Archive for January, 2012

The long tail may not hit a target: High school teachers

I’m attending the NSF CE21 Community meeting this Thursday and Friday.  I have been asked to lead a session on Friday afternoon on distance education in CS for teachers.  I was encouraged to talk about just a couple concrete examples, then leave the session open for discussion.  The question is which examples?

Here’s a more specific question that leads to this blog post: Are the on-line Stanford CS classes a good example to talk about?  Clearly, they are a highly innovative example of distance education for computer science.  But is it relevant for teaching high school teachers for the CS10K effort?

First of all, was the audience for the Stanford CS classes like the audience of potential CS10K teachers?  I’m not convinced.  First, when I read the comments to posts about the the Stanford classes, or Fred Martin’s post, I’m struck by how many people took the courses who already knew the content.  They were curious about the course, or wanted a refresher.  I wonder how many of the students who finished were novices to the content, and how many were old-timers?  My guess is that the average completer in the Stanford classes was a lot more CS-savvy than a business teacher who had never taken a CS class.

Second, was the method of teaching right for reaching in-service high school teachers?  I don’t think that the medium of the Stanford CS classes would work, at least as-is.  I read the comments to my post about the effort required in classes like these, and I think about Klara Benda’s study.  The people who dropped the course aren’t saying it was too hard.  They’re saying it took too much time, the pace was too demanding.  I can’t imagine that the technology behind the Stanford classes demands a rapid pace, but it’s clear that the pace was an issue for some of those who dropped out.  High school teachers don’t have the spare cycles for that rapid pace — Klara’s study has us realizing that we get small chunks of an in-service teacher’s time in which we can provide learning opportunities.

What I’ve come to realize is that the Stanford classes were successful as a long tail effect.  They enrolled a couple hundred thousand students, and some 20% finished. When you look at the big number of finishers, which is way more than probably all other students in all other AI classes in the world combined, it’s really quite remarkable.

On the other hand, 80% didn’t finish, and it may be that the students we most need to succeed for CS10K were in that 80%.  A long tail effect can get you large numbers, but perhaps, none of the numbers that you might be targeting.  A long tail covers a wide swath of the distribution of people, but those that you hit (who complete the course) are not necessarily randomly distributed.  More likely, the course acts as a filter on the long tail and filters everyone who doesn’t meet a particular set of criteria.  It may be possible to use a long tail approach and hit the target population you want to reach.  But it’s not a sure thing.

I am not claiming that the Stanford AI classes were trying to reach teachers for CS10K.  I am looking at that innovative work with a different filter.  I’m exploring the question of how well that innovation meets the CS10K goals.  As part of my talk preparation, I’m revisiting John Daniel’s book Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media.  It’s an older book now (1999), but they report that the UK Open University with its reliance on printed books had over a 50% completion rate on average across their classes.  I hope that advanced Internet technologies would lead to even better completion rates.

January 31, 2012 at 9:28 am 12 comments

Openness is influenced by cognitive abilities: Self-efficacy too?

Interesting finding that supporting older adults learning better problem-solving skills seems to lead to a change in a personality trait called “openness.”  I find this interesting for two reasons.  First, it’s wonderful to see continuing evidence about the plasticity of the human mind.  Surprisingly little is “fixed” or “innate.”  Second, I wonder how “openness” relates to “self-efficacy.”  We heard at ICER 2011 how self-efficacy plays a significant role in student ability to succeed in introductory computing.  Is there an implication here that if we could improve students’ understanding of computer science, before programming, that we could enhance their openness or self-efficacy, possibly leading to more success?  That’s a related hypothesis to what we aim for in CSLearning4U (that studying programming in the small, worksheet-style, will make programming sessions more effective — more learning, less time, less pain), and I’d love to see more evidence for this.

Personality psychologists describe openness as one of five major personality traits. Studies suggest that the other four traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion) operate independently of a person’s cognitive abilities. But openness — being flexible and creative, embracing new ideas and taking on challenging intellectual or cultural pursuits — does appear to be correlated with cognitive abilities.

via Enhancing cognition in older adults also changes personality.

January 30, 2012 at 9:20 am 3 comments

A Festival of (Musical) Algorithms

I’ve heard of computing conferences, and music festivals, and even computer music conferences.  I love the idea of a music festival where there are “Live Algorithms Concerts.”  This is what “Computing for Everyone” is about for me — when computing becomes part of what you do. Not necessarily invisibly–I like the idea that these musicians use algorithms, recognize that, and call them that.

This April will see musicians, artists and coders come to London for a festival of what can be done with the SuperCollider audio programming environment.

Tickets are available from £70 <> for a whole week of sonic inspiration featuring:


– LIVE ALGORITHMS CONCERT – three specially-commissioned musicians

will be improvising live on stage, collaborating with

responsive musical algorithms for the first time.


– LIVECODE EVENING – codefaced people hacking music in front of your eyes:

– ELECTROACOUSTIC CONCERT of new multi-channel works

for electronics and featuring musicians from the Plusminus


– CLUB NIGHT EXTRAVAGANZA, rounding off the festival in style

with a panoply of audiovisual acts,



Sonic art exhibition held in the Mile End Park,

with works both indoors in the Art Pavilion and outdoors in the park:


For new and intermediate users to learn audio hackery and interactivity with SuperCollider:


Three days of talks from an international range of musicians, artists, researchers and coders:

* Tickets for the whole week are available from £70 *

(Early-bird tickets until the end of February

– so get them quickly)

Please forward to your networks!

All details are on the website, and you can also follow @scsymposium

The Open University is incorporated by Royal Charter (RC 000391), an exempt charity in England & Wales and a charity registered in Scotland (SC 038302).

January 27, 2012 at 11:21 am Leave a comment

Online CS courses: What does it mean, “willing to put in the effort”?

Sebastian Thrun, who taught the massive on-line AI class with Peter Norvig at Stanford, has left Stanford to join a startup to offer more online courses.  Their first course will teach complete novices how to build their own search engine, in seven weeks.

Can you do that?  Do we know how to take people from zero to Bing/Google in seven weeks?  The phrase that David Evans uses to describe this process is, “anyone who is willing to put in the effort will be able.”  I’ve heard phrases like that a lot about CS1’s, and I wonder what it really means.  “That student failed because he didn’t put in the effort.”  I tend to believe that most CS1’s expect a huge amount of background knowledge, or expect a huge amount of reading and practice by students — that the teacher’s expectation of “reasonable” effort is not the same as the students. If Evans’ class is like the other online classes, with only 20% or so completing the course, maybe it’s aimed at students who probably could have taught themselves the content with a book, but weren’t motivated enough to do it — so only 20% could make the “effort,” because only they had enough prior knowledge to make the required effort “reasonable.”

How do you measure effort?  I’m seriously wondering — what does it mean to put in “enough” effort?  Are we measuring cognition, or time, or somehow “mental pain”? If you don’t have the prior knowledge, and have to go read lots of background literature, is that part of “enough” effort?  Is effort measured in terms of time-on-task?  If we don’t know how to measure “effort,” how do we know if our class is demanding too much “effort”?

Evans’s “Build Your Own Search Engine” course, however, will be “targeted to students with no background” in computer science, the Virginia professor says. (Evans is taking a year from his tenured post at Virginia to serve as Know Labs’ vice president for education.)

“The goal is to have a course that anyone who is willing to put in the effort will be able to take,” says Evans.

via Stanford open course instructors spin off for-profit company | Inside Higher Ed.

January 26, 2012 at 7:55 am 22 comments

New CE21 Solicitation: Research, CS10K, & BPC

There is a new CE21 solicitation from