Archive for May, 2010

Computer science as Yugoslavia

I wonder if Paul Graham is right, that “Computer science is a grab bag of tenuously related areas thrown together by an accident of history, like Yugoslavia.”  I’m wondering because, when I re-read his famous Hackers and Painters essay recently, I found myself listing the other areas not in his analysis but part of what I think of as “computer science”:

  • Human-centered computing, the implications of computing for humand and how human concerns (e.g., culture, psychology, economics) influence the design of computing systems.
  • The deep-down what computing is about, reflected in Alan Kay’s “Triple Whammy” that everyone should know about computing.  Is that mathematics?  It’s not the natural history or hackers parts.  It’s not really an area of research for everyone, but it is something that everyone should know.
  • The graphics designers that Brian Dorn is studying, who program but not to produce beauty in software, like Graham’s hackers, but to produce software output of value, to produce artifacts that might create beauty.  Brian is finding that these people need to know a lot about computer science to make themselves more successful at what they want to do, but they don’t fit into any of Graham’s categories.

Can all these pieces stay together, under some kind of UN-enforced treaty?  Or are we bound to split into multiple fields?

I’ve never liked the term “computer science.” The main reason I don’t like it is that there’s no such thing. Computer science is a grab bag of tenuously related areas thrown together by an accident of history, like Yugoslavia. At one end you have people who are really mathematicians, but call what they’re doing computer science so they can get DARPA grants. In the middle you have people working on something like the natural history of computers– studying the behavior of algorithms for routing data through networks, for example. And then at the other extreme you have the hackers, who are trying to write interesting software, and for whom computers are just a medium of expression, as concrete is for architects or paint for painters. It’s as if mathematicians, physicists, and architects all had to be in the same department.

via Hackers and Painters.

May 31, 2010 at 12:39 pm 2 comments

CS is shallow and lacking paradox

The criticism in this blog post is interesting.  The blogger agrees with those in the field who are saying we don’t do enough to emphasize the rigor and complexity of computer science.  It’s interesting that the author also criticizes CS for not teaching its students enough about how to be a better programmer.  Those feel like two different things to me: To learn to be a great programmer, and to understand the deep and interesting questions of CS.

Computer science is shallow, and nearly every place it’s taught is at the mercy of “industry”. They rarely teach deep philosophy and instead would rather either teach you what some business down the street wants, or teach you their favorite pet language like LISP. Even worse, the things that are core to Computer Science like language design, parsing, or state machines, aren’t even taught unless you take an “advanced” course. Hell, you’re lucky if they teach you more than one language.

Another way to explain the shallowness of Computer Science is that it’s the only discipline that eschews paradox. Even mathematics has reams of unanswered questions and potential paradox in its core philosophy. In Computer Science, there’s none. It’s assumed that all of it is pretty much solved and your job as an undergraduate is to just learn to get a job in this totally solved area of expertise.

via Shedding Bikes: Programming Culture And Philosophy.

May 31, 2010 at 12:04 pm 3 comments

Teacher’s Materials, Family, and Hawaii

My main activity for the last couple weeks has been to work on teacher’s materials for the Media Computation website.  I made a pass at cleaning up the front page, making it easier for teachers to navigate to the materials that they need.  (Along the way, we discovered that the media sources that we linked in for the Data Structures book were wrong!  The right ones are now linked there — sorry!)  The largest single consumer-of-hours has been the creation of the Powerpoint slides for the Python Second edition book.  I’ve owed these to teachers for the whole academic year that the new edition has been out, and I’m sorry for the delay.  (My announcement about these slides to the mediacomp-teach mailing list started out with “From the Slow-but-not-Dead Department.”)  I recognize that for many overworked teachers, having a complete set of slides already prepared is necessary to be able to use a new approach or textbook.  I’m now working on updating the Data Structures book slides, since changes happened between the last time I taught the class and us finishing the book.  (For one, my co-author joined the effort, and Barb writes much better code than me.)

