Archive for December, 2010
I finished up the “Georgia Computes!” report on our first four years just before the holidays. One of the evaluation studies we did was to look at the contexts that we use in our Girl Scout workshops and how those contexts influenced student attitude change. We asked students before and after each event (for everything — summer camps, YWCA afterschool activities, as well as Girl Scout camps) whether they agreed or disagreed with seven statements:
1. Computers are fun 2. Programming is hard 3. Girls can do computing 4. Boys can do computing 5. Computer jobs are boring. 6. I am good at computing. 7. I like computing 8. I know more than my friends about computers.
In the one study, we looked at a set of workshops over a multi-year period with over 600 Girl Scouts involved. We looked at where we got changes in attitudes, and computed the effect size. Here’s one of the tables of results:
This table shows the number of Girl Scout workshops that we had with each context, the number of large/medium/small effect sizes that we saw, and total number of effects. What we see here is that Pico Crickets and Scratch have the most effect: The most large effects, and the most overall effects. We’ve done a lot of different things in our robotics workshops, from following mazes to singing-and-dancing robots. Lego Mindstorm workshops (seven different ones, using a variety of activities) had only small effects on changes in attitudes. This isn’t saying that Lego robotics can’t be an effective context for making more positive Girl Scouts’ attitudes about computing. We are finding that it is harder than with these other contexts. I hope that someone replicates this study with even larger n, showing an approach to using Lego Robotics with Girl Scouts that leads to many large effects on attitudes. We just haven’t been able to find that yet.
Over the Christmas holiday, our extended family has been playing a bunch of great Wii games, including karaoke, “Just Dance,” and various Rock Band games. Barb and I discovered this morning that we were thinking the same thing about these games: What a great context for learning programming! Barb was noting that “Just Dance” uses a small icon to represent (abstraction!) a particular dance move, which is then repeated several times (iteration!). I was thinking about the great computing and media ideas required to build this kind of software: From digital signal processing to detect pitch, to the ubiquitous computing ideas involved in sensing the world (e.g., the accelerometers used to detect body motion in the dance games). We could use an inquiry-based approach to teach computing through these (amazingly popular!) games, e.g., “How do you think Rock Band figures out if you’re singing the right pitch?” and “How accurate do you think the motion detection in ‘Just Dance’ is?”
This is how we should identify contexts to use in contextualized computing education. What are the application areas that students find intriguing? What computing ideas do we want to teach and can be taught with those areas? Even though we may like robotics, if the student audiences that we’re seeking don’t, then it’s not a great context. There are many great contexts out there, many that are even more popular and even more powerful than what we use today. People like to sing and dance, even more than making robots sing and dance. Learning to build software to support that sounds like a great context.
Stuck inside in the New York snowstorm, our new Dean, Zvi Galil, is doing lots of reading and sending links out to the faculty. They make for a pretty depressing view of the high costs of higher education and how little society is getting for that cost.
When the federal government entered into an informal contract with universities after World War II to outsource our national research effort to the universities, it agreed to cover the full overhead costs of that research. Overhead consists of the cost of paying for laboratory facilities and the work at the university that is directly linked to the government sponsored research. Under Congressional pressure, the idea of full-cost reimbursement was violated almost before the principle was adopted. Today, the government negotiates reimbursement rates for research conducted at university laboratories.3 Government auditors “live” at the universities and their hands are held by a group of administrative personnel whose specialty is to negotiate indirect cost rates on government contracts and grants. I don’t know of any university today that receives close to full-cost reimbursement for government-sponsored research – some of which leads to discoveries that have completely altered out lives. So, contrary to widespread belief, the research enterprise actually costs more money than it generates at major universities. The result is that either through gifts to the university or through tuition, research is being subsidized at these great universities. It may be what makes great universities preeminent but it is not contributing to a positive bottom line.
