Adoption and Crisis

March 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm 3 comments

I only just got back from Milwaukee and SIGCSE 2010 yesterday afternoon, so I’m still too tired and frazzled to be reflective yet.  However, that’s never stopped me from voicing an opinion before!  Two ideas are popping up regularly in my thoughts about the event.

First, about adoption of a curriculum approach:  I think we’ve reached a new stage with Media Computation.   Based on the theory of innovation diffusion, we are at least at “Early Adopters” and may even be in “Early Majority.”  Yes, people came up to Barb and I several times this last week to tell us, “I’m using your book!”  That’s much appreciated!  What’s really exciting, though, are all the uses beyond our books.  It’s less about the books, and more about the approach, the idea of using media manipulation as a context for introductory computing. That’s really exciting.

  • I had even more people coming up to me saying, “I’m using Media Computation.”  When I asked for more information, I’d learn that they’re using 1/2 the term, or at least one assignment, with sound or image manipulation.
  • Of the six presenters at our session on “Variations on a Theme,” only two were “using our book.”  Four had built their own libraries, one of which was in Scheme!  I met several people using the Luther College cImage package — some even without using their book.  Multiple libraries floating around suggests that the idea is getting more well-established.
  • I’m thrilled that there was finally a “Nifty Assignment” using Media Computation.  When we tried to get Media Computation assignments in previously, we were told that they didn’t want “special software.” They want “Nifty Assignments” to be something that anybody could do.  So, the appearance of a MediaComp “Nifty” suggests: It’s going mainstream.

The second thought that keeps coming to me is not nearly so pleasant.  Several people at SIGCSE 2010 were talking about their intro courses as being as full as they’ve ever been.  Now, if those intro course enrollments turn into majors and later course enrollments, then the enrollment crisis has ended.  As a side issue, I do have some doubts and concerns about that.  Schools that I’ve been hearing from have had rising introductory course enrollments for the last year or two, but aren’t seeing those students in later classes.

Barb pointed out the real problem to me.  The looming crisis is about teacher availability.

  • High school teachers.  Just before we left for SIGCSE, we heard that Georgia is losing some of the new CS teachers that we’ve helped create in the last few years through “Georgia Computes!”   School districts are cutting back, and telling schools to lay off teachers.  Some of these schools and districts are unionized (or follow union rules) which require layoffs to be based on seniority.  Our new CS teachers are the newest teachers in the school. Thus, we’re losing the CS teachers first.  I heard on Saturday from Chris Stephenson of CSTA that this is happening in California, too.  Just as we’re making progress, we might end up losing ground through bureaucracy of cutbacks.
  • Undergraduate faculty.  At SIGCSE, I learned of two top-ranked institutions (both in the top 20 of computer science departments in the US) that are laying off teaching staff — really good teaching staff, leaders in the national CS education community.  The cause is pretty simple.  Universities and colleges are getting their budgets cut, too.  They can’t easily lay off tenure track, research-focused faculty. They are instead laying off their teaching-track faculty.

Schools tend to be lagging economic indicators.  First, industry picks up, job numbers increase, then tax revenues increase, and finally budget increases flow to schools.  Since those first events are (arguably) just starting, those latter ones are still a way off.  We may lose more teachers than we gain in next couple years.  This may put growth in computing enrollments and graduate production at risk.  I hope I’m

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Discussion of the new AP CS Principles Improving Girls’ Math Scores with Emotion-Sensitive Tutor

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  March 16, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Hi Mark and Barb,

    Another way to look at this is that it’s not about body count. There have never been remotely enough really knowledgeable STEM or C teachers in any of the grades.

    There’s a certain “Physician heal thyself” aspect to this which is similar to other contemporary problems in computing. (A simple one of which is why do most intro courses try to adapt existing language systems that were not made for the purpose of the course? E.g. Scratch and Etoys and Alice were not made for what HS seniors should be learning, whether for AP or not. Why has computing sunk so low that most people cannot make the languages and environments needed for the purposes?)

    A bigger and more difficult one, which would require cooperation across computing research groups, is: why can’t computing make (as Obama has called for) “Learning software as effective as a personal tutor”?

    And especially, why can’t computing make such tutors for its own subject to help novices learn it?

    There are a few tantalizing exceptions. For example, Anderson’s LISP tutor at CMU, and Henry Lieberman’s different way of looking at the learning of LISP.

    If I’m not mistaken, there is actually no viable mechanism to make as many STEM&C teachers as the nation needs at a rate that will make a difference. (And this is more acute when the whole world is taken into account.)

    Obama’s challenge and call is one of the oldest hard problems in computing (going all the way back to the late 50s). I think now is the time to start making progress on something that is critical to the next few decades for the US.

    We need such “mentoring user interfaces” for all the STEM subjects (including C), but if great progress could be made with a tutor that could handle the ideas and environment for a real two year high school experience in computing, that would be a great step ahead for the entire STEM arena.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

    Reply
  • 2. Janet Kolodner  |  March 16, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Alan —

    I agree with what you say, but I don’t think you go far enough. Education shouldn’t be simply about helping kids develop skills; it should also about promoting practices of a profession or community of practice. Additionally, learning is not simply a cognitive and individual endeavor; whatever technology we develop ought to also include facilities for promoting the social interactions needed for learning and affordances for participating in a community of practice. It’s easy to imagine how to support the cognitive needs of learners at least as well, and probably better, than a lecture and lab do. It’s a lot harder to imagine how to do way better than that, but if we don’t think about how to do better as an element of designing technology to promote learning, then we might not take advantage of the extra powerful affordances of technology, and, worse, we fail the learners.

    Janet

    Reply
  • 3. Alan Kay  |  March 16, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Hi Janet,

    Actually, I have repeatedly stressed in these blog comments that education is about changes of outlook and perspective, and that most of the skills underneath are skills in the new ways to look at things. And particularly, I think that professional development is often confused both with mere training and with “real education” (though in good conditions they certainly do overlap).

    I’m not just a big fan of books, but like to try to get those interested in education to understand just what processes the printing press unleashed to change the outlook of an entire continent.

    The important idea (to me) here is that “books” that can help people “read” them and learn their content are one of the most important facts-and-metaphors for making progress in the future.

    We can see from the past that though printed books were mostly read by one person on one book, that this gave the readers a lot more to discuss with their colleagues.

    Another important point about printed books is that they allowed learners to have deep contact with great minds whether living or dead or near or far, and this allowed more ordinary teachers to take on a very different role (which many over the years have just refused to do).

    The result, though shaky in some respects, was able to scale in a way and in a depth that oral discourse couldn’t.

    In those days, books “helped people to read them” via good writing as authors learned how to express ideas more clearly. We can imagine ” ‘books’ of the future” being able to do much more, but in the near term, it will be the combination of a content author and a “desktop learning environment system” used by the author that will make a fair amount of the difference.

    I think this can really scale, even to those who are unlucky enough to not get good preparation from their own societies (this number is large and growing alarmingly).

    And on the general topic of “community of practice”, I feel the main problem is not setting them up (there are zillions, because this is what humans are set up by nature to do), but to get them to have a high enough threshold for their ideas and practice to make them a positive force for civilization (like science has) rather than ones which hold back progress (like too many “communities” within computing.

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply

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