High school computing in the US is like the developing world

February 10, 2012 at 9:27 am 16 comments

My colleague, Ellen Zegura, works to use technology to help the developing nation of Liberia. She and I were talking recently about her project to teach programming in Python in the iLab in Liberia.  The iLab is the most advanced computing lab in Liberia with the best bandwidth — but it’s still pretty awful.  Ellen said that they figured out that simply downloading OpenOffice to the iLab would take 14 hours. With that kind of bandwidth, you think carefully before you download IDE’s and different Python distributions.  This limits what kind of technology you can provide for learning.

We got to talking about our work in CSLearning4U, and the challenges of teaching computing in high schools.  I told her about the Alice project report which found that they couldn’t install Alice because the computers in their high schools had CD/DVD drives removed and all the USB ports filled by glue gun.  I told her about Lightbot, which is a cool programmable activity being used in several of the CS:Principles pilots — but Lightbot can’t be used in most Atlanta-area schools, because the activity is hosted on a games website which is blocked by the county’s firewall.  As far as we can tell, nobody in the county has the ability to un-block a site.  It’s pretty easy to add site to the blocked list, though.  All of this limits the kinds of technology that we can provide for learning in high school computing courses.

We then realized that learning computing in US high schools is like learning programming in the developing world.  While Atlanta-area schools have better connectivity than in Liberia, and better computers in general, they are so locked down that the constraints are pretty similar.  In fact, the folks in Liberia can access Lightbot (even if too slowly), so they really have more flexibility than Atlanta-area schools.

If you develop a great technology for teaching programming in US high schools, you better be browser-based, and host it on a server that’s not blocked by firewalls.  Otherwise, you might be better off offering it to Liberia.

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16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bonnie  |  February 10, 2012 at 9:41 am

    I was recruited by the PTA to run an afterschool computing club in the elementary school. I was slated to do Scratch for 8 weeks with the kids. I was pretty excited about it, but we just learned yesterday that the district IT office vetoed it because they don’t want Scratch installed on the computers. This is a district that sends most of its grads to selective colleges, but teaches NO computer science at any level. Very sad.

    Reply
  • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  February 10, 2012 at 9:41 am

    The problem is that school policies are based on fear. Fear that someone will go to a site that someone else will complain about. Fear that event though close to 99% of child abuse cases are caused by family and family and friends that somehow there is too much risk that a student will talk to someone they don’t know. I’ve had people tell me that their school’s INternet access is more locked down than the Great Firewall of China locks down that country.
    BTW this blog is probably filtered out by many school’s firewalls because “blogs are risky.” I know that I have had teachers tell me they have to go home to read my blog and it is hosted by Microsoft.
    WHen I was a technology coordinator I told my staff that their job was to aid teachers in teaching not get in their way. From what I can tell though in many schools the sole goal is to minimize what people can do to make system management as easy as possible.

    Reply
  • 3. Steve Thomas  |  February 10, 2012 at 10:43 am

    There is a really nice on-line Python Tutor https://github.com/pgbovine/OnlinePythonTutor/ which helps make the invisible visible and allows kids to step forward and backward while visualizing what is going on inside the computer. You can get the source here: https://github.com/pgbovine/OnlinePythonTutor/

    It is fairly easy to setup and they would not need an internet connection once downloaded. I also like that you can add your own problems.

    Reply
    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  February 10, 2012 at 11:25 am

      We’re actually using a version of that now. But that’s a good example of why we’re doing CSLearning4U. I showed this to Richard Catrambone, the educational psychologist working with us, and he started pointing out how badly it’s designed for learning. Attention is split all over the place, and it’s really hard to figure out what’s changed.

