The Difference Engine Runs Again

August 13, 2008

Chapter 1..

The Difference Engine..

Devices that once filled rooms now fill pockets


A machine to calculate difference and compute mathematical tables  was proposed by Charles Babbage in 1822.  The development was funded by the British Government – who even then (sadly but accurately) recognised the military potential of the nascent computer he was building.


The name he gave the machine, an intricate series of cogs and ratchets, was the Difference Engine. Development of the concept of a computer as organiser and calculator continued apace informed by algebraic insights from gifted autodidact George Boole and punched card data entry from Joseph Marie Jacquard a French silk weaver who was seeking to automate the production of complex weaving patterns. A slingshot surge in the concept was brought about by the brilliant wartime code breaking activities of Alan Turing and others in the early 1940s. Slowly, the Difference Engine became the forbear of the modern computer.  As the microchip emerged from Texas Instruments in the early 1960s the original name was lost in the mists of iterative development. The multiplication of speed and capability ensured a quickening pace of progress.  Moore’s Law 1965 observed that “the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years”.. Until suddenly we arrive at the “future in the instant – devices that once filled rooms now fill pockets. .


The journey from a hand-cranked machine of bronze and steel weighing three tons to the feather-light computer nestled in the palm of your hand took just one hundred and eighty years.


Now it’s time to dust off the name and to crank up the machine once more…for the difference engine runs again  . This time multiplying capability, fostering communication, assisting micro- surgery (even at geographical distance) and learning at the time and place of choice. Electron microscopy and digital modelling tools now even help us observe the aggregations and dispersals of neurons as simple “maze memory” flickers and builds to axon and dendrite clusters in the brain.  We now have at our disposal tools and opportunities beyond the dreams of Babbage, Boole and Ada Lovelace, daughter of Byron, and a gifted mathematician. Ada is often considered to be the first computer programmer with her 1842 method for calculating Bernoulli numbers.


Welcome to the age of adhocracy

Welcome to the new age of adhocracy1. It is time to face up to the fact that if you unleash the difference engine (as we have with the media variety and the mobile tools of our time) you can’t expect things to stay the same. The description “ad-hoc” used to have slightly pejorative associations – now it will have to become a potential antidote to the static or the pointless. Homogeneity is off the menu (perhaps permanently). Teachers and learners are already taking the inevitable opportunity (and responsibility) to set learning free. There is a revolution starting in the range and scope of education and it will come from the school and travel outwards. ICT will be one of the key enabling tools in the process To manage content and make connections in new ways, ways that those who invented the tools or wrote the curriculum never quite imagined. In the age of adhocracy individual schools will use different tools in different ways and there will be no one path to the future of learning.


Meanwhile the study of computer, IT or ICT will disappear as a subject in schools as it becomes a tool of difference and opportunity in lifelong learning. It’s time of great potential school are doing wonderful things, what’s more they are starting to share and learn powerfully and quickly from each other as wiser web applications (sometimes known as Web 2.0) bring the wisdom of organisation and interconnection to online resources. We are all learning researchers from here on in. Each school has the opportunity to plot its own path and to bask in and struggle with its own unique set of opportunities and challenges.  The good news is that there is no great uniformity- no singularity – even the web in all its web 2.0 glory is only a part of the whole story that make up learning opportunities in the 21st Century. We are not on our own from here on in and we will be able to meld, join and merge our education experiences in new ways. In short “teachers are doing it for themselves.” In part this is illustrated but the edupunk movement which caught the spirit of the times in Summer 2008 “an ideology referring to teaching and learning practices that result from a do it yourself (DIY) attitude”


Playing Difference Bingo (tidy up and illus Spike?)

The next time you catch a train or bus or plane, count  how many different media types and technologies ( / phones / papers/PDAs / computers / paperback books)  you see in use by the five or six people sitting closest to you.  I hadn’t realised it before but these people are all learning . It might look like they are just reading, texting and listening – but it’s learning in disguise. They are not even in a classroom!


Now look at the different ways these devices are being used  eg  watching movies, reading the paper, texting friends.  building spreadsheets, listening to MP3s –  it’s a difference bingo if you find three people  using exactly the same device for exactly the same purpose  …unless you are in a classroom of course.  Feel free to shout “difference bingo” in the carriage! Send me a digital picture to prove the bingo  and I’llemail you a small digital gift by return. If the three people are reading the same newspaper or book  they have to be on the same page – gift supplies are finite!


Time to notice difference  – time to just notice

Then I got to asking myself “when did they become different?”  When did these differences  in learning and media preference kick in with the individuals  that I am observing ?– Did it happen magically when they left school? Or were they always different  and we just didn’t  notice? Perhaps its time to start noticing the need and preference of the learner a bit more and measuring their notional achievement a bit less. Yes time to notice more and measure less. One of the biggest sadnesses in formal education at present in many countries are the students who  travel through schools, are often assessed but never get “noticed”. The Zulu people mindful perhaps of this danger have evolved a greeting that doesn’t say hello but rather, more profoundly “I see you” Sawubona. The key question now is how do we acknowledge each individual learner, notice difference and how can we we use our new tools to help accommodate their needs. It’s difference that should concern us more than personalisation – whatever that might be. You can still acknowledge and group according to difference even in the large groupings that learning sometimes involves.


I wish to thank Martin Large who was instrumental in getting this project started, providing early encouragement and support so that schools can find real and practical ways to adopt the new technologies available. He and his colleagues at Steljes Ltd have been very helpful in bringing the book together and in sharing examples of best practice across the country.”

Macbeth,. Act 1, Scene 5

Alvin Toffler first coined this term in 1970 in his book

Future Shock b Alvin Toffler (ISBN 0-553-27737-5) – learn Zulu online