Computer Science: Graphic Design

I haven’t really had a chance to address the fact that I’m now a computer science teacher on this blog, rather than a history teacher. My school needed and and wanted someone on staff to run a specific program, and the guy we found is AWESOME. But he’s also a history teacher, and that would have equipped us with far too many history teachers if he and I and another colleague were all teaching here together.

Teaching Graphic Design
A suite of increasingly complex images…

On the other hand, I could teach an Information Technology and Digital Literacy course (we call it DAS -— Digital Arts and Sciences), and my new, brilliant colleague wasn’t able to teach that class.  So I’m teaching it

I’m discovering a quite curious thing.  I was expecting that students were going to have a variety of computer skills, because of prior experience writing papers and laboratory reports and whatnot.  I was expecting digital natives…

… and I was very surprised to discover I didn’t really have any, as I understood the term.  And it’s caused me to re-think what we mean when we say “Digital Native” and what we think we mean.  Because I think what we think we mean is that a digital native is someone who grew up with computers and has a natural understanding of how to work with them and produce quality work.  And we think “Digital Natives” are so intuitive with this stuff, that they have just absorbed how to work with computers as a matter of course.

But what we really mean by the term “Digital Native” is someone who grew up in a world with computers and the Internet — someone born after 1996, say — and who knows what email is and what the Internet is, and has some sense of what programs are, and what’s software, and what’s hardware, and what a computer is.

But that doesn’t mean they have the slightest clue how to use a computer. Or the Internet, really.  Beyond a few basic functions, they’re actually in a worse position than anyone who had to confront the Internet as an adult, or who had to learn how to use a computer after learning longhand cursive script or a typewriter.  I realize that this may be counterintuitive, and that a lot of people may find this concept upsetting of long-cherished notions, so I present Sugata Mitra as part of my counterintuition.

One of the things that I see that Sugata Mitra did in his experiments (and I have to admit, I haven’t read his research — I’ve only seen some of his videos) is that he provided students with questions or challenges to be answered.  And this is part of the way I’ve approached teaching computer science.  By providing various challenges and opportunities first to match my work, and then surpass it, I’m trying to encourage students to learn the new skill-sets, and develop the creative flow, necessary to do beautiful and interesting work on a computer, and take advantage of the opportunities that these systems afford them.

In other words, I’m asking them to learn the skills I learned as a Digital Immigrant, the same way I learned them when computers first became part of my world in the 1980s and 1990s.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve challenged students in class to reproduce the designs on the attached JPG (you can link through to a Creative Commons-enabled version of it, for your own use if you wish), using the graphics platform available in a typical word processor like Pages or Microsoft Word or even Open Office.  It turns out that designing complex graphics using these tools is rather like doing paper collage. Things have to be on top of or underneath other elements; colors have to be chosen and matched and compared and sampled; line width and color has to be matched; font has to be correct-ish in color and typeface and weight; and so on.

Do you have any idea how hard some of these were for so-called “Digital Natives”?

So hard that many of them started playing around with Apple’s PhotoBooth, because it was easier than learning to use a graphics program the hard way.  And some went on Safari to find computer versions of the designs I’d asked them to reproduce.  But gradually, all of the classes began to see that there was an underlying logic to how these images are produced: This object on top of that object. This one slightly larger than that one.   This one with lines, and that one without lines.

And gradually, an ecosystem of graphical organizers is starting to emerge.  One came out today which was a rough framework of the various branches of Christianity.  It’s not right, judging by purely factual questions of some Protestant denominations deriving from others — but it’s not entirely wrong, either.

So first we teach the skill set of the program’s rough tools, and then we provide the challenges that illustrate the design potential, and then we assign the work for other classes which allows them to put the suite of tools to work.  And in this way, the skill-set they’ve just learned is challenged and provided with new opportunities to grow and discover.

But it has to start with the teaching of the basic tools.  WE, the digital immigrants, learned these skills the hard way, over the long haul, through many different computer platforms and many different software platforms.  Now we get to teach the core skills of digital collage in a relatively-platform-neutral way, and help them uncover new possibilities by offering specific challenges related to the work they’re going to have to do any way.

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