Archive for December, 2009

Selling electricity

My wife’s grandfather died last Wednesday. He was 96, and though he had been fading for years, he had lived an amazing life. The memorial service, with many of his 20+  grandchildren and 40+ great-grandchildren attending, felt less like mourning and more like a celebration of his life. Many wonderful stories were shared.

Barb’s grandfather had worked for Thumb Electric (look at a map of Michigan, and the rural area called the “Thumb” sticks out like a sore one). Barb’s grandfather was part of a crew that literally brought electricity to this part of Michigan.  One of his jobs was to get farmers to “sign up” for electricity. If he could get a whole street to sign up, then the wires would be brought in.

I remember him telling me stories about how hard it was to convince farmers to buy into electricity. What did they need electricity for? Their farms worked, just as they had for years. Some farmers might have heard about some new-fangled device (say, a milking machine) that they wanted.  But most farmers were happy with what they had.  He was selling a dream of what things might be like if they had electricity.

It seems hard to believe, in hindsight, that farmers might not want electricity. Until it was ubiquitous, there weren’t that many devices that needed it.  Until the devices came along, it’s usefulness was unproven.  Buying into electricity was paying a cost with uncertain benefit. Grandpa Hund was selling a dream.

Selling real computing education to teachers at the high school level or as part of a general education requirement in college feels like a similar challenge.  Andy diSessa has been talking for years about what it would be like if there was ubiquitous real computer literacy.  Seymour Papert had a vision for “mathland,” realized through computation, where students would learn math naturally, with the involvement of a community of elders (like in a Samba school).

The first challenge to overcome, like with electricity, is to show that there’s something more to be gained.  “My students make their own Excel spreadsheets. Some of my kids make Flash animations.”  How do we convince that teacher that real computation is so much more powerful?  How do we show that knowing how to program, not at a professional level but with real understanding, allows students to explore ideas in ways that no application will ever support?

The second challenge, again like electricity, is to show that the price is affordable.  “Programming is too hard.  My students can’t stand all that syntax. Programming is a menial task that is being off-shored.”  This challenge is made greater by computer scientists who encourage the view that real computer science is  reserved for the wizards.  Only those who know the mystic arts of diagrams (like UML) and archetypes of spells (like design patterns) should be allowed to speak the magic words (as arcane as we can make them, like “public static void main.”)

Really knowing computing can be as powerful as electricity.  Selling it can be as hard.  Since Grandpa Hund’s funeral was lit up with electric lights and warmed with electric heating, he showed that there is a way to sell it.

December 28, 2009 at 6:43 pm Leave a comment

What’s practice for CS1 before CS1? Explaining talent for computing

Talent is the desire to practice.

Malcolm Gladwell, via The Corsair.

I have met with a lot of CS faculty over the last four years of  “Georgia Computes!” They tell me about their high failure rates and low student performance.  When I ask them what they think explains these results, the answers are surprisingly consistent, “Some students just get it, and others just don’t.”  I don’t buy the explanation — I see it as another symptom.  Some students do just get computing, and others don’t. But why?

Michael Caspersen has done several reviews of the studies trying to predict success in CS.  There’s not much conclusive out there.  Math ability is sometimes a predictor, and sometimes not.  Access to computing is sometimes a predictor, and sometimes not.  Perhaps the best predictor of success in CS1 is a previous attempt at CS1.  Fewer people fail it the second time?

I recently found the above quote from Malcolm Gladwell, and really liked it.  Let’s assume that Gladwell is right, that the “talent” that some students have is a willingness to practice. What kind of “practice” might some students get, that other students don’t? Let’s make one other assumption, based on what the faculty are telling me.  If some students “get it” and others  “don’t,” then let’s assume that whatever is going on in the class is not making the difference.  If faculty aren’t seeing what’s making a difference, it’s reasonable to believe that the difference is practice happening before the class or outside the class.

Maybe the worked examples literature helps to explain what’s going on.  When I was first learning computing, I read a lot of programs.  I read books like David Ahl’s Basic Computer Games with a hundred interesting programs.  Every issue of Byte and Dr Dobbs (“Running light without overbyte!”) had a half dozen or more complete programs in it.  Today’s Dr Dobbs contains hardly a single complete program.

Maybe the difference between those students who “get it” and those who “don’t” has less to do with writing programs than reading programs.  How much reading do we ask students to do these days?  How much do students read programs outside of class?  Maybe some do, and maybe that makes a difference.

