Archive for July, 2010

AAAS evaluates NSF BPC Alliances

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has just released their report evaluating the NSF Broadening Participation in Computing alliances, including our own “Georgia Computes!

Telling the Stories of the BPC Alliances: How One NSF Program Is Changing the Face of Computing” was released online this week. The report states that while the number of students pursuing computer science degrees has declined nationally, institutions participating in the NSF Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program “are defying the national trends … with cohorts of underserved students being reached, gaining confidence and skills, and making progress towards degrees and careers in computing.”

via AAAS – AAAS News Release – “AAAS Report Finds NSF Alliance Initiative Boosts Computing Degrees; Minority Participation”.

July 30, 2010 at 11:08 am Leave a comment

If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged. | Geek Feminism Blog

The argument being posed here is a natural step from the one made by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.  If Bill Gates and Bill Joy got a leg up in the IT industry because of their early exposure to computing, then it stands to reason that those demographic groups who get access to computing first get a similar leg up on success.  Race and gender play a role in who gets access to computing first.

While that’s all true, I don’t think that access is the whole story.  As my earlier post today on digital natives points out, having access to technology doesn’t equate with thinking about it as more than a consumer of the technology.  While access to technology is a necessary condition for that leg up on success, it’s not sufficient.

A child’s gender modulates how her parents invest in their child’s education, as mentioned earlier. For example, girls, on average, typically receive their first computer at age 19, as opposed to boys at age 15. Note that age 19 is no longer high school, but university, when undergraduates have already chosen their major. If women typically receive their first computer as adults, and boys typically receive their first computer as children, then of course there is going to be a gender gap in CS enrollment.

Computer geek culture generally ignores issues of class privilege and male privilege when it comes to computer access, upholding a ranking system that mistakes the social privileges of affluent white males for inborn geek inclinations.

via If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged. | Geek Feminism Blog.

July 30, 2010 at 10:03 am 1 comment

So-Called ‘Digital Natives’ Not Media Savvy –

I’ve heard many teachers and faculty talk about their current students as “digital natives” who have uncanny facility with modern technology.  Some teachers have asked me if teaching these students computer science at an introductory level even makes sense, given their acumen with the technology.  The reality is that use is not the same as understanding, and ability to consume media is not the same as the ability to produce media.

The study discussed below in the NYTimes highlights that digital natives may not even be good consumers of media.  They don’t question the sources of the material they’re consuming.  Andrea Forte explored similar issues of information literacy in her work exploring how students cited sources and built arguments for their positions in wiki spaces.

It’s synchronicity that today Georgia Tech is highlighting the Glitch Game Project in their Digital Lounge pages.  The Glitch project, by Betsy diSalvo and Amy Bruckman, deals directly with one of these consumer/producer dichotomies: African-American teen men are among the most game-playing demographics in American society, yet they’re among the least represented in computer science programs.  Being interested in playing the technology doesn’t equate with interest or facility in making the technology.  Betsy’s great insight is that learning to be game-testers is a terrific bridge from game-player to game-maker.  In a sense, Betsy is teaching her students exactly the issue of information literacy discussed in the NYTimes piece below — it’s about having a critical eye about the technology.

So, to all those teachers worried about being made obsolete by digital natives, rest easy.  You have a LOT to teach them.

A new study coming out of Northwestern University, discovered that college students have a decided lack of Web savvy, especially when it comes to search engines and the ability to determine the credibility of search results. Apparently, the students favor search engine rankings above all other factors. The only thing that matters is that something is the top search result, not that it’s legit.

During the study, one of the researchers asked a study participant, “What is this website?” The student answered, “Oh, I don’t know. The first thing that came up.”

via So-Called ‘Digital Natives’ Not Media Savvy, New Study Shows –

July 30, 2010 at 9:45 am 7 comments

What’s Wrong With the American University System – The Atlantic

The Atlantic this week interviews Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus about how higher education in America is “wasting our money and failing our kids.”  I found the interview fascinating, and their critiques are often spot-on.  Where I think they missed is the last part of the subtitle of their new book “Higher Education?” and that is “And what we can do about it.”  I find their proposals to be unconvincing, like this one quoted below.  To get everyone to think more and focus on vocations less, we should have everyone get a liberal arts degree and not try to get jobs coming out of college. They dislike majors in engineering or business (or computer science?).  (They explicitly say that they want kids to go spend a year working at Costco or Walmart after graduation.)  That just doesn’t make economic sense.  I can’t imagine how we could get there from here, and the authors don’t really paint a vision for how to do it, either.

