CS Curricula, Standards, and Frameworks will Need to Change: Larry Cuban and Coding as Vocationalism

I just wrote a blog@CACM post (see link) below on a series of essays that Stanford educational historian Larry Cuban has written on “Coding as the New Vocationalism.”  His points are well-taken.  Schools have often been swayed by the needs of industry, and he sees the current “CS for All” effort as mostly being industry-driven.  The questions that he keeps returning to in his posts are, “What are schools for? How does real reform happen?”

It’s the latter set of insights that I think are missing from our current “CS for All” efforts.  I quote Cuban at the bottom of this post with his summary for how reforms succeed. Top-down edicts on what ought to be taught rarely work.  Remember the U. Chicago’s Outlier group research on the landscape of CS education from 2014?  Most professional development is requested by the school or district,  but in CS Ed, professional development mostly sent in by NSF, Google, and Universities (and today, likely, Code.org).  CS education will have to change to achieve that goal.

The most successful reform efforts are those that achieve the top-down goals in a process of mutual adaptation with teachers, an idea developed at Northwestern by a team of learning scientists led by Brian Reiser.

Whatever our curriculum, frameworks, and standards are today, they will change before we achieve CS for All.

Standards change in response to what teachers know, what we can actually teach them (at scale), and what they will actually teach (a process that has already happened in Georgia). We certainly can’t get the curriculum right yet — we’re decades away from reaching 100% of schools in any US state, with many, many teachers to prepare and to work with in a process of mutual adaptation.  I’m not opposed to defining curriculum, frameworks, and standards.  I’m opposed to thinking that we’re going to get it right — not today, when we have such a long road ahead of us.

The lessons that have to be learned time and again from earlier generations of school reformers are straightforward.

  • Build teacher capabilities in content and skills since both determine to what degree, if any, a policy gets past the classroom door.

  • With or without enhanced capabilities and expertise, teachers will adapt policies aimed at altering how and what they teach to the contours of the classrooms in which they teach. If policymakers hate teacher fingerprints over innovations, if they seek fidelity in putting desired reforms into practice, they wish for the impossible.

  • Ignoring both of the above lessons ends up with incomplete implementation of desired policies and sorely disappointed school reformers.

Source: Coding in Schools as New Vocationalism: Larry Cuban on What Schools are For | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM

July 24, 2017 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Why are underrepresented minorities and poor over-represented in Code.org courses?

Code.org has a blog post describing their latest demographics results showing that they have remarkably high percentages of women (45%) and under-represented minorities (48%). In fact, their students are 49% on free and reduced meals.

Only 38% of students in the US are on free and reduced lunch.  44% of students in the US are Black or Hispanic (using US Department of Education data).

What does it mean that Code.org classes are over-sampling under-represented groups and poorer students?

I don’t know. Certainly, it’s because Code.org targeted large, urban school districts.  That’s who’s there.  But it’s not like the classes are unavailable to anyone else.  If the perception was these are valuable, shouldn’t more suburban schools be wanting them, too?

One explanation I can imagine is that schools that are majority poor and/or minority might be under-funded, so Code.org classes with their well-defined curriculum and clear teacher preparation models are very attractive. Those schools may not have the option of hiring (say) an AP CS teacher who might pick from one of the non-Code.org curriculum options, or even develop his or her own.

The key question for me is: Why aren’t the more majority and wealthier schools using Code.org classes?  CS is a new-to-schools, mostly-elective subject.  Usually those new opportunities get to the wealthy kids first.  Unless they don’t want it. Maybe the wealthy schools are dismissing these opportunities?

It’s possible that Code.org classes (and maybe CS in high school more generally) might get end up stigmatized as being for the poor and minority kids?  Perhaps the majority kids or the middle/upper-class kids and schools avoid those classes? We have had computing classes in Georgia that were considered “so easy” that administrators would fill the classes with problem students — college-bound students would avoid those classes.  We want CS for all.

Code.org has achieved something wonderful in getting so many diverse students into computing classes. The questions I’m raising are not meant as any criticism of Code.org.  Rather, I’m asking how the public at large is thinking about CS, and I’m using Code.org classes as an exemplar since we have data on them.  Perceptions matter, and I’m raising questions about the perceptions of CS classes in K-12.

I do have a complaint with the claim in the post quoted below.  The citation is to the College Board’s 2007 study which found that AP CS students are more likely to major in CS than most other AP’s, with a differentially strong impact for female and under-represented minority students.  “Taking AP CS” is not the same as “learn computer science in K-12 classrooms.”  That’s too broad a claim — not all K-12 CS is likely to have the same result.

Today, we’re happy to announce that our annual survey results are in. And, for the second year in a row, underrepresented minorities make up 48% of students in our courses and females once again make up 45% of our students…When females learn computer science in K-12 classrooms, they’re ten times more likely to major in it in college. Underrepresented minorities are seven to eight times more likely.