But whatever gets done today and tomorrow is all that will get done there for a couple weeks.  Things are crazy here at our house.  We’re hosting a graduation party for our son this weekend, with some five carloads of family coming down from Michigan for it.  So today and some tomorrow is all the work time that I can spare, then I’m in high gear for planning, shopping, and cooking.

The relevant part for this blog is that next Tuesday, June 1, I’m going off-line for 10 days.  This year, my lovely wife and I are celebrating 25 years of marriage, and my parents are celebrating 50 years!  The whole extended family is going to Hawaii to celebrate, leaving on Tuesday June 1, returning June 11. I will not be on-line during this time! No email, no blog.  My apologies for the delay, but it’s time to disconnect.

When I return, I will be heading out almost immediately (June 13) to teach workshops in Amherst and Cambridge, MA.  (Um, whose idea was it to teach 9-5 for five days while jet-lagged?  Oh yeah — mine.)  I will be trying to catch up in the evenings that week, so it may be two weeks before I can post again.

Happy early summer to all of you!

May 26, 2010 at 10:32 am 4 comments

In Praise of Drill and Practice

Last night, Barb and I went out to dinner with our two teens.  (The house interior is getting painted, so it was way easier than trying to eat in our kitchen.)  We got to talking about the last academic year.  Our eldest graduated from high school last week, with only one B in four years, including 7 AP classes.  (While I take pride in our son, I do recognize that kids’ IQ is most highly correlated with mothers’ IQ. I married well.) Our middle child was moping a bit about how hard it was going to be to follow in his footsteps, though she’s doing very well at that so far.

Since our middle child had just finished her freshman year, we asked the two of them which teachers we should steer our youngest toward or away from.  As they compared notes on their experiences, I asked about their biology teacher, Mrs. A.  I couldn’t believe the homework load that Mrs. A. sent home with the kids each night — almost all worksheets, fill-in-the-blank, drill-and-practice.  Sometimes, our middle child would have 300 questions to complete in a night!

Both our kids loved Mrs. A!  No, they didn’t love the worksheets, but they said that they really liked how the worksheets “drilled the material into our heads.”  “She’s such a great teacher!” they both said.  They went on to talk about topics in biology, using terms that I didn’t know.  Our middle child said that she’s looking forward to taking anatomy with Mrs. A, and and our eldest said that many of his friends took anatomy just to have Mrs. A again.

I was surprised.  My kids are pretty high-ability, and this messes with my notions of Aptitude-Treatment Interactions.  High ability kids value worksheets, simple drill-and-practice — what I used to call “drill-and-kill”?

On the other hand, their experience meshes with the “brain as muscle” notions that Carl Wieman talked about at SIGCSE.  They felt that they really learned from all that practice in the fundamentals, in the language and terms of the field.  Cognitive load researchers would point out that worksheets have low cognitive load, and once that material is learned, students can build on it in more sophisticated and interesting ways.  That’s definitely what I heard my kids doing, in some really interesting discussions about the latest biology findings, using language that I didn’t know.

I realized again that we don’t have (or at least, use) the equivalent of worksheets in computer science.  Mathematics have them, but my sense is that mathematics educators are still figuring out how to make them work well, in that worksheets have low cognitive load but it’s still hard getting to what we want students to learn about mathematics.  I suspect that computational worksheets would serve mathematics and computer science better than paper-based ones.  A computational worksheet could allow for dynamics, the “playing-out” of the answer to a fill-in-the-blank question.  Much of what we teach in introductory computer science is about dynamics: about how that loop plays out, about how program state is influenced and manipulated by a given process, about how different objects interact.  That could be taught (partially, the foundational ideas) in a worksheet form, but probably best where the dynamics could be made explicit.

Overall, though, my conversation with my kids about Mrs. A and her worksheets reminded me that we really don’t have much for CS learners before throwing them in front of a speeding interpreter or compiler.  A blank editor window is a mighty big fill-in-the-blank question. We need some low cognitive load starting materials, even for the high ability learners.

May 26, 2010 at 10:15 am 15 comments

Fear and anxiety over curricular change

Here in Georgia in educational circles, you often hear, “Thank God for Alabama and Mississippi!”  Because without them, we’d be 50th among the 50 states in educational standards.

