Information Age Education
   Issue Number 154
January, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This issue of the IAE Newsletter is a continuation of the series on Education for Student’s Futures.

Education for Students' Futures
Part 17: Folk Computing and Folk Mathing

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

"If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking." (Richard Buckminster Fuller; American engineer, author, designer, inventor, and futurist; 1895-1983.)

You have heard about folk dancing and folk music. But, how about folk computing and folk mathing? They may seem to you as long-stretch analogies in the use of the term folk. However, these analogies offer interesting insights into an important part of the future of education. This IAE newsletter provides a brief introduction to the long-established discipline of folk math (often called street math) and uses this as a springboard into a discussion of folk computing.

Children growing up in an environment containing considerable folk music or folk dance learn these two long-time important parts of human culture without the benefit of formal schooling. For the most part, they learn by observation, imitation, participation, and just plain playing. This oral tradition of folk learning predates the development of reading and writing.

Folk Math

Most students have learned quite a bit of math long before beginning kindergarten or the first grade. This is especially true for children growing up in homes in which numbers are a routine part of daily conversation.

My long-time colleague Gene Maier wrote extensively about folk math (Maier, 1976) more than 35 years ago. His papers provide numerous examples of people with little or no formal schooling solving the types of math problems arising in their jobs as carpenters, millwrights, plumbers, sheet metal workers, and so on.

One of the key ideas in Maier’s writings is that children can and do learn a lot of math without the benefit of formal schooling. Quoting from his 1976 article:

Woody Guthrie defined folk music as “music that folks sing.” In that same way, folk math is math that folks do. Like folklore, folk math is largely ignored by the purveyors of academic culture—professors and teachers—yet it is the repository of much useful and ingenious popular wisdom. Folk math is the way people handle the math-related problems arising in everyday life. [Bold added for emphasis.]

The general topic of folk math is often discussed in the context of street children in impoverished countries learning “street math” that they need in selling newspapers or other goods and services on the street, and feeding and clothing themselves. My 1/5/2015 Google search of the expression Brazil street math produced over 2 million hits. See, for example, the article by Keith Devlin (May, 2005).

Folk (Street) Computing

My recent Google search of the term folk computing produced about 5,700 hits. I browsed through the first 100 results, and essentially all referred back to a 2001 paper (Borovoy, et al., 2001). Quoting from the paper:

In this paper, we introduce Folk Computing: an approach for using technology to support co-present community building inspired by the concept of folklore. We also introduce a new technology, called “i-balls,” whose design helped fashion this approach.

We are interested in how technology can support face-to-face communication and community building.

Notice the last sentence. The aim of the project was to create a new computer communication  environment in which children could create and share “balls of information” (i-balls). The article mentions that the project was built on their previous five years of development work on folk computing. However, the i-ball project is quite different from my concept of folk computing.

In my opinion, the history of folk computing (but not its designation as “folk computing”) goes back to the 1940’s and 1950’s when the first computer games and early programming languages such as FORTRAN were being developed. FORTRAN was designed for adults to help them solve problems in engineering, physics, and other sciences. On their own, secondary school students discovered FORTRAN programming to be a sort of game in which they could direct the operations of a computer to do tasks of interest to them.

I envision folk computing as an entirely different concept than the i-ball project. I am interested in taking the ideas of folk math and applying them to children learning to use computers. Many of today’s children use computerized electronic toys, computerized games, tablet or laptop computers, and Smart Phones before they enter kindergarten or the first grade. The acquisition and transmission of learning of this type of computer use, knowledge, and skills fits neatly into the “folk” category.

Folk computing learning styles are somewhat like those used by children of earlier generations in learning folk music and folk dance by observation and imitation. However, children learning folk computing have an added advantage—computers can be used in a self-study, self-play, anytime, anywhere mode, and they provide nearly instant feedback. For example, think about a child learning to take pictures using a digital camera, a quite sophisticated computerized device. The cost of this fun, learn-by-doing activity may be only a few instructions from a relative or friend followed by a period of trial-and-error and feedback from self and others.

I am amazed by the skills that children can develop through playing with computers. The software they are playing with might be a game. But it might also be a creative art environment, a building block environment, a word-processing environment, an information retrieval environment such as the Web, a music creation and/or editing environment, and so on. Computer apps provide children of all ages with fun, interesting, challenging opportunities to do things, receive feedback, and make changes to better achieve whatever they are trying to accomplish.

The idea of folk computing extends to adults of all ages. On a worldwide basis, last year about a billion Smart Phones were produced and sold. Most adults purchasing these cell phones may initially have had a brief amount of instruction from a sales clerk or from friends. (It is rumored that some people actually read the manual.) They also learned to use them through transfer of learning from their previous skills in using phones, cameras, video games, accessing music and other information, GPS, and so on. Few, if any, received formal instruction in a “school” setting.

What this illustrates is the power and potential of folk computing in the education of students of all ages. If useful new products have good user interfaces, people will learn to use the products by using the products. See the quote from Buckminster Fuller at the beginning of this newsletter.

Folk Computing in Education

Educational researchers are well aware of student interest in—indeed, sometimes addiction to—computer games and social networking learned through folk computing. They ask, “How can we bring this intrinsic motivation and accompanying learning into our traditional, formal schooling system?” Thus, there are now many research and development projects being conducted jointly by educational researchers/designers and computer entertainment companies.

I find it interesting to think about the long-term implications of extending the basic ideas and uses of folk computing into our formal educational system. For me, this raises the question, “What content might best be taught by folk computing and what might best be taught by more formal computer teaching systems and/or human teachers?” See Moursund (2014a, 2014b.)