Source: Girls and underrepresented minorities are represented in Code.org courses

July 21, 2017 at 8:00 am 8 comments

The General Purpose Blocks Programming Language, GP, is now in beta

GP, the powerful new blocks-based programming language (that I wrote about here, helped show at SIGCSE 2017, and used for MediaComp in a new kind of ebook here), is available for beta-testing as the Scratch 2017 conference starts in Bordeaux, France.  You can access GP at http://www.gpblocks.org.  You can run projects in your browser on the website, or download the application.

GP is a free, general-purpose blocks language that is powerful yet easy to learn.

GP can:

  • generate high-quality graphics computationally

  • manipulate images and sounds

  • analyze text files or CSV data sets

  • simulate physical, biological, or economic systems

  • access the web and use cloud data

  • connect to hardware via the serial port

  • deploy projects on the web or as stand-alone apps

Source: About · GP Blocks

July 19, 2017 at 8:00 am 13 comments

“Algorithms aren’t racist. Your skin is just too dark.”: Teaching Ethics to future Software Developers

In my Ethics class this summer, I had my students watch Joy Buolamwini’s TED talk when we talked about professional ethics and responsibility.  My students had not before considered the possibility that bias is being built into software, but they recognized the importance of her message. Our students who will be software engineers have to be thinking about her message, about the racism that we build into our machines.

She’s been getting a lot of press since her TED talk, including this recent piece in The Guardian.  In her blog post quoted below, she responds to her critics in a careful and respectful tone, which took an enormous amount of maturity and patience.  “Suggesting people with dark skin keep extra lights around to better illuminate themselves misses the point.”  She is more patient and well-spoken than me. I think my response to the critics would have included the phrase, “Are you kidding me?!?” (with perhaps a couple more words in there).

One of the goals of the Algorithmic Justice League is to highlight problems with artificial intelligence so we can start working on solutions. We provide actionable critique while working on research to make more inclusive artificial intelligence. In speaking up about my experiences, others have been encouraged to share their stories. The silence is broken. More people are aware that we can embed bias in machines. This is only the beginning as we start to collect more reports.

Source: Algorithms aren’t racist. Your skin is just too dark.

July 17, 2017 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Universities need more Blacks: How do we know if we’re making progress?

The below article is pretty stunning — a sitting justice on the Supreme Court calling out an elite University for a lack of diversity.  This isn’t just about the University of Michigan. This isn’t about computing, but it could be. Sotomayor is speaking about an important social need, where computing is part of the problem.  We see that in the Generation CS report. We are falling further behind in getting African Americans into CS. (An interesting side note here that Georgia Tech alumna, Sarita Yardi (whom I mentioned in this blog post), just won an award at the University of Michigan for her work in promoting diversity.)

Daryl Chubin sent me a workshop report on “Better STEM Outcomes: Developing an Accountability System for Broadening Participation.” How would we know if we’re doing better?  We could measure participation rates in Universities, but that will take time to change.  How do you know if you’re doing the right things now for success later? For example, what would you measure at the high school level that would suggest progress towards broader participation in the future at the undergraduate level?  It’s a good question — we’re far from where we need to be, but we need to take meaningful steps towards the goal of broad participation in computing.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Monday said future diversity on college campuses is a key to diversifying society at large, noting the lack of black students at the University of Michigan is a “real problem.”

Sotomayor, the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court and daughter of Puerto Rican-born parents, was asked by a moderator what a university will need to look like in the years ahead to be inclusive and innovative.

“It’s going to look a lot like Michigan,” she said to applause, “but with even greater diversity.” The percentage of black undergraduate students at the University of Michigan has been pretty steady in recent years at less than 5 percent. Hispanics are 5.5 percent. White undergraduates are 65.4 percent.

Source: Sotomayor says University of Michigan needs more blacks

July 14, 2017 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Concerns about Computing in England’s Schools: What draws students and schools into CS?

The most amazing and somewhat depressing session I attended at CAS 2017 was the presentation by Peter Kemp on the Roehampton report, a detailed analysis of what’s going on with computing education in England.  As a computing education researcher, I was frankly jealous. They have access to data that I cannot get in the US — for the whole country: demographics, attendance in CS classes, outcomes on tests, family income, and schools and districts that offer CS.

Even if you just read the Key Findings (executive summary), you’ll need a bit of translation if you’re not familiar with the UK system.

  • A GCSE is a General Certificate of Secondary Education.  Students need these to be able to go on to college-level studies.  It’s part of successful completion of high school. There was a GCSE in Information and Communications Technology (ICT), but that’s going away in favor of one in Computer Science.
  • A-Levels are roughly equivalent to Advanced Placement in the US.  There are A-Levels available in Computing.
  • Pupil Premium is funding given to a school for each child they enroll that are underprivileged, roughly like free and reduced lunch in the US.

I’m going to generalize and interpret some of the findings in the Roehampton report:

  • Computing is predominantly male and wealthier in England.  Almost 27% of the GCSE computing classes had no females at all.
  • Overall, less than 30% of schools offer computer science. 29.5% of urban schools offer GCSE computing, and 22.7% of rural schools.
  • Where there is computer science, the classes are too small to be sustainable.  The tweet below is about A-levels, which are on average less than 6 students each, where the government sees 11 as a sustainable size (e.g., it’s worth the cost of the teacher to serve those students).

