Archive for August, 2010

Georgia Tech wants avatars to sit in classrooms?

I am hoping that the AJC reporter just got it wrong.  It’s not a great idea for people to sit in classrooms.  How is it any better for avatars to sit in classrooms?  We don’t know much that virtual worlds make better in education. I’m hoping that the new strategic plan is more than what’s described here.

Georgia Tech students may learn in virtual classrooms, with avatars of themselves “sitting” in the class. Students and professors will work to solve the world’s problems using new areas of study. The institute will expand globally, while also taking on a larger role in Atlanta.

These are just a few aspects of the strategic vision Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson will share in a speech Tuesday. The plan outlines goals and priorities to shape the institution for the next 25 years.

via Georgia Tech prepares for 2035  |

August 31, 2010 at 11:07 am Leave a comment

What are the fundamental education issues for next 10 years? Computing education issues?

NSF’s Division of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences is seeking white papers on the grand challenges in these areas over the next 10 years.  Reading through the questions they want answered, I’m wondering if some of the important grand challenges are computing education grand challenges.  I think it’s increasingly important that we understand how to improve how students come to understand computing, because that understanding can drive creative and innovative use of an incredibly powerful set of technologies.  Due date for white papers is September 30.

NSF/SBE invites individuals and groups to contribute white papers outlining grand challenge questions that are both foundational and transformative.  They are foundational in the sense that they reflect deep issues that engage fundamental assumptions behind disciplinary research traditions and are transformative because they seek to leverage current findings to unlock a new cycle of research. We expect these white papers to advance SBE’s mission to study human characteristics and human behaviors in its Social and Economic Sciences and Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences divisions, as well as to be the nation’s resource for understanding the structure and development of science through its Science Resources Statistics division.

via US NSF – SBE – SBE 2020.

August 30, 2010 at 1:37 pm Leave a comment

Chalmers University launches ComputingEd-ish Program

I visited Chalmers University in Goteburg, Sweden several years ago.  I learned that Chalmers is sort of the MIT and CalTech combined of Sweden — Sweden has a strong engineering tradition, and Chalmers trains 40% of all of Sweden’s engineers.  It’s an important and well-respected engineering school.

So it’s pretty exciting when Chalmers launches a new graduate program in engineering education research, and the position described below as part of this new program sits in the “Department of Applied Information Technology.”  This suggests that their new program has a strong Computing Education component.  Cool!  This announcement, plus the research center for CS Ed at Durham that I mentioned last week, has me wondering — why are the Europeans investing so much more in computing education research than the Americans?

Research into learning and communication is one specific strand of research at the department and the main areas of investigation are: Learning with IT, language and communication for academic and professional purposes, public learning and understanding of science, learning and sustainability, and higher education. This variation in research areas related to learning and communication is one of the department’s main strengths. The department also offers training in these areas to students and teachers at both Chalmers and the University of Gothenburg.

via Chalmers: Applied Information Technology: Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in Engineering Education Research.

August 30, 2010 at 1:18 pm Leave a comment

Top 5 Things to Teach IT Students: The Rest We Teach to Everyone

This Computerworld piece is interesting, first, for predicting what we should be teaching our students so that they have the right IT skills in 10 years.  But I’m more interested in the second sentence, “Employees throughout the organization will understand how to use technology to do their jobs.”  Really?  We’re not doing such a great job at that today.  I think that Computerworld is laying out an interesting and important goal. But we have to change the way that we’re teaching all the non-IT experts if we’re going to achieve that goal.

In the year 2020, technical expertise will no longer be the sole province of the IT department. Employees throughout the organization will understand how to use technology to do their jobs.

Yet futurists and IT experts say that the most sought-after IT-related skills will be those that involve the ability to mine overwhelming amounts of data, protect systems from security threats, manage the risks of growing complexity in new systems, and communicate how technology can increase productivity.

via 5 Indispensable IT Skills of the Future – Computerworld.

