Technology plus policy for scale

June 22, 2010 at 10:53 am 13 comments

I’m at the University of California at Berkeley for an ACM Education Council meeting this week.  Yesterday, we heard a slew of reports: On what the SIGs (from SIGCHI to SIGGRAPH to SIGPLAN) are doing in education, on the latest in the common core initiative, to what’s going on at CSTA.  Mehran Sahami gave an overview of Stanford’s new CS Curriculum, and Andy van Dam presented his report from CRA-E (which he’ll do again at Snowbird.)  (Both Mehran and Andy’s talks emphasized the role of context in motivating computing and in supporting learning about connections between computing and contexts that we want students to learn.)

The highlight of the day for me was a panel that Dan Garcia organized on the challenges and future of computing education, considered across the education pipeline.  The speakers were:

  • Michelle Friend Hutton, middle school CS teacher and president of CSTA.
  • Josh Paley, a high school CS teacher in Palo Alto (high end school).
  • Eugene Lemon, a high school CS teacher from Oakland, CA (where four of their students were killed this year, including one of his AP CS students who was about to become the first student from their school to ever go on to a four year college).
  • Tom Murphy, a community college professor (who teaches C++ and Scheme, and whose goal is for his students to not have to re-take anything when they get to Berkeley).
  • David Patterson, a famous Berkeley professor and past president of ACM.

Dave went last, and expressed pessimism that the problems of K-12 CS education could ever be solved.  That was quite a gauntlet to throw down, so the Q&A session afterward was long (was scheduled for 30 minutes, and went on for over an hour) and active.  Roscoe Giles of Boston University encouraged us to think not only about solutions, but about solutions that scale.  Teaching CS in K-12 is a huge problem.  Eric Roberts of Stanford (with Dave Patterson agreeing) suggested that technology is really our only possible solution to the problem — we have to be able to use the technology we teach about, to teach about technology better.

I wanted to throw in a follow-on comment.  I strongly agree with Eric and Dave that technology is key, but I think that education policy is a critical component.  The CS10K project is about having 10,000 high school CS teachers ready to teach AP in 10K schools by 2015.  We have 2,000 high school CS AP teachers today.  We can’t possibly increase five-fold the number of teachers without distance education — we can’t ramp up face-to-face programs fast enough.

But what happens in 2020?  Lijun Ni’s research (based on studies of other STEM fields) suggests that we’ll have maybe 5K teachers left of that original 10K.  STEM teachers tend to drop out at a higher rate than other K-12 teachers, around 50% within five years.  What influences teachers staying?  Having a sense of belonging which is influenced by certification (e.g., teachers who are certified in science call themselves “science teachers” and tend to seek out professional development and community) and support systems.  Unless there is certification, and high school CS curricula (e.g., more than AP classes defined and being taught), and a community of CS teachers, we can expect to lose more than half those teachers in the first five years.

So technology is necessary to get the scale Roscoe is calling for, but so is policy to keep those teachers at scale.

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bradley Beth  |  June 22, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    “STEM teachers tend to drop out at a higher rate than other K-12 teachers, around 50% within five years. What influences teachers staying? Having a sense of belonging which is influenced by certification (e.g., teachers who are certified in science call themselves “science teachers” and tend to seek out professional development and community) and support systems.”

    Agreed. The UTeach program here at UT Austin has a track record of 70% retention rate after 5 years vs. 50% nationally. [ref (pdf)]

    I personally think that beyond being certified in science, but also being trained in science (i.e., a degree in a science rather than education) contributes most to this success. Rather than supplement pedagogy specialization with science training, it’s done the other way around. The result is that the integration of the two is done throughout. There really isn’t a need for a traditional ‘methods’ course because the two disciplines are not taught in a mutually exclusive way and then bridged together.

    So, although attrition is inevitable, that 50% figure is not hard-coded. There are lots of ‘experimental’ certification programs out there with varying degrees of success that can and should be leveraged as models for certification policy. UTeach is now being replicated at 21 universities across the nation [ref], with each state education agency having to allow some movement in requirements to accommodate the model. Hopefully, any improvements in induction and retention rates will be reflected in subsequent policy decisions and implemented more systemically.

    ASIDE: This feels like an engineering approach to policy-making. Tinker here, tweak there, test, adjust, and repeat.