So why should so many universities engage in research? One answer is graduate education. Research is how we train new PhD’s. The Economist this week speaks to how a PhD is good for the University but not for the student:
PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. A study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.
So, Universities cost a lot, in part because tuition and state dollars are subsidizing research, in order to produce PhD’s, which is probably not a great choice for the individual. At least we’re doing well by the undergrads, right? According to Jack Kelly, most of the undergrads shouldn’t be there and aren’t going to get their money’s worth.
About 70 percent of high school graduates start college, but barely half earn a degree within the traditional four years. And many who do get a degree only can find jobs for which college is not necessary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 49.37 million college graduates who had jobs in 2008, 17.4 million were working in occupations requiring less than a bachelor’s degree.
For instance, 29.8 percent of flight attendants had college degrees. So did 24.5 percent of retail salespersons, 17.4 percent of bellhops, 16.6 percent of secretaries,15.2 percent of taxi drivers, and 13.9 percent of mail carriers.
The proportion of Americans who attend college has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. But, according to Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, 60 percent of the increase since 1992 worked in low skill jobs, some of which don’t even require a high school diploma.
This is “the single most scandalous statistic in higher education,” Dr. Vedder said.
I sympathize with the concerns of the critics. As a professor at a research-intensive university, there are enormous pressures to take on more and more research, through graduate students, research scientists, and post-docs. I am expected to play more of a manager role, and I am given a light teaching load so that I can focus on building that research portfolio. My personal preference is to do research more hands-on, and I like teaching very much, especially with classes smaller than 50. I expect that many professors would like to focus more on their teaching with small classes, and to focus on a small number of research projects. But that’s not how the economics work out for higher education today. As the murmur to reform higher education grows to a roar, maybe those economics will be changing.
The second page of the National Science Education Standards highlights the importance of inquiry.
Inquiry is central to science learning. When engaging in inquiry, students describe objects and events, ask questions, construct explanations, test those explanations against current scientific knowledge, and communicate their ideas to others. They identify their assumptions, use critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations. In this way, students actively develop their understanding of science by combining scientific knowledge with reasoning and thinking skills.
Do a Google or Bing search on “inquiry in science education” and you’ll get some 9 million hits, from NIH to the National Academies, to scholarly articles and textbooks. Inquiry is the best way we know to teach science.
Now, do a similar search on “inquiry in computer science education.” You’ll get a few thousand hits, but most of them seem to be on “computer science education” without “inquiry.” The Exploring Computer Science curriculum claims to be inquiry-based, but their description of inquiry (“inquiry focused instruction is modeled through role playing, jig sawing activities, pair and small-group collaboration, structured tinkering, promoting multiple solutions, and engaging in simulations”) doesn’t obviously mesh with the definition above from the National Academies.
Next, let’s visit the ACM Digital Library and search for papers sponsored by SIGCSE on “inquiry.” I found four papers. Two were on using computing to do mathematics inquiry. One was a single page poster. The fourth was on using the Web for inquiry.
We generally teach computer science as engineering, but we do argue that computer science is both science and engineering. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to explore teaching CS as science, too? Inquiry-based learning is about using students’ questions to drive the learning. We do try to answer students’ questions in our CS courses, but the questions tend to be of the form, “How do we make X?” If we were to teach computer science as inquiry-based science education, we would be answering questions of the form, “How does X work?“
Teaching computer science as inquiry might be a great way to teach debugging skills. We would think about each run of a program as an experiment, and we would explicitly “identify assumptions,” “construct explanations,” and “consider alternative explanations” (from the NAP definition above). Teaching CS as inquiry would be about encouraging students to explore “how things work” and what their models of computation are and what they should be. Our first step towards building an inquiry-based CS education would be to identify what questions students have and what their existing models of computing are.