August 27, 2010 at 11:46 am 4 comments

CS Education Gets Congressional Attention

I didn’t realize that the same week that the CS Ed Act was introduced by Representative Jared Polis, another Representative (Vernon Ehlers of Michigan) introduced the CS Ed Week resolution.  As Cameron’s blog points out, it’s about getting and keeping congressional attention.

Last week was a huge one for computer science education in the Nation’s Capital. Congressmen from both parties introduced two pieces of legislation — The Computer Science Education Act  and the Computer Science Education Week Resolution  — intended to help strengthen computer science education. I’ve written before that the road to education reform is long, and progress will come in fits and starts. Both pieces of legislation represent another step along this road and the beginning of a much broader engagement to bring attention to computer science education issues in the United States.

via CS Education Gets Congressional Attention | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM.

August 27, 2010 at 2:30 am 1 comment

A journal on innovation in ICS teaching

I didn’t know about this before this week — interesting stuff!

Welcome to ITALICS, Innovation in Teaching And Learning in Information and Computer Sciences, the electronic journal of the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). ITALICS provides a vehicle for members of the ICS communities to disseminate best practice and research on learning and teaching within the subject disciplines.

via ITALICS – Home.

August 26, 2010 at 7:05 am Leave a comment

Tell Sally Your Stories: Monthly, For a Year

In her keynote as the ACM SIGCSE 2010 Outstanding Contributions to CS Education awardee, Sally Fincher talked about the “useless truths” that education researchers publish.  While they’re true, the published lessons are often too hard to take from their abstract, general form into the concrete, daily practice of the teaching practitioner.  She believes that stories help teachers to communicate their practice and to understand someone else’s practice.

I just listened to Janet Finlay (of Leeds Metropolitan University) and Sally talk about their projects on Sharing Practice for (and among) Computing Educators. It’s fascinating work, which is based on the belief that researchers don’t necessarily know best.  Teachers have enormous knowledge about how to teach and how to solve teaching problems. Sharing that knowledge requires flexibility of representation and inclusion of adequate detail — too much abstraction leads to confusion (e.g., “Is this really a problem we have? Does our context match their’s?”) and difficulty adopting the practice.  Janet has a really interesting project on Active Learning in Computing (ALiC) which is hosted by this AMAZING group based here at Durham (but also including Leeds and Newcastle), “England’s only Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) in Computer Science.” (Dang! How come we don’t have something like that in the States?!?)

Sally has just launched a website that she asked us all both to use and to promote:

Sally wants to get teachers to keep a diary on her website for one year, writing an entry once a month (on the 15th of each month) from September 2010 to August 2011.  She wants to gather lots and LOTS of stories from teachers.  She wants more than just computing educators — she’ll take any post-secondary teacher in any subject at any institution from anywhere in the world.

There’s going to be more to the project later on. (You can see the “Tell Us a Story” link on the page now, but it doesn’t really go anywhere yet).  Sally showed me some of the in-development pieces that she’s working on. She also showed me some intriguing, powerful new tools for analyzing the stories that she’s collecting.  Using these tools, more is really more — she can see patterns in the stories, but only if she gets lots of them.

I just entered into my ToDo tool a monthly reminder, starting September 15th, to visit Sally’s site and enter a story.  Please do consider doing it yourself, and pass this around to your colleagues.

August 26, 2010 at 6:35 am 4 comments

Your Brain on Computers – Overuse of Digital Devices May Lead to Brain Fatigue –

A really interesting piece in the NYTimes, which is relevant for this blog in a couple of ways.  First, the piece indicts computing technology for preventing us from having downtime. Second, the suggestion is that this downtime is necessary for better learning.  Thus, placing us in computing education of trying to teach something which one might need to get away from in order to learn about it!

Cellphones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with high-speed Internet connections, let people relieve the tedium of exercising, the grocery store line, stoplights or lulls in the dinner conversation.The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

via Your Brain on Computers – Overuse of Digital Devices May Lead to Brain Fatigue –

August 25, 2010 at 10:04 am 1 comment

Not just STEM — need more graduates, period

A report that came out in June goes beyond studies showing that we’re lacking STEM students, or even CS students, but educated students at all.  But I’m cynical.  Is there really a lack of employees (especially given current unemployment rates), or are employers less likely to hire and more picky who they take?  Will generating more graduates really satisfy the identified gap?

