Archive for October, 2010
We’ve been hearing for a long time that, after health care, the federal government was going to start in on increasing regulation of higher education. New regulations announced today define what a “credit hour” is, and place new regulations on the for-profits (where a lot of IT education takes place). We’re seeing similar rhetoric to what I quoted yesterday: Paraphrased as “If we’re paying for college, we get graduates for jobs” as opposed to “If we’re paying for college, educate our students.”
The Obama administration plans to announce Thursday new regulations for colleges that participate in federal student aid programs, an initiative that aims to reshape how admissions recruiters are paid, how course credits are defined and how career training programs are launched.
The new package of rules “will help ensure that students are getting from schools what they pay for: solid preparation for a good job,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. Education officials say rules are needed because the government provides tens of billions of dollars each year in grants and loans to college students.
I’m all for improving retention and success rates, but I found the rhetoric here a little surprising. We owe students graduation because “we take students’ money”? Do they pay for graduation, or do they pay for admission and the opportunity? Clearly, the chairman is right that we have “a moral and ethical obligation to do everything we possibly can to help them graduate.” But is it because we take their money?
In any case, the Board of Regents in Georgia is making it all about the money. Funding may be linked to graduation rates in Georgia.
“Let’s be honest, that is an embarrassment,” said Willis Potts, chairman of the State Board of Regents. “If we take students’ money we have a moral and ethical obligation to do everything we possibly can to help them graduate. We haven’t been doing that.”
The regents ordered each college president to explain where their campuses struggle. They had to develop improvement plans, with most calling on graduation rates to improve by 1 percent a year over the next three years. The regents approved those plans earlier this month.
Potts said the next step is to research linking campus funding and presidential compensation to how well colleges meet their goals.
We are currently inviting you to submit a proposal for presentations and posters. Both high school computing teachers and undergraduate computing faculty are welcome to present by submitting a 1-page proposal. The deadline for submission for the first mini-conference is Nov 30th, 2010.
Call for Participation for the C3 Conference
- Your name, school name, e-mail address, a mailing address, and phone number
- Which session are you submitting for, discussion session or poster?
- Your proposal abstract with title, presenter(s) and the proposal for your presentation or poster. The proposal should include description of the objectives and content of your presentation and ways of involving the audience in the discussion.
SIGCSE Symposium 2011 acceptances and rejections came out this last weekend. I’m thrilled with how our group did. We submitted three papers: Allison’s on her dissertation work, Lijun’s on our community support for CS teachers, and Davide Fossati’s on his interview study of CS instructors. All three were accepted. Barb and I submitted two workshops — both were accepted. I was on two panels or special sessions — both were accepted. Cool!
And yet, I’m annoyed. I’m annoyed because I’m concerned with raising the quality of work at the SIGCSE conferences. We can only do that with reviewers who recognize good quality work, and we still have reviewers in the pool who don’t understand science.
Davide Fossati interviewed 14 post-secondary CS instructors at 3 different institutions, asking them to tell him stories about when they changed something in their classes, and how they decided if it was successful or not. Each instructor gave at least one story of success and one of failure. Davide used appropriate qualitative analysis techniques to draw out themes and commonalities from these stories. In my horribly biased opinion, it’s good work that tells us something that we didn’t know about the decision-making process of CS instructors. It’s not comprehensive, but you can’t do a comprehensive study without first knowing what you’re looking for. That’s what Davide did. We don’t claim that the reasoning we saw represents all instructors. However, the reasoning we saw really does exist, and the reasoning we saw repeatedly, represents processes that are not unique to a single institution or instructor. That’s important to know.
One reviewer completely hated the paper. “I don’t believe that interviewing 14 Computer Science instructors from three different institutions sets the appropriate framework for drawing conclusions that are statistically valid and meaningful.” The reviewer and we do agree on the goal — it’s about arriving at “meaning,” drawing conclusions that mean something. But one can arriving at “meaningful” without being nationwide or worldwide or even statistically significant. ”The paper as it stands is not ready for publication, in my opinion, for the reasons cited above. The paper has the look and feel of a pilot study that will be used to design the actual statistically-based study.” The “actual” study?!?
The definition of “good science” is not “used statistics!” I do believe in the use of statistics. Statistics are important for testing generalizability and for checking that you’re not fooling yourself. They are really important in science. But science is also about seeing what’s there, before you try to measure it or even try to explain it. Cataloging biological specimens is an important part of science. Asking people why they do what they do is the first step to understanding why they do it. If we want teachers to make better decisions, let’s first figure out how they’re making decisions now.
