Recently I took part in a discussion organized by CECAM[1] on the topic of Digital Learning, a subject which all of a sudden became critical to all the educational institutions. Of course there was a section on adaptation of existing courseware to remote learning formats. With opinions on difficulties to follow, grade and adapt to e-learning. And a traditional certain skepticism expressed on technologies that fail to create revolutions in education.

I agree on that, it's hard to imagine a revolt in internal thinking process by mere upgrade in the educational media. But certain breakthroughs can be achieved with modern technologies. False. They are already present, with help of tech that is decades old.

J.L.Borges pictured us books as labyrinths of symbols. He dreamed of libraries as an infinite combinatorial symbolic spaces, where all texts of natural languages are present - even those yet to be written. One can develop artistic writing skills by navigating and extending such a labyrinth - still incomplete yet already enormously large. Guides help to speed up learning, teaching helps to faster build a decent taste, but the labyrinth of fiction is self-contained, and lacks dreadful "motivation problem" if the goal also is placed within the walls, in a distant but observable section. A laboratory rat[2] that senses cheese learns to find it faster every next time.

Programming allows us to build extensible interactive environments for symbolic formalisms. Maxima and Wolfram Mathematica are both great examples, it's hard to find any better for illustration purposes. But there are more. The infamous SICP book has a younger sister also authored by G.J. Sussman. It is backed up with Scheme language environment[3] that implements core Classical Mechanics formalism and allows readers to simulate described examples - or their own. A popular online course NAND2Tetris ships a Verilog-like simplified HDL and its testing grounds in order to let students describe electronic components and simulate bigger systems using these custom gates.

These examples do not embody something breaking new neither in educational principles not in the underlying implementations (those have been developed a while ago as computer algebra systems). However, they demonstrate live reconstruction of labyrinths from Borges's dreams. One should just realize that building such an interactive haven, as much as exploring its dark waters, is tough. But Hell, how rewarding can it be!


[1] As the title suggests, they organize many events around Atomic & Molecular Simulations

[2] In no way an offensive comparison. Rats are adorable and smart. I used to own a pet rat a while ago. The biggest disenchantment is their short lifespan.

[3] Outside MIT the most suitable port seems to be the one I'm tinkering with now, based on Guile Scheme.

Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Vladimir Dikan.
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