Of Beginnings

I feel like the students who I berate so frequently for doing their work at the last minute. Getting up early whilst my partner sleeps on the day of a deadline to get the work done. My first blog post comes to you from Malaysia, a day after we got in from Myanmar (where we had little internet for the last eight days) and before we travel to Mulu National Park (where we will likely have poor internet for the next four days).

By Christopher Michel/http://www.christophermichel.com/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24807103

No Internet Here – By Christopher Michel/http://www.christophermichel.com/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24807103


Like Neo my destiny has been shaped by the presence of a little box in front of my face. I programmed my first computer (a BBC Micro) when I was five or six. I committed my first digital murder (of a mummy) at maybe around eight. At twelve I got the internet and at thirteen I joined the Nottingham Microcomputer Club. This is in many ways is where so much the direction I have taken in my life started.


Just two examples of how my life changed as a result of Computer Club.

Just two examples of how my life changed as a result of Computer Club.


Thus the COETAIL course is a natural route for me to improve my teaching pedagogy. I have often used computers to aid my instruction and my masters topic was gamification. I maintain a homework website where I use gamification to enable students to learn better, and have built several programs through my years of teaching to aid me. I even used a computer in my interview for my teaching course (for a radiation modelling game).

Note I am using the word computer as opposed to online, digital or tech for a reason. My passion is not in gadgets, digital thermometers or the internet. It is in PCs. PC stands for ‘Personal Computer’, and although the acronym is dying, it is more true now than ever it was. Many children have their own computer, as do seniors and parents. These computers people carry with them in pockets and bags are often their own personal computer, and nobody else uses it (unlike when the term was coined and a computer would be shared between a family). It is truly a fully appropriate use of the word.

My rough network

My rough network


I have always been in the computers community – from when it was only a small group of us at computer club to now, where many carry around a device to play games and network with others throughout the day.

Sadly, despite the ubiquity of computers, some of the arguments against teens and this community I am a part of have remained in place throughout the years. Examples of the ones I continue to hear are:

  • But children only look at the screens and never play sport anymore.
  • They never interact face to face.
  • Their social skills will not develop properly.

Reading this paper published by the MacArthur Foundation made me reflect again upon this. I do sometimes take offence when people say these, as it could be suggesting that I have little social skills. My nose has been in front of a screen my entire life, and yet I was a champion swimmer (modest as I am), lead saxophonist in several bands, and am in a long term relationship (now to be married). I will never be the life of a party, but to say I cannot communicate is simplistic. How many footballers have spent their entire life only within football circles? Why is playing football three hours a day better than three hours using computers? Why is the stigma attached to computers but not sport, reading or music? The idea presented in the report about ‘Hanging Out’ took me back to my younger years, where I:

  • Used teamspeak to coordinate with Peter so we could build strategy to free the hostages in tactical Ops.
  • Used ICQ and MSN Chat to flirt with girls whilst not flirting with them at the same time (which the article discussed on pages 16-18).
  • Would text chat for (sometimes hours) to people I had never, and never would, meet on IRC Chat about computers, programming, jokes and more.
  • Went to Helsinki with friends from Computer Club with our computers to join thousands more at the Assembly Demoparty.

Whilst the girls I don’t really know anymore, the friends I do. The relationships that we have were forged with a common interest and have lasted despite our interests branching past this commonality. Many of these people will all be invited to my wedding, some as groomsmen. I never thought of what I was doing as hanging out, but it was just the same. I wasn’t stood in front of the local chip shop or lounging around someone else’s bedroom, but it was socialising in free time.

A common stereotype of the computer nerd is that they have difficulty talking to others, but in the networks I have formed throughout my life so far nothing can have been farther from the truth. My networks have been built and the facility to maintain them over distance has been the commonality that bought us together in the first place.



P.S. For anybody who reads this and also thinks hanging out in the computer world is always less good than the real world, also consider whilst doing it I learned: to build a computer, program LUA code, spell and write grammar voluntarily in my spare time, timekeeping and leadership skills, different internet protocols (FTP, FXP, HTTP/S, IRC, UTP etc) and more.

6 thoughts on “Of Beginnings

  1. Alex, I too get frustrated with hearing these arguments over and over again. My favorites are when people start talking about screen time without understanding what they are actually arguing. They fail to look at what studies about screen time actually measure instead choosing to take some small element and blow that into a big issue.

    I think that we (heavy tech users) will probably always fight this battle. Especially when we have to battle against facebook posts about the dangers of screen time for children that are aimed at families, who use screens as babysitting tools instead of learning tools.

    I think back to when Heidi Hayes Jacobs spoke at my school. She said teachers sometimes use the excuse “but there is so many different types of technology to learn and choose from, I just don’t know where to start.” She then paused and said “Funny, you don’t say that about books.”

    I think instead of telling people over and over to stop doing something we need to work on helping teachers, parents, and others to understand the benefits of learning to use tools in a balanced way.

  2. Hey Alex, nice post!

    I enjoyed the fact that you compared between your personal experience and the so-called modern life. I agree with you that, the fact that this generation is overly connected to the internet doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t develop its social skills.

    Your reflection is very similar to mine and I believe many others. The secret is to try to find some balance. Although it’s kind of cliche and easy to put in words, applying it is one of the most challenging things in life.

    Good job!

  3. Alex, I wonder how many footballers can also claim to be great programers or saxophone players? You’ve made some great points here. I agree with Cary that it is a difficult argument to win with the stereotypes that have been placed on computer programmers and screen time. It is somewhat ironic too perhaps that those footballers rely on programmers for their training data and match analysis.

    What do you think is the key to shifting this perspective the world seems to have about those who choose to spend their time in front of a computer screen?

  4. Pingback: Week 2 | COETAIL Online Cohort 8

  5. I think in part the perspective will shift naturally as new generations replace the older generations. For me I think its about demonstrating the benefit as opposed to preaching. From experience, people don’t want to change their mind about things they have strongish feelings about (as evidenced somewhat here: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe_clean).

    Its also about parenting in the sense that balance is still required, and knowing when enough is enough for your child. For example, a child playing Halo for 6 hours every night doesn’t necessarily engage so well with the social aspect. That child could play Halo for 1 hour and then they can browse the internet, use messenger services etc. Its balance but in a different sense. Video games can be as different to facebook as swimming is to saxophone. The way in which the activity is accessed is the same though, and thats the problem because the older generations don’t always see the distinction.

    As an other example of where I think this is important. My online presence is poor right now (sad for the start of the course!) because we are travelling to some places with less than good internet. Right now we are in Mulu national park in Malaysia, and as 2.5 million bats streamed out of a cave the other day, a once in a lifetime sight, one little boy in front of us sat playing a game on his phone. I think this is where parenting comes in, to ensure the games dont take over, but become part of the whole. Recognising when it is fine to sit in front of a screen, and when you should be forcing your child to look into the sky. Sadly I think this only acts to reinforce the stereotypes.

  6. These are great points Alex. Parenting certainly plays a roll in it. It drives me crazy to see events like the bats unfold in front of me as well. I sometimes wonder where our roll as schools lies in educating parents as well. So many seem to be completely unprepared to parent in a digital age.

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