Our papers don’t always get accepted to SIGCSE conferences. Only half of our ICER 2010 submissions were accepted. When the reviews are fair and well-informed, you learn something even from the rejections. ICER reviews have been really, really good.
This review points out the roadblocks to getting good work published at the SIGCSE Symposium, disseminated to a wider audience, and informing (and hopefully, improving) a community. Reviewers like this allow for the publication of meaningless work that has a good p value, and inhibit meaningful work that tells us something new that we didn’t know before.
To return to my original point: I’m thrilled. Davide’s paper did get accepted, so the process of multiple reviews and a meta-reviewer (7 reviewers total!) corrected for the statistics-obsessed reviewer. The system worked. Nonetheless, it’s important, as a community, to continue to have conversations about what is good quality work and what we should be looking for in a review. In my opinion, we need reviewers who understand the value of publishing work that uses statistics when it’s important for the claim, and doesn’t use statistics when it’s not important for the claim.
I suspect that this is a bigger issue in computer science (and computing, broadly) than in other parts of academia, since our work is so easily commoditized. It’s certainly the case that in my School, creating companies is highly valued and faculty are often encouraged to be entrepreneurs (e.g., see the article our new Dean sent to the whole faculty Saturday.)
Q: Academic research has always cost money to produce, and led to products that made money for others. How is the “commodification” of research different today than in past periods?
A: Commodification means that all kinds of activities and their results are predominantly interpreted and assessed on the basis of economic criteria. In this sense, recent academic research is far more commodified than it was in the past. In general terms, one can say that the relation between “money” and specific academic activity has become much more direct. Consider the following examples: first, the amount of external funding acquired is often used as a measure of individual academic quality; second, specific assessments by individual scientists have a direct impact on departmental budgets; for instance, if I now pass this doctoral dissertation, my department receives a substantial sum of money; if not, it ends up with a budget deficit; third, the growing practice of patenting the results of academic research is explicitly aimed at acquiring commercial monopolies. Related to these financial issues are important and substantial changes of academic culture. Universities are increasingly being run as big corporations. They have a top-down command structure and an academic culture in which individual university scientists are forced to behave like mini-capitalists in order to survive, guided by an entrepreneurial ethos aimed at maximizing the capitalization of their knowledge.
In the post with Dave Patterson, there was strong interest in creating educational software for teaching computing, rather than trying to ramp up teacher education, because of the difficulties of the latter. Here’s an interesting middle ground: Telepresence teachers. Doesn’t require new kinds of software. Doesn’t save teacher time, but does allow for a limited number of teachers to cover a wider geographic area. I think that the robot shell may play a role here — lecture and whole-class discussion are economically efficient, and may be less stressful on the teacher than managing on-line discussions.
Thirty-six Engkeys are due to be implemented in 18 elementary schools across the Korean city of Daegu by the end of this year, according to KIST.
The Engkey is linked to and controlled remotely by a human teacher outside the classroom, whose face appears on the screen of the robot. The robot links students to teachers located as far away as Australia.
Besides being popular with children, the telepresence robot also helps address South Korea’s shortage of qualified native-English speaking teachers, Choi said.
Greg Wilson pointed me to the O’Reilly site this last week, which has a series of blogs on how the solutions to our educational problems lie in tablets, and what’s preventing us from reaching this educational nirvana are teachers’ unions.
The poster child for the digital classroom is tablet computing. Tablets are traditionally seen as replacements for textbooks, but they can go much further than that: They’re musical instruments, design tools, personal trainers and art canvases. Tablet prices have dropped dramatically as well. When you add up the cost of a year’s textbooks, a tablet is often cheaper.
Tablets connect all of the stakeholders in a child’s education: parents, teachers, tutors and counsellors. But most importantly, tablets are two-way. When a student uses a tablet, the tablet can collect data: What’s read carefully and what’s glossed over; how long a student spends on certain topics; what works best and worst; and so on. In other words, when you learn from a tablet, it learns from you.
This is where my research went off the rails. Because a tablet is the perfect collector, it allows us to analyze learning patterns, identify root causes and compare students. What if the conclusion it reaches is that your teacher is simply awful? That Freakonomics piece pointed out that only 13 percent of eighth grade math teachers in New York City get 80 percent of their students to proficiency by the end of the year. Data acquired through a tablet is likely to point toward a bad conclusion for some number of teachers.
