Logo in Australia: A Vision of Their Own
by Jeff Richardson
Jeff Richardson is a lecturer in Educational Computing at Monash University, and a Research Fellow in Information Systems at RMIT, in Melbourne, Australia. He commenced his career as a primary teacher, and began classroom based research with children and computers using the first commercial versions of Logo in the early 1980s. His ongoing research interests are programming as an expressive medium for children, and home-schooling. Jeff also hosts a national weekly radio program, “The Coodabeen Champions.”
The history of Logo in Australia begins in 1974. Scott Brownell, a teacher from the island state of Tasmania brought a magnetic tape copy of Logo from MIT to Hobart, to run on a PDP-11 at the Tasmanian Education Department’s computer center. He then recruited another Tasmanian teacher, Sandra Wills, and secured a rare and expensive robot turtle from The General Turtle Co. The ensuing project saw every school in Tasmania connected, with a teletype terminal, to the PDP-11. Sandra would load the turtle into the boot of her car and travel all over the island, moving from school to school. At each school children would hook up the turtle to their terminal and use their remote Logo to control it. It’s quite astonishing to think that some of these children are now in their 30s!
PEOPLE AND SMALL COMMUNITIES
Like this beginning, the story of Logo in Australia since has been one of people and small communities, excited and motivated by the Logo idea. It’s an idea that for all its power is often tacit, and hard to define. Because of this, where you find Logo, you often find a champion; someone who has taken the Logo idea and used it in making a vision of their own. Sandra and Scott were certainly two such champions.
Their vision though, needed a community to find its expression. Tasmania is small, relatively isolated, and remote. It might seem odd that such a place should be one of the pioneer settings for Logo, but there are some things in its nature that find resonance with subsequent Logo successes and developments. Being a small and isolated community, Tasmanians have a particular sense of belonging, identity and community. While this is something that seasoned Logoists will immediately recognize and value, being small and self contained has other more pragmatic advantages. It’s just plain easier in such a setting for energetic champions to carry a whole system along with them, and to obtain the establishment
endorsement and support that can supply both the necessary resources, and even more importantly, some degree of civic mandate or imprimatur. The initial Tasmanian Logo project evolved into a statewide initiative to place personal computers in all the schools in the state. The point of these computers was to provide children and their teachers with constant, easy access to Logo as a learning medium.
PERSONAL COMPUTERS AND THE LOGO VISION
By the early 80s, personal computers, then going under the now seemingly quaint name of “microcomputers”, had established a real commercial presence. The Tasmanian project saw “banks” of microcomputers placed in every school on the island. Such a commitment to computing for children grabbed the attention of the rest of the country. Progressive educators and computer specialists were keen to become involved. And in scattered places, on smaller scales, people began emulating and reinterpreting the Tasmanian Logo experiment, creating a demand for intellectual and technical resources. This led to two technical breakthroughs in global Logo history. With the arrival of the Apple, Personal Computers came to rule the earth and distributed computing went into hiding for 15 years. Richard Miller, of the University of Wollongong in NSW, wrote THE first version of Logo to run on the Apple, specifically to drive the robot turtles in the Tasmanian project. In addition to collaborating with Richard, Sandra Wills had overseen the engineering of a small and relatively inexpensive floor turtle, the TassieTurtle. The TassieTurtle achieved a degree of accuracy and precision that had eluded similar R&D efforts in Edinburgh and elsewhere. And it could be run from a 5.25 inch floppy disk on an Apple. Once Terrapin and LCSI Apple Logos became commercially available, Tony Adams of RMIT in Melbourne, Victoria, was quick to provide low level code procedures to enable both to control the TassieTurtle. When Seymour Papert visited Australia to speak at the Victorian Computer Education Conference in Melbourne in 1981, he was moved to tears when he found himself in a room surrounded by a swarm of buzzing, beeping robot turtles. Seymour’s visit built on the pioneering work of the Tasmanians to inspire a generation of Australian Logoists. Logo veterans still remember Seymour’s dazzling demos using TI Sprite Logo, a version capable of degrees of parallelism and playfulness only recently reached once more in MicroWorlds and StarLogo. The Logo pioneers who came after the Tasmanians were scattered across the country, with the largest concentration in Melbourne, Victoria. Computers, and computers in education, were in vogue in the early 80’s. And Logo and Logoists were to benefit from this. Not all interest though, in computers, or computers in Education, shared the Logo vision. People were drawn to Logo and the Logo community from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines. Many were teachers and educators, but of all stripes: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, Sciences and Humanities. Many were not professional educators at all, but parents and even some home schoolers.