When Barb and I were trying to argue that AP CS should count as a science in Georgia, we made this argument explicitly that CS could be taught as science. The reasonable response was, “Yes, it could, but APCS doesn’t teach CS as science.” The evidence for inquiry-based science education is strong, and successful curricular models exist. Teaching CS as inquiry may be a way to teach CS better and may be a path towards getting CS more easily recognized as part of STEM education
Interesting argument about the role of the federal government in generating innovation.
One answer is visionary presidents. From George Washington
to George W. Bush, under presidents both Republican and Democrat,
the unbroken history of American innovation is one of active
partnership between public and private sectors. Washington helped
deliver interchangeable parts, which revolutionized manufacturing.
Lincoln, the railroads and agricultural centers at land grant
colleges. Eisenhower, interstate highways and nuclear power;
Kennedy, microchips. But some of America’s most important
technologies came out of programs that spanned multiple presidents,
as in the case of medical and biotechnology research; President
Richard Nixon launched the quest to cure cancer in 1971, while
funding for the National Institutes of Health tripled under
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Another answer is war.
Interchangeable parts were developed at public armories, originally
for rifles. One hundred and fifty years later, microchips,
computing, and the Internet were created to guide rockets and
communicate during nuclear war; today those technologies power our
laptops and smartphones.
I had never heard of this before — a workshop just on teaching about architecture? Kind of cool that it exists.
WCAE provides the premier forum for educators in computer
architecture to discuss and share their experiences and teaching
philosophy. Past WCAEs have been held in conjunction with HPCA,
ISCA, and Micro. This is the first time a WCAE has been held at
HPCA since 1999. Over 200 papers on computer architecture education
have been presented at the workshop since its inception in 1995.
The goal is for participants to come away from the workshop with
new ideas on delivering courses in computer architecture.
Ian Bogost has just released a quartet of video games that he calls “poetry.” I’m familiar with the idea that program code itself is a form of expression. We have literate programming, and Donald Knuth’s famous Turing Award lecture “Computer Programming as an Art.” Ian is saying something different here — that the program can be art, by being “expressive within tight constraints.”
Ian’s poems are saying something very interesting about human-computer interaction (HCI). The poems are all about improving the lives of the humans who play them, in the subtle way of introducing new ideas and encouraging reflection. However, they are not about usability. These poems perform no useful, application-driven function. They are “inscrutable.” The user manual for each program is a single Haiku.
Both literate programming and Ian’s poems introduce an interesting idea for computing teachers: What do we teach students about programming and programs as art? What should we be teaching them, about expressiveness, about craftsmanship, about creating code for reasons other than solving a problem or facilitating a task?
The games are simple, introduced to us who have no standards with which to judge the quality of video game poems. The A Slow Year games were made with the understanding that poetry can resist being obvious, that it can be expressive within tight constraints, that it can, like a video game, challenge its reader to work through it, that it can be vague but specific, harsh yet beautiful. The autumn game is just a slow game of waiting for a leaf to fall off a tree and catching it right on time. The spring game’s goal is to match thunder with lightning in a rainstorm. The summer game is the simple but daunting challenge to take a proper nap, a first-person game seen from behind drooping eyelids.
Each game was made to run on the Atari but will run on Windows or Macintosh computers.
Each is tough and accompanied with only a haiku for instructions.
I just learned about this new Center being established here — it’s pretty exciting! I agree with Rich that we have to figure out new ways to think about higher education, and he’s been developing great insights on these issues (and sharing them in his blog).
In a higher education climate witnessing online enrollments grow at as much as 10 times the rate of traditional campus enrollments, the Georgia Institute of Technology has announced the creation of the Center for 21st Century Universities, to be directed by former Georgia Tech College of Computing Dean Rich DeMillo.
The center, which will be based in the College of Computing but will include faculty from Management, Public Policy and Industrial Systems & Engineering, will focus on the role of disruptive technologies like social networking and innovations like open courseware, serving as a living laboratory for testing new educational ideas.
Scratch as a new standard for end-user programming, not just to introduce computing?