    Texas has pretty strong certification requirements for teaching computer science. UTeach has certified CS teachers from the beginning — however, only 7 in the past 13 years. We are only now targeting CS majors, largely because of the CS10k initiative. And they’ve responded. Enrollments in the program are way up among CS majors. But really, it requires a leap of faith on our part that the demand/jobs will be there and policy will be more amenable to K-12 CS. That’s a HUGE problem, after all, training people for a non-existent career path is a disservice to them.

    That being said, I do have faith in the CS Ed community (CSTA, particularly) in advocating for policy change and also in making K-12 CS Ed more meaningful to students. (ACM Model Curriculum and AP CS Principles). I think the problem can be solved, it just requires a confluence of fortune among supply (certification), demand (curriculum), and focus (policy).

    Reply
  • 2. Alan Kay  |  June 22, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Isn’t Dave (Patterson) saying that for most modern subjects it will have to be technology that does the teaching?

    This is a mismatch right now, but it is imaginable that (say) 20 years from now we will have developed a “Teaching and Coaching UI” that will do better than most K-12 teachers today in STEMC subjects.

    If possible, then this completely blows away the really difficult problems we have today about getting enough knowledgeable teachers (I don’t think this route actually computes anymore, and I think this was what Dave is alluding to).

    Social dimensions (various kinds of motivations, etc.) will still be a big difficult factor ….

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply
    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  June 22, 2010 at 6:14 pm

      Hi Alan,

      I don’t know. Dave was mostly agreeing with Eric, who raised the issue of using technology to deal with our education problems. He may have meant that we’d simply use technology and do without the teachers, as you suggest.

      Cheers,
      Mark

      Reply
      • 4. Lisa Kaczmarczyk  |  June 23, 2010 at 6:05 pm

        I’m scratching my head on this one. Why would anyone involved in STEM education suggest that technology should take over for teachers? Is this really possibly what was meant? I assumed at first that you were going in the direction of saying that the conversation was about how we needed more distance ed programs to educate educators. Ok, I can go along with that; quality distance ed is def. possible and reaches a lot of non traditional students. But use technology to teach instead of people to teach? What kind of message would THAT send to students, parents, everyone else in the general public about the role of computers and computing?

        Reply
  • 5. Alfred Thompson  |  June 23, 2010 at 11:16 am

    There is a shortage of qualified teachers to teach high school (and younger) students about computer science. Who cares?
    Wel I care of course and probably most people who read this blog care. But who else? A few people at NSF, a few people at a few companies, CSTA, a few people at a few universities, a few people at ACM – basically a few people at a few places. We’re not going to solve it alone.

    Does the US department of Education care? I see no real reason to belive so. Likewise it doesn’t seem to be on the radar of many state departments of education. Georgia and Texas perhaps but even there it is a struggle at too many times.

    As I see it that has to change for us to have long lasting change. Universities have to say “we look for CS courses on a transcript as a plus.” We need departments of education to say that CS, not applications, is something students should have or at least to make clear a place for them in graduation requirements.

    We also need curriculum support and teacher certification. Trying to get those things before policy change is a losing battle in most states. I am not optomistic.

    Reply
  • 6. Alan Kay  |  June 23, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    The printed book is a technology that allows some of what is special about a Socrates, a Feynman, and other great minds who were also great teachers, etc., to be replicated far beyond any ability of society to create great human teachers.

    This created mass education because “an ordinary teacher with books” could do something that “ordinary teachers/people without books” could not do.

    In the 19th century in the US, this tradeoff was more understood than it is now, and quite a bit of early education was aimed at producing fluent readers who could learn many things on their own with books.

    This was also the main basis of the Carnegie Libraries, because Andrew Carnegie was a child laborer who could read, and educated himself via having the luck of a boss who opened his home library to workers. Every Carnegie library had two special rooms besides the stacks and other normal kinds of library rooms. One was a learning to read room, and Carnegie’s donation for the library supported teachers of reading to use that room, and the other was a special room for children to learn.

    I’m very partial to this route for learning because it is the way I did most of my learning as a child. You don’t get everything a great teacher can give you from a great book, but you can almost always get more than you would from no teacher, a bad teacher, and even many good teachers.

    Without having to go into the AI questions about whether or not you could make “a Socrates AI”, it is very reasonable to try to make a UI that can bridge some of the gaps between what great humans can do and what great books can do.