Over the last few years, there has been a significant effort to improve standards and create a new, more rigorous curriculum.  It has parents up in arms!  “There’s no proof that this will work!”  No, there never can be .  Replicating another state’s program might work in the next context, but might not.  “My straight-A student is now getting C’s!” Now there’s the underlying issue.  When you make wholesale change, students have to adapt and teachers have to learn.  That kind of change is leading to exactly that kind of fear and anxiety in Georgia.

We’re not in exactly the same space with respect to Computing.  In most places, we’re not replacing anything.  However, replacing CS1 curriculum, among teachers (faculty) who have no incentive to change — that may be even harder.

Under the state’s new math curriculum, lower scores plus a quicker pace of instruction equal greater anxiety for both students and their teachers.

“In my classes, I have 60 kids and only 17 are passing. You know how stressful that is on me?” said Donna Aker, a veteran math teacher at South Gwinnett High School.

It’s a problem common to many metro Atlanta schools. Nearly one in five ninth-graders in metro Atlanta last year got an F in Math I — the first year of the state’s new math curriculum in high school.

via New curriculum: Math anxiety for students, teachers  |

May 25, 2010 at 7:56 am 3 comments

The Core of Computer Science: Alan Kay’s “Triple Whammy”

My aunt and uncle were in town last week.  My aunt told Barb and me how many of her friends’ computers were “destroyed” by “watching a YouTube video.”  “It almost happened to us, too, but we got a phone call telling us not to watch that video!”  Sure, there is probably a website out there that can trick users into installing a virus that can cause damage to their computer, and it may have a video on the website.  But I have a hard time believing that simply watching a video on a website like YouTube might “destroy” one’s computer (or more specifically from her explanation, erase one’s hard disk).  Belief that that could happen seems like a belief in magic and mythology, like the belief that a chariot draws the sun across the sky.  We ask everyone to take classes in history and biology, because they should understand how their world works, whether or not they will major in those fields.  It’s part of being an informed citizen who does not believe that the world runs by magic and myths.  What does everyone need to know about computer science?

Alan Kay and I were having an email conversation about this question, about what was the core of computer science that everyone ought to know about, even non-majors.  He came up with a “triple whammy” list that I really like.  It may need som re-phrasing, but there’s something deep there.  I’m copy-pasting his notes to me (repeated here with his permission) in italic-bold, with my intepretation and commentary between.

It is all about the triple whammy of computing.
1. Matter can be made to remember, discriminate, decide and do

In his book Pattern on the Stone, Danny Hillis points out that modern day CPU’s are just patterns on stone, essentially the stuff of sand.  We are able to realize YouTube and eBay and natural language translation and Pixar movies all because we can make patterns on stones that can remember things, distinguish between options, act on those distinctions, and do things from playing sounds to actuating robots.  This feels like magic, that matter can do those things, but mechanical engineers would find this first step unsurprising.  They know how to make machines made out of matter that can do these things, even without modern computers.  Whammy #1 is an important step away from magic, but isn’t yet computer science.

2. Matter can remember descriptions and interpret and act on them

In step 2, we get to programs and programming languages.  We can describe processes, and our matter can act on those descriptions.  While we can do this with steam engines and mechanical engineering, it’s complicated and not obvious.  We do this regularly in computer science.

3. Matter can hold and interpret and act on descriptions that describe anything that matter can do.

This third step is amazingly powerful — it’s where we go meta.  We can also describe the matter itself as programs.  Now we can create abstractions on our programming languages.  Now we can point out that any program can be written in any programming language.  This doesn’t directly address my aunt’s misconceptions, but if she understood the third whammy, we could talk about how a badly written media player could interpret a nefariously designed video such that the video could instruct a too-powerful media player to trash a hard disk, but how unlikely that would be.  This third step is where we get to the role that computer science can

The Triple Whammy isn’t all of computer science.  There is a lot more than these three steps.  For example, I think that everyone should know about limits of computability, and about the possibility of digitizing information in any medium (thus allowing for visualization of sound or auralization of stock market data).  I do see the Triple Whammy as part of a core, and that this could fit into any CS1 for any student.

