Archive for December 14, 2009

Maria Klawe: Computing Our Children’s Future

Nice piece from Maria Klawe on Huffington Post, about the status of computing education in K-12.  Highlights some of the issues that we’re focusing on in Georgia Computes, like:

Unfortunately, nearly three out of four fourth-grade math and science teachers do not have a sufficient understanding of their subjects. In high-poverty middle and high schools, most did not even major or minor in math or science. “Too many middle school students are being taught by a generalist,” says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

via Maria Klawe: Computing Our Children’s Future.

December 14, 2009 at 4:38 pm 1 comment

Learning Computer Science From Scratch – US National Science Foundation (NSF)

Nice piece on the Scratch project at the NSF website:

Mitchel Resnick and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab, supported by the National Science Foundation, are focused on getting young people excited about computer science and changing this outdated stereotype of the field. Their goal is to encourage young people to use technology as a means to express themselves in creative ways, including through computer programming.

via nsf.gov – Office of Legislative and Public Affairs (OLPA) News – Learning Computer Science From Scratch – US National Science Foundation (NSF).

December 14, 2009 at 4:23 pm 2 comments

The Closing of the U.S. Open University

“The biggest mistake we made was getting started with undergraduate education,” noted Jarvis. “The OU MBA is one of the largest and most highly regarded in Europe…. We should have done an MBA or Americanized the OU MBA first.” As it turned out, the challenge of making inroads in the U.S. undergraduate market was one that USOU would not have enough time to solve.

via The Closing of the U.S. Open University (EDUCAUSE Quarterly) | EDUCAUSE.

When I was looking for the reference to John Daniel’s book on Mega-Universities in the earlier blog post today, I also found this fascinating analysis of what happened to the US Open University, which was started by the UKOU and was originally headed by John Daniel.

The lessons of what went wrong and the untaken paths are valuable, but the one I found particularly insightful was the above.  Richard Jarvis, the chancellor of the USOU, argued that it was a mistake to start at the undergraduate level.  There is more money (economics matters), more prestige, and less complexity at the Masters level.

I don’t think that Jarvis is arguing that distance education shouldn’t be used with undergraduates. The article points out ‘his passion is for “that vast population of un- and under-served students in the U.S., working adults and care-givers, drop-outs and stop-outs, the thousands with no degree” for whom an open university is not the best but “their only hope for a higher education.”’  However, the pathway to serving everyone might be through serving the higher-end Masters level first.  That way, you can develop the technologies and the practice, and establish a firm business base for the institution, before dealing with issues like articulation agreements and accreditation which (as Jarvis explains in the interview) were the final nails in the coffin of the USOU.

December 14, 2009 at 4:17 pm 2 comments

Child Development Expert Offers Ideas for Promoting Early Science Learning

“By focusing more on middle and high school kids, we are already missing the boat because we are saying that this is where science starts,” she explains, “when in reality attitudes toward science, perceptions of science, and identities —where children start to see themselves as people who do science—begin much earlier and in home contexts.”

via “Educate to Innovate” Campaign: Child Development Expert Offers Ideas for Promoting Early Science Learning.

Is the above true?  I do believe that children’s identities and home contexts influence their attitudes about science. However, I believe that the those studying children (including Piaget, in this wonderful piece by Seymour) have suggested that young children act as scientists.  My read of the literature suggests that kids don’t turn away from science until middle school.  Thus, focusing on middle school is an appropriate point of intervention, because that’s when the identities start changing.

December 14, 2009 at 3:52 pm 3 comments

Beat the book, not the teacher

In the early days of using computing for education, the challenge was “to do better than a teacher.” The challenge was to produce instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring, what Bloom called “the two sigma problem.”  In response to that challenge, researchers created Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) and later Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS), based on studies of how effective human tutors worked.  For example, Davide Fossati used human tutors as his comparison for his iList ITS for teaching data structures, and he was able to do as well or better with iList.

I’ve been perusing various offerings of distance courses for Computer Science the last few months.  For example, Andy Begel called me on my comment in a recent blog post, and pointed out that Berkeley offers self-paced CS courses based on the Kellar method.  I’ve also been checking out other on-line offerings to help figure out how we can do on-line CS teacher training for Georgia Computes.

When I look at these classes, I don’t see anything that looks like an intelligent tutoring system, or even looks like a teacher.  There is usually a teacher (an over-worked teacher — it’s hard to run these distance courses) playing the role of assessor and tutor (in the sense of responding to questions).  In general, computation is used as a transfer medium, a cheaper form of paper.  The source of information to be learned is almost always a textbook (often delivered as a PDF), or perhaps a set of HTML pages, or at worst, a set of Powerpoint slides.  Mike Clancy kindly shared with me a document about the evolution of courses at Berkeley, in response to my questions about their self-paced classes. Much of that evolution has to do with the creation of textbooks, which are considered particularly critical for the self-paced courses.

Why is that?  We seem to have given up on trying to do better than the teacher, perhaps because of the expense of developing ITS or because it’s so difficult to get a computer to teach better than a good teacher.  Perhaps it’s because replacing the teacher breaks our model of what makes courses effective.  We know how to make courses around books.

I propose a new goal: Beat the book, not the teacherCan we build computation that works better than a book for providing learning opportunities for students at a distance, and can we do it for less expense than building an ITS? We tend to design courses around textbooks.

Even the Open University’s new course My Digital Life is built around four books.  Books?  For the most cutting edge distance CS1 course?  John Daniel’s book on the Open University UK explains why they rely so much on books.  Books are manageable and cost-effective.  We know how the editing cycle for books works, and we can control the costs carefully.  Imagine that you have a bug in your Flash presentation.  Can you control the costs for finding and fixing that bug, at the same level that you can control the cost for proofreading, fixing the Word file, and reprinting?

Books are great, but most distance ed offerings don’t try to do better than books.

  • There is no way that a set of Powerpoint slides is better than a book for learning.  What does Powerpoint add?  Less text, so less explanation, and now we can add flashy transitions and animations that make the meaning even more inscrutable.
  • I’ve been surprised to see less classroom lecture videotapes than I expected.  I figured that taping the lectures and putting them up would be the cheapest way of putting any class on the Web.  I suspect that even that is more expensive than many schools are willing to bear.  Why offer the lectures at all to tape them if you can just post the notes and slides?

Can’t we do better than books?  Can’t we provide information that is more accessible, more engaging, and offers opportunities for practice — and at a low cost for producing the material?  The economics do matter.  ITS really do work, but we don’t use them more, most probably because of the cost of producing them.

That seems to me to be the next challenge for educational technologists that could improve the state of distance education as it is currently practiced. Not as it could be theoretically — actual practice is inhibited by costs. We need a a system (a cross between PowerPoint, Word, and LaTeX, with HyperCard-like scripting for interactivity?) that gives teachers a medium for producing instructional texts that are better than a book.  Something that would actually be used could make a big difference in making distance curses more effective.

December 14, 2009 at 3:05 pm 7 comments


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