Written by Michael Hockenhull, Lab Manager.
Would it be a good thing if we all thought more like computers? Would it lead to more effective societies? Computers have been a part of our socio-technical reality for over 50 years, and it is natural that this thought would occur since computers do many things very well. At the same time, computers have already been affecting the way we think and how institutions behave for decades: The below GIF is from the UK comedy show Little Britain. This humorously illustrates how a person with a self-righteous personality, given the power of an IT system, can be difficult to handle. The authority and binary nature of the computer makes them hard to get around. This blog post is about approaching research on these two topics: read on to learn how!
ETHOS Lab is lucky to have a group of experienced researchers attached to it, in the form of our research group. Two of those researchers, Christopher Gad and Rachel Douglas-Jones have taken up an interest in the notion of Computational Thinking (CT). After discussing it with them, we have listed it as a research area within the lab, and with this blog post we would like to tell you a bit about what it is and why we think it is a very interesting topic indeed!
What is Computational Thinking, you ask? According to Christopher and Rachel, one can say that there are two variants of CT that can be identified and distinguished from one another. On the one hand there is a normative project concerning CT, where it is seen as a specific set of skills that anyone can and should learn, and that will lead to better problem-solving and efficiency. On the other hand the term can be used for a description of the general phenomena occurring in many parts of modern soceity: computational practices become a part of institutions, organisations and our personal lives and come to influence how we think, make decisions and behave.
The normative version of CT can be traced specifically to Jeanette Wing and her work as President’s Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. There she helped establish the Carnegie Mellon Center for Computational Thinking. Wing has published and lectured extensively on the concept, acting as an ambassador for CT in all areas of teaching. In 2013 she became the Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Research and has since then not been as active in promoting Computational Thinking. The concept has however also been taken up by large actors such as Google, as can be seen here.
When used as a descriptive term, CT has much broader reach. In a recent move to showcase the power of their big data platform, Watson, IBM has partnered with Oncology departments around the world to help make decisions concerning cancer care. This is a great example of Computational Thinking, where computational processes are made a part of processes that have traditionally been reserved for other kinds of thinking or decision-making. Here we are interested in looking into how Watson’s CT might interfere, change or in other ways affect the kind of thinking and rule of thumb that may determine how doctors have made decisions about cancer care thus far.
Another less dramatic example of the above can be seen at the ITU, where a number of study skill sessions provided by the local student guidance counselling office has been entitled ‘Crack the code’ and ‘Hack your efficiency’. These events seem to be taking up computational language to better communicate what they are about, and imply that studying is a process that one can hack. On an equally general level, this sort of thinking is also exploited on sites such as Lifehacker.com and Lifehack.org. The research is not a critique of CT, as much as an interest in exploring what CT can be said to be and how it is affecting institutions and individuals.
Does Computational Thinking sound like an interesting phenomena to you? In ETHOS Lab we certainly think it is! If you have become interested in the topic and are interested in writing a project or even thesis about the concept, we would love to hear from you! You can either write the ETHOS Lab at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write Christopher and Rachel directly. Writing a project with the ETHOS Lab means that you will work together with the lab’s staff and have access to the resources of the lab. If this sounds like something you would be interested in, though not on the topic of Computational Thinking then take a look at the other projects currently being offered via the Lab, or find inspiration in the list of current student projects.