Archive for January, 2010

An Educational Extinction Event?

My colleague, Dick Lipton, asks a really interesting question in his blog: Could Georgia Tech (GIT = Georgia Institute of Technology) and all other universities simply disappear?

I think there is a danger that GIT as we know it today could disappear by 2035. Not just GIT, but all schools, colleges, and universities—at all levels. I think that there is a chance that they could all be gone. They will be replaced by something, but that something may be very different from GIT.

via An Educational Extinction Event? « Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP.

His belief is that the University (Uns) will be replaced by On-Line University (Ons).  I have significant concerns about that. Universities already widen the gap between rich and poor, by flunking out or not admitting the poor. On-line courses tend to flunk out even more students, and mostly at the lower-knowledge and poor levels.

I think it’s possible for on-line education to be even better than existing University education, in terms of improving learning and engaging a broader range of students.  CMU has done it in statistics. Computer science is a great target discipline for making it work better. The work has to happen first. If Uns disappear in favor of Ons, before we make Ons better, will lead to worse education for society, especially for weaker students.

January 30, 2010 at 11:39 am 6 comments

School district adds CS as high school requirement

Not sure that this truly is a “growing movement,” but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true?

The School District of Springfield Township is adding a computer science requirement for high school graduation in an effort to prepare students for the cultural and professional technological advances of the modern world.By doing so, Springfield is joining a growing movement of school districts, states and private schools in the country, district Director of Technology Michael Wagman said in an interview Tuesday.

via Montgomery News.

January 29, 2010 at 12:19 pm Leave a comment

“Who do I have to fight now?”: CS != Apps++

Our high school daughter came home last night with her Sophomore year course elections form.  She’s considering taking Computing in the Modern World, Georgia’s version of the similar course in the ACM Model K-12 Curriculum.  She might take Beginning Programming at some point, but she’ll need the pre-requisite…which is listed on the form as the course in “Computer Applications.”  Which is WRONG! Barb, who helped write the state standards, knows that Beginning Programming should require Computing in the Modern World. Barb’s comment was, “Who do I have to fight now!?!

The notion that computer science is just beefed up applications (CS == Apss++) is prevalent in high schools.  Lijun Ni, my student studying high school CS teachers finds it all the time.  “Oh, I’m a computer science teacher!  It’s important for students to go beyond computer applications into real computer science!”  That’s a true sentiment, but there doesn’t have to be a connection between applications and CS.  You can be a great computer scientist and not be able to figure out Word or Excel.  Last time I spoke to Jane Margolis, she was facing it in in her new pre-AP course in the LA Unified School District.  She said that the teachers complain, “How can they learn computer science when they have weak keyboarding skills?  We’ll have to do two weeks of keyboarding first.”

Is the problem that computing has been too successful?  That you can do so much with applications, that it’s considered the fundamentals, the base of all of computing?  Or is that teachers do not understand computer science as a real, academic, rigorous subject?  Or is that high school leaders don’t understand computer science at all?  I suspect that we have a chicken-and-the-egg problem.  How do we get real computer science valued in schools when the people making the decisions don’t understand computer science?

With all the excitement over “apps” on the new iPad, maybe now is the time to push: CS != Apps++

January 28, 2010 at 9:33 am 11 comments

How do we get more, without sacrificing good, while measuring it?

“Without an unrelenting focus on quality—on defining and measuring and ensuring the learning outcomes of students—any effort to increase college-completion rates would be a hollow effort indeed.” So proclaimed Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation for Education, during the opening plenary of the annual conference of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, held here last week.That statement reflected the tone of the entire conference. The nearly 1,900 presidents, provosts, and faculty members who gathered here generally said that they welcome the White House’s efforts to increase the proportion of Americans who earn college degrees. But they do not want to see those degrees watered down in the process. If colleges are going to provide high-quality educations to millions of additional students, they said, the institutions will need to develop measures of student learning than can assure parents, employers, and taxpayers that no one’s time and money are being wasted.

via Educators Mull How to Motivate Professors to Improve Teaching – Curriculum – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The tension between wanting to have more students to graduate (to improve competitiveness, for the sake of the students’ future economic success, to reduce inequities) and wanting to maintain standards (what’s the point of more students graduating, if those graduations aren’t worth anything) leads to a need to teach better — to produce more while not decreasing quality.  That’s really hard.  The blurb quote above points to an obvious need to be able to measure the learning.