In my mind, I think of  the meaning of “best” both in terms of cost effectiveness and in terms of preserving human values and the essence of us as human beings. The socialization and social development of children is a very important goal of education. Every subject we teach in schools is rooted in human history and values. This is true even in math, one of my favorite subjects. One of the more important math education books published in the 20th century is Mathematics, a Human Endeavor (Jacobson, 1982).

My question raised above about the role of folk computing in education has no simple answers, and the answers we develop will change over time through continued progress in the capabilities of computer technology and the changing educational needs of people.

The Tool Is the Teacher

In two recent IAE newsletters about the future of teaching machines, I explored the idea that a tool itself can be thought of as an aid to learning to use that tool (Moursund, 2014a, 2014b). Computerized tools can be specifically designed both to help solve particular types of problems or accomplish particular tasks, and also to help their users learn to use the tools effectively. In my two newsletters I built on Marshall McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message” and on the quote from Buckminster Fuller given at the beginning of this newsletter. I summarized the theme I developed by the statement, “The tool is the teacher.”

The next three sections provide some insights into the folk computing tool as a teacher.

Sugata Mitra

What can children learn when they are provided access to a computer but with little or no instruction about what it is and what it can do? Sugata Mitra began to explore this idea in 1999. Quoting from the Wikipedia article on Mitra (n.d.):

In 1999, the [Sugata Mitra’s] Hole in the Wall (HIW) experiments in children's learning, was first conducted. In the initial experiment, a computer was placed in a kiosk in a wall in a slum at Kalkaji, Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely. The experiment aimed at proving that children could be taught by computers very easily without any formal training. Mitra termed this Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The experiment has since been repeated in many places; HIW has more than 23 kiosks in rural India. In 2004 the experiment was carried out in Cambodia.

View two TED Talks by Mitra by clicking here and here. He won a $1 million prize from TED that he is using to continue his research.

Research on Educational Computer Games

My Google search of the expression educational computer games research produced over 290 million hits. There are a number of major research centers in the U.S. and other countries that are doing research on video games in education. The Education Arcade at MIT provides an excellent example. One of their major successes is the development and widespread dissemination of a “modern” graphics-oriented programming language for children. Children from throughout the world share their programming projects and ideas through this MIT website.

Here is an example of current work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison:

Designed to measure children’s learning in real time while rewiring their brains to help them be more empathetic, Crystals of Kaydor [a new game] offers a potentially transformative response to two cutting-edge questions now being debated in the world of testing: whether digital games can effectively blur the line between instruction and assessment and how educators can better gauge children’s social and emotional skills (Herold, 8/6/2013).

Notice the emphasis on social and emotional skills. These are certainly an important aspect of a good education—but they are not directly taught in most schools. Notice also that improving competence in a game is a good measure of learning that is occurring in the game. The line between instruction/learning and assessment is blurred in computer game environments.

Sherry Turkle

Folk computing can be likened to a bed of roses. It is sweet, but thorny. Sherry Turkle is a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT and the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Quoting from the introduction to her TED Talk (Turkle, April, 2012):

Described as "the Margaret Mead of digital culture," Turkle has now turned her attention to the world of social media and sociable robots. As she puts it, these are technologies that propose themselves "as the architect of our intimacies." In her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis are confronting us with a moment of temptation. Drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and online sharing with authentic communication. We are drawn to sacrifice conversation for mere connection. Turkle suggests that just because we grew up with the Internet, we tend to see it as all grown up, but it is not: Digital technology is still in its infancy and there is ample time for us to reshape how we build it and use it. [Bold added for emphasis.]

I believe the most important point in her TED Talk is that people are being greatly changed by the computer. If you have ever seen a group of children sitting in a room and communicating with each other through texting or a social network, you have seen the idea of Alone Together (Turkle, 2011). Many children are growing up without gaining good skills in face-to-face voice communication.

Final Remarks

Folk computing has added a new dimension to education. It is making a major change in children, and it brings children into our schools who are quite different from children of earlier years. Our schooling system faces a major challenge as it works to design and implement an educational system that incorporates the best features of what human teachers can provide with the best features that computer technology can provide.

Although the history of the use of computers for teaching and learning in schools is now over 50 years old, we are still at the beginning of integrating computer technology into education. Folk computing is producing children who enter formal schooling knowing far more about certain aspects of computers than do most of their teachers. Our formal educational system faces a future of continuing change as it is trying to keep up with these changes in our students, as well as in research and development in computer technology, brain science, and a host of other major worldwide changes.


Borovov, R., Silverman, B., Gorton, T., Klann, J., Notowidigdo, M., Knep, B., & Resneck, M. (2001). Folk computing: Revisiting oral tradition as a scaffold for co-present communities. MIT Media Lab. Retrieved 1/24/2015 from

Devlin, K. (May, 2005). Street mathematics. Devlin’s Angle. Retrieved 1/5/2015 from

Herold, B. (8/6/2013). Researchers see video games as testing, learning tools. Education Week. Retrieved 1/17/2015 from

Jacobson, H. (1982). Mathematics, a human endeavor: A textbook for those who think they don't like the subject. New York: Freeman.

Maier, E.A. (1976). Folk math. Gene's corner and other nooks & crannies: Perspectives on math education. Salem, OR: The Math Learning Center. Retrieved 1/5/2015 from

Moursund, D. (2014a). Education for students’ futures. Part 14: The future of teaching machines. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 1/12/2015 from

Moursund, D. (2014b). Education for students’ futures. Part 15: The future of teaching machines. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 1/12/2015 from

Sugata Mitra (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved 1/14/2015 from

Turkle, S. (April, 2012). Connected but alone. TED Talk. Retrieved 1/12/2015 from

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and coeditor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See


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