We definitely talk about steps 1 and 2 in the Media Computation CS1, and parts of step 3. For example, we define a simple line-drawing language, then build an interpreter (just does each line-drawing statement) and a compiler (generates the equivalent Python function or Java method) for that line drawing language.  We do that in order to explain (in part) why Photoshop is faster than Python for any image filter we create.  But we definitely do not do this explicitly yet.  As I’m working on the Powerpoint slides for the Python 2ed book now, I’m thinking about building a “Triple Whammy” slide deck, to encourage teachers to have this discussion with their students in a Media Computation context.  I’ll bet that TeachScheme already gets there.

What I really like about this list is that it clearly explains why Computer Science isn’t just advanced use of application software.  We see adults and kids in our studies all the time who tell us that somebody really good at Photoshop is a computer scientist.  We hear from teachers and principals regularly who tell us that they teach computer science, because here’s the book they use for introducing Excel and Access.  The Triple Whammy is about computer science and not about using applications.

May 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm 7 comments

Happy 70th Birthday, Alan Kay!

Alan Kay turned 70 last week. In honor of his birthday, two of his colleagues at Viewpoints Research, Ian Piumarta and Kim Rose assembled an amazing book of essays from Alan’s past collaborators and friends: From Adele Goldberg and Vint Cerf, to Quincy Jones and Gordon Bell.  Kim is a cognitive scientist and was my co-editor on the second Squeak book. She co-wrote the Squeak Etoys Powerful Ideas in the Classroom book with BJ Allen Conn.  Ian is a gifted systems researcher and programmer (e.g., he did the first port of Squeak outside of Apple or Disney, and still maintains the UNIX ports), who also loves to produce beautiful books.  He managed all the LaTeX-work for Kim and I on our book (for which we remain grateful!), and typeset Kim and BJ’s book.  I’m looking forward to seeing the new book  — I’m sure it’s fascinating and gorgeous.  They are currently out-of-stock, but are planning to do a second printing.  (The first printing sold out in 6 hours!)

Alan is well known to readers of this blog. He and his research group at Xerox PARC in the 1970’s invented the desktop user interface, Smalltalk, and our modern notions of “object-oriented programming.”  He won the ACM Turing Award in 2003.  Alan did his pioneering work in user interfaces and programming languages in pursuit of a larger goal — improving how people learn and think, and using computing technology as the lever and medium.

I am grateful for Alan’s mentoring advice over the last 15 years.  I started on the path to a PhD in education and computer science because I was inspired by his paper with Adele Goldberg on Personal Dynamic Media. We met in 1995 when I invited him to a workshop I was co-organizing for NSF on setting a research agenda in educational technology.  As Alan wondered from group-to-group, other participants and some group leaders came to me asking, “Can you keep Alan out of our room?  He keeps coming in and challenging everything!”  Yup, that’s Alan (and why anyone would think that I could slow him down, or would want to, is beyone me :-).  Alan has generously offered his time as a mentor to me, advising me to think more deeply and push harder in my work.  Alan is often referenced in discussions with my students.  “You know what Alan would say about that!”  When Alan was given an honorary doctorate by Georgia Tech in 2005, his schedule was filled with meetings with the important folks.  He still found time to hang out for a couple hours with me and Barb and others, commenting on everything from schools and technology to management.  Many thanks, Alan, and best birthday wishes to you!