What motivated them, and unified them loosely into a community during this time was a yearning for a child centered, non-trivial, and authentic approach to education. These ideas, which share an epistemological landscape with a tradition going back at least as far as John Dewey and A.S. Neill, are at best latent in Logo. For some, Logo came as a mediation for these ideas and yearnings. Yet for others, experiencing Logo as a personal learning experience, often combined with a confronting engagement with the power and subtlety of the ideas in Mindstorms, was something of a conversion experience, resulting in a radical shift in their views on education. By 1984, Anne MacDougall of Monash University, Melbourne, was able to convene a conference entitled “Logo in Australia; Ten Years on.” This title was a recognition of a decade’s work since the beginning in Tasmania. The conference was attended by Logoists from all over the country. The diversity of the people in attendance; teachers, students, academics and parents was matched by the panoply of Logo versions and platforms that were in use at this time: Commodore 64, Atari, Tandy, BBC and TI contended with LCSI and Terrapin’s Apple versions. Logo had become widespread and its enthusiasts had an energy and optimism that belied their limited resources. Everyone was working with not many machines and not much time. Although the educational establishment could not now ignore Logo, Logoists were still very much a guerrilla element.
LAPTOPS AND LOGO
The next big leap forward for Logo in Australia did not come for another five years. During this time LogoWriter and LEGO TC logo were previewed, then commercially released, to critical acclaim. Though successful, this success was limited, not by any limitation in these products themselves, on the contrary. They were too good. Here was the Logo idea so plainly expressed, an all encompassing, project based curriculum, “pages”, now ubiquitous years ahead of time. But to really use these Logos could only be done with an educational revolution. It was not forthcoming and it seemed that Logo had reached a high water mark.
The fashions in educational computing had moved on. Many had come to view Logo as a fad that had passed, and view it’s proponents as impractical dreamers, refusing to face the realities and demands of mass, industrial scale education in the late 20th century. Computers in schools were to be about “information technology” and have a decidedly vocational and utilitarian role. Then, in 1989 a curious and uniquely Australian development began which was to be the strongest vector for the spread of Logo in Australia yet. Liddy Nevile, a long standing member of the Logo community, in conjunction with The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the Australian Council for Educational Research began the Sunrise Project. The key element of this project was laptop computers. In the pilot schools where it began, Coombabah on the Gold Coast in South East Queensland and Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne, entire cohorts of children between years five and seven were given laptop computers. One per child. And each machine was loaded with LogoWriter, only. And the entire curriculum was conducted and expressed by the children as LogoWriter projects.
This project was audacious. In 1989 laptop computers were rare and expensive, and brought with them technical and maintenance demands that seemed beyond the resources of even a well endowed Private School. But even more audacious was the reason for using them. Logo. The rationale presented to the education community for attempting this project amounted to a deliberate, radical reform of conventional schooling. It seemed to many at the time to be an extremely risky venture. As anyone in the Logo community might guess, it couldn’t NOT succeed. The children did everything, Geography, Ancient History, Biology, Music....expressed as LogoWriter projects. The imagery of children with their personal laptops captured the imagination of both lay people and educationists nationwide. This popular success was almost inescapably technocentric. But this factor had an interesting twist. Schools which wanted to emulate the project (there have been scores and the number is still growing rapidly) tended to swallow the thing whole. The laptops were the shiny baubles that attracted the interest, but as nobody really knows what to do with computers in education, LogoWriter, and now MicroWorlds, became the default software for laptop initiatives all over the country.