    For example, what do you think of the idea that a computer could actually teach a child how to read and write? Or to teach science ideas better than a science book, and much better than most teachers in the US who have no useful knowledge of science?

    As with printing, it’s not whether you can get to all of “Socrates”, but whether you can get to important parts of “Socrates” that will make a difference for learners.

    Most (not all) of the teachers I had hated that I read hundreds of books a year. And most (not all) teachers will hate the idea of a UI that can really help children to learn. But I care about the children more.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

    Reply
    • 7. Briana Morrison  |  June 28, 2010 at 12:58 pm

      Alan,
      I don’t disagree with you, but you must admit that you are (and probably weren’t as a child) the “norm”. I agree that anyone can get much more out of a book than a bad teacher, but how many students today are motivated enough to read those books on their own? As a parent of a child who also reads hundreds of books a year, and parent of a child who reads only what is assigned to him and not one page more, I can attest to the wide variation in motivation in two of “today’s” students. However both my children have been motivated to learn things outside their “comfort zone” by excellent teachers.

      I would argue that unless we find a way to make the UI equally as motivating as the best CS teachers today, we will not have reached our goal (or our potential). This is where I think the real difficulty lies in using technology to solve the CS education problem. How do you make learning something that is (by all accounts) inherently difficult, motivating to the average student that already has difficulty with math and seeing the relevance of math in their “real life”?

      Reply
      • 8. Alan Kay  |  June 28, 2010 at 1:27 pm

        Hi Briana,

        And I heartily agree with you on all your points.

        The learner-coach ratio is at its best in the the home (but not all homes are set up well for the children, and not all parents are great as teachers and motivators) — but this route is not used nearly enough today.

        Part of the reason for schools was to even out differences in what parents could do (or wanted to do) for their children. And, as you know, the theory has always been to have a real partnership between school and home.

        And television has been devastating in many ways, most of them not understood by either parents or schools.

        For some time it has been possible to combine great children’s books with an O.K. Moore kind of user interface to help them to learn to read and write. One way to think of this is to let the great content in the great book be part of the motivator and to have the UI do what is needed to help the child love the book and learn to read.

        The SF Exploratorium was originally set up as “500 different interfaces” to teach one idea, and it would be interesting to know what percentage of children respond to none of these.

        I do think that whatever the subject, if it is supposed to be learned by the general population (like reading) rather than just to those super interested (like baseball), then there will have to be many UI approaches plus some motivation from adults (even if they don’t understand the subject matter very well).

        Cheers,

        Alan

        Reply
  • 9. Dave Patterson  |  June 25, 2010 at 11:17 am

    Let me start by saying I love teaching. My sister got her teaching credential, my nephew is music high school teacher, and my daughter-in-law’s father is a high school teacher and in charge for information technology education for a school district.

    My belief that the K-12 CS education problem is practically unsolvable for the next 10-20 years in the US is based on:

    • No room in the high-school curriculum for CS. College bound students want to take AP-everything, so they have very little flexibility in their schedules. The comments at the meeting where that we should just get a statewide requirement passed that mandates teaching of CS. What current topic should we drop? Physics? Biology? Math? English? History? Good luck convincing a state school board or your colleagues on campus that CS is more important for the future of our citizens than these topics. Part of their arguments against CS would be how can you get high quality of teachers for CS that they have demonstrated they can get at scale for their topics.
    • Low pay for new teachers. Once a young person knows enough about CS to be a good teacher of the material, they can dramatically increase their income by taking an IT job. Their love of teaching would have to outweigh their need to support their families. In addition, they will probably receive a layoff notice in their first few years, just in case their are not enough funds, whether or not they are really laid off. This letter has to make one wonder if this is a good long-term career. Fixing this problem is a major societal change in the US, and until its fixed its basically a Catch-22, leaving us with a relatively small number of heroic competent K12 teachers.
    • Changing education policy is hard and takes a long time, and there is little reason to believe you will succeed. This is a state by state, school district by school district level of change involving many advocacy groups. If you think all you need is logical arguments to win the day, look at the resurfacing of alternatives to evolution in the classroom.
    • Most proposed solutions don’t scale. There are roughly 50,000 high schools and 80,000 elementary schools and middle schools in the US. Whatever you are proposing, think about the time scale your innovation would take to affect 10% of these schools. That would mean that 90% students are left out. How long before your proposal would help 50%? 90%?