With the help of his students, computer science Professor Michael Littman is creating a way for people to program everyday devices using Scratch, a programming language developed in 2007 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The project is about allowing people who have little or no programming experience to use basic programming available through a colorful and simple interface, [Scratch], to customize their home appliances,” said Monica Babes, a principle graduate researcher and computer science teaching assistant.
By clicking blocks together that correspond to the functions of an appliance, a person can easily program anything in his or her home using Scratch, said Jordan Ash, a School of Engineering sophomore.
In the College of Computing, we’re considering a proposal to change the requirements of our MS in Computer Science degree. Concerns about the impact of this proposal on the industries that hire our students led to a call to survey industrial contacts and new alumni. That’s a common response to curricular change, and quite reasonable. I argued that that wouldn’t help. It’s holiday time, and blogging time will be scarce over the next couple weeks, so I hope you’ll excuse some recycling of some carefully constructed and controversial prose on a topic that does impact computing teachers regularly. Happy Holidays to all of you, and thanks for reading and interacting here over the last year!
I appreciate the desire for solid data to inform our process. However, I don’t think that the data we’d collect would help us to make this decision.
There have been several surveys of what industry wants from our graduates (some published, including one Mike Hewner and I published on the game programming industry). These surveys almost always demand “more and more” — everything we’re currently teaching, plus please also include more on (for example) team leadership, communication skills, etc. Very rarely do we ever read an industry survey that says, “You can stop teaching X.” If we did the marketing survey you propose, we can already predict that no industry representative will say, “Dropping Systems and Theory will be fine.”
I believe that the results will be similar for our former students. They will tell us that they needed what they took. Even when it’s dubious (just how much calculus do any of us actually use as computer scientists, as compared to how many semesters of it we took?), successful people will rationalize how their educational experiences have helped them in some ways. I predict that our former, successful students will tell us to leave the degree requirements just as they are.
Yet, we do need to make change. We want to attract new kinds of students, and we want to prepare them for new kinds of jobs. We invent degrees that we believe are coherent and useful, and our track record is pretty darn good. CoC Alumni with a BS in CS complained strongly about Threads and even more strongly about the BS in Computational Media. They felt that these new degree requirements and options diluted the brand, and in effect, their degree. Yet, the BS in CS has only grown since Threads, and Computational Media has been successful beyond anything we originally envisioned. At 300 students, the BS in CM program is much larger than we predicted, and the students are getting great jobs with companies that didn’t used to interview our BS in CS students (like Disney Imagineering).
I do appreciate your concern that, in developing these specializations, we dilute our product and our brand. It’s a risk, but I don’t think that we can gather useful data from industry or former students to inform us about the risk. We have faced such a decision in the past, and we have been successful. I support the change, because it puts us in a position to attract new students and to prepare them for new jobs.
Now, the interviewer is Dan Garcia, the guy who taught the course, so the students weren’t really going to say that the class was awful. Still, it’s a useful video for setting a goal — this is the kind of thing you’d want non-majors to say about CS after a successful first course.
I’ve heard about this new kind of software, that prevents you from touching Facebook and Twitter, so that you can concentrate and get something done. ”Stop me before I Facebook Again,” is such an interesting idea for CS teachers.
Are we as humans really genetically wired to want information, to want to deal in information, as this article suggests? Is the suggestion that we really are helpless to prevent ourselves from checking email and Facebook? More to the point for us: Why is it, if we’re wired to love information, that so few people want to make it their profession?