One of your more controversial points is the idea that every student should major in liberal arts. You’re not fans of majors like engineering or business that try to set a student up for a career right after college.

There are two ways to look at it. First of all, freshmen come in at age 18. Let’s suppose they’ve decided to major in sports management. What’s an 18-year-old going to do in a freshman course in sports management? I’ve attended some undergraduate business courses. The students are young; they don’t have business experience. Really very little is imparted.

The second way to look at it is that liberal arts, properly conceived, means wrestling with issues and ideas, putting the mind to work in a way these young people will only be able to do for these four years. And we’d like this for everyone. They can always learn vocational things later, on the job. They can even get an engineering degree later—by the way, in two years rather than four.

via What’s Wrong With the American University System – Culture – The Atlantic.

July 29, 2010 at 2:45 pm 5 comments

How much do we really need geeks?

That’s the lead question in this article from the Revolution ( newsletter.  The arguments being made (especially about computer scientists not caring about users) are similar to those that Brian Dorn heard from graphics designers, in explaining why they didn’t take computer science courses.  I found fascinating the first argument, that elegance and “best practice” have no place in the actual workplace.

There is a vast gulf between theoretical, “best practice” programming, as taught on many degree courses, and actual programming in the workplace. You may be taught that a certain thing should be done in such a way, or you should never use method xyz, but in practice you may be given a deadline of a week to produce something that “should” take three weeks, and you have to find a way to produce it. Quick and dirty hacks become more explicable in these circumstances. Then there is the difference between producing something satisfying to mind of a programmer, and something that an end user can actually use and understand. It may be the smart and logical way to do it, but if the end user can’t grasp it, its not especially valuable.

via Computer Science in the Workplace | revUp 97.

July 28, 2010 at 4:07 pm 9 comments

Education (even kindergarten) matters

Fascinating new economic analysis from the NYTimes. The impact of having a good kindergarten class and teacher fades in junior high — then returns as an adult.  In fact, it can be shown to have direct impact on how much the adults earn!  Education, even kindergarten, matters.

Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

All else equal, they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.

via Economic Scene – Study Rethinks Importance of Kindergarten Teachers –

July 28, 2010 at 12:49 pm 4 comments

In Defense of Lecture

Lectures have a black eye on college campuses today.  We’re told that they are useless, and that they are ineffective with out “explicit constructionism.” We’re told to use active learning techniques in lecture, like clickers.  I’m realizing that there’s nothing wrong with lecture itself, and that the psychology results tell us that lectures should be a highly efficient form of learning.  The problem is that there is an interaction between lecture as learning intervention and our students. That is an education (or broadly, a learning science) result, and it’s important to note the distinction between education (as instructional engineering, as psychology-in-practice) and psychology.

I just served on a Psychology Masters thesis committee.  In 2009, Micki Chi published a paper where she posited a sequence of learning approaches: From passive, to active, to constructive.  She suggested that moving along the sequence resulted in better learning. While her paper drew on lots of dyad comparison studies between two of those styles of learning, nobody had compared all three in a single experiment.  This Masters student tested all three at once. He put subjects into one of three conditions:

  • Passive: Where students simply read a text on ecology drawn from a Sophomore-level textbook.
  • Active: Where students either (a) highlighted text of interest or (b) copy-pasted key sections into “Notes.”
  • Constructive: Where students either (a) created self-explanations of the text or (b) created questions about the text.

He had a test on the content immediately after the training, and another a week later.  Bottomline: No difference on either test. But the Masters student was smarter than just leaving it at that.  He also asked students to self-report on what they were thinking about when they read the text, like “I identified the most important ideas” or “I summarized (to myself) the text” (both signs of “active” cognition in Chi’s paper), or “I connected the text to ideas I already knew” or “I made hypotheses or predictions about the text” (“constructive” level).  Those self-reported higher-levels of cognitive processing were highly correlated with the test scores.  Micki Chi called these “potential covert activities” in these kinds of studies.  That’s a bit of a misnomer, because in reality, it’s those “covert” activities that you’re really trying to engender in the students!