May 24, 2010 at 10:21 am 2 comments

Media Computation and BPC-Related Workshops this Summer

Workshops on Media Computation and related topics on creating engaging introductions to computing are being offered this summer. The goal of these workshops is to encourage teacher innovation in broadening participation in computing by exploring new ways to introduce computing. The workshops are mainly aimed at undergraduate faculty, but are open to high school teachers as well. Details are available at

  • June 14-15 in Amherst, MA: Workshop on “From Visual Programing to Media: Approaches to Starting Computing” including Scratch, Alice, and Media Computation. Hosted by Rick Adrion, Deborah Boisvert, and Renee Fall of CAITE, and co-sponsored by the CAITE and “Georgia Computes!” NSF BPC Alliances.
  • June 16-18 in Cambridge, MA: Workshop on “Media Computation,” hosted by John Sanders of Suffolk University. Funding from NSF CCLI.
  • July 5-6 at The College of New Jersey (Ewing, NJ): Workshop on “Media Computation,” hosted by Peter DePasquale. Funding from NSF CCLI.
  • July 7-9 at Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA): Workshop on “Media Computation,” hosted by Manuel A. Perez-Quinones, Fudning from NSF CCLI and the NSF BPC Alliance “Georgia Computes!”

All of the “Media Computation” workshops this summer are including some content based on the “Exploring Wonderland” (Dann, Cooper, & Ericson, 2009) work combining Alice and Media Computation.

The workshops are free with generous travel stipends. Meals at the workshop are covered by the sponsors. Lodging and airfare funding is available for participants from outside the region.

Details on the workshop, including how to register, are available at Thanks to all the hosts for making arrangements for these workshops!

May 20, 2010 at 2:51 pm Leave a comment

Albion College eliminates Computer Science

Budget cuts and low enrollment have led to this:

In similar letters from Paul Tobias (Chairman, Albion College Board of Trustees) sent to the Albion faculty and the Albion family, the Board of Trustees reported that they have eliminated computer science as a major at Albion College and that Albion College may continue to offer a computer science minor. In the process, an untenured Assistant Professor has been notified his position will be discontinued after the 2010-2011 academic year. The letter to students also indicated “Students who are currently enrolled in the affected programs will receive personalized advising to enable them to accomplish their academic goals and fulfill their graduation requirements for their major in a timely manner.”

via Albion College Math/CS – News.

In other news coverage, they detail the cuts overall:

Majors in computer science and physical education and minors in dance, journalism and physical education will not be part of the college’s curriculum moving forward — a reduction strategy that will eliminate about 12 courses, said Dr. Donna Randall, the college’s president.

via MLive news: Albion College officials defend decisions.

That comparison point really hit home.  Newspapers are dying, so journalism is less valued and on the chopping block.  Okay, I get that.  Physical education is the least rigorous field of education to prepare teachers for, so if you have to chop one, that’s the least valued.  And computer science is in that group.

To me, this is a sign of the dire straits of computer science and university budgets these days.  More than that, it’s a sign that computing literacy among the general public is at an all time low.  The uproar about these decisions is that they were made by a governing board, against the wishes of the faculty.  This governing board sees computer science as being so useless, so lacking in value?  The board made this decision based on “”how do we best prepare our students for meaningful … work in the 21st century?” What do they think computer science is?

May 20, 2010 at 7:23 am 6 comments

Harvey Mudd’s Breadth Intro Course presented at NCWIT

The National Center for Women and IT (NCWIT) is having their annual meeting this week in Portland, OR.  Barb’s there, as co-chair of the K-12 Alliance. I’m normally there, representing Georgia Tech in the Academic Alliance, but it’s also the last week of school for our kids, so I’m here in Atlanta doing things like chaperoning kids end-of-year parties.

One of the activities for the Academic Alliance this week is a roll-out of a new case study on the success that Harvey Mudd has had in increasing the enrollment of women in Computer Science.  Harvey Mudd’s approach has several parts, not all of which is curricular.  For example, they take a bunch of female students out to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, which is a huge boost to motivation and engagement with the field.

Harvey Mudd is also developing a new introductory course that aims at covering a broad range of concepts in computer science.  Their goal is to create a “CS for Scientists” course, that emphasizes the role of CS in science, and the study of computing as a science.  They are working from automata and assembly language, up through robotics and Python.  There’s a meta-site for the course that describes the content, publications on the course and its assessment, and links to some of the websites for instantiations of the course.  (Thanks to Christine Alvarado for providing the URL to the meta-site.)

May 19, 2010 at 12:45 pm 1 comment

Being in charge of education at a research university

I was Director of Undergraduate Programs for a while here in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech.  I recognize my job in some of the comments in the below referenced article.