There’s a group that protects teachers from that kind of scrutiny and accountability: the teachers’ unions. In the U.S., teachers’ unions are the single largest political contributors. Teachers have a unionization rate that’s much higher than that of other industries. They have consistently opposed using student performance to rank teachers, despite extensive research showing that student performance is the most significant indicator of teacher competence. They’ve lobbied legislators to refuse donations to charter schools. It takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to dismiss a bad teacher. As a result, despite a lack of teaching ability, 99 percent of teachers get satisfactory ratings from their administrators.
It’s a series of foaming, not well-argued blog posts imbibed with faith that technology bestows silicon grace. Tablets are the answer because…well, MIT OpenCourseware exists! And Unions are the problem because…well, we can get three pundits to say so! I haven’t seen such faith in the power of technology to change education since Edison said much the same things about motion pictures (re: Larry Cuban).
I was simply going to ignore the posts, until The New York Times came out with an article yesterday defending teacher’s unions!
A combative labor leader who does not shrink from the spotlight, Ms. Weingarten has been fighting back. She issued a written rebuttal to “Waiting for Superman,” and she has publicly debated the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, arguing that teachers have been made scapegoats. More to the point, the portrait of Ms. Weingarten as a demonic opponent of change — albeit one more likely to appear in a business suit and cashmere V-neck sweater, with a Cartier Tank watch and a red kabbalah string around her wrist — is out of date, according to many education experts.
In the past year, for example, she has led her members — sometimes against internal resistance — to embrace innovations that were once unthinkable. She has acted out of a fear that teachers’ unions could end up on the wrong side of a historic and inevitable wave of change.
“She has shrewdly recognized that teachers’ unions need to be part of the reform,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, an education research group.
The solution to any educational problem is complex — you’re trying to change a system. I completely believe that tablets could bring a lot of benefits to classrooms. I am also quite sure that it would be hard and expensive to bring tablets into the classroom in a large way, and it could easily go wrong (e.g., teachers not taught how to use them well, lousy software), and then it’s just a waste of money. It may very well be that unions are inhibiting reform — but given my battles with faculty, public sector education administrators, and school board bureaucracy, I don’t see that unions have the trump card here.
The corner of education that I focus on is computing education. (Not “computer education” And in that small corner, I don’t think that we know how to make everything work right, even if we had a magic wand to waive and “fix” the system all at once. Is the new AP class “Computer Science: Principles” going to get really good computer science into 10,000 high schools? That’s not even a well-formed question, since there are at least five different takes on that course now. We’ll have to see, and measure what’s happening, and change strategies and tactics to fix problems we discover as we go along. I’m pretty sure that dumping more tablet computers on classrooms will not make computing education much better.
I’m still working on exploring computer science teacher education programs these days. One symptom is that I’m blogging less, and it will probably diminish to nothing when I go to China Nov. 2-10. (I’m told that I might not even be able to reach Facebook behind “The Great Firewall of China.”)
But in looking up somebody today, I discovered not one but two “Center(s) for Science, Mathematics, and Computer Education.” ”How cool!” I thought. One is at the University of Nebraska and the other is at Rutgers.
Here’s the scary part: The words “computer science” do not even appear on either site. What the heck is “computer education” then? Best as I can tell, it’s how to use wikis in your classroom and training on building and using Google apps.
I wonder if we can sue them for misrepresentation?
STEM learning and teaching is really important. But only funding that seems a bit much.
Government funding for higher education in Britain is to be cut by 40 percent over four years, suggesting that public funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences may come to an end.
The Comprehensive Spending Review unveiled Wednesday includes a reduction in the higher education budget of £2.9 billion – from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion – by 2014-5.
The Treasury says in a statement that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which oversees higher education, will “continue to fund teaching for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.”
However, no mention is made of other subjects.
It’s mid-Fall, which is the time of year when senior academics get inundated with two kinds of email:
- From graduate students, asking to talk about possible positions before applying for graduate programs in December/January, and
- From departments, asking for review letters for promotion and tenure cases.
Both kinds of letters are flattering — it means that students are interested in working with you, and other schools value your opinion. It’s only a problem when I get these appropriately, which does happen a fair amount. It happened twice just yesterday, which leads me to this post.