The problem is that Georgia Tech students (the subjects in the study) are darn smart and well-practiced learners.  Even when “just reading” a text, they think about it, explain it to themselves, and summarize it to themselves.  They think about it, and that’s where the learning comes from.  All the “active learning” activities can help with engendering these internal cognitive activities, but they’re not necessary.

Lectures are a highly-efficient form of teaching.  Not only do they let us reach many students at once, but they play upon important principles of instructional design like the modality effect.  Hearing information while looking at related pictures (e.g., diagrams on Powerpoint slides) can allow for better learning (more information in less time) than just reading a book on your own.  Coding live in lecture is a “best practice” in teaching computer science. I don’t dispute all the studies about lectures, however — lectures don’t usually work.  Why?

We add active learning opportunities to lectures because students don’t usually learn that much from a 90 minute lecture. Why? Because it takes a lot of effort to keep learning constructively during a 90 minute lecture.  Because most students (especially undergraduates) are not great learners.  This doesn’t have anything to do with the cognitive processes of learning.  It has everything about motivation, affect, and sustained effort to apply those cognitive processes of learning.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that most of these studies of lectures take place with WEIRD students: “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic cultures.”  A recent study in the journal Science shows that many of our studies based on WEIRD students break down when the same studies are used with students from different cultures.  Maybe WEIRD students are lazy or inexperienced at focused learning effort. Maybe students in other cultures could focus for 90 whole minutes.  In any case, I teach WEIRD students, and our studies of WEIRD students show that lectures don’t work for them.

There’s another aspect of this belief that lectures don’t work.  I attended talks at education conferences lately where the speaker announces that “Lectures don’t work” and proceeds to engage the audience in some form of active learning, like small group discussion.  I hate that.  I am a good learner.  I take careful notes, I review them and look up interesting ideas and referenced papers later, and if the lecture really captured my attention, I will blog on the lecture later to summarize it.  I take a multi-hour trip to attend a conference and hear this speaker, and now I have to talk to whatever dude happens to be sitting next to me? If you recognize that the complete sentence is “Lectures don’t work…for inexperienced or lazy learners,” then you realize that using “active learning” with professionals at a formal conference is insulting to your audience.  You are assuming that they can’t learn on their own, without your scaffolding.

When I was a student, I remember being taught “learning skills” which included how to take good notes and how to review those notes. I don’t know that those lessons worked, and it’s probably more effective to change lecture than to try to change all those students.  We do want our students to become better learners, and it’s worth exploring how to make that happen.  But let’s make sure that we’re clear in what we’re saying: Lectures don’t work for learning among our traditional American (at least) undergraduate students.  That’s not the same as saying that lectures don’t work for learning.

July 27, 2010 at 3:11 pm 21 comments

More evidence for aptitude-treatment interactions

More evidence that what works for lower ability students doesn’t always also work for the higher ability students.

In a post on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli ponders the findings of a recent study from the Institute of Education Sciences on charter schools, which found that charters serving poor or low-performing kids generally had a significant positive impact on math achievement, while those serving better-off students had a negative effect on both math and reading. One could joke, writes Petrilli, that “this is evidence that charters are closing the achievement gap: They are helping low-performing poor kids make gains, and affluent kids lose ground.” But what do these results actually signify? Petrilli reasons that unlike their urban counterparts, these largely suburban charters achieve excellent results in terms of student success in college and beyond, but aren’t focused on helping students pass state standardized tests. In comparison, student scores suffer, leading to a paradox in Petrilli’s view. “Show me a high-poverty charter school serving lots of poor and minority kids, and if its test scores don’t match the neighboring public school I’d say, ‘shut it down!’ Sure, it might be safer than the alternative, or more engaging, or better at developing a sense of belonging, or strong values, or well-being. But if its kids are learning less math and reading than the crappy public school down the street? Lock the doors!”

Via Race, class, and charter schools

July 25, 2010 at 12:38 pm 6 comments

What do scientists and engineers need to know about supercomputing?

“Anyone looking to do relevant computational work today in the sciences and engineering must have these skills,” said Urick.

