Beyond Bits and Atoms: Overview

Please click here for the Winter 2018 site

Human-Computer Interaction +
Rapid Prototyping + Making and Building
Learning Sciences + Constructionism + Critical Pedagogy

This course is a hands-on practicum in evaluating, designing and building technology-enabled curricula, tools, and learning environments. We will use many rich software toolkits and state-of-the-art prototyping technologies (3D printers, laser cutters, routers, robotics, sensors) designed for novices to get their “hands dirty” designing educational software, educational toolkits, educational toys, and tangible user interfaces. A special focus of the course will be to reinvent the “offline” side of online learning: in other words, designing hands-on toolkits, sensing devices, tangible interfaces, and low-cost wet labs that could be used in conjunction with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), in order to bring the well-known benefits of hands-on learning to the online learning world. We also focus on low-cost, appropriate technologies, particularly for urban school in the US and in developing countries.

No programming or technical knowledge is needed! This class is a good fit for students with and without a technical background. Don't be scared! The class is designed for technical and non-technical people to succeed and to have a good experience -- but you will have to put in the hours.

Class components

In this course, we will both learn how to study, evaluate and design technologies for learning, with a special focus on cultural appropriateness. Towards that end, we will have five main kinds of activities:

  • Lectures and class discussions: here we will get in touch with the theoretical foundations in the cognitive science, developmental psychology, human-computer interaction, critical pedagogy, constructivism, and constructionism..
  • Product reviews: in class, we will review 10-20 existing software and hardware products (free and commercial) for education, and learn how to critique and evaluate them.
  • Invited speakers from the MIT Media Lab, Berkeley, Northwestern, Google, and foreign universities will tell students about the cutting-edge of technological design for learning.
  • Contact with children: at least one assignment will require interviewing or testing a design with children.
  • Lab course: using state-of-the-art prototyping machines (such as laser cutters and 3D printers) students will have an immersive, hands-on design experience, and become fluent in several prototyping technologies.

CS 402 / EDUC 236: Beyond Bits and Atoms: Designing Technological Tools

Practicum in designing and building technology-enabled curricula and hands-on learning environments. Students use software toolkits and state-of-the-art fabrication machines to design educational software, educational toolkits, and tangible user interfaces. The course will focus on designing low-cost technologies, particularly for urban school in the US and abroad. We will explore theoretical and design frameworks from the constructionist learning perspective, critical pedagogy, interaction design for children.

CS 402L / EDUC 211: Beyond Bits and Atoms - Lab

This course is a hands-on lab in the prototyping and fabrication of tangible technologies, with a special focus in learning and education. We will learn how to use state-of-the-art fabrication machines (3D printers, 3D scanners, laser cutters, routers) to design educational toolkits, educational toys, science kits, and tangible user interfaces. A special focus of the course will be to design low-cost technologies, particularly for urban school in the US and abroad.

Technology in Education

Technology has been the “next big thing” in education for the past 50 years, first with television, videotapes, computers, the internet, and mobile phones. Countless conferences, books, national plans, and international initiatives have promised better student performance, motivating courses, better teacher training, lower costs, or more equity.

Why hasn’t technology in education lived up to its hype? And will the new wave of Makers and MOOCs be the next big thing, or just new passing fads?

Answering those questions is one of the goals of this course. Part of that answer is that, for the most part, technology designers often do not know much about the learning & cognitive sciences, and educators, entrepreneurs, and educational researchers are not fluent enough with the new technologies to become designers, or at least educated consumers of advanced technologies. Educational technologies are always years behind the bleeding-edge of technology. Also, not much has been done in the direction understanding the role of cultural differences in the uses of technology across communities and countries. The result is that most solutions are either too technocentric, ignoring cognitive and cultural issues, or do not use technology to its fullest potential.

Theoretical “Backbone”

The main theoretical backbone of the course are the constructivist and constructionist perspectives. The constructivist approach starts with the assumption that teaching cannot successfully proceed by simply transferring knowledge to students’ heads. Skillful teaching starts with the current state of knowledge of the student. In order for students to learn effectively, they need to construct the knowledge structures for themselves. Constructionism adds to that perspective the importance of building, making, and reflecting on your artifacts. In the spirit of constructionism, we will engage in our own construction of artifacts in this class and, through this activity, explore and evaluate the design of kits and tools intended to enable learners to construct their own motivating and powerful artifacts. We will do this by constructing both physical and virtual artifacts and by engaging in reflective discussion of both the artifacts themselves and the tools used to construct them. Another important influence in this course is the work of Paulo Freire on critical pedagogy. Freire states that the school curriculum has to start from the learners’ cultural context and values, and emphasizes the importance of designing learning environments in which agency, social empowerment, and emancipation are crucial components.

In the final project, students will put all of this together by designing and implementing a constructionist learning environment, with critical pedagogy inspirations, using any combination of the tools and machines studied during the course.

Learning Goals

After completing this course, you should be able to:

  • Understand some of the main learning theories employed these days, and why they are crucial for designing next-generation learning tools: constructivism, constructionism, computational literacy, transfer, collaborative learning, computational thinking, critical pedagogy, and several topics in cognitive science.
  • Design sophisticated objects and tangible interfaces using tools such as 3D printers, laser cutters, 3D scanners, and microcontrollers (see lab syllabus).
  • Put together theory and design skills to create educational software/hardware at the prototype level, avoiding common design errors.
  • Assess and critique technology-rich learning products.
  • Design technology-enabled activities that take advantage of the computational medium, considering the knowledge domain, age group, context, and deployment situation.
  • Interview and do user testing with children and young adults.
  • Implement technologies in real-world (online and offline) classrooms.
  • Change the world, eventually.

I can’t program. Should I enroll? And why should I care?

No previous programming or technology background is assumed. Even if you have never programmed in your life, you can still enroll!

Students with a technical background will learn how to use their skills to design meaningful tools for learning—and not just cool “gadgets” disconnected from learning theory. Students from the humanities, art or psychology will learn how to make their ideas come to life—a toy, a piece of software, a tangible human-computer interface, or a technology-rich curriculum.

This class will emphasize authoring projects using Logo-inspired languages. Logo is a computer programming language designed explicitly for use by children and is in use in large numbers of schools – common implementations of Logo are Microworlds, Scratch, NetLogo, StarLogo, and LogoBlocks.

Even if you might not intend to be an educational software designer yourself, it is the reality of today— and more so, of tomorrow— that should inform your choice to become educated about the promise of technology in education. Courses similar to this have been taught around the world and people with no programming experience have done extremely well. However, programming and prototyping does take time and you will be expected to devote substantial time to it, just like any other new skill. You are strongly encouraged to get help from your fellow students through the class email list as well as from the TAs, who will hold weekly office hours designed especially for technical and programming support.