The United States economy is in serious danger from a growing mismatch between the skills that will be needed for jobs being created and the educational backgrounds (or lack thereof) of would-be workers. That is the conclusion of a mammoth analysis of jobs data being released today by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The new report says that the United States is “on a collision course with the future” since far too few Americans complete college. Specifically, the report says that by 2018, the economy will have jobs for 22 million new workers with college degrees, but, based on current projections, there will be a shortage of 3 million workers who have some postsecondary degree (associate or higher) and of 4.7 million workers who have a postsecondary certificate.

via News: A Jobs Mismatch – Inside Higher Ed.

August 24, 2010 at 10:44 am 3 comments

Explaining to women that Engineering makes a difference

An interesting op-ed piece by a female engineering, talking about how girls are discouraged from going into engineering, and about how engineering really is about helping people.

To young people, the image of the engineering profession has too often been portrayed as solitary and esoteric, a lonely and abstract pursuit. The reality is much different. Engineering offers the chance to connect with the world in tangible and meaningful ways. It means making an imprint that improves lives.

For many girls, this chance to make a difference would be enormously gratifying. To inspire more girls to consider such paths, Chicago is one of four school districts in the nation now taking part in a $2.4 million federal initiative to get women involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

via women discouraged from studying engineering –

August 24, 2010 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

All-Digital Publisher Fails

Rice University Press switched in 2006 to all-digital publishing through Connexions.  While that reduced costs, not enough, and RUP has just been shut down.  Doesn’t bode well for the economic model of all-digital publishing.

Rice University Press is being shut down next month, ending an experiment in an all-digital model of scholarly publishing. While university officials said that they needed to make a difficult economic decision to end the operation, they acted against the recommendations of an outside review team that had urged Rice to bolster its support for the publishing operations.

Some supporters, in fact, are in discussions about raising private support to continue the press as a scholarly publishing outfit that might not be attached to any single university.

Many supporters of academic publishing had high hopes for the Rice project, which was launched in 2006 with the goal of merging the quality and rigor of scholarly peer review with the convenience and low cost of digital publishing. The demise of the project led to immediate speculation about whether the Rice experience suggested difficulties for the economic model or if other factors may have been decisive.

via News: Abandoning an Experiment – Inside Higher Ed.

August 20, 2010 at 2:25 pm 3 comments

Two successful defenses, and off to the UK!

I am pleased to announce that Allison Elliott Tew and Brian Dorn both defended their dissertations successfully.  Dr. Elliott Tew actually walked out with no changes required and all forms signed, which very rarely happens around here.  Brian has some relatively minor updates, and will be Dr. Dorn within a few days.

Now I’m leaving the country.  In the last week, not only have two of my students completed their degrees, but I moved my son into his dorm room, so it’s been an intense week of changes.  To cap it off, I’m getting on a flight to Edinburgh tomorrow afternoon.  I am the invited keynote talk at the 11th Annual Higher Education Academy in Information and Computer Science Conference at Durham University (  I’m flying to Edinburgh, then catching a train to Glasgow to meet up with Andrew McGettrick (chair of the ACM Education Board). On Monday, I head to Durham (where I hope to meet up with Gerry McAlister, chair of the academy, and Sally Fincher).  On Thursday, I head back to Edinburgh for a day-off (Friday), then head home next Saturday.

I expect to be blogging little over the next week.  The work time I find needs to be spent on Data Structures book slides and several NSF reports that are (nearly over) due. See you in September!

August 20, 2010 at 12:28 pm 1 comment

Mobile technology to improve student retention

Georgia Gwinnett College (just up the road from us) is battling low student retention by using smartphones, that they give to the faculty. The phone numbers get listed on the syllabi, and students are encouraged to contact their faculty for help.  It’s a novel use of “educational” technology, but places quite a burden on the faculty.

