The Dynabook

Dynabook concept, A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages[1], [2], is to provide to learners a computing service to facilitate children learning the world by constructing it via an interactive graphical interface..

It is a new media, meta-media, which not only old media (such as text, images, and sounds) can be transposed into but also new ones (for example dynamic simulations) created from.

The user interface of such a computer aims to give access to programming of the underneath computerized models and simulations - edited or created from scratch. It is a new literacy on interactive computing - personal at the time.

Dynamic media

Personal dynamic media proof of concept[3] is a malleable computing tool to give an end user the freedom to adjust or even create the tools, the dynamic medias to fit his/her own needs. Kay exposed use cases ranging from architect 3D design models, doctor patients records, knowledge bases, composers and music learners, businesses, educators, mathematics, poetry, etc. The use cases are numerous and by no mean limited to the author enumeration. The dynabook design can't anticipate all the user needs therefore it should come with malleable tools to offer flexibility, generality, and easy tool making.

The Smalltalk programming language and environment is one part to answer to these concerns in the design. Another part is the user responsibility to design his own tools. The third part is to provide a general medium of communication which allows ordinary users to casually and easily describe their desires for a specific tool. To support the users in their tool creation task, enough already-written general tools must be provided to learn from.

Therefore the Dynabook concept stands on three feet:

  1. User engagement in producing his own tools;
  2. User support to ease his effort in editing or creating tools suited to his tasks. These supports take the form of tools editor, likely some sort of documentation, knowledge base in the form of an existing and embarked pool of tools the user can edit, duplicate, etc. A. Kay does not give much detail on this point;
  3. A user language to both describe and glue together the user tools. Smalltalk was specifically designed with this task in mind: written in itself to let the user to learn from it -- part of the knowledge base, late binding to ease gluing, encapsulation in objects and communication between objects with messages, live development and debugging.

We can question achievability of the #1 user engagement. It may depend on how parts #2 and #3 ease the user task in crafting his own tools. After all, before the advent of the Word Processor, it was hardly predictable that a manager would no longer require a secretary to write his paper mails as it is the case today.

Likely the part #2 is the most difficult part. The last Kay's team endeavor publicly available is Etoys[4]. True Etoys comes with some sort of user support: examples to learn from, parts the user can glue together with Etoys bricks or Smalltalk code.

However, in Etoys the user easily suffers from the white sheet syndrome, he's clueless on how to build his tools. Moreover, tools created by the user can not be reused as the basis of other tools, the beautiful virtuous recursive mode of construction does not apply there.

Etoys was targeted at children; targeting it at teachers and orienting its user support to this category of users may have provided more successes and visibility to the Etoys/Dynabook vision. After all, teachers are eager to craft new pedagogical approaches, experimenting alternative teaching techniques. Therefore they are the more sensible audience of the "build your own tools" dimension of the Dynabook.

Why was the main focus the children and why was the teachers abandoned? It is because the Dynabook concept as a whole stands on the constructivism learning model with problem solving, learning by doing, and inquiry learning the way to conduct student activities. In this model, there is not much place for teachers to craft their own tools for learner activities. It was likely a mistake to not focus on the teacher, the designer of the learning activities. We will discuss the Dynabook - learning model relation in another article.

Any opinion on the topic? If so leave a comment for further reflection.

Thanks to Chao-Kuei Hung for his editing.

Notes

[1] A. Kay, A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages, Xerox Palo Alto RC, 1972

[2] A. Kay, Afterword: What is a Dynabook?, 2013

[3] A. Kay, A. Goldberg, Personal Dynamic Media, Xerox Palo Alto, 1977

[4] SqueakLand