Thus, we hit a roadblock in Computing. We don’t know how to measure learning in Computing.  Sure, we can ask about learning in any given course, but if you listen to the complaints of teachers (“They learned Scheme — why do they do so poorly in Java?” and “You saw this algorithm in your CS2. Why can’t you do it now?” and “These students know Java and C.  Why can’t they pick up C++ on their own?”) and industry (“We have to hire people who know language X, because it takes too much time to learn X or to retrain our people in X”), you can see that we’re expecting a deeper kind of learning than just a course-at-a-time.  We don’t know how to measure this kind of transfer in Computing. We have no language-independent measures of CS learning.

If we had them, I’d bet we’d be disappointed with the results.  That’s a really high bar that we set for ourselves.

January 27, 2010 at 7:44 am 10 comments

A new medium to engage students: Electronic pop-up books

I love Leah Buechley’s imagination for the roles that computing can play, especially from a child’s perspective.  We are trying to incorporate her wearable, textile computing into our Georgia Computes! Girl Scout workshops.  Her new project, electronic pop-up books, looks wonderful.  (Do click on the below link and see the gorgeous picture.)  I loved looking at my kids’ pop-up books and the inventive things created there.  Computational pop-up books sound like a wonderful medium to engage new computationalists.

Venus fly traps spring up invitingly from one page; sensors in the trap’s jaws respond to the user’s touch, gently closing around the probing finger as it withdraws. The sensors control the amount of electric current flowing through springs in the leaf. The springs are made of the shape memory alloy nickel-titanium and contract to close the leaf shut as their coils are heated by the current. The leaves reopen as the wire cools.

via Embedded electronics bring pop-up books to life – tech – 21 January 2010 – New Scientist.

January 26, 2010 at 10:36 am Leave a comment

Kindles vs. Smartphones: Age matters, Testing matters

A study out of the University of Georgia (insert snide remark required of Georgia Tech faculty here, please) suggests that Kindles won’t replace newspapers for daily reading until additional features are added.  What I found most interesting about the study was that the desired features split by age.  Younger readers prefer smartphones–which I personally found bonkers.  I far prefer reading on my Kindle to my smart phone (tiny font, short lines, glaring backlight). But then, I’m not in that demographic.  Got me thinking about the challenge of me predicting what students will like in my classes, and the necessity of user-testing of ideas since I know that my intuition is wrong.  (Not quite “usability” testing — maybe “engagability” or “teachability” testing?)

While adults of all ages were impressed by the readability of the Kindle screen, describing it as “easy on the eyes,” few considered it a primary way to read news, the study found.Young adults in particular compared the Kindle DX used in the study unfavorably to smart phones, such as the iPhone or Blackberry. The e-reader felt “old” to them.Older adults were overall more receptive to the concept of an e-reader. However, the Kindle failed to include aspects of the traditional newspaper they had grown fond of, such as comics and crossword puzzles.

via UGA study: Kindles unlikely to help newspapers – Atlanta Business Chronicle:.

January 26, 2010 at 10:19 am 2 comments

An NSF for Educational Technology

Part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education act, the new National Center for Advanced Information and Digital Technologies is meant to be an NSF for education. From the NYTimes article:

“It’s time that education had the equivalent of what the National Science Foundation does for science, Darpa does for the national defense and what N.I.H. does for health,” Mr. Grossman said in an interview.

Congress Finances Program to Use Technology in Education –

I found more information on it at the Federation of American Scientists website:

The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies will support a comprehensive research and development program to explore ways advanced computer and communication technologies can improve all levels of learning.  This includes K-12, college and university, corporate and government training, and both formal and informal learning.