In the ten years since “laptop schools” have become very widespread. They are predominantly, but not exclusively, Private Schools. The more the concept has spread, so the Logo philosophy informing the initial project has become distorted and diluted.
There are many schools that have built on the MLC experience to elaborate a constructionist, computer mediated curriculum. Kilvington, also in Melbourne, has made robotics a centerpiece of its program. John Paul College in Brisbane, Queensland, another school that was quick to emulate the MLC “MicroWorlds and Laptops” approach, was an innovative early adopter of the Internet, wiring the entire school.
These successes were all in schools that had visionary leadership and strong, communal sense of purpose. But these successes also received a great deal of public interest and acclaim. From a mainstream media point of view though, the laptops were the most visible, and easiest to communicate, aspect of this innovation. The role of Logo is more complex, difficult to explain, and dependent on a detailed understanding of how those school communities work.
The success though was undeniable, and as Private Schools in Australia are basically, if discretely, in competition with one another, they mostly now can’t NOT have a “laptop program” of some kind. This imperative has meant a resurgence in technocentrism in the way laptops have been introduced and used in many of these schools. As a result, fluency with current office automation software has come to the fore as an educational goal, and displaced Logo and MicroWorlds in many children’s experience.
PUBLIC SCHOOLS: A FRONTIER FOR LOGO
The frontier for Logo in Australia has now shifted back into the Public School System. The sheer weight of numbers of computers in the community, and the amount of everyday computer use, has placed expectations on the Public System. These expectations can only be met by schools having enough machines. At last, Public Schools are starting to get enough machines. The machines are coming from two very different sources.
With the current vogue for the Internet, the government is allocating extra resources to Public Schools so that they might get connected. At the same time, the rapid obsolescence of computers has meant that many Public Schools are benefiting from gifts of large numbers of corporate and institutional office machines that would otherwise have been scrapped...machines that are perfectly capable of running MicroWorlds.
It’s an exciting time for Logoists in Australia in 1998, as teachers can finally see the possibility of having enough computers readily available to make a Logo-mediated curriculum an everyday reality for children.
Typical is the school that my own children attend. It’s an averagely endowed, public primary school. The school has had computers for over ten years. And for all that time the school has “had” Logo. But it has never been able to use Logo (or any other software) in any non-trivial way because the number of machines, about one for every 25 children, was so low. Teachers who were committed to a child centered approach to learning simply could not see the value of Logo in such a computer-poor context. They were understandably skeptical of perennial “latest and greatest” pitches on behalf of new software or new machines.
This has changed dramatically. The school now has lots of machines, but hardly any of them are new. Corporate and institutional donations of superseded computers, supplemented by carefully targeted purchasing of second-hand machines, has meant that the teachers have enough computers at their disposal to realistically attempt mediating the curriculum through computers. And MicroWorlds is a natural software medium of choice. It has been taken up with enthusiasm. The teachers want more computers in order to make MicroWorlds available to the children. Many Public Schools across Australia are currently undergoing similar experiences, and it makes an intriguing contrast with the more widely publicized “laptop schools.” Even in the most visionary and innovative Private Schools, where the “laptop revolution” was forged, the laptops themselves, being such visible icons of technocentrism, acted as something of a Trojan Horse for the relatively spartan Logo software concealed within them.
Curriculum in Australia’s Public Schools is committed to the promotion of critical thinking, to the support of varied learning styles, and to the rights of equal access. So, as I’ve said above, MicroWorlds is a natural choice of software, embodying as it does, a process, and child-centered approach to learning. Teachers and children don’t particularly care if their computers are old and beaten up, as long as they have enough of them to make pursuing this type of work possible.
For the first time, they DO have enough of them. The history of Logo in Australia is perhaps only just now beginning.