Everything Old is New Again, Or The Power of Stranger Things

Note: A version of this article first appeared in the November NETA newletter. You can access it here.

Everything old is new again. Isn’t it funny how ideas and trends in life tend to come and go? As any viewer of Netflix’s Stranger Things can attest, nostalgia is back in full force. So what does this have to do with education? We’ve come a long way. Technology has evolved. What students DO with technology has come a long way. And yet ideas tend to come back around.

When instructional technology first came on the scene, it was magical but complex. I remember going to the Apple IIe lab with my 5th grade teacher to experience computers for the first time. Yes we played Oregon Trail, but we also learned the tools to create our own games using Logo Writer. We worked on basic programming structures to create these programs because what we wanted to do wasn’t available yet. Our teacher wrote HyperCard stacks to interface with the laserdisc player because what he wanted to do with the tool wasn’t available either. We coded websites by hand to showcase what we learned. That’s just the way it was. If you wanted something and it didn’t exist you made it. The skills that we learned along the way were amazing. They hit all the buzzwords – critical thinking, grit and problem solving just to name a few. It also taught us math, social studies and science. In short, it made us think.

Then we had a revolution. It was amazing. The professionals moved in and created more educational apps then we could ever imagine. There are now over a billion apps out there that can do anything we would want to do (as well as a few things we don’t). Websites became drag and drop. Cell phones and tablets are just as powerful as laptops (some even more so). We stopped wondering HOW and WHY things worked and started to accept that they just did.

We stopped getting our digital hands dirty.

We no longer know how things work. “Digital” became a sealed system that only a few technology advanced students really understand. Is that good? Bad? Just the way it is? I can argue that it’s a good thing we’ve come to the point where we can focus on the content and not just the tool. I can’t help but think, though, that something bigger is going on. By not allowing students to understand how technology works we’ve cut off an entire generation from developing the skills needed to be successful. Our economy and workforce is changing. Increasingly, success now requires students to be able to think critically, to be designers, to solve complex problems and to work well with diverse groups of people.

So what do we do about it? We embrace the idea that everything old is new again and encourage student’s to get their hands dirty in digital bits. Not every student needs to be a programmer and not every student needs to go into a career where they use computer science. Every student DOES need to understand the world around them so they can make informed decisions and understand complex issues in business, politics and society.

To that end, I’m heartened by recent developments in education technology. The ever growing popularity of code.org and the Hour of Code have introduced millions of students to understanding how a computer works. Apps and introductory programming languages that utilize block programming such as Scratch Jr. and HopScotch allow even the youngest students the ability to create programs. Apple has recently introduced their Everyone Can Code initiative aimed to teach students basic computer science skills through the use of Swift Playgrounds, a free app available on iPads. Each of these platforms expose students to that burst of gratification you get when you solve a problem for the first time and the joy you get when you see someone else enjoying something you have created.

Everything old is new again.

One thing that keeps coming up in reviews of Stranger Things is that while nostalgic, it isn’t nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake. It picked the best of the 1980s and used those concepts to tell a really great story. I think the current trend to re-embrace the early movement of having students use computers (and all digital devices) to create is much the same. It’s not coding for coding’s sake. It’s taking the ideals of the early computer movement to teach students skills that will help them be successful. Even if students don’t become professional programmers, they will still have a base of understanding for how the new world they will be living in works. For that reason, I say let’s jump in and embrace the idea that everything old is new again.