- A student wrote to ask me about the possibility of graduate study with me in the Fall. He described his areas of research, which weren’t at all connected to my own. I responded, politely and briefly, pointing this out. He wrote back, “But I want to be a great professor. You do education work. You can teach me to be a great teacher.”
- I was asked to write a review letter for a professor at another school. I didn’t know this professor’s name, so I googled him. His work is in my worst area of computer science, e.g., when I took a course in this area in grad school, I got the lowest possible grade without ending up on academic probation. I wrote the chair, “Uh, why me?” The response was that this professor emphasizes teaching and writing textbooks, and I do that, so could I write an evaluation?
I waited a day to write this blog post. I’ll write this here, and maybe future email correspondents will find this before writing me.
I do computing education research. Like most people who find themselves doing domain-specific education research, I like teaching, value it highly, and am probably pretty good at it. But I’m not an expert on teaching in college, nor on developing teaching expertise in college, nor on evaluating teaching in college. My expertise is in how people come to understand computing, and how to improve that understanding. Teaching is one part of that, but doesn’t happen to be a part that I particularly study. I’ve never studied what works best in a classroom, nor what the attributes of highly skilled teachers are, for example. I study things like how relevance and identity leads to retention, what mistakes students make with objects and iteration, how students get confused about what computer science means, how to measure learning about computing, and how to create materials that students of various sorts (like adults) find valuable.
To graduate students who want to become great teaching professors: Wonderful! That’s not why you should come work with me. I advise students getting their PhD’s. A PhD is granted for an original contribution to a research community. It is not a vocational degree. Come work with me if you want to make an original contribution to the computing education research community. I am not here to teach you how to teach better at the post-secondary level. That’s an important goal, but it’s not what I do.
To departments asking me to write review letters: Asking me to evaluate someone’s teaching is like asking a lab technician to review a biology teacher’s teaching. Sure, I know some of the same content, and I’ve taken lots of classes, and I’ve even done teaching. But evaluating teaching is not my area of expertise. That’s not what I do on a daily basis.
Asking me to evaluate teaching from a review packet is insulting — not to me, to the teacher! A skilled teacher is a master at their craft. Teaching is an embodied practice, as Sally Fincher told us at the last SIGCSE Symposium. How can you judge that craft without seeing the practice, or inspecting the products (e.g., interviewing the students)? To be that judge, you have to be some kind of expert at the craft or at evaluating the craft. I don’t see how anyone can judge teaching, based on a CV, teaching statement, and three academic papers.
I am honored to talk to students who want to work with me in computing education research, and to write letters of review for researchers in whose area I have some experience. (And I certainly have a lot of those review letters to do this season, for computing education research people! That is a positive and healthy sign for the field!) But don’t come to do a PhD with me just to learn to teach, and don’t ask me to be a judge of teaching from a set of research papers. Get an expert on evaluating teaching, not on computing education research.
I’ve been reading about “mirror neurons” lately, trying to understand why we like stories. I understand why we like to tell stories — there are lots of evolutionary advantages to wanting to communicate, to get others to pay you attention. But why do we like to consume stories? What advantage is there to wanting to hear others’ stories? This is relevant for my contextualized computing education notions — why does wrapping a story around CS1 lead to increased retention? One possible answer is that we are wired to mimic others’ activities, through our mirror neurons, potentially leading to vicarious learning.
Which is why the findings linked below are interesting. Turns out that our mirror neurons fire even when watching a computer do something.
Surprisingly, when players were observing their competitor make selections, the players’ brains were activated as if they were performing these actions themselves. Such ‘mirror neuron’ activities occur when we observe the actions of other humans but here the players knew their opponent was just a computer and no animated graphics were used. Previously, it has been suggested that the mirror neuron system supports a type of unconscious mind-reading that helps us, for example, judge others’ intentions.
Dr Howard-Jones added: “We were surprised to see the mirror neuron system activating in response to a computer. If the human brain can respond as though a computer has a mind, that’s probably good news for those wishing to use the computer as a teacher.”
I’ve been meaning to post this note from Dan Joyce to the SIGCSE Members list. Congratulations to Matthias and Gordon! Both well-deserved honors!
It is my pleasure to announce the 2011 SIGCSE award winners.
The SIGCSE Award for Lifetime Service to the Computer Science Education Community has been awarded to Gordon Davies, Department of Computing, Open University (retired).
The SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contribution to Computer Science Education has been awarded to Matthias Felleisen, Trustee Professor at College of Computer Science, Northeastern University. (Ed note: Known for his TeachScheme approach, DrScheme, and the new Racket environment.)
