Thursday, February 26, 2009

Enhancing Education

Wanderers Barbara, Keith, Allen and I are having a useful discussion about SQL, what is it and why should I care? I also throw RSA into the mix. Here's from our dialog...

Hi Barbara --

SQL has a lot of problems, isn't theoretically pure, and so the "math mafia" (stealing from Haim on math-teach) will typically object that it's "too messy" to mess with in K-12, even with all those hours spent noodling with polynomials or whatever they do in the "dust ages" (allusion to chalk dust).

However, there's the "how things work" spin, and the whole library of stories around keeping track, keeping tabs, around how our own personal records are stored and retrieved.

We're talking about identity management here, a part of "home economics" one might say ("micro-economics"?), something that should be a focus for young teens, involved as they are in creating cyber-personae, not to mention "real ones" as well.

As soon as you talk about "keeping tabs" and "identity", you're immediately into high paranoia areas of life, the idea of people having data about you, maybe violating your privacy in various ways, your habits under scrutiny, that sense of being watched.

This isn't all unjustified wheel spinning, as history reveals:

I don't think we're able to have an intelligent civilization that makes use of power tools like SQL, without directly addressing privacy concerns, records management issues.

Put another way, records management, in the sense of preservation (maintaining accuracy) but also controlling access, is a core function of civilization, and is these days done with computers -- the only way to keep up with the huge volume of transactions we've come to engage in.

So when I advocate SQL as a topic, I'm not just taking a "heads down" hunched-over-the-math-book kind of view. I'm taking a zoomed back "sweep of history" view and asking teachers to spark imaginations, open mental doors and windows, by telling more of the history, of information management basically, but not as something dry.

Assign Cryptonomicon for example, because when it comes to controlling access, cryptography is part of it.

And that leads me to my other recent buzz word "RSA". I'm saying we need to focus on RSA in IB, not just SQL. Have students get how it works. I've got a rather quirky video on the topic, proves "Kirby is out there" but then it's not entirely incoherent:

Every time your browser goes to an https: web site, you get this added security layer that encrypts the communications, coming and going, presumably blocking out any snooper with a packet sniffer, sitting a few tables away.

I think young teens through adults, working to understand about identity, would be well served by schooling which takes our infrastructure seriously, bothers to spell it out, make things clear.

This isn't just about recruiting to the ranks of engineers. It's about creating an informed citizenry that isn't easy prey to scare tactics, i.e. if there are transgressions and abuses in the records keeping (e.g. vote tallying), we should be able to identify these rationally, in a timely fashion, and apply fixes (patches).

People wigging out because they're "being spied on" need stronger concepts, better mental pictures (I'm not saying "they're wrong" I'm saying if it's true, then "fighting back" requires "knowing the score").

As a software engineer, I get frustrated with public policy discussions because they're simply too underinformed.

People live in the past (pre computer).

Future shock isn't about experiencing the future necessarily, it's about catching up to what's so, already the case.

This is not a new line for me. I was preaching the need for database savvy back in like 1985 or thereabouts, getting a foot in the door with various think tanks.

And it's not like I'm expecting overnight change.

What I do expect is a younger generation grappling with these concepts and issues with or without assistance from an older generation (e.g. mine).

Better they should have some support and guidance. We would all benefit.