This article talks about the amount of time demanded by the job, and that was certainly my experience.  A bigger issue for me was being in charge of education at a research university.  Many faculty at research universities love to teach and care a lot about it.  But the purpose of a research university is research, and nobody gets tenured or promoted for being a great teacher.  Being in charge of the least important thing is not a fun job.

I ate up those 40 hours before the semester even started. The rest of it came out of my hide. Don’t get me wrong — I love teaching. I even love higher education. But being a teaching chair is the second most thankless job in the industry. I’m convinced that being a dean or associate dean is the first most thankless job.

via Career Advice: Demotion or Promotion? – Inside Higher Ed.

May 19, 2010 at 9:00 am 2 comments

Time to figure out high-quality online education

Dean Edley (below) is right.  Online education is not high quality today.  It is time for the big name Universities to figure out how to do it right, how to get it perceived as being high-quality.  I see the value in the open source education movement, but the real trick is turning that into credentialed degree programs that will be recognized as high-quality.

“Somebody is going to figure out how to deliver online education for credit and for degrees in the quality sector—i.e., in the elite sector,” said Christopher Edley Jr., dean at Berkeley’s law school and the plan’s most prominent advocate. “I think it ought to be us—not MIT, not Columbia, not Caltech, certainly not Stanford.”

But UC’s ambitions face a series of obstacles. The system has been slow to adopt online instruction despite its deep connections to Silicon Valley. Professors hold unusually tight control over the curriculum, and many consider online education a poor substitute for direct classroom contact. As a result, courses could take years to gain approval.

via In Crisis, U. of California Outlines a Grand and Controversial Online Learning Plan – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

May 19, 2010 at 8:55 am 2 comments

HyperCard-like revMobile won’t be on iPad

RunRev, which produces a cross-platform HyperCard-superset tool (e.g., you get HyperTalk and stacks and cards, plus Web and other media enhancements), had announce RevMobile for iPhone and iPads.  The new Apple announcement nixes that, despite Steve Jobs’ announcement that he’d love HyperCard for the iPad.  If they’re interpreting the agreement right, one can’t use tools that generate Objective-C, C++, or JavaScript.

As you may know, on the 8th of April, Apple changed the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, which impacts our development of revMobile. The new agreement added a clause which required that applications be originally written in Objective-C, C++ or JavaScript. As revMobile applications are originally written in revTalk, not in one of these languages, their policy changes effectively prohibit revMobile on the iPhone/iPad. The new clause also prohibits frameworks and compatibility layers, which also describes revMobile in its present form.

via RunRev Blog | RunRev.

May 17, 2010 at 12:40 pm 3 comments

Teach for America as a finger in the dyke

A really interesting, critical article about Teach for America.  The author praises the exuberance of the TFA students and the importance of gaining their involvement in solving critical educational problems.  On the other hand, the author points out that TFA can take jobs away from long-term teachers, and that TFA recruits aren’t all that well prepared (Quote: Helen Sherman, associate dean of teacher preparation at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has a number of professional concerns about TFA’s model: “It’s a pretend band-aid, a quick fix to make it look like they are doing something. But, honest to God, these kids aren’t prepared.”)  The concern is that the quick-fix may mask (and not correct) the larger problems and may prevent the larger problems from ever getting addressed.

This is relevant for us because a TFA model has been discussed as one way of getting 10K high school CS teachers by 2015.  The question is, “What happens in 2017 when those kids’ two year stint is up?”  The bigger question is how to build a sustained, multiple-course, high school computer science curriculum in our nations’ schools.  Can we build that in 10K schools with under-trained new graduates in only two years?

Barnett Berry, head of the Center for Teaching Quality, based in North Carolina, knows that too many urban kids are taught by ill-prepared substitutes. And it is a problem that TFA, in a finger-in-the-dyke approach, can help solve: “They can provide a teacher that the kids might not have otherwise, because the alternative could be a substitute with barely a college education. It’s not a question of whether we shouldn’t draw upon a bright, young, energetic group of people. Of course we should.”

