Dave Patterson on fixing high school CS education
Dave Patterson kindly visited and commented on the post on Technology plus policy for scale. Heroically, he typed a long response, in raw HTML, in the little comment box. I wanted to make sure the comment didn’t get overlooked, so I’m sharing it here as a guest post.
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.
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