Archive for June, 2011

Hollywood Spurs Surge in Computer Science Majors – NYTimes.com

It’s great for CS to get this kind of coverage in the NYTimes, but the assumptions in the article still bother me.  Do we really know that it’s due to Hollywood that there’s a surge?  Eric Roberts thinks it’s more due to people realizing that CS is a great career boost in a bad economy.  And we still don’t know much about the commonality of the enrollment rise.  NYtimes uses CRA data, which is robust but not pervasive — it’s high-quality data, but only about research institutions.  The department closings in the last couple years suggest that not everyone is seeing enrollment increases.

Never mind that Mr. Zuckerberg, like other tech titans, did not major in computer science — or even finish college. Enrollment in computer science programs, and degrees from them, are rising after a decade of decreases, despite much handwringing about the decline of American competitiveness in technology and innovation from President Obama on down. And educators and technologists say the inspiration is partly Hollywood’s portrayal of the tech world, as well as celebrity entrepreneurs like Steven P. Jobs of Apple and Mr. Zuckerberg who make products that students use every day.

via Hollywood Spurs Surge in Computer Science Majors – NYTimes.com.

June 13, 2011 at 8:55 am 4 comments

Programming is so important that I need it in 3 days

Peter Norvig considers why there are so many books on “Learning programming in 3 days” (or 21 days, or some other small number of days).  He does a good job of explaining why we should be thinking in terms of years, not days. I am most interested in his analysis of why people want to learn programming so quickly.  Is it because programming should be that easy?  Or is it that it’s so valuable that people want the skill immediately?

But if it is so valuable, why do they expect that skill in so little time?  Maybe it’s because they understand it so little.  I’ll bet that 90% of all people have no idea at all of what it means to program a computer.  Maybe they expect it to be a subset of natural communication–since they’re already good at talking with people, so it should be like talking to people but only using a small subset of particularly geeky words.

Norvig is right — there’s something deep and interesting in why there are so many books about learning programming so quickly.

The conclusion is that either people are in a big rush to learn about computers, or that computers are somehow fabulously easier to learn than anything else. There are no books on how to learn Beethoven, or Quantum Physics, or even Dog Grooming in a few days. Felleisen et al. give a nod to this trend in their book How to Design Programs, when they say “Bad programming is easy. Idiots can learn it in 21 days, even if they are dummies.

via Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years.

June 11, 2011 at 10:07 am 4 comments

How only one path fails to help everyone succeed at learning how to code

Project Euler sounds great!  The author of the now oft-forwarded Atlantic piece is making a mistake by extrapolating from himself to everyone.

The article (linked below) tells the story of how author James Somers finally learned to program by discovering Project Euler, an effort to teach programming by leading students through a sequence of carefully constructed programming problems.  Somers “finally” learned to program after first failing at reading one of the enormous tomes on how to program and then after failing to learn through AP CS.

I don’t doubt that Somers really did learn a lot from Project Euler, and I believe that thousands have and will in the future.  The “inductive chain” theory described below seems plausible.  Project Euler is a terrific idea!  I also believe, though, that some people do learn (at least, get started) from those massive tomes, and others do learn through the more engineering-oriented approach that Somers dislikes in AP CS.  Some may even learn from playing with digital media.

I personally don’t find Project Euler’s problems attractive.  Somers gives this example of a Project Euler problem that inspired him:

If we list all the natural numbers below 10 that are multiples of 3 or 5, we get 3, 5, 6 and 9. The sum of these multiples is 23.

Find the sum of all the multiples of 3 or 5 below 1000.

I completely believe that Somers was inspired by this.  I do not have an “itch” to solve this one.  I don’t find mathematical puzzles that fun.  I like to make things, so when I was getting started learning to program, I was motivated to play around and explore by building things.  My first sizable just-for-fun program played tic-tac-toe, and most of my just-for-fun projects were interpreters and compilers.  Today, I like to make interesting pictures and sounds with Media Computation.  My experience doesn’t mean that Somers is wrong about Project Euler working for him.  He’s wrong in believing it can work for everybody.

We need multiple paths.  Math works to motivate some.  Engineering for others.  Media for still others.  I agree that getting the playful learning that Somers wants is about engagement and motivation.  Math doesn’t engage and motivate everyone.

Project Euler, named for the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, is popular more than 150,000 users have submitted 2,630,835 solutions precisely because Colin Hughes — and later, a team of eight or nine hand-picked helpers — crafted problems that lots of people get the itch to solve. And its an effective teacher because those problems are arranged like the programs in the ORIC-1s manual, in what Hughes calls an “inductive chain”:The problems range in difficulty and for many the experience is inductive chain learning. That is, by solving one problem it will expose you to a new concept that allows you to undertake a previously inaccessible problem. So the determined participant will slowly but surely work his/her way through every problem.

via How I Failed, Failed, and Finally Succeeded at Learning How to Code – Technology – The Atlantic.

June 10, 2011 at 10:42 am 13 comments

Telle Whitney on why we need more women in IT

Telle does a great job in this interview, making the business case for more diversity. The interviewer is hard on her, but she deals with it well.

Watch the video

June 9, 2011 at 3:47 pm Leave a comment

Congress complaining about the low cost of faculty development

I’m still wading through the 300 unread email awaiting my return from vacation.  (Yes, the last week’s worth of blogs were all pre-recorded.)  The family had a great time in California and at the ACM Awards in San Jose.

One of the interesting threads that came up while I was gone were the complaints from Senator Coburn about badly spent funds at NSF.  In particular, his report highlights the “low-budget rodeo and hoedown” that was held at SIGCSE 2011.  If you weren’t at SIGCSE 2011, you may not have heard about the event where teachers programmed 75 robots to dance together.  Senator Coburn seems disappointed that the event was “a source of enjoyment for observers.” (It’s better if educational activities are not enjoyable?)

The organizers of the hoedown put together a reasonable and well-argued response. The event was really about getting a lot of teachers to try out new computing curricula and actually install the robot software (with help) on their computers.  $6,283 is a remarkably low price (which actually led to some corporate matching) for faculty professional development.

Senator Coburn’s report complains about the “low-budget” event.  Would it have been better if it was more expensive?  Just how much should faculty development cost?  I admit that I’ve been part of much more expensive efforts (with six and seven digit budgets) that achieved less than the robot hoedown did.  My sense is that the robot hoedown was a particularly low-cost way of getting some new ideas flowing among the teachers who participated.  But it is scary that folks in Congress might not realize how important faculty professional development is, and how expensive it can be.

June 9, 2011 at 1:53 pm 5 comments

Blown to Bits: A good book, not as a sole APCS book

At the last commission and advisory group meeting developing the new Advanced Placement course Computer Science: Principles, I heard a lot about the book Blown to Bits by Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis. The book is all about the pervasive digital technology and how that influences our lives, from privacy, to cryptography, to search engines, and to intellectual property. The book is made available for free at their website, which makes it all the more attractive for use in the CS:Principles pilots. Several have already used it as a source for “readings.” It’s the only book I heard about. I was strongly encouraged to read it.

I finally got a chance to start it, and am really excited about it. It is an excellent example of the popular press CS paperbacks to which I was referring in a previous blog post. It’s filled with strong computer science ideas, which is not surprising since that one of the authors is Hal Abelson, as in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs Abelson. He knows his CS, and why it’s relevant. The book relates important CS ideas to readers’ daily lives. The book is fun to read. It’s exactly what I would like to see more of, a particular slant on some strong CS, made accessible to contribute to the intellectual life of everyday people.

However, I am not comfortable recommending this to anyone for use in CS:Principles, at least as a sole source. As the authors say in the Preface:

This book emerged from a general education course we have taught at Harvard, but it is not a textbook…We aim to entertain you at the same time as we provoke your thinking…We offer some strong opinions in this book.

I agree that this book is not a textbook. The book offers opinions–statements that the authors believe are true, but are still not accepted as fact. I like the idea of including controversy in a College-level course. I am not okay with presenting a controversial opinion as fact. I prefer that the teacher offer dissenting views.

Here’s one concrete example: While I am no expert in information security and privacy, I don’t buy the argument that they’re making about security and privacy. They refer to the “post-privacy” world, and they subtitle a chapter “Privacy Lost, Privacy Abandoned.” They say, “We then turn to an analysis of how we have lost our privacy, or simply abandoned it.” The claim that privacy is lost surprised me. Sure, I understand the argument that most anything in digital form can be accessed somehow. I understand that everything I do in email or on Facebook could be found and disseminated widely on the Internet. I’ll bet that every reader of this blog, even if not my “friend,” could get my current Facebook status message within 30 minutes and <10 email messages. But does that really mean that privacy is "lost"? What about walking around? What about doing things on paper?

They argue that there are camera everywhere. They argue that even paper is no longer private. Handwriting is recognizable. Typewriters leave unique signatures. And it’s even possible to track the source of a printout from a piece of paper to a particular printer. Color printers actually encode the printer’s serial number on every page that they print.

Now waitaminute. Just because it’s possible to get a search warrant for surveillance cameras and to do forensic analysis does not mean that everything I do in person and on paper can be discovered and made public the same way as digital information. Last week, I was in New York City for the NCWIT Summit. Each morning, I walked to a different restaurant in Manhattan, had breakfast, and paid cash. I simply do not believe that where I had breakfast is public, not private. It’s not the same as my current Facebook status message is.

That’s just one example. The book has lots of other questionable claims, like “Bits move faster than thought.” (Exactly how do you measure that?) Making questionable claims doesn’t bother me as a book — I value the arguments for the claims, even if I disagree with them. I highly recommend the book even with claims about privacy that I don’t agree with. But that’s different than recommending it for a high school class that we hope will be taught to tens of thousands of students. I would recommend it, if it was one of several other readings that could then be contrasted with each other. Having several readings of this caliber would make for a really great class!

What do we want from a textbook, or for a good readings source for a book? For me, a textbook should be mostly be concerned with concepts that are generally accepted as true by a community. A readings book can offer opinions. Particularly in lower-level classes, I want to offer a diversity of opinions. I love collected readings books, like the New Media Reader. That’s a great example of providing a variety of opinions under one cover for one price. Maybe we need something like that for CS:Principles. But just Blown to Bits? I’m worried that that’s too one-sided.

June 8, 2011 at 8:43 am 3 comments

Rethinking Human Capital in Technology–Based Education

This piece doesn’t talk about Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, but is definitely in that spirit — thinking about the role of the human in technology-based education, and how to appropriately structure it.

Two challenges come immediately to mind on the human capital front. The first is the impact of new technologies on teachers. Do they want them? Will they use them? Can we use technology to make the job of teaching more sustainable by helping teachers teach and spend less time on busywork? Technology holds power here (IMPACT in New York City and, more recently, Drop the Chalk), but as a former teacher who used a pencil-and-paper grading book (in the 21st century) and whose row of shiny Mac Pro desktop computers sat idle at the back of the room for the year (I didn’t know what I should be doing with them), I would like to see tech evangelists grapple as much with behavioral economics—the science behind why people do what they do—as with the gadgetry behind the next big product.

The second challenge will involve rethinking how human capital is deployed in schools. Technology does not just exist and create change in a vacuum. Some of the most promising and talked-about technology innovations in education—including School of One and Rocketship Education—all require reconfigurations of human capital. At School of One, teachers still teach, but they are supported by a range of other actors including teaching assistants and tutors, both online and in-person, and software-based lessons. All of these actors support the system together and make it run. Rocketship Education is a non-profit elementary charter school network that is creating a hybrid school model, combining a traditional classroom setting with tutoring, both online and offline, and online technology. Like School of One, these tutors are the human capital “glue” that helps Rocketship’s innovative financial structure fly.

via Rethinking Human Capital in Technology–Based Education | BlueEngine.

June 7, 2011 at 11:01 am Leave a comment

Wolfram on the importance of computing for understanding the world

Spending too much time in airports lately, I’ve been catching up on some of my TED video watching — the ones that everyone says I have to watch, but I didn’t have time until now. One of those that I watched recently was Stephen Wolfram’s on A New Kind of Science and Wolfram-Alpha. I realized that he’s really making a computing education argument. He explicitly is saying that computing is necessary for understanding the natural world, and all scientists need to learn about computation in order to make the next round of discoveries about how our universe works.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

June 6, 2011 at 10:39 am 3 comments

Folk-model security as an education contribution

I argued in a previous blog post that inquiry-based computer science education is not possible today because we know too little about how people think about the computing in their lives.  The result described in the below blog post is a step towards identifying the misunderstandings that might be addressed as “Driving Questions” in inquiry-based CS ed.  It’s important to know how people think about things now, because directly addressing those leads to better educational interventions.

In his paper, published in the proceedings of the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security, Wash identified eight folk models of security threats that are used by home computer users to decide what security software to use and which advice to follow.

These models range from the vague and generic – “viruses are bad” – to the more specific – “hackers are burglars who break into computers for criminal purposes.”

Adding to the problem, Wash said, is that people who rely on folk models for computer security don’t necessarily follow security advice from credible experts. This is because they either don’t understand the advice or because they believe the security advice isn’t relevant to them.

via Home-computer users at risk due to use of ‘folk model’ security | MSU News | Michigan State University.

June 3, 2011 at 11:32 am Leave a comment

The Third Option: Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”

I finally finished Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together on my last trip. I strongly recommend the book, especially for computer science ethics and professionalism classes.

Turkle looks at several technologies and considers what their impact on our daily lives are, with a particular emphasis on social robotics and on-line social media.  She is trained as a psychoanalyst, so she looks at human impacts a bit differently than most computer scientists.  She is concerned with what it means for us as humans to use robots to take care of our elderly, for children to play with toys that seem alive and thinking, and for all of us to interact increasingly through technologically-mediated forms (e.g., texting on phones, Facebook and Twitter and MySpace).  Her insights are deep and varied.  For example, she talks about the strains caused by ubiquitous communications technology on family life less in terms of the always-texting teens, and more in terms of the always-distracted parents.

It’s not an easy book to read.  The book is filled with dozens of case studies, which she uses to compare and contrast throughout the book to make her points.  It’s like a non-fiction Russian novel: Dozens of characters, which are telling stories about themselves, who are being played off one another.  I loved Doestoevsky’s The Idiot, but it took me almost a year to finish it, and I considered it an accomplishment to make it all the way through.  Alone Together has some of that quality.

Most people with whom I’ve spoken who have finished the book talk about its pervasive negative attitude.  Turkle is much more critical of the technology in this book than she was in The Second Self or Life on the Screen.  I do agree with that assessment — Turkle is worried, and that worry comes across strongly.  She’s a realist, though.  She says that we can’t call our relationship to communications technology an “addiction,” because that implies something that you might remove from your life.  You can be addicted to cigarettes, because you can (and should) get them out of your life.  Psychoanalysts don’t call a flawed relationship with food an “addiction,” because you can’t remove food from your life.  Similarly, she says that nobody is going to get rid of communications technology, once it’s available.  We can, instead, re-think how we relate to it.

What I find most powerful about the book is where she sets up intriguing and insightful options — and that’s where the book becomes a must-read for future computing professionals, those who might one day design technology.  She tells the story of a fifth grade class who considers the questions, “Do you want your parents and grandparents cared for by the robots, or would you rather they not be cared for at all?  Do you want seniors lonely and bored, or do you want them engaged with a robotic companion?”  One child in the class breaks away from the “for or against” question to ask, “Don’t we have people for these jobs?”  In a similar situation in an MIT seminar, Turkle relates how a student in her class reacted to a story about robots who can flip over a bed-ridden patient to avoid bed sores.  The woman in Turkle’s class had just recently lost her mother, and she recoiled from the contrast between an autonomous machine or a neglected patient.

She wanted to have a conversation about how she might have used technology as prosthesis. Had her arms been made stronger, she might have been able to lift her mother when she was ill. She would have welcomed such help. It might have made it possible for her to keep her mother at home during her last weeks.

That’s the kind of “third option” that Alone Together is good at raising.  It’s a way of thinking that values the human element and is important to consider for technology designers.

More directly related to past themes in this blog, Sherry Turkle’s book speaks to us who are considering the role of the computer in education.  The options should not be solely “students with no support, or a robot teacher.”  There are third options.  I’m still fond of the third option to “Beat the book, not the teacher.”  Think how much better a weak teacher might be with a book that helped support the teacher and the students.  Think how much better the students’ experience might be with computing technology available in collaboration with a caring, human teacher.  In general, Turkle encourages us to think about the value for the human and how technology can enhance, not limit or replace, our valuable interactions with humans.

June 2, 2011 at 10:08 am 1 comment

Teaching and research can co-exist

An interesting study that’s going to fuel the claims that faculty don’t do enough work — 20% of UT-Austin’s faculty teach 57% of student credit hours.  That’s understandable.  Graduate classes are small, and first-year undergrad classes are huge.  It’s pretty easy for a small number of faculty to rack up most of the credit hours.

It’s the later stats that I found more surprising — those teaching the most still brought in their fair share of research funding.

But the study suggests that research and teaching can easily coexist. It found that the 20 percent of faculty with the heaviest teaching loads generated 18 percent of UT’s research funding, meaning that they remained competitive in research even as they carried more than their share of teaching duties.

“This suggests that these faculty are not jeopardizing their status as researchers by assuming such a high level of teaching responsibility,” the study states.

The least productive 20 percent of faculty teach just 2 percent of all student credit hours at UT — meaning that students barely see them.

Research grants at UT go overwhelmingly to a small group of faculty. Two percent of faculty are responsible for 57 percent of research, and 20 percent are responsible for 99.8 percent.

via Study: One-fifth of faculty does most of the work – College, Inc. – The Washington Post.

June 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm 4 comments

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