What’s worse, as described in the BBC article linked below, is that ICT is going away and computer science is not growing rapidly.  In the end, there may be less computing for English students than before the new CS curriculum.

There are many explanations for these results. People at CAS who were involved in developing the new CS curriculum told me that they didn’t want to swap out ICT for CS.  They wanted both, but the decision was made to have rigorous CS instead of digital literacy.  I found this timeline interesting. Though obviously biased in favor of ICT, the author has a good point.  Maybe students and teachers don’t want coding.

I’m wondering about the meaning for the US and the rest of the world. The CAS movement is ahead of many national efforts to provide computing in primary and secondary schools for all students. Part of the belief of the AP CSP and CS for All movements in the US has been that if you have good curriculum and well-prepared teachers, schools will want to teach CS and kids (of all demographic groups) will want to take CS.  CAS offers terrific curriculum and high-quality professional development (see their Tenderfoot materials, for example). And yet, one hypothesis that explains the given data is that English students prefer digital literacy to computer science.

Maybe we have been wrong in how we go about computing education. Maybe access and curriculum aren’t enough. If students and teachers have prior negative conceptions about CS and coding, maybe the excellent curriculum and professional development from CAS is not enough to draw in the students nor to convince the schools to offer CS. Why should we expect it to be different in the US?  Is it enough that President Obama made CS for All a personal initiative?  Or do stories about sexism in the IT industry counteract that?  I’m dismayed that American CS faculty are pushing against recruiting women or making a special effort to retain them (see comments at CACM).  It’s not clear that it will be different in the US.

The old ICT course, which was the main way school students learned about computing, is being scrapped, with the last GCSE entrants taking the exam next year. The subject, which was described by critics as teaching little more than how to use Microsoft Office, is being replaced by the more rigorous computer science GCSE.

But figures from Ofqual showing entries for the exam rising to 67,800 this year from 61,220 in 2016 have set alarm bells ringing. With 58,600 still taking the ICT exam, the overall number getting a GCSE computing qualification has fallen slightly.

The British Computing Society says that when ICT disappears, the computer science exam will fail to fill the gap.

“If we don’t act now,” says Bill Mitchell from the BCS, “by 2020 we are likely to see the number of students studying computing at GCSE halve, when it should be doubling. If that happens, it will be a disaster for our children, and the future of the nation.”

Source: Computing in schools – alarm bells over England’s classes – BBC News

July 12, 2017 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Attending the amazing 2017 Computing at School conference #CASConf17

June 17, Barbara and I attended the Computing at School conference in Birmingham, England (which I wrote about here).  The slides from my talk are below. I highly recommend the summary from Duncan Hull which I quote at the bottom.

CAS was a terrifically fun event. It was packed full with 300 attendees. I under-estimated the length of my talk (I tend to talk too fast), so instead of a brief Q&A, there was almost half the time for Q&A. Interacting with the audience to answer teachers’ questions was more fun (and hopefully, more useful and entertaining) than me talking for longer. The session was well received based on the Tweets I read. In fact, that’s probably the best way to get a sense for the whole day — on Twitter, hashtag #CASConf17. (I’m going to try to embed some tweets with pictures below.)

Barbara’s two workshops on Media Computation in Python using our ebooks went over really well.

I enjoyed my interactions all day long. I was asked about research results in just about every conversation — the CAS teachers are eager to see what computing education research can offer them.  I met several computing education research PhD students, which was particularly exciting and fun. England takes computing education research seriously.

Miles Berry demonstrated Project Quantum by having participants answer questions from the database.  That was an engaging and fascinating interactive presentation.

Linda Liukas gave a terrific closing keynote. She views the world from a perspective that reminded me of Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten and Seymour Papert’s playfulness. I was inspired.

The session that most made me think was from Peter Kemp on the report that he and co-authors have just completed on the state of computing education in England. That one deserves a separate blog post – coming Wednesday.

Check out Duncan’s summary of the conference:

The Computing At School (CAS) conference is an annual event for educators, mostly primary and secondary school teachers from the public and private sector in the UK. Now in its ninth year, it attracts over 300 delegates from across the UK and beyond to the University of Birmingham, see the brochure for details. One of the purposes of the conference is to give teachers new ideas to use in their classrooms to teach Computer Science and Computational Thinking. I went along for my first time (*blushes*) seeking ideas to use in an after school Code Club (ages 7-10) I’ve been running for a few years and also for approaches that undergraduate students in Computer Science (age 20+) at the University of Manchester could use in their final year Computer Science Education projects that I supervise. So here are nine ideas (in random brain dump order) I’ll be putting to immediate use in clubs, classrooms, labs and lecture theatres:

Source: Nine ideas for teaching Computing at School from the 2017 CAS conference | O’Really?

My talk slides:

July 10, 2017 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

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