Archive for September 29, 2010

A new kind of program visualization tool: Making the student trace

I’m very excited about this new tool, UUhistle. It supports exactly the kind of student activity that I was thinking that would be great as a the practice component of exploring a bunch of programs in a worked examples curriculum.

Visualizing a program’s execution can aid understanding, but research suggests that visualizations are more effective when learners are actively engaged in manipulating or creating them. To this end, UUhistle supports a novel kind of highly interactive visualization-based activity, the visual program simulation exercise (or a VPS exercise for short).

In a VPS exercise, the student has to ‘do the computer’s job’: read given code and execute its statements in the appropriate order, allocating and using memory to keep track of program state. UUhistle provides the graphical elements that the student directly manipulates to indicate what happens during execution, and where, and when. Any aspect of execution that UUhistle can display can also serve as part of a VPS exercise: the student can create variables and objects in memory, evaluate expressions, assign values, manipulate the call stack, pass parameters and so forth. For instance, to assign a value from a variable to another, the student drags the corresponding graphical element with the mouse from the source variable into the target variable.

via UUhistle.org.

September 29, 2010 at 4:05 pm 16 comments

Who’s Teaching the Teachers?

This new report from the FDR Group and Thomas B. Fordham Institute has put its finger on something really important.  What are pre-service teaching professors emphasizing in their classroom? From the report: “The professors see themselves as philosophers and evangelists, not as master craftsmen sharing tradecraft with apprentices and journeymen. Stanford University’s David Labaree, a respected historian of education, explains that as far back as the early twentieth century, school system reformers were pushing for efficiency and utility, while education school professors wanted schools to help individual children blossom and develop a lifelong love of learning. eventually the professors lost that argument and the K–12 system embraced the efficiency movement. But this outcome cast education professors as little more than vocational instructors, preparing their charges to enter a uniform teaching force and school system—a system which eschewed the professors’ idealistic educational values. ”

This meshes with my experience as a graduate student in education. I found several of my education classes to be surprisingly boring — much more interested in talking about education than innovating in education. On average, my education professors were less likely to have interactive classrooms where they tried new teaching approaches than were my teachers in other disciplines (including computer science and statistics). On the other hand, I don’t share the sense in the report that if we “fixed” teacher education, we would “fix” teachers. I learned when I was an Education graduate student that pre-service teacher education is amazingly hard to fix. You get a new undergraduate who wants to be a teacher, and you say to him or her, “Here’s what it means to be a good teacher!” And they think, “I just went through 12 years of being a student! I know exactly what it means to be a good teacher!” It’s really hard to dissuade a student from their 12 years of experience that there is a different model for being a good teacher.

The last point in the quote above is particularly relevant for us as computing educators. Education professors seek to avoid being merely “vocational instructors,” so they emphasize being “change agents” (a term from the report) rather than focusing on developing the tradecraft of teaching. Doesn’t this sound a lot like the tensions in computing education? Are we merely vocational instructors, passing on the tradecraft of programming and software development? Or should we be teaching new ideas, so that these students can be “change agents” in the software industry? And if we emphasize the latter, does that mean that we do a bad job of the former?

When it comes to teacher education, pragmatism beats idealism. But most education professors — save for a small minority — are complacent with antiquated teaching philosophies.

These conclusions, released today in a report by FDR Group and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute on the views of education professors, summarize the “sobering data” gathered from surveys distributed at colleges and universities across the country.

“Idealism, good intentions, and progressivist thinking suffuse what education professors strive to impart to prospective teachers, despite tension between these values and the policies pursued by school districts and states,” the report says. “Teacher educators show only modest concern for real-world challenges…. even though K-12 teachers often say these are among the most difficult elements of teaching.”

via News: Who’s Teaching the Teachers? – Inside Higher Ed.

September 29, 2010 at 10:07 am 6 comments

New NRC Rankings: “A little bit unsatisfactory, but at least it’s honest”

The long-awaited new ranking of doctorate programs by the National Research Council came out yesterday.  I’ve been playing with an interactive tool produced by the Chronicle of Higher Education to explore the rankings.  The new ranking system uses both quantitative inputs and subjective opinions about the programs to come up with “statistical ranges” to describe each program, rather than a hard-and-fast linear progression.  (Georgia Tech’s CS PhD program, in case you’re interested, is ranked as falling between 14 and 57.)  The quote in this post’s title comes from the leader of the effort, describing the result as “A little bit unsatisfactory, but at least it’s honest.”

The advance briefing for reporters covering Tuesday’s release of the National Research Council’s ratings of doctoral programs may have made history as the first time a group doing rankings held a news conference at which it seemed to be largely trying to write them off.

While the NRC committee that produced the rankings defended its efforts and the resulting mass of data on doctoral programs now available, no one on the committee endorsed the actual rankings, and committee members went out of their way to say that there might well be better ways to rank — better than either of the two methods unveiled.

via News: You’re Not No. 1 – Inside Higher Ed.

September 29, 2010 at 9:52 am 1 comment


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