January 25, 2010 at 3:45 pm 3 comments

Picture-driven computing

Researchers at MIT have a new system that allows one to program with screenshots.  For example, to get a message to a cell phone when a bus reaches a corner, “the programmer can simply plug screen shots into the script: when this (the pin) gets here (the corner), send me a text.”  It sounds too good to be true, but when Allen Cypher says it’s good, you gotta be impressed.

“When I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh my God, you can do that?’” says Allen Cypher, a researcher at IBM’s Almaden Research Center who specializes in human-computer interactions. “I certainly never thought that you could do anything like that. Not only do they do it; they do it well. It’s already practical. I want to use it right away to do things I couldn’t do before.”

via Picture-driven computing.

The article also says, “The researchers say that Sikuli could allow novice computer users to create their own programs without having to master a programming language.”  Interesting question: Would this increase interest in programming (“I can do that?  What else can I do?”) or decrease interest (“I can do whatever I want this way — why go further?”)?

January 25, 2010 at 8:21 am Leave a comment

The slice is not the whole: Folk Pedagogues and Open Source

Alan Kay sometimes quotes the Talmud: “We see things as we are, not as they are” I’ve been thinking about a corollary of that quote: “We see the slice, but the slice is not the whole.”  Alan’s quote is about seeing things in terms of ourselves, not as the thing is.  We also tend to look at our vicinity, and convince ourselves that our experience generalizes more broadly. This is one of the most prevalent misconceptions that I see computer science teachers make.

Ray Lister referred to most teachers as “folk pedagogues” in an earlier comment.  He talked about how teachers make decisions based on their past experience, without taking into account current situations.  I responded with a story about Davide Fossati who is studying how computer science professors decide to change their curriculum.  Decisions are made about changing curriculum, changing languages, and changing approaches based on “talking to a few students.”  What makes those students representative of the class?  Talking to a self-selected few is a terrible way of understanding how the class is a whole is doing.

Several people contacted me after my post about open source to tell me how their open source project cares about usability, or has lots of women on it.  I am sure that those people are right.  However, those are slices and don’t change the results upon which I was commenting. Mike Terry and James Howison are trying to understand open source as a culture, as a movement, as a whole.  They are doing careful sampling to get a picture of the whole.  They are finding few usability development practices. That’s not to say open source software is unusable. I use it — I’ve been upgrading by Ubuntu installation this weekend, and I still use Squeak regularly.  But those are my slices, and Mike and James are trying to understand a whole that’s larger than my experience, too.

I’m not immune to getting caught up in the slice.  I whined last week about the self-centeredness of my senior design students, and Briana Morrison joined me in her comments.  We’re both computing education researchers, so we know that our experiences of talking to a few students does not reflect the attitudes of the whole.  Ellen Zegura offered a great counterexample of students signing up to help others. In reality, the majority of students in my class did sign on to solve someone else’s problem. None of us is studying these classes, trying to get a clear over-all picture.  We’re talking about impressions.  We’re not making decisions to change things based on these impressions, which is a good thing.  We’re just noting slices.

I disagree with the title of Tom’s blog post: “The Open Source Community is us.”  We’re not.  We may be part of a community, but the community is much larger than us.  We’d be making a mistake if we used ourselves as examplars and generalized to the whole community based on ourselves and our projects.  I suspect that part of what Tom is suggesting, which is what I think Erik Engbrecht is suggesting too, is that we can change the community, that we can create projects that value usability and diversity.  Yes, we can create projects, but that probably won’t change the community.  That changes a slice, not the whole.  Maybe the values of the new project will spread throughout the community — maybe, maybe not.  How to change an all-volunteer social network is a fascinating question, but changing open source wasn’t the point of my post.