To address this fundamental need, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) created a unique curriculum of courses for undergraduate and graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin. Offered through the College of Natural Sciences Division of Statistics and Scientific Computation, undergraduate students can complete coursework to earn a Certificate of Scientific Computation, while graduate students finish a Portfolio in Scientific Computation.

via Texas Advanced Computing Center: Building skills that count

It’s an interesting question. Given the importance of computational science, what do all scientists and engineers need to know about high-performance computing? That’s not the same as what everyone needs to know about computing. In some sense, the argument is that this is closer to vocational training, so it’s easier to sell.

July 25, 2010 at 10:57 am 8 comments

Cynical view: How do we get more college graduates?

The United States used to lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations.

“The growing education deficit is no less a threat to our nation’s long-term well-being than the current fiscal crisis,” Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, warned at a meeting on Capitol Hill of education leaders and policy makers, where he released a report detailing the problem and recommending how to fix it. “To improve our college completion rates, we must think ‘P-16’ and improve education from preschool through higher education.”

via Once a Leader, U.S. Lags in College Degrees –

I’m in a cynical mood this morning.  (It’s been a rough week.)

How can we get more people through college?  My base assumption is that public policy, like water and electricity, always takes the path of least resistance.

  • Option #1: As the College Board suggests, we can improve P-16. We do a massive overhaul of K-12 so that students come to college prepared and motivated.  Not only is that prohibitively expensive, but you’ll be spending most of your effort on improving education for the kids not going to college.  That’s not an effective application of money to improve this particular metric.
  • Option #2: Change college.  We can lower standards (most likely since it’s least expensive), or we can improve quality, engage students, and reward teaching as well as research.  While not requiring as broad a change as Option #1, it’s still quite expensive. College is expensive, and it’s not clear that we have enough seats in our colleges to get enough students in the system to budge those numbers that the NYTimes is complaining about.  And if we built more colleges, they would try to be research-focused (or at least, research-infused) which means less focus on teaching and more junior faculty being forced to churn out papers (even if nobody, not even the author, likes them) to make tenure.
  • Option #3: We create more on-line opportunities for higher-education.  They’re cheaper to offer, lower quality, and don’t require building more schools.  Nobody gets tenure for offering on-line courses.  Even fewer students will pass than in Option #2, but if we lower standards enough (and it’s just software!), we can make that happen,too.

Pretty obvious to me from this analysis which way public policy will likely go.

July 23, 2010 at 8:31 am 18 comments

Psychologists are from Kansas City, and Education Researchers are from Rio de Janeiro

Lately, I’ve been working with groups of psychologists and education researchers, listening to their stories, and watching how they negotiate their way around topics.  I came away with this new appreciation of how different the two fields are.  They’re not from two different planets, so the old “Mars vs. Venus” metaphor doesn’t work.  It’s more like they’re on the same planet, even same land mass, but different continents.  You can drive from one to the other, but it’d take some work.

Psychology is a real science.  They can measure things.  They can go deeper-and-deeper with their measurements, like the very cool fMRI work that’s going on now to do tracking of differences at the neural level.  They do interesting things, but more in the laboratory than in the messy classroom.

Education is big and messy and exciting.  It cares about such different things.  Education research wants to be a science, but it’s so hard to measure things exactly when you’re dealing with real human learning on learning objectives that are complex and necessarily vague.  So, replication and predictability (hallmarks of science) become nearly impossible.  Education researchers do experiments and do measure phenomena of interest, but the experiments are so different that psychologists (often, in discussions I’ve had, in my experience [insert several other caveats here]) don’t really understand the issues. For example, Education researchers are trying to convince teachers, so they are very worried about perceived bias, hence the use of external evaluators to do the data gathering and analyses.  Psychologists seem to mostly trust one another — if you said you collected this data, you probably did. (Maybe they should sit in more curriculum committee meetings?) Education researchers look at things like student attitudes and degree retention/attrition rates that don’t map to constructs that psychologists can’t measure with validated tests and fMRI.  Teachers often don’t have the background to understand the issues that the psychologists talk about, so education researchers have to use different language than psychologists.

I don’t get the sense that psychologists think badly of education researchers.  Education researchers just ask such different questions and work in such a different frame of reference.  Psychologists I’ve worked with often get ideas for interesting new experiments from the work of education researchers.