This whole argument strikes me as McLuhan-esque. He might have been talking about the desire to Facebook when McLuhan said, “Appetite is essentially insatiable, and where it operates as a criterion of both action and enjoyment (that is, everywhere in the Western world since the sixteenth century) it will infallibly discover congenial agencies (mechanical and political) of expression.” (I also liked this one: “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”) I think McLuhan would particularly critique the Facebook designers for not considering the implications of what they were designing (or maybe they did? Maybe they aimed to create an addiction?) What do we teach our CS students about the implications of their designs? To those who talk about Facebook use as a moral question, McLuhan might remind them that he said:
Is it not obvious that there are always enough moral problems without also taking a moral stand on technological grounds? [...] Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizes man in the first instance. Print raises the visual features of alphabet to highest intensity of definition. Thus print carries the individuating power of the phonetic alphabet much further than manuscript culture could ever do. Print is the technology of individualism. If men decided to modify this visual technology by an electric technology, individualism would also be modified. To raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers. “But”, someone says, “we didn’t know it would happen.” Yet even witlessness is not a moral issue. It is a problem, but not a moral problem; and it would be nice to clear away some of the moral fogs that surround our technologies. It would be good for morality.
Here’s the NPR clip:
Being surrounded by a nonstop stream of information hasn’t exactly helped us focus or concentrate on our work. But a new software application can help social media addicts kick the habit.
Sure, the Web helps us do our jobs, but it can also distract us from them.
“We get a serotonin hit from this,” says Kathy Gills, who teaches about the intersection of digital media technologies and social institutions at the University of Washington. “So those of us who are susceptible to that high keep getting these little Pavlovian dog responses. It’s new, it’s shiny…wheee! So, if that’s part of your personality or genetic makeup, then these technologies can be something that you need to consciously think about managing.”
Impressive growth of CSEdWeek!
We also saw some major national coverage of CSEdWeek this year. The White House blog featured CSEdWeek as story of the week and tweeted a celebratory message in binary! The US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, highlighted CSEdWeek on his blog. And our major corporate partners spread the word with Microsofts CTO , Googles Director of Education , and SASs CEO highlighting computer science education week to their employees, customers, and the public at large. CSEdWeek received almost 1700 pledges of support from 45 states in the US in addition to DC, Guam and Puerto Rico and 34 other countries. 45% of the pledges came from Massachusetts and California, while the highest pledging cities included Marlborough and Shrewsbury, Massachusetts and Irvine, California. Over 33% of the support pledges came from K-12 students, 17% from college students, and 15% from K-12 teachers. These statistics indicate that we achieved our goal of engaging students and teachers as well as the computing community around the world.
At the ACM Education Board meeting this last weekend, Larry Snyder presented the next stage of the new Advanced Placement exam “Computer Science: Principles.” The key website is this one, which I understand just went up and public in the last couple weeks: http://www.collegeboard.com/html/computerscience/index.html. First, the website contains all the materials generated by the AP CS:P Commission and Advisory Board (best as I can tell). The Big Ideas, Practices, and Claims and Evidence documents are all there.
Second (and most important for going forward), there is a form there for colleges and universities to commit to giving credit for AP CS:P, for giving placement, for needing more information, or to say “not at this time.” The College Board wants to get feedback from CS departments before deciding whether to develop the exam.
We’re going to hear a lot more about this stage. The ACM Education Board just endorsed the effort, and the SIGCSE Board is going to consider it in January. The College Board has a list (which I don’t know has been made public — I haven’t seen it) of schools that that they really care about accepting the new exam, and there’s some magic number of those that have to commit before the College Board will go forward. There will be some kind of letter writing campaign to encourage schools to commit. It sounds like the deadline will be sometime in March, but Larry wasn’t sure about that.
Larry says that this is all public now, and in his materials, he links to two other useful sites:
- Site for AP Computer Science Principles: http://csprinciples.org
- Site for the “case” for getting on board with CS Principles: http://csprinciples.cs.washington.edu/
Alan kindly forwarded me this article (thanks!). Fish makes his point well, that students aren’t the “customers” but the “product,” and they are not the best judge of what they need from education. But the relentless monetization of higher education increasingly places them in that role, and places us in the role of providers of only that education that results in measurable monetary value. I particularly found striking the end of the piece — while the report that Fish is responding to is from England, the attitudes seem strongly American.