It’s dangerous to take one’s slice and think it’s the whole.  From the SIGCSE list and being at Georgia Tech (where the freshman class grew this year), it’s easy to believe that the undergraduate enrollment crisis has ended.  Then I talk to teachers at smaller colleges in Georgia, and I hear about plummeting enrollments and faculty being fired.  I live in Georgia where white politicians have believed that they were making decisions in everyone’s best interests, when they were really making decisions that were just in the best interest of their community, because they never spoke to the minority communities and never understand their needs.  It’s easy to confuse the slice for the whole.

That’s one advantage of mandatory standardized testing — it’s a clear view of the whole.  As a teacher, it’s easy to believe that the students who come up and talk to you represent the class.  It’s hard to ignore the results of a standardized test that all your students take.  How do we get university faculty to see the whole, to not be distracted by the slice?  Maybe that’s even harder than trying to change open source development.

January 24, 2010 at 5:12 pm 2 comments

What’s worth it in reform?

A study reported in the Washington Post studied teachers behavior in great detail, and found that teacher implementation of reform (even in the same school) varied dramatically.  The really odd thing was that the implementation level didn’t matter in terms of student achievement.  The study raises some troubling questions. Do we really know what happens when we try to implement reform?  And what evidence do we really have that changing classroom practices changes learning outcomes?

A little-noticed but unusually detailed study of teaching practices, reported by Robert Rothman in the November/December issue of the Harvard Education Letter, delivers a depressing message you should keep in mind whenever you read anything about raising school achievement…The study led by Brian Rowan of the University of Michigan found extraordinary differences in what teachers in adjoining classrooms were doing, even in schools supposedly ruled by comprehensive reform models that dictated how everyone used every hour of the day….Okay, you say, that’s easy to fix. Just watch the teachers more closely. Make sure they are all using the higher level content. Guess again, said Rowan’s colleague Jenny DeMonte. She discovered the student gains from highest level practices, such as examining literary techniques and sharing writing with others, were no better than those produced by low-level practices, like asking questions that have answers at the back of the textbook chapter and summarizing story details.

via Class Struggle – Study shows how dumb we can be.

January 23, 2010 at 8:55 am Leave a comment

Open Source Development: Not Very Open or Welcoming

We had a visitor at Georgia Tech today, alum Mike Terry, who has been studying the usability practices of open source development teams, like for Gimp, Inkscape, and Firefox.  The short answer is, “There are no usability practices,” but that’s a little too pat.  It’s a little bit more complicated than that, and actually even more concerning from an education perspective.

The folklore is that open source developers start because they have “an itch to scratch,” something that they want developed.  Mike thinks that that’s true, but that scratching that itch doesn’t actually take long. Social factors keep open source developers going — they care about their developer community and working with them.

Mike finds that few projects really care about usability.  The argument, “If you made your usability better, you’d increase your user base,” is not enticing to most open source developers.  Open source developers have no layers (like salespeople or tech support) between themselves and the public users.  Thus, they get inundated with (sometimes ill-informed and even downright stupid) bug reports and feature requests.  The last thing open source developers want is more of those.

Since open source developers soon stop being users of their own software, and they don’t want to talk to lots of users, how do they deal with usability?  Mike says that the top developers develop close relationships with a few power users, and the developers design to meet those users’ needs.  So there is some attention to usability — in terms of what high-end, power users want.

So what happens when a User Experience person wanders into the open source fold?  Mike has interviewed some of these folks (often female), and finds that they hate the experience.  One said, “I’d never have done it if I wasn’t being paid to do it.”  I guess there’s not much of an open source usability developer community.  The open source developer community is not welcoming to these “others” with different backgrounds, different goals, and most of all, not a hard-core software development background.

Mike believes that the majority of our software will be open-licensed.  I expressed concerns about that future in terms of education.