“But,” Berry continues, “to suggest that TFA is the solution to the nation’s teaching quality gap is misguided at best.”

Berry likens the TFA recruits to sprinters—talented athletes, but insufficient if one wants to build a well-rounded track team. “TFA gets its recruits ready for a sprint, not a 10K or a marathon,” Berry notes. “They look like they are working harder than the veteran teachers. But the veteran teacher has experience and knows that if you want to make a career of teaching, a sprinting pace will burn you out.”

via Teaching for America.

May 17, 2010 at 9:24 am 5 comments

Texting is a distraction, and hours matter.

I see a sharp contrast in news articles the last few days about what it takes to teach today’s kids.  On the one hand, hours matter.  We see that in the article below, and in popular books like Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers.

Students at Boston charter schools appear to have an academic edge over their peers at the city’s traditional schools because of the additional time they spend in school each year, according to a report being released today.

The extra time in charter schools, roughly 378 hours annually, allows students to receive significantly more instruction in English and math and creates opportunities for them to receive tutoring during the school day, according to the report by the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that supports charter schools and also works with the city school system on improvement efforts.

via Charter schools gain edge from hours, says study – The Boston Globe.

Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reviews a new book that says that today’s kids multitask and we should change the way we teach them in order to support that habit.

But Rosen’s own daughter — valedictorian of her high school and now a Yale student — did her homework while watching television, listening to her iPod and trading text messages with friends, says Rosen, author of the new book “Rewired,” which examines how the iGeneration — children born in the 1990s and beyond — learn.

A longtime researcher on the impact of technology, Rosen says we are faced with a new breed of learners for whom doing more than one thing at a time is a way of life.

“This is a generation that has multi-tasked from birth and that is what they do from morning to night,” he says.

via Wired from the Womb: “We are looking at a generation that can’t not text.”

In the review of Rosen’s book, no evidence is provided that the electronic distractions didn’t inhibit performance.  Yes, his daughter was a valedictorian.  Having smart parents will do that.  Might she have learned more without the distractions?

I don’t disagree with the premise that YouTube and texting and Wikipedia offer learning opportunities.  I disagree with the belief that this multitasking doesn’t cost, that there is no cognitive load, that one can perform as well with the distractions as without them.  Spending more time on something important (from studying to rehearsal) helps. Texting and YouTube take time. If the raw number of study hours do not increase, then time spent texting is time spent away from studying. Yes, I believe that social interaction can support learning.  I don’t believe that all that texting is helpful to learning.

As a parent and as a knowledge-worker, these are issues that I personally struggle with.  My middle child sent 13,000 texts last month.  Yeah. Do the math.  That’s unbelievable.  As parents, we struggle with where we allow her to text and where we insist on schoolwork without distractions.  For myself, I have decided to dump my Blackberry in favor of a plain cellphone (with keyboard, so that I can still communicate with my texting children).  I’ve ordered an iPad with 3G, because I do see the value of getting to the Internet and my email at places where a laptop is inconvenient.  Over a two year contract, it’s a slight cost advantage to go with iPad and 3G vs. the Blackberry.  (The experiment is starting early — I cancelled my corporate Blackberry account Saturday, so I can no longer access Exchange via my Blackberry, but my iPad won’t arrive until early June!)  I am concerned that having the Internet in my pocket is more a distraction than a benefit.  Do I really need to check email in every 10 minute interval?  Do I need the distraction in meetings or while driving?  How does such ready access detract from my experiences and my work?

As a techie-geeky guy, this is a strange step.  I’m making a move away from ubiquitous access, from ever more computing at my beck-and-call?  It’s an experiment for me, a choice in favor of reflection over distraction, maybe a choice that leads to increased frustration and boredom.  (This doesn’t mean I have to listen in faculty meetings, does it?!?)  There are some bigger things I want to get done over the next couple years, and so I’m acting on my belief that decreasing multi-tasking leads to better performance.  If next time you see me, I’m jittery like an addict, it might not be too much caffeine.

May 17, 2010 at 9:13 am 7 comments

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