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Author: Tracy Penny Light
Title: Andrea A. DiSessa's Changing Minds: Computers, Learning, and Literacy
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2002

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Source: Andrea A. DiSessa's Changing Minds: Computers, Learning, and Literacy
Tracy Penny Light

vol. 5, no. 2, September 2002
Article Type: Book Review

Changing Minds: Computers, Learning and Literacy

Andrea A. DiSessa, Changing Minds: Computers, Learning and Literacy (MIT Press, 2000)

The ideas expressed in Changing Minds: Computers, Learning and Literacy are the culmination of twenty-five years of work investigating the role of the computer in science education. DiSessa estimates that "computers can make us smarter, if not wiser, and can revolutionize education."(ix) While DiSessa admits that he cannot prove his estimation definitely, he does note that "the best data and theory available suggest immense promise for computers and human potential."(ix) This book and the ideas in it are focused on the use of computers in science education, in particular his work with the Boxer computer environment, a software system used to investigate computational literacies. However, many of his ideas can be applied equally well to other disciplines and teaching and learning in general.

His is a theory about how to understand literacy, where computers and technology may alter our current understanding and even prompt the creation of a new literacy, changing how we think and learn. The promise for computers and human potential that DiSessa discusses is the possibility that the computer can become more than a tool used by humans. However, the emergence of new literacies is long process as we see in his analysis of the transformation of algebra from a material intelligence to a widespread literacy becoming part of our teaching and learning infrastructure. In order for this change to occur a community needs to decide that "a material intelligence is powerful and valuable enough that it is worth the considerable effort of teaching it to all newcomers."(19) The big questions is, how long will it take to change societal thinking with regard to technology— where computers become the basis for how people think and learn and where everyone is a creator as well as a consumer of dynamic and interactive expressive forms.

As DiSessa admits, the promise of a new literacy which would enhance teaching and learning is just that—a promise without solid scientific grounds. But, as he notes, this was the case with algebra as well. Part of the problem with the pursuit of a new literacy in science education is that scientific work on education is "unfortunately fragmented" without a unified voice working toward, as he puts them, "pie-in-the-sky" dreams. Certainly this is not only the case in science education. Historians may face even bigger hurdles while working toward similar ends in a very traditional discipline. Can computers really enhance teaching and learning to change how we think and learn? Will education be transformed by computers to the extent that society will believe that computational literacy is powerful and valuable enough to teach it to all newcomers, not only in terms of science education but education in general? These are questions that we are surely still many years away from answering. However, what DiSessa makes clear is that we should continue to dream about how we can harness the ability of computers to change minds.

Tracy Penny Light
University of Waterloo