  • How do people get started in developing software in an all open-source world?  Mike suggested that open source is a great way for high school students to get started with software development.  I pointed out how unfriendly open-source development communities have been to newcomers, especially females, and how open-source development mailing lists have been described as “worse than locker rooms.”  Mike agreed with those characterizations, then said, “But once you get past that…”  Well, yeah — that’s the point.  Margolis and Fisher showed us years ago that those kinds of subtle barriers say, “This is a boys-only club — you don’t belong!” and those can prevent women and underrepresented minorities from even trying to enter the community.
  • I worry about the economics of open-source and what signals it sends to people considering the field.  Mike assured me that companies like RedHat are making money and hiring programmers — but there are many more unpaid programmers working on RedHat than paid programmers.  If the world goes mostly open source, how do we convince students that there are jobs available developing software? Many kids (and parents) already believe that software jobs are all being outsourced.  How do we convince them that there are good jobs, and they don’t have to work for years for free before they get those paying jobs?
  • Finallly, I really worry about the lack of thought-diversity in the open source communities.  People who care about usability are driven away from these communities? While we educators are trying to convince students that not all of computing is about programming, the open source community is telling newcomers that programming is all that matters.  If the whole software industry goes open source, we’re going to have a hard time selling the image of a broad field of computing.

I found Mike’s work fascinating, and well grounded in data.  I just find the world he describes a little disconcerting.  I hope that  the open source community considers the education issues of its next generation of developers.

January 21, 2010 at 9:02 pm 39 comments

A National UK Animation Contest

I thought that this was really interesting — the United Kingdom has a national animation contest for K-12 children.  Notice that the options emphasize programming animations.  Maybe an interesting model for getting kids to consider computing as an activity, maybe a major, or career?

Youngsters aged between seven and 19 are being challenged to create an animated film, of one minute or less, using any of the Alice, Scratch Adobe Flash, Greenfoot or Serif software packages.

Over 800 schools across the country registered to take part in the 2009 competition, and even bigger numbers are expected this year.

via Computer contest hopes to inspire young animators (The University of Manchester).

January 21, 2010 at 8:38 pm Leave a comment

Professors are liberal because they’re typecast that way

Why are professors so liberal?  Why are computer science majors mostly male and white or Asian?  One possible answer is the same for each — that’s what we’ve been raised to expect.  Typecasting may explain the liberalness of professors, and why nursing is predominantly female.

A pair of sociologists think they may have an answer: typecasting. Conjure up the classic image of a humanities or social sciences professor, the fields where the imbalance is greatest: tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular — and liberal. Even though that may be an outdated stereotype, it influences younger people’s ideas about what they want to be when they grow up.

via Professor Is a Label That Leans to the Left –

January 20, 2010 at 1:49 pm 4 comments

University of Georgia gets Engineering

UGA students now can choose from five engineering majors, up from just two, after the University System Board of Regents approved majors in biochemical, environmental and computer systems engineering, in addition to the biological and agricultural engineering degrees already in place.

Administrators hope to get state approval for more majors to train students in mechanical, civil and electrical-electronic engineering, which would expand UGA offerings to cover most engineering fields.

via More students look to UGA engineering programs ||

For over 100 years, Georgia Tech held a monopoly on being the only publicly funded engineering school in the state.  People referred to the “Unique Mission” of Georgia Tech.  Because of that mission, Georgia Tech has not been allowed to have an Education unit — that belongs the University of Georgia and other schools, who do not have our “Unique Mission.”

Okay, UGa has Engineering.  When do we get to have Education?

January 19, 2010 at 10:25 am 5 comments

Engineers think with stuff

My colleague Nancy Nercessian has been studying how engineering scientists think, and the short form answer is, “With stuff.”  They use distributed cognition through the things in their lab in order to think through problems.

Nercessian began by posing the question, “How do engineering scientists think?” The resulting journal article in Topics in Cognitive Science quotes Daniel Dennett: “Just as you cannot do very much carpentry with your bare hands, there’s not much thinking you can do with your bare mind.”

via Are Engineers Creative Like We Are? | Psychology Today.

Famously, Edsger Dijkstra is quoted as having said “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” Nancy’s results suggest that, while Dijkstra may be right that computer science is not about computers, a computer scientist can’t think without a computer.

January 19, 2010 at 10:22 am 1 comment

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