Professor Felleisen will give a plenary address at the Technical Symposium.
Professor Davies will address the First Timer’s luncheon at the Technical Symposium.
These awards will be presented at the 42nd SIGCSE Technical Symposium being held in Dallas, Texas, USA, March 9-12, 2011.
I am sure you will join me in congratulating these outstanding educators.
For more information about these awards, including lists of previous winners, please see http://sigcse.org/programs/awards
Vice Chair SIGCSE
John Impagliazzo at Qatar University just sent me some striking numbers about enrollment in their computing programs for this semester, which he said that I could share here:
Computer Science: 39 males, 94 females.
Computer Engineering: 0 males, 128 females
(Computer Engineering not yet offered on men’s campus, only on women’s campus)
MS in Computing: 14 males, 23 females
Why is the gender difference so shifted in Qatar as compared with US and Europe? Do these students have a different perception or definition of the field than do students here in the United States? Or are they deciding based on other factors than whether CS is “nerdy/geeky” or not? While the Computer Science and MS numbers are amazing, I find the huge numbers for Computer Engineering just as interesting and even more puzzling. Why would Computer Engineering be an even bigger draw than Computer Science?
For many of the same reasons articulated in the discussion with Dave Patterson and Alan Kay, there is growing interest in making online learning work better — and now there are dollars backing up that interest. The new funding from the Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation will focus first on post-secondary (which is exciting to me, for trying to teach high school CS teachers in-service), then later on secondary.
The education gap facing the nation’s work force is evident in the numbers. Most new jobs will require more than a high school education, yet fewer than half of Americans under 30 have a postsecondary degree of any kind. Recent state budget cuts, education experts agree, promise to make closing that gap even more difficult.
Bill Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is giving an initial $20 million for postsecondary online courses.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and four nonprofit education organizations are beginning an ambitious initiative to address that challenge by accelerating the development and use of online learning tools.
But how do we do it? How do we make these online learning tools, and even larger challenge, all the content and curricula with those tools? I argued in a previous post that open source, multi-author, free books will likely not innovate nor have high enough quality. There’s some support for that argument in a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell writes, in an article titled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media efforts (including Wikipedia) are only good for some kinds of change, and not for others. He argues that the “Twitter Revolution” has not existed, nor will it. (Good clue: If all those tweets that were supposedly from Iranian dissidents were actually organizing protests inside of Iran, why were they in English and not Farsi?) Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia are networks, which are good for keeping updated on information, but not for generating new ideas or taking on a well-organized establisment, as the civil rights effort did. Facebook and other current social media generate participation, not motivation.
Related to the point about design of new kinds of online learning tools, Gladwell writes:
This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations. Wikipedia is a perfect example. It doesn’t have an editor, sitting in New York, who directs and corrects each entry. The effort of putting together each entry is self-organized. If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontaneously devote their time to a task.
There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?
Gladwell’s article actually gave me some insight into how to build online content successfully — don’t do it as a network. Create roles. Create specialization of author’s contributions. Create hierarchy. Not everything should be a flat article, as it is now in Wikipedia. To be successful, we need structure, real pedagogical structure. Chapters, lectures, and tutorials are boundaries of time-space, not pedagogical structures. They separate chunks, as opposed to defining how the chunks help learning.
The Gates and Hewlett Foundation are sounding the call, rallying the troops to improve online learning. Great! Malcolm Gladwell is saying that it won’t work if it looks like existing social media, and I think his ideas give us insight into how to make it work.
Oof! UCLA’s new report says that charter schools are “a civil rights failure” and actually do not have “superior educational performance.”
The charter school movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure. As the country continues moving steadily toward greater segregation and inequality of education for students of color in schools with lower achievement and graduation rates, the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools. The Civil Rights Project has been issuing annual reports on the spread of segregation in public schools and its impact on educational opportunity for 14 years. We know that choice programs can either offer quality educational options with racially and economically diverse schooling to children who otherwise have few opportunities, or choice programs can actually increase stratification and inequality depending on how they are designed. The charter effort, which has largely ignored the segregation issue, has been justified by claims about superior educational performance, which simply are not sustained by the research. Though there are some remarkable and diverse charter schools, most are neither. The lessons of what is needed to make choice work have usually been ignored in charter school policy. Magnet schools are the striking example of and offer a great deal of experience in how to create educationally successful and integrated choice options.