Demystifying the Elves in my Computer

Even though I’ve grown up around computers, and am a pretty competent user, it only takes a few simple questions from the kids to expose my utter inability to properly explain the real workings of digital technology. Everyday I’m bombarded with stuff like:

“How did your phone send my video to Daddy’s phone?”

“Where is the Internet?”

“How does the memory card remember my photos?”

I know it’s got something to do with creating and managing information coded into 1s and 0s. But beyond that…my understanding is pretty vague! I’ve had a quick look around YouTube to see if there are any simple videos to explain this stuff – and there are – but most of it is still beyond my kids.

It’s tempting to just say there are little elves in our devices who do the magic. I don’t want to admit it’s too complicated to explain, because that would make it seem inaccessible, and I don’t want them to stop asking. Our lives are filled with digital magic these days, and as the devices become ever more sophisticated, it is increasingly difficult to perceive how they work. But the ability to understand and manipulate these devices is a field of knowledge which is growing in relevance.

I’ve gone from on using one of these in the Eighties…

amstrad

We had an Amstrad CPC 464 when I was a kid. The games were on cassette tapes!

 

To one of these…

imac

 

But sadly, I’ll admit I still don’t really know how they work!

Perhaps it won’t be enough anymore to just be a competent user of software. How important is coding ability going to be for future careers? Realistically, an understanding of computer hardware/software will allow for greater creativity and innovation in problem-solving of many kinds, or at least make it easier to collaborate effectively with those in the tech industry.

We’re preparing our children for an unknown future, but it’s hard to think of an industry that hasn’t been significantly impacted by digital (information) technology, as illustrated by this video.

Up until now, I’ve been content to utilize the various sophisticated gadgets around me without thinking too hard about how they work. But with all the fuss about kids learning to code, I’m wondering whether I should try and get past my brick wall and learn along with them.

code

This sort of stuff seems impenetrable to me, but maybe its not as unintelligible as it looks…?

Perhaps if I start off alongside a preschooler, it won’t seem too intimidating. In tech-obsessed Singapore there is no shortage of classes offering to teach coding to kids, but they can be quite expensive, especially when you consider they are all teaching a free programme called Scratch (developed by MIT to teach kids the basics of coding by designing simple games). You can also download free guides and workbooks yourself if you want to try figuring it out at home.

I’ve started to arm myself with some DIY resources to explore coding and computers with children, if they start to show an interest in it. I quietly put Scratch Jr and Move the Turtle on the iPad over a year ago and sure enough, Miss Chu discovered them and has been figuring out how they work on her own, with no input from me. I’ve seen an interesting book called Hello Ruby which aims to introduce programming concepts through stories, and offers a cute downloadable laptop computer cardboard craft on its website which you can use to explain parts of a computer (as demonstrated by this blogger).

Hello_Ruby_cardboard_computer

Make a cute cardboard laptop with help from Hello Ruby! Now this I can manage.

Dash and Dot look fun – a pair of toy robots that can be programmed via an iPad app – I’ve noticed that coding classes in Singapore often make use of these.

dashanddot

There’s Kano, if we eventually want to get into hardware. And of course there’s Minecraft, which Miss Chu knows about, but I admit I’ve avoided downloading it since it’s commonly reported to be all-consuming and addictive. Hopefully, we can integrate some of this into our everyday learning for fun, without spending hours and hours in front of a screen. After all I did say I wanted to eventually techify our art-and-craft pursuits. So maybe it’ll all pay off if we ever get round to programming that hypothetical cardboard robot!

Yesterday, we went to see the Future World exhibition by Teamlab at the Art Science Museum – and its probably the coolest exhibition we have seen in a while. The kids loved this interactive digital playground.

interactive_townscape

futureworld_glowballs

They were scanning hand-drawn houses and buses to add to a 3D digital townscape, and designing their own stepping patterns for an interactive hopscotch.

Will they ever learn how to build one for themselves? We’ll have to start somewhere!

Photos don’t really do this exhibition justice, so I’ve also made a quick little showreel of some of their favourite exhibits. Enjoy!

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Good to hear that you’re going to take the plunge and have a go at coding and learning more about the technology around you. Have you heard of http://www.jewelbots.com? It could be fun wearable tech for you and the girls to try out sometime soon!

    • Well – not really learning proper coding, but happy to learn Scratch! Jewelbots looks really interesting! Will be putting it on the wishlist. I can’t quite tell whether the interactive part is limited if its not paired with a mobile phone though? But even getting the kids interested in the idea of programmable, wearable tech would be good.

  2. You are doing the right thing and certainly not alone in approaching this subject.
    It is great that you are willing to keep pushing yourself and learning new things.
    You may already know when you were in the UK that the Raspberry Pi is aimed at school children in the UK and worldwide to get kids into computing. There are many resources freely available to help parents, teachers, IT specialists who volunteer at schools.
    For the early years of children there is the concept of teaching them the logics using Sctrach then eventually teaching them to code in Python. See https://www.raspberrypi.org/resources/ for resouces and other resources for schools.
    There are many Raspberry Jams held regularly with interested parties locally to share their knowledge ideas.
    Annually there is a Python Conference usually help in Coventry called PyCon (http://www.pyconuk.org/) to enlighten teachers and other attendants.
    If you are willing to learn to code I would recommend that you learn Python. It is a good language that is available across platforms. In a sense you could get your kids to use the RPi whilst you use your Mac for the same code and when ready share it either way (RPi to Mac and vice versa).
    When the kids start to code it is possible to start using addon boards to the RPi to create other things and keep the kids interests going.
    If you want more information I’m happy to help where I can.

    • Yes – it does seem that there are lots of resources…just a bit daunting to know where to get started! But keen to learn some basic programming so we can mess around with RPi, Arduino and electronic stuff as kids get older 😊.

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