An interesting part of this hypothesis is that it suggests something that we might do in classes.  We could ask students to read more.  I once built a case library called STABLE filled with Smalltalk programs. We found that students who read all those additional designs learned more about design and performed better on design tasks. Asking students to read might be a kind of practice that will help, and maybe talent in CS is a willingness to do that reading.

December 23, 2009 at 11:36 am 17 comments

NYTimes: It’s about blending computing + X

Really nice piece in the New York Times (quoting Jan Cuny of NSF) describing the 10K teachers project, the new AP CS effort, but most of all, arguing the growing importance of jobs that blend computing and other disciplines (“X” as in “Computing + X”).

Hybrid careers like Dr. Halamka’s that combine computing with other fields will increasingly be the new American jobs of the future, labor experts say. In other words, the nation’s economy is going to need more cool nerds. But not enough young people are embracing computing — often because they are leery of being branded nerds.

via New Programs Aim to Lure Young Into Digital Jobs – NYTimes.com.

December 22, 2009 at 10:11 pm 4 comments

Going Beyond Good: Computing4Good Considered Harmful

My colleague, Beki Grinter, has just posted to her blog her concerns about the term Computing4Good that I’ve written about previously (e.g., how could education not be “good”?).  I really like her issues about religion (is it good or is it so important, complex, and worthy of study that we are naive to use that label?) and about how others view us for labelling something “good.”  (I guess this is what faculty with blogs do when on furlough — write posts! 🙂

Third, there’s an intellectual risk. Words like good (and modern FWIW) suggest a naivety about the intellectual agendas that frame our research. The research communities who are the targets for the products of our intellectual efforts as well as the source of our intellectual inspirations, have developed a rich understanding the transfer of technologies from one place to another. … Intellectual discussion within these communities does not begin or include good (bad or evil), but focuses on the rich detailed interactions of these contexts and how they are embodied in technologies and the methods, practices, theories and commercial contexts in which those systems are made, as well as how they flow from their source to their destination, and then how they are not just adopted but appropriated into people’s lives.

via Going Beyond Good: Computing4Good Considered Harmful « Beki’s Blog (there’s an original name).

December 21, 2009 at 2:07 pm Leave a comment

Fewer high school students taking computer science classes – washingtonpost.com

If it’s still dropping in high school, hard to believe that the undergraduate enrollment crisis is over.

It would be hard to find a student at Stone Bridge High School who has never used the Internet for a research assignment, socialized with Facebook or played a video game.

But few know much about how computers and the Web actually work.

via Fewer high school students taking computer science classes – washingtonpost.com.

December 21, 2009 at 10:23 am Leave a comment

How deep are video games?

I’m excited about the article in this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution about games courses in college, with references to two of my colleagues, Blair MacIntyre and Ian Bogost.  I was particularly struck by Ian’s comments.

Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost teaches students and is co-founder of Persuasive Games, which focuses on social and political issues such as airport security, flu epidemics and tort reform.

Students, he said, are looking for ways to match games with their life passions. One student is trying to meld religious activity with games, he said.

“Games are like folk music of the 1960s,” Bogost said. “They grew up with it. They identify with it. And it isn’t something really co-opted by institutions of power.”

via Gaming courses popular in Georgia colleges  | ajc.com.

Another article in Parade magazine this weekend, Can video games teach kids? includes this quote:

“We’re starting to see agreement that video games are the new liberal arts,” says Kurt Squire, a professor in education communications and technology at the University of Wisconsin. “This school is the first implementation.”

I have Ian’s Persuasive Games but haven’t finished it yet.  Games are “the new liberal arts”?  Games as the “folk music of the 1960s”?  My experience with games don’t go that deep.  I find if I think about them too hard, there’s nothing there but the assumptions and world-view of the game author.  A great example of the bottom not being too deep is the SimCity game player who famously told Sherry Turkle in The Second Self, “If you raise taxes, people riot.” Can games really be as deep as great literature, or great music?  I suppose it’s possible, but I haven’t seen it yet.

December 21, 2009 at 10:20 am 10 comments

Going on Furlough and Holiday Traveling

Georgia Tech is on furlough Dec. 21-24. According to official policy, “Employees are prohibited from working or otherwise provide services on a furlough day. It is a violation of Institute policy to do so.” I’m not sure if posting to this blog constitutes a “provided service.” But in any case, I’ll be heading up to visit family and snow in Michigan, so I’ll post rarely this week. Since I kept up a steady pace of posts this last week, I hope that I’ve left you some things to read and think about during this week before Christmas. Happy Holidays!

December 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm Leave a comment

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