Eleonora Bilotta and Prof. Pietro Pantano interviewed Ken Kahn for an Italian Review on Educational Technologies on September 25, 2000. The interview follows:
Could you briefly outline what educational technology is?
To me "educational technology" is using any technology, even old ones, to enhance education. So paper and pencils or blackboards are included. What most people mean by "educational technology" is high-tech or new technology used for education. I am most interested in educational computer technology since a computer is such an amazing device that can be 100,000 different things depending upon the software it is running.
What do you consider to be the present state of educational technology?
I think we are at the early stages of educational computer technology. Only a few possibilities have been explored compared to what is possible.
And what is its future?
I see a future where the learners are in control and use computers to explore, understand, and create. And the software is capable of providing substantial help to the learner by providing a range of learning tools that include demos, interactive game-like tutorials, puzzles, animated help characters, and more. Together with the Internet I see computers also providing social support for learning in the form of email, discussion groups, chat sessions, and eventually shared virtual spaces. In the longer term I see software becoming more capable and starting to act more like a personal tutor.
Which are the advantages of ToonTalk compared to the traditional educational environments?
Computer programming is a new kind of extension of thinking. Just as paper and pencil enables one to think differently by providing an extension of your memory and by providing a way to organize and communicate your thoughts in ways that are fundamentally different than pure verbal communication, I think computational media provides new ways of thinking. One doesn't merely express an idea in computer language but can also have the computer realize the idea - turning the student's ideas into running simulations, interactions, games, computations, or whatever. The recent book Changing Minds - Computers, Learning, and Literacy by Andrea diSessa explores this idea of computational literacy in great depth.
ToonTalk provides a rich computational media that can be mastered by children as young as 6 and yet it provides the depth of a state-of-the-art professional programming language. And because of ToonTalk's game-like playful nature, it is very appealing to most children. This appeal is particularly important to motivate the children before they become sufficiently expert that the challenges and rewards of programming provides its own intrinsic rewards.
In what way is the program you developed different from other educational technology?
ToonTalk is more flexible and open-ended than most other educational technologies. Most educational software turns a computer into "one thing" - in ToonTalk the student or the teacher can create or modify programs - thereby preserving the fundamental power and flexibility of computers. Compared to other attempts to give students the power of computer programming, ToonTalk turns the abstract notions of computer science into tangible and playful analogs while preserving the generality of programming. This enables much younger children to program than text-based programming languages. Also ToonTalk is unique in providing children a computational medium in which large numbers of different activities, behaviors, and rules can be active simultaneously and yet these parallel activities can easily be coordinated and synchronized.
What is the learning model on which it is based? Does the program help in the comprehension of the interface's functions?
ToonTalk is based upon a plurality of learning models. It can be approached as pure constructionist software where the learner has complete control and can create and explore without restrictions. Or a learner can choose to solve a sequence of puzzles in specially constrained versions of ToonTalk. Or they can passively watch narrated demos of various features and techniques. They can explore unaided or rely upon the help of animated speaking character named Marty. Marty can give be instructed to describe whatever you are pointing to or holding or Marty can provide suggestions of new things to try in ToonTalk based upon the user's interaction history and the current context.
I believe that since children differ in their learning styles and tastes that software like ToonTalk should accommodate this by providing multiple learning tools based upon different learning models.
What is the character's role in the environment?
The child is a character in the ToonTalk world. When running ToonTalk in "Free Play" the child begins by flying a helicopter over the ToonTalk city. She can land and walk into houses where she is followed by her animated toolbox full of items needed to build programs. The child can then sit down and pick up and use items and tools. This kind of immersion provides a kind of uniformity to the interface and is very appealing to most children.
How can a child learn to program through ToonTalk?
How can a child learn to train a robot? How can he fulfill a definite behavior?
When a child trains a robot, she is doing computer programming even though it may not look that way. No text needs to be typed and the child doesn't leave the ToonTalk animated world. Children learn very quickly how to train robots and also how to make the robots more generally useful by removing details from the robots' thought bubbles. But children need to learn more than the basics of training robots - they need to learn program design and programming techniques in order to build interesting software. Children can learn to do this by watching the demos, playing the puzzle game, by experimentation, by looking at a growing number of sample programs (both by other children and by adult programmers), and by receiving help from other children or teachers.
ToonTalk is a general purpose programming system, so any computable behavior can be described. While an individual robot is limited to a behavior that can be described as "when I receive a box matching my thought bubble I repeat the actions I was trained to do", by combining robots into teams and by running multiple teams of robots any desired behavior can be programmed.
What is the future of ToonTalk?
Technically ToonTalk has been enhanced quite a lot recently to support the efforts of the European Playground research project. ToonTalk is becoming much better suited to game programming. Games can be built in a very modular fashion and hence can be pulled apart by children and modified or rebuilt in a wide variety of ways. The most important technical advancement now in progress is to make ToonTalk fully networked. So children running on computers connected by a network can easily collaborate and exchange programs. Furthermore they can build multi-player games and other programs that work over a network. This is accomplished in a way that doesn't increase the cognitive complexity of ToonTalk. All that is needed is for birds in ToonTalk to be able to fly to nests on other computers to deliver things.
Socially and culturally, the hope is that ToonTalk will become widespread in both schools and the home. The hope is that this will happen internationally - ToonTalk has already been completely translated from English to Swedish, Portuguese, and Japanese. Hopefully other languages will follow. Due to ToonTalk's game-like interface and light usage of the keyboard, it is also well-suited for running on game consoles. Literally hundreds of millions of these game consoles now exist in children's homes. I hope that one day, ToonTalk will run on these game consoles as well as personal computers.
As a consequence of widespread usage, communities will form that support children of a wide range of ages in a wide range of ToonTalk activities. Such commentates can provide project ideas, programming help, sample programs, new puzzles, teacher materials, books, and more. Educational software that is currently in use could be replaced by equivalent software in ToonTalk with the critical difference that the software could be modified, extended, and combined by both children and teachers.