Archive for October, 2009

Guitar Hero as a Form of Scaffolding

My daughter turned 12 on Tuesday, and unfortunately, she was ill.  Dad hung out with her, and played whatever video games she wanted.  One of those she picked was Guitar Hero, so I finally got time to play it repeatedly.  Y’know — it was kind of fun!

Back in December, when I first got Guitar Hero, I wrote a blog post where I agreed with Alan that Guitar Hero is not nearly as good as learning a real musical instrument.  At that time, I wrote:

Guitar Hero might still be fun.  But it’s just fun.  I might learn to do well with it.  But it would be learning that I don’t particularly value, that makes me better.

Now I’m thinking that I might want to eat those words.  I found Guitar Hero hard.  I own a guitar and have taken guitar lessons for two semesters.  (Even putting it in terms of “semesters” suggests how long ago it was.)  Some of my challenges in learning to play a guitar included doing two different things with my hands, and switching chords and strumming to keep the rhythm.  I noticed that that’s exactly what I was having a hard time doing with Guitar Hero.  I also noticed the guitar parts of rock songs — songs that I had heard a million times before but never had noticed all the guitar parts previously. I noticed because I missed my cues, and so those guitar parts were missing.  While I have known Foghat and Pat Benatar for literally decades, Guitar Hero had me listening in a different way.

It occurred to me that Guitar Hero could be a form of scaffolding, a reduction in cognitive load that allows one to focus on one set of skills before dealing with all the skills at once.  Cognitive scaffolding is much like the physical scaffolding, “a temporary support system used until the task is complete and the building stands without support.”  Now, Guitar Hero would only be successful as a form of scaffolding if it actually leads to the full task, that it doesn’t supplant it.  In education terms, if Guitar Hero could fade and if it doesn’t lead to negative transfer, e.g., “I’m great at Guitar Hero, but a real guitar is completely different.”

I did some hunting for studies that have explored the use of Guitar Hero to scaffold real music education.  I could not find any educational psychology or music education studies that have explored Guitar Hero as a form of scaffolding or as a tutor to reduce cognitive load.  I did find papers in music technology that hold up Guitar Hero as a model for future educational music technology! My favorite of these is a paper by Percival, Wang, and Tzanetakis that provides an overview of how multimedia technolgoies are being used to assist in music education.  They point out additional lessons that students are learning with tools like Guitar Hero that I hadn’t noticed.  For example, the physical effort of playing an instrument is more significant than non-players realize, and Guitar Hero (and similar tools) build up the right muscles in the right ways (or so they theorize — no direct studies of Guitar Hero are cited).  The paper also argues that getting students to do something daily has a huge impact on music learning and performance, even if it’s a tutorial activity.

Now here’s the critical question: Does Guitar Hero lead to real music playing, or is it a stopping point?  Nobody is arguing that playing Guitar Hero is making music, that I can see.  Does it work as scaffolding?

I don’t know, but I’m now wondering: Does it matter?  If Guitar Hero stops some people from becoming musicians, then it is a problem.  If some people, who might have pushed themselves to become musicians, decide that Guitar Hero is hard enough, then Guitar Hero is doing a disservice.  But if that’s not true, and people who never would become musicians, have a better appreciation for the music and a better understanding of the athleticism of musicians because of Guitar Hero, then Guitar Hero is providing a benefit.

These are computing education questions.  You have all heard faculty who insist on using Eclipse in their introductory classes, because that’s what real software engineers use.  We have recently read in comments on this blog that students should use “standard tools” and “learn science the way scientists understand it.”  We also know from educational psychology that engaging introductory students in the same activity as experts only works for the best students.  The bottom half of the students get frustrated and fail.

We need Guitar Hero for computer science.  We need more activities that are not what the experts do, that are fun and get students to practice more often, that are scaffolding, and that reduce cognitive load.  We have some, like Scratch and eToys.  We need more. Insisting on the experts’ tools for all students leads to the 30-50% failure rates that we’re seeing today.  We have to be doing more for the rest of the students.