On the other hand, education researchers can find psychologists frustrating. The education researcher might say (making all this up to explain my point), “Wait! We already know about student learning on that topic! It works like this.” and the psychologist responds, “Well, we haven’t considered these four other possibilities, and we’ll need to do controlled experiments on each,” and the ed researcher pulls out his hair saying, “But that’s such a waste of time!”  Then the education researcher looks at the psychologists’ results and says, “How can you say that with so few subjects?” and the psychologist pulls out the power analysis and ANOVA and says, “See! It’s significant!” and the education researcher says, “But I have 150 students in my lecture, and I’m positive that my students would learn differently than that!”  Then the psychologist comes out with some really terrific nugget that a teacher could use to improve their teaching, but presents it with a p value and a discussion on the significance test of residuals. The ed researcher screams, “Teachers won’t get it when you say it like that!”

Of course, I’m making gross generalizations, and no specific education researcher or psychologist talks or thinks like that.  Lots of psychologists work with teachers and education researchers, and there are lots of education researchers who work perfectly well in psychology.  There are lots of people who do travel back and forth from Kansas City to Rio de Janeiro.  (You can take a plane. You don’t have to drive.)  Being someone who does commute back and forth (who metaphorically mostly lives in Rio, but has visited KC enough that I don’t get lost when traveling the main streets), I find the differences striking and interesting.  We’re all working on the same problem, but from different directions.  Maybe we’ll meet somewhere in between.  Bring your fMRI data, and I’ll grab my course evaluations, and we’ll have lunch in Acapulco.

July 22, 2010 at 1:19 pm Leave a comment

A shortage of cybersecurity IT workers

In the continuing debate over whether we have a shortage of IT (or STEM more generally) people or not, here’s an argument from NPR that (at least) we need more cybersecurity folks.

What’s worse: U.S. security officials say the country’s cyberdefenses are not up to the challenge. In part, it’s due to a severe shortage of computer security specialists and engineers with the skills and knowledge necessary to do battle against would-be adversaries. The protection of U.S. computer systems essentially requires an army of cyberwarriors, but the recruitment of that force is suffering.

via Cyberwarrior Shortage Threatens U.S. Security : NPR.

July 21, 2010 at 2:31 pm 1 comment

Impact of Robots on CS1 retention: Mixed but promising

This blog post at Technology Review caught my eye. The post itself is disappointing.  They make claims (like the below) that are NOT made by the paper.  The figure is right, but the claim is too strong.

The paper actually does a really good job of making the claim carefully.  ONE of the semesters where they used the robots had a dramatic rise in retention rates, but not another. Comparing the study YEAR to previous years doesn’t show a significant difference in retention rate.  However, that one semester is promising and well worth continued exploration.

The results were profound: retention rates for the 2009 computer science classes in which the Finch was used shown below, in red increased by 25 percent.

via Technology Review: Blogs: Guest Blog: Robots Make Computer Science Fun Again.

July 20, 2010 at 11:10 am Leave a comment

The Creativity Crisis – Newsweek

For the last 20 years, Americans have been getting less creative — measurably.  What’s most interesting to me is the argument that creativity can be taught.  That’s pretty important for computing where innovative uses for technology are being invented daily.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

The good news is that creativity training that aligns with the new science works surprisingly well. The University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University each independently conducted a large-scale analysis of such programs. All three teams of scholars concluded that creativity training can have a strong effect. “Creativity can be taught,” says James C. Kaufman, professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

via The Creativity Crisis – Newsweek.

July 20, 2010 at 8:10 am 11 comments

New study repeats: Service-Oriented Women avoid STEM

This is a claim we’ve heard before, but this is a larger studies and was just published last week: Women avoid STEM careers because they want to help people.

A team of Miami University researchers led by psychologist Amanda Diekman has come up with a different explanation. In a paper just published in the journal Psychological Science, they argue women perceive STEM careers (those in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as largely incompatible with one of their core goals: Engaging in work that helps others.

“STEM careers may elicit thoughts of the ‘lone scientist,’” the researchers write, conjuring up chilly images of a solitary man staring at his computer. Diekman and her colleagues argue such stereotypes, which imply isolation and a lack of human contact, may discourage some girls from pursuing scientific careers.

via A New View of Why Women Shun Science Careers | Miller-McCune Online.

July 19, 2010 at 10:03 pm 3 comments

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