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Clinamen » The Year of Computational Thinking

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The Year of Computational Thinking

Image Credit: “Habitat – Exoskeleton – Top View” by Horst Kiechle

Here’s a video of my presentation from this year’s Computer’s and Writing Conference. It was part of a panel that Jentery Sayers and Virginia Kuhn organized entitled “Hacking the Classroom.” I wasn’t able to attend in person, but Jentery was kind enough to let me send along this video in my place. A transcript of the talk is below. (Note: The student work I discuss is available at my course website.)



Something is in the air, and it seems that 2012 is the year of code. From Code Academy’s “Code Year” project to Cathy Davidson’s call for a fourth R (algoRithms) to New York Times articles about programming “for the rest of us,” there is a public conversation happening about how code is more than just a technical practice. My own attempts to hack the classroom during this past academic year have happened with these broader public discussions in mind. I recently joined a brand new program in Digital Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This interdisciplinary program offers an undergraduate certificate in Digital Studies and currently includes faculty from Art, Communication Arts, English, and Journalism. Our focus is on providing students with a broad range of digital skills, from the visual to the aural to the computational.

Given this global context (“the year of code”) and my local context (UW-Madison’s Digital Studies program), I’ve attempted to make this “the year of computational thinking” for students in my classes. And I guess you could say I’ve done this by hacking the classroom. For me, hacking is about exploring possibilities without worrying too much about what the end result will look like. I certainly hoped that students would leave the classroom with a better sense of that “4th R,” but I also knew that I was experimenting with technologies and assignments that were brand new to me.

During these classes, my own hacks of the classroom have been two-fold:

Hack #1: Studio Pedagogy

Influenced by my colleague Jon McKenzie, I have begun to see my classroom as a studio space. I have given students more time and space to make things. This has been helped along by my teaching schedule—the classes I taught this year met once per week, and this made it easy for me to compartmentalize time. For instance, we might spend 45 minutes discussing our reading and then the remaining hour and a half would be devoted to designing video games or interactive fiction. For me, this approach also emerged out of conversations with colleagues about teaching courses online. I tried to imagine what I’d say if an administrator who asked me why I needed classroom space. Why couldn’t I just teach my courses online? We need good answers to this question. Online courses can be a good solution to certain problems, but it is not a magic bullet. But we need strong answers to questions about online teaching and the value of synchronous classes. This is one good reason to hack the classroom and explore its various affordances. How would you respond to a department chair or administrator who asks you to offer your courses online?

Hack #2: Writing code in the writing classroom

In both classes, students wrote a significant amount of code. They used two different systems: Inform7 and Scratch. Both of these systems are designed for the novice programmer. Inform7 allows students to code using English language sentences, and Scratch offers a visual interface. I’d like to briefly describe two of the more interesting student projects:


Bully Be Gone

Bully Be Gone is a work of interactive fiction that intervenes in contemporary discussions about bullying. Rather than presenting statistics or anecdotes about bullying, this game places the player in a world and asks them to move through it. The game (spoiler alert) slowly reveals to the player that s/he is the bully. Actions that initially seemed like day-to-day activities of day (taking an apple or) are eventually revealed to be the actions of a bully, and the player must right each of these wrongs in order to finish the game.


Walker, Wisconsin Ranger

Walker, Wisconsin Ranger is an attempt to address Ian Bogost’s argument in Persuasive Games that political video games have largely failed to take advantage of the procedural affordances of games. Students were tasked with creating a game that addressed an issue in Wisconsin politics, and that game needed to make a procedural argument. Walker, Wisconsin Ranger, puts the player in the shoes of Governor Walker. Game play involves making budget cuts that inevitably affect approval ratings. The game makes a fairly complex procedural argument about politics and policy by immersing us in the world of Scott Walker.


In addition to these courses, I’m looking forward to teaching “Composition and Computation” in the fall. This is part of a Freshman Interest Group I designed. A cohort of twenty first-year students will be taking three courses together: first-year writing, a course called “Principles of Computation,” and my course, which will involve writing code and tinkering with Arduino boards.

I have very much enjoyed this year of computational thinking. And while the Digital Studies program has allowed me to hack the classroom and push the boundaries of composition and rhetoric, I have been excited to watch my students hack in the classroom.

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