October 29, 2009 at 9:52 am 13 comments

Teach a Kid to Program – Wired How-To Wiki

You don’t have to be an engineer to program a computer. In fact, programming is like learning another language, which just happens to be easier the younger you are. In many ways, learning a programming language at a young age equips youth with skills that will be very marketable in the future, no matter what profession they decide on later.

via Teach a Kid to Program – Wired How-To Wiki.

There are some interesting suggestions on this page.  I hadn’t thought about Basic on a TI calculator as a syntax-light intro to computing.

October 27, 2009 at 11:55 am 3 comments

Do we need to improve tenure?

In opposition to this trend, a new consensus is emerging that it is time to stabilize the crumbling faculty infrastructure. Concerned legislators and some academic administrators have joined faculty associations in calling for dramatic reductions in the reliance on contingent appointments, commonly urging a maximum of 25 percent. Across the country, various forms of stabilization have been attempted by administrators and legislators, proposed by faculty associations, or negotiated at the bargaining table.

via AAUP: Conversion of Appointments to the Tenure Track (2009).

I suspect that IS/IT/CS departments are particularly heavy with “contingent” appointments.  Is it a problem?  I understand that these adjunct faculty are not paid well and do not have many benefits, and many departments are relying on them more heavily.  Do we need to heed AAUP’s call for an improvement in tenure?


October 27, 2009 at 8:02 am 4 comments

How to Fix Our Education System

We have to compete at quality. The way that’s going to happen is if we have leadership at the top and a real fear through this society that if we don’t compete better by educating our best students—which means getting the best teachers, which means rewarding them for results—we’re going to fall behind.

via How to Fix Our Education System –

Interesting that the first heading in this story is, “It’s the teachers.”  This is a different take than Friedman (or I) am taking — they’re emphasizing “the best.”

October 26, 2009 at 12:41 pm 4 comments

Scratch and more CS Ed in this month’s CACM

The November 2009 Communications of the ACM is a great one for computing education folks.  The cover article is on Scratch (with a hypothetical and cool “Minority Report” inspired interface on the cover).  The editor-in-chief, Moshe Vardi, asks the question, “Is the Image Crisis Over?”  Has the undergraduate enrollment crisis ended?  In the BLOG@CACM section, Ramana Rao talks about how MIT’s computer science curriculum has developed over the years and how that should influence high school CS curriculum.

(Folks, I’m preparing for my trip to Informatics Education Europe this week, and will be at the conference next week, so please excuse a paucity of posts.)

October 26, 2009 at 11:11 am Leave a comment

Great Recession caused by sub-standard public education?

Thomas Friedman has a really interesting NYTimes column about education and the cause of the Great Recession this week:

Now that we are picking up the pieces, we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.“Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges,” argued Martin, a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor.

This theme, that we’re particularly ignoring the bottom half (2/3’s?) of our population, occurs again later in the column:

“…the bottom half of the top, those engineers and programmers working on more routine tasks and not actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want, have done poorly. They’ve been much more exposed to global competitors that make them easily substitutable.”

I have been exploring this theme, that we’re ignoring all-but-the-best students, in my recent blog posts, about how we choose exciting the top students instead of educating all, and about how the movement to on-line education tends to wipe out the bottom half of the student body.  The top students don’t need the phonics of computing education, but those lessons that help students move farther and progress faster could do a lot for the bottom half.

Friedman is also saying that what we are teaching has to change, too.  That’s probably right.  But with 30-50% failure rates in CS1, we are currently not teaching much of anything about computer science to the students in the lower half.  Maybe we should start by helping them succeed in those first classes, so we can get to the entrepeneurship and global thinking that Friedman wants, too.

October 23, 2009 at 12:58 pm 13 comments

Hooray for CS Education Week

ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery) joins with several partners from the computing community to commend the U.S. House of Representatives’ passage of a resolution to raise the profile of computer science as a transforming industry that drives technology innovation and bolsters economic productivity.  The resolution, H. RES. 558, sponsored by Congressmen Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) and Jared Polis (D-CO), designates the week of December 7 as “National Computer Science Education Week.”

via Congress Endorses Computer Science Education as Driver of Innovation, Economic Growth — Association for Computing Machinery.

October 22, 2009 at 10:29 am Leave a comment

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