      Reply
  • 5. Cecily  |  February 10, 2012 at 11:12 am

    LOL

    A couple years ago when I was teaching secondary, I rounded up a car full of girls to go to the DigiGirlz day sponsored by the local Microsoft office. You can imagine the following conversation between several IT teachers in several charter schools and districts and several Microsoft guys. Microsoft guys: “So are you loving using Windows 7 in your classroom?” IT teachers:”We don’t have Windows 7″. Microsoft guys: “Don’t you like Windows 7?” IT teachers: “We don’t have the power to install anything on our computers, let alone change the OS” Microsoft guys: “That stinks. I’m sorry to hear that”

    On a more serious note, the state of IT in US classrooms is a real cause for concern. Unfortunately, the IT policy is generally written by the IT support staff, and they are generally trying to minimize damage recovery time instead of trying to maximize student learning, When I was teaching, I was in a small school, and after quite a while, I managed to convince the IT guy to give me Admin rights on the computers in my lab, but when my students said they forgot their password, I had to send them to find the IT guy, because I didn’t have password reset privileges and they wouldn’t give them to me unless I was willing to help students from other classes, and I wasn’t willing to interrupt my computing teaching to help students in biology reset their password. The IT guy also wrote the policy such that my web development students could never post their work to a web server that was accessible outside of the school. I had 24 computers (about 20-25% of the computers in the school), and I think I lost 1-2 over the two years I was teaching in a title 1 school with a number of students who were veterans of juvenile detention. The other shared computer labs lost about 50% of their 48 computers over the two years I was there. Even the principal was aware I was way better than average at managing my lab. The IT folks mostly spent time managing those labs and helping teachers with their computers. I am of the rather firm philosophy that we ought to fire the IT guys and any teachers that can’t use a computer properly, and spend a significant chunk of the IT guys salary on teachers’ salary. If we paid computing teachers as much as we paid IT guys, I think we would have no problem retaining them! I am also a fan of eventually getting rid of textbooks and computer labs and letting students have their own computers. Students are going to be a lot less interested in damaging computers if they own them.

    Reply
  • 6. Greg Wilson  |  February 10, 2012 at 11:18 am

    I think (I hope) you mean “Python distros” rather than “Python distress” :-)

    Reply
    • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  February 10, 2012 at 11:24 am

      Fixed. That’s funny because I had to retype “distros” three times, because Mac OS X Lion kept “fixing” it — and in the end, it still won! I got it now. I typed “distributions”! Thanks for flagging it!

      Reply
      • 8. Mark Miller  |  February 10, 2012 at 8:19 pm

        Oh no. You mean Apple put auto-correct into Lion? I’ve heard too many embarrassing/hilarious complaints about that on the iPhone. I’ve heard you can turn that off on the phone. I hope there’s a way to turn that off in Lion. I really like the spell checking on Leopard. It just puts a red line under what it sees as a misspelling.

        Reply
  • 9. Mark Miller  |  February 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Yep. This is part and parcel of what I’d heard about several years ago, with schools locking down computers at schools. It was only 5 or 6 years ago that schools in my district primarily used Macs, which were independently managed by teachers in classrooms, with some help from the district’s IT department, and local volunteers. It gradually got to the point, though, where the district had trouble finding IT staff who knew how to use Macs. Most technically knowledgeable people they could find only knew Windows. The district IT department decided it was easier to centrally manage everything, and replace all the Macs with locked down Windows PCs. There was a hue and cry from the teachers, but it went through anyway.

    I’m not expressing a preference for Mac or PC by talking about this. What schools lost by this move to lock down and centrally manage PCs was the ability to do just what you’re talking about: Teachers being able to adapt their machines to become a tool they can use to teach. The implicit message is, “Don’t be curious. It’s dangerous,” a terrible message to be sending to students.

    I see this as a natural outgrowth, though, of the flawed design that the personal computer industry invented, and into which it grew. It was bad enough years ago that insecure code was able to execute and damage data on storage media. Then in the industry’s “infinite wisdom” they put this flawed design on the internet, allowing malicious code to not only damage data, but also secretly relay private information to nefarious people. As a result, what the schools have are little better than glorified 3270 terminals with graphical interfaces, with the same mainframe management model that existed 40 years ago, because this is seen as the only feasible way to scale out computing while keeping it manageable and secure. This is not just in the schools. It’s happening where IT is used in business, and where computers are being used in people’s personal lives (witness the way the iPhone and the App Store are structured).

