Disruption and Creative Destruction

How do we disrupt the routine? In a connected world where passive likes are mediated by closed, proprietary systems, tracking our behavior and serving us tailored content – how do we disrupt that state of flow and break through to consumers; to inspire makers; to empower folks on the fringes? I believe that it’s not just about making, it’s also about breaking.

I take my primary inspiration from Seymour Papert who believed that true computer education was not about using the computer to program the child, but rather, teaching the child to program the computer. I believe in “machines to think with” that extend our natural ability to construct models, which help us understand the world that we live in. Computers should reveal, not conceal; they should extend our perception, not constrain it.

Today, a computational curriculum focused on hard skill development – coding, scripting, and data analysis – is a dime-a-dozen and abundantly available for K-12 classrooms. Take the Exploring Computer Science curriculum and other recent efforts by code.org as example. In his book Mindstorms, Papert cautioned against activities that integrate these “brute force” computational skills divorced from their social and intellectual context.

Curriculum that teaches how computation influences the way we explore, build and connect togetherskills that develop agency – are hard to find. Despite how we have seen the World Wide Web unlock collaborative potential – like through open science initiatives and citizen science projects, for example – the fundamental literacies required for meaningful, collaborative engagement on the Web are still taken for granted.

I point to the Lamp NYC as an example of a subversive approach to building agency online. They empower young people to manipulate the tech and media algorithms that constrain content we see. They co-opt those systems to promote youth counter narratives instead and in opposition of a media culture that suppresses youth intellectual potential and oppresses their self-image. Their Media Breaker and Breakathon programs are an inspiration to me.

Teaching web literacy skills in the culturally relevant way that the Lamp does is critically important to complete a full computational and technological curriculum. As evidenced by recent work from scholars like danah boyd in “It’s Complicated” and Dr. Carrie James in “Disconnected”, young people empowered and amplified through technology without the cultural context have an incomplete experience rife with moral and ethical blind-spots.

I offer a very modest and narrow personal example to illustrate these points.

After teaching a student to use Mozilla’s web literacy teaching tools over a dozen Saturdays, she came into one of our final classes with a huge grin on her face, proud and excited to share a story. She told me that she had submitted a webpage in place of an essay for an assignment at school. She had used X-ray Goggles to hack a newspaper site and replace the existing content with her own. Her teacher’s flow was disrupted; my student was inspired and an interesting ethical lesson lay just beneath the surface as well, about the clever presentation of ideas to establish credibility or stature.

I imagine bringing this disruptive experience to the forefront of web literacy education, both as the entry-level experience for learners, but also in the way that we engage other educators in this work as well. We need to tap into educators who are frustrated and bored by Facebook, Twitter, Google Docs, Powerpoint, or other day-to-day technology experiences. Can we break into these platforms directly to disrupt their flow in the way X-ray Goggles allows? It doesn’t necessarily require a new toolset, it’s the experience we create that matters.

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