    These points are why I agree with Alan Kay that the most plausible path forward is some kind of online tutor / assistant that could help teach the ideas big ideas about CS.

    Basically, for the US we need solutions that leverage Moore’s Law to scale to the size of the problem we have. A goal could be to provide technology so that parents and/or math and/or physics teachers can supplement what students do in the classroom such an online assistant.

    Here are my reasons why I think online assistant is plausible now despite its sorry 20th century track record:

    • The successes of open source software and Wikipedia. The ability of volunteers to create interesting and high quality material has been demonstrated many times in our field. I see no reason why this couldn’t happen for education assistants.
    • Cloud Computing means there need not be a local administrator running local hardware. This was a major problem with old hardware and out of date software given limited budgets. The remarkably low cost of nearly infinitely scalable computing is a godsend for K-12.
    • Cell phones mean everyone can have access.
      Half of the people on the planet have cell phones, and they are increasingly becoming smart. Cell phone are so popular that schools have policies banning them, as opposed to bake sales trying to raise funds to buy some PCs. Tablets and netbooks are further lowering the costs of getting something with a bigger screen; basically, all the software is in the Cloud.

    • WiFi makes “wiring” a school trivial. Even coffeeshops offer free WiFi, so its trivial for campuses to have them also.
    • Highly productive programming environments for Software as a Service lowers the difficult of creating online teaching services and more people can build them. Frameworks like Ruby on Rails are remarkably productive, and fun to use. Hundreds of thousands of people today can build services, and scale them up if needed using Cloud Computing.
    • Crowdsourcing to help with online questions. The success of Mechanical Turk and Wikipedia, where people do a lot of work for no or remarkably little money, suggest that there are many people who could answer questions that would come up naturally from people trying to learn from an online assistant. Hence, online assistants may end up in reality being hybrids of computers doing what they do well with online people doing what computers don’t do well.
    • Our material lends itself to online teaching and evaluation. While making an assistant for English is probably an AI-hard problem, we have the advantage of being able to run programs to see if they work or not. And their is lots of technology developed and being developed for testing and debugging.
    • The current trend of standardized testing in the US may lend itself to online assistants. This was Roscoe Giles’ argument, who was at the meeting. Leaving aside whether standardized tests are good or not, it seems like an online assistant could help students for many fields improve their scores on these tests. Hence, online assistants could get an early positive reviews because of their help in schools where they are deployed. Hence, there is a window of opportunity with a clear measure of success to demonstrate what we do can help K-12.

    Let me finally wrap up. While I am pessimistic about getting high quality material taught by high quality K-12 teachers in US in the next decade or two, I am optimistic that a major online effort could scale and have a positive impact on a large fraction of the K-12 students within a decade.

    If we can create technology that allows billions of people to search all the data online and get useful answers in less than a second for free, I see no obvious reason why we can’t dramatically improve IT education for anyone in the world with a cell phone by 2020.

    Reply
    • 10. Alan Kay  |  June 25, 2010 at 11:48 am

      Nice analysis and presentation Dave!

      These are very much my thoughts also about this, and about several other fields that — as you point out — have enough modeling of their content to allow decent feedback assessment by the system using many modes of presentation.

      Thinking of the “coaching UI” as being a dynamic next stage of what well written books have brought to humanity is a good way to deal with the intermediate ground between humans and the still long off “decent AI”.

      Cheers,

      Alan

      Reply
  • […] 25, 2010 Dave Patterson kindly visited and commented on the post on Technology plus policy for scale. Heroically, he typed a multi-screen-full response, in raw HTML, in the little comment box. I […]

    Reply
  • 12. CRA-E report now available « Computing Education Blog  |  August 4, 2010 at 11:06 am

    […] of CS Education was presented and released at the Snowbird meeting last month.  I blogged on Andy’s presentation of the report at the ACM Ed Council meeting earlier in the summer. Basic Computing Knowledge: Andy van Dam from Brown University presented the […]

    Reply
  • […] quite an accomplishment. Brian’s work is very important for the CS10K effort, because (as I’ve argued previously) on-line learning is critical to achieve that […]

    Reply

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