    Looking back through history, I can see that we had this one bright shining moment when computing was freer, but then we realized it was a “mistake,” and now we’re back to where we started. I hope we can see through this experience how important it is to design computing systems well. If we don’t, society doesn’t get very far.

    A new problem, which the internet has brought to light, is establishing the identities of people who use it, and perhaps even reputations–a more social aspect. Even if we could make the operation of computers flexible, while secure at the same time, protecting children from people who would harm them, through online contact, while at the same time allowing them to explore, find new enriching contacts, and things to do and learn, would still be a challenge.

    Reply
    • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  February 10, 2012 at 9:29 pm

      I think that’s a really important point to take away from this story, Mark. We need to design systems well that go into schools, such that the system cannot be easily compromised (e.g., viruses, kids looking to cause trouble) or easily repaired, yet remain flexible and useful (e.g., for teachers). I suspect that it’s different than designing for the office, and that makes it interesting and challenging.

      Reply
      • 11. Mark Miller  |  February 11, 2012 at 8:51 pm

        The current environment makes it difficult for me to see distinctions right now, since the industry tries to make computers that are “all things to all people.” Gene Spafford wrote a few years ago about how this “all things to all people” orientation grew out of early computer system and data storage designs (hardware and software) from the 1960s that were meant to make efficient use of scant resources, and that this is adding to the security problems. He said that we have much, much greater storage capacity now, and security would improve if the industry made computer systems that were designed from the ground up to be suited to more narrow uses, in “Rethinking computing insanity, practice and research.”

        To wit, Poul-Henning Kamp, writing for the ACM, reflected last year on the cost to the industry of using C as its primary development language over the years, as opposed to other languages, in “The Most Expensive One-byte Mistake.” He noted that a key feature (I mean no positive implication) in C’s design, NULL-terminated strings, was based on a common practice in assembly programming at the time it was created, but that this one feature has created huge costs for the industry.

        Reply
  • 12. Alfred Thompson  |  February 10, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    I’ve run school labs that were tightly locked down and labs that were pretty close to wide open. I had fewer management problems with the wide open labs. Why? The students no longer saw hacking the system as a game. Keeping the systems up became a classroom management issue not a technology issue. I found that students matched my trust in them with trustworthyness. Does it work everywhere? Perhaps not. But honestly how hard is it to reimage a disk from a stored image? Isn’t that worth something if if allows some extra learning?

    Reply
  • 13. Yusuf  |  February 10, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    I installed a VPN on my work computer at the university because the university’s firewall blocks too many sites (and ports). IT Support refuses to open them. We have a lab full of XBOX’es which cannot connect to the XBOX Live site, so we cannot transfer the games we create on the PCs to the XBOX’es :-(

    Ah, makes for a creative work environment!

    Reply
  • 14. gflint  |  February 11, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    I have the best of both worlds; I am the IT guy and the CS teacher. If a teacher needs software to teach or a website unblocked I have the power. No committee review, no administrator to say yes or no. Small private schools rule! But I can identify with a big school IT staff trying to stay up with the war. My wife teaches in the public system so I get to see the issues she and the computer techs from her district deal with. There is one tech for about 400 computers. It would be impossible to keep ahead of problems if things were not locked down pretty hard. I do think they are getting a bit carried away when they will not let teachers have some administrative privileges. Even the computer lab teachers have no privileges.

    Reply
  • 15. Terry Kaufman  |  February 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    This is exactly the reason why IMACS started off by creating our computer science courses online in a browser-based setting. We were quite familiar with the level of bureaucracy in US public schools from our many years as public school teachers. While you can certainly find open-minded teachers and administrators from time to time, public school DNA just doesn’t seem to deal well with innovation or rationality in content or delivery.

    Reply
  • 16. Jam Jenkins  |  February 15, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    This is exactly the reason I invented JavaWIDE – programming Java in the browser with no installation required. I would love to find some more support so I can continue to address this problem, but thus far funding agencies do not recognize the problem you are describing. We need to bring better awareness to the value of providing tools that can be used in our under resourced schools.

    Reply

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