While Fish makes a terrific point, I wonder what the way forward is. We can’t turn back the clock and undo the choices made and attitudes developed over the last 30 years (the Bayh-Doyle Act is 30 years old this month). We developed Media Computation because, explicitly, we had to appeal to student interests to get them to engage with computer science. Maybe we shouldn’t have had to and maybe students should have studied computer science because it’s a great subject, but they don’t and we do. Now, within this worldview, how do we achieve the opportunity for all that Fish describes? How do we make sure that students learn what they need, and not just what they want?
The rhetoric of the report is superficially benign; its key phrase is “student choice”: “Our proposals put students at the heart of the system.” “Our recommendations . . . are based on giving students the ability to make an informed choice of where and what to study.” “Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.”
The obvious objection to this last declaration is, “No, they aren’t; judgment is what education is supposed to produce; if students possessed it at the get-go, there would be nothing for courses and programs to do.” But that objection would be entirely beside the point in the context of the assumption informing the report, the assumption that what students want to get from participating in higher education is money. Under the system the report proposes, government support of higher education in the form of block grants to universities (which are free to allocate funds as they see fit) would be replaced by monies given directly to matriculating students, who would then vote with their pocketbooks by choosing which courses to “invest” in.
But at second thought this paean of self-praise is merited once we remember that that the report’s relentless monetization of everything in sight has redefined its every word: value now means return on the dollar; quality of life now means the number of cars or houses you can buy; a civilized society is a society where the material goods a society offers can be enjoyed by more people.
One must admit that this view of value and the good life has a definite appeal. It will resonate with many not only in England but here in the United States. And to the extent it does, the privatization of higher education will advance apace and the days when a working-class Brit or (in my case) an immigrant’s son can wander into the groves of academe and emerge a political theorist or a Miltonist will recede into history and legend.
I enjoyed the interviews I heard with Sebastian Ruth, one of this year MacArther Fellow’s, who founded Community MusicWorks. While the story of his work is inspiring, I was also thinking about a possible analogy to computing. Ruth talked about how he wants children to own the music in their lives, to realize that they can create it, and not just consume it. In the below clips, he talks about the energy from the professionals working with the children. The interviewer then talks with one off the students in Community MusicWorks, who talks about the importance of music to him, even if he’s not going to be a professional musician.
We want children to be owners of the technology in their lives, too, and not just consumers. And it doesn’t matter if they’re going to be professional software developers — it’s still worthwhile to create and to feel empowered. Ruth’s story suggests that it’s powerful for the experts, too, working with the children.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why is there that disconnect? You were trained at a high level of musicianship and as you say typically that goes one way and it doesn’t connect to the community in most, especially in most urban areas. Why is that?
SEBASTIAN RUTH: That’s a good question. I think there has traditionally been this divide between performer musicians who become performers at a serious level and musicians who don’t make it as performers and therefore do work with community settings. And so this was a real experiment to say what is this energy that comes about when you bring together performers who are really striving for a very high level performance and a career of concertizing with a community and community life in a city such that working with the kids reinvigorates the performace that we do as professionals, and vice versa, and that we could bring a certain kind of energy to this community as performers and from our rehearsal and concert life.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what did that do for you and your friends?
KIRBY VASQUEZ: Well, going to what Sebastian hoped, is it showed us that we deserved music and that we deserved this, although our parents couldn’t pay for it that doesn’t mean that we didn’t deserve music. And it brought this world into our world and made it one, which is a great gift.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you are in college now. But you are not intending a serious music career, right?
KIRBY VASQUEZ: No, but.
JEFFREY BROWN: But, what?
KIRBY VASQUEZ: That doesn’t mean that music is not important to me and that I haven’t found other ways to make it into my life, whether it’s picking up the guitar or just always being very attentive to music. And I don’t plan on ever stopping to play the cello. It means a lot to me.