And so far, they say, it is working. The retention rate for returning sophomores at Georgia Gwinnett stands at 75 percent. That is about double the average rate for noncompetitive-admissions colleges in Georgia, according to Tom Mundie, dean of the school of science and technology at Georgia Gwinnett, and on par with many public institutions that have competitive admissions. In engagement surveys, Mundie says, students have reported “feeling that faculty care about and are accessible to them.”

via News: Can You Hear Me Now? – Inside Higher Ed.

August 19, 2010 at 9:34 am 1 comment

A New Classroom for a New Kind of Computing Student: Brian Defends

Brian Dorn is defending his dissertation this week.  For several years now, he has been studying graphic designers who program.  He started by studying the information foraging behavior of the graphic designer in the wild.  First, he characterized who they were and what kinds of coding they were doing (ICER2006).  Next, he studied one of the information sources that they frequented (Adobe’s Photoshop scripting repository) to figure out what kind of informational nourishment they were getting (VL/HCC 2007).  He did careful assessment and interviews with graphics designers to figure out what they knew and what they wanted to learn (CHI2010), and most recently (the paper I presented at ICER 2010 last week), he did an interview study to figure out why they won’t enter our classes to get the information they needed.

At this point, Brian knew who his subjects were, what they were looking for, where they were looking, and why they wouldn’t go where he knew the information was.  Now, there is a consortium of researchers studying end-user programmers, but for the most part, they’re coming at it from an HCI perspective. How do we make the tools better?  Brian wanted to come at it from a learning perspective.  How do we make the people better?  How do we teach people where they are with what they need?  Continuing my (now tired) metaphor, how can he vitamin-fortify (“Now with Vitamin CS!”) the places where they were foraging?

Brian built two different kinds of code repositories.  In one, he just had code, just like the repositories that his designers were already using (like the one Adobe hosted).  In the other, he provided real cases (based on the design that Mike Clancy and Marcia Linn created).  In that one, he included lots of conceptual information about computer science.   He wanted to see if his graphics designers would like the cases the same, would be just as effective at writing code, but would also learn something.  If adding the CS content made it less pleasant or hurt their productivity, it wouldn’t get used.

He ran everyone through a task, where they had to write some code and answer some conceptual questions, using whatever resources they would normally use.  Next, he split the pool into two groups, of roughly equal performance on code and concepts, and gave each group one version of “ScriptABLE” (his tool) — either the code repository form, or the case library form.  They did an isomorphic task: About the same complexity, same kind of code to write, same kind of concepts to answer about.

Huge win: Each group liked their resources. No difference in code writing. Statistically significant better learning by the case library-using group.

There are lots of reasons to be excited by this work.  First, it’s a study of a seriously non-STEM group of programmers. He has made computing education work with people who have mostly only studied art, with a disdain for computer science.  Second, it’s an audience that is much more gender-balanced than most of STEM.  Brian now has an approach that works well for increasing the computing knowledge of art-oriented, female professionals who are pretty darn hostile to normal CS classes.  That’s 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 goal.

For our field, it’s a whole new world for computing education.  It’s about making things better for computing learning outside the classroom, with people who aren’t CS majors.  We mostly look at classrooms, and mostly CS majors.  There are many more non-CS majors interested in learning about computing, and most of them won’t enter our classrooms.  Brian is showing us a new space for us to work, providing a process for studying our new “students” and new kinds of “classrooms,” and giving us an example of a successful first attempt.  Brian has already started his new job as an Assistant Professor at the University of Hartford.

August 19, 2010 at 8:04 am 9 comments

The First Multi-Lingual, Valid Measure of CS1 Knowledge: Allison Tew Defends

Allison Elliott Tew has been working for five years to be able to figure out how we can compare different approaches to teaching CS1.  As Alan Kay noted in his comments to my recent previous post on computing education research, there are lots of factors, like who is taking the class and what they’re doing in the class.  But to make a fair comparison in terms of the inputs, we need a stable measure of the output.  Allison made a pass in 2005, but became worried when she couldn’t replicate her results in later semesters.  She decided that the problem was that we had no scientific tool that we could rely on to measure CS1 knowledge.  We have had no way of measuring what students learn in CS1, in a way that was independent of language or approach, that was reliable and valid.  Allison set out to create one.

Allison defends this week.  She took a huge gamble — at the end of her dissertation work, she collected two multiple choice question exams from each of 952 subjects.  If you get that wrong, you can’t really try again.

She doesn’t need to. She won.

Her dissertation had three main questions.

(1) How do you do this?  All the standard educational assessment methods involve comparing new methods to old methods in order to validate them.  How do you bootstrap a new test when one has never been created before?  She developed a multi-step process for validating her exam, and she carefully defined the range of the test using a combination of text analysis and curriculum standards.

(2) Can you use pseudo-code to make the test language-independent?  First, she developed 3 open-ended versions of her test in MATLAB, Python, and Java, then had subjects take those.  By analyzing those, she was able to find three distractors (wrong answers) for every question that covered the top three wrong answers in each language — which by itself was pretty amazing.  I wouldn’t have guessed that the same mistakes would be made in all three languages.

Then she developed her pseudo-code test.  She ran subjects through two sessions (counter-balanced). In one session, they took the test in their “native” language (whatever their CS1 was in), and in another (a week later, to avoid learning effects), the pseudo-code version.

The pseudo-code and native language tests were strongly correlated.  The social scientists say that, in this kind of comparison, a correlation statistic r over 0.37 is considered the same test.  She beat that on every language.

Notice that the Python correlation was only .415.  She then split out the Python CS1 with only CS majors, from the one with mostly non-majors.  That’s the .615 vs. the .372 — CS majors will always beat non-majors.  One of her hypotheses was that this transfer from native code to pseudo-code would work best for the best students.  She found that that was true.  She split her subjects into quartiles and the top quartile was significantly different than the third, the third from the second, and so on.  I think that this is really important for all those folks who might say, “Oh sure, your students did badly.  Our students would rock that exam!”  (As I mentioned, the average score on the pseudo-code test was 33.78%, and 48.61% on the “native” language test.)  Excellent!  Allison’s test works even better as a proxy test for really good students.  Do show us better results, then publish it and tell us how you did it!

(3) Then comes the validity argument — is this testing really testing what’s important?  Is it a good test?  Like I said, she had a multi-step process. First, she had a panel of experts review her test for reasonableness of coverage. Second, she did think-alouds with 12 students to make sure that they were reading the exam the way she intended.  Third, she ran IRT analysis to show that her problems were reasonable.  Finally, she correlated performance on her pseudo-code test (FCS1) with the final exam grades.  That one is the big test for me — is this test measuring what we think is important, across two universities and four different classes?  Another highly significant set of correlations, but it’s this scatterplot that really tells the story for me.

Next, Allison defends, and takes a job as a post-doc at University of British Columbia.  She plans to make her exam available for other researchers to use — in comparison of CS1 approaches and languages.  Want to know if your new Python class is leading to the same learning as your old Java class?  This is your test!  But she’ll never post it for free on the Internet.  If there’s any chance that a student has seen the problems first, the argument for validity fails.  So, she’ll be carefully controlling access to the test.

Allison’s work is a big deal.  We need it in our “Georgia Computes!” work, as do our teachers.  As we change our approaches to broaden participation, we need to show that learning isn’t impacted.  In general, we need it in computing education research.  We finally have a yardstick by which we can start comparing learning.  This isn’t the final and end-all assessment.  For example, there are no objects in this test, and we don’t know if it’ll be valid for graphical languages.  But it’s the first test like this, and that’s a big step. I hope that others will follow the trail Allison made so that we end up with lots of great learning measures in computing education research.

August 19, 2010 at 6:42 am 17 comments

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