to buy these kits with great optimism, and then find them confrontingly difficult to use in the classroom.
This doesn’t surprise me. The first time I sat down to use the Lego Mindstorms software with an NXT2 robot I was shocked to find how bizarrely difficult it was to use. Lego has a justifiably great reputation for its block kits and its instruction books, but when it comes to Mindstorms it has failed to live up to that reputation in a fairly spectacular way.
I give you, as exhibit A, the action blocks from the Mindstorms software:
I haven’t the faintest idea what they mean. This image was taken from a page headed: “Learn to Program! It’s easy!” and I suspect the only message a beginner is likely to take away from this is “not for me“.
Let’s look at Arduinos for a moment.
Heavily marketed and widely touted as being easy to use, Arduinos actually require significant tech skills to setup and get working. The website says “The Arduino software is easy-to-use for beginners.”
Allow me to show you the first, and possibly simplest, bit of sample code, direct from the Arduino website:
Simple, right? Sure, if you’ve programmed in C before. And if you understand the meaning of the words Analog and Serial. Also if you know what a potentiometer is and how to find 5V and ground. And what the heck a Serial Monitor is.
Well… I mean… who doesn’t? Ahem.
But the marketing is so powerful that when I went to the website in order to research this article, and read all the stuff about how easy to use it is, I figured it must have changed since I last tried to program an Arduino – just last year. But no. It’s the same, high entry level, learning cliff. And yet the message “arduinos are easy to use and a great intro to tech” is extraordinarily pervasive.
Interestingly, when I googled “is Arduino easy to use?” I got a large number of hits that all used the exact same words as the official Arduino website. “Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software.” I’m sure their marketing department would be thrilled.
As for Raspberry pis, they are literally just small, cheap computers. There is nothing special, or particularly easy, about them as an introduction to tech. But again, they have a reputation as easy to use and great for beginners.
Now, as electronics kits go, Arduinos may well be on the easier end of the scale – I don’t know, having not conducted an exhaustive evaluation of all the kits out there – but it’s NOT an easy intro to tech for someone without tech skills. In fact, I’ve yet to see a hardware kit that is.
Even if you ignore the poor usability of the various interfaces, hardware has other drawbacks. There’s maintaining the kits, and dealing with loose connections, dead batteries, and sensors that inexplicably stop working. There’s software upgrades that leave older hardware for dead (Looking at YOU, LEGO MINDSTORMS!). And then there’s the sheer cost of buying class sets that are often not robust enough to withstand troupes of 30 eager young people at a time, giving them a hammering all day every day.
This worries me, because those teachers I talked about who want to give this tech thing a red hot go? They’re going to get burned on the deal if they believe that hardware is an easy and fun intro. It’s going to be a lot of pain and trauma getting it going, an even larger amount of pain and trauma keeping it going, and very quickly the kits will become obsolete or too broken to keep using.
When I went around talking to the primary school kids at Young ICT Explorers on the weekend I asked them what it was like learning to build their projects. The ones who used hardware all said “Oh it was really hard.” Is that the message we want to send about tech? That it’s really hard? How many kids (and teachers) are we scaring away with our insistence that these kits are easy to use when they are manifestly not? One of the things that happens when you are told something is easy to use and it’s not is that you assume it’s your fault. That you’re no good at this stuff. That it’s too hard for you. It’s incredibly destructive.
Part of Jarred’s project is to create a website that will help teachers choose the best kits for their purposes based on what other teachers have found. I can’t wait until this website is ready to go public, because I think it’s going to be an incredible resource. But in the meantime I think we should be asking whether using hardware in the classroom actually stacks up in a cost-benefit calculation. Is it worth the pain?
I don’t think it is. But if teachers choose it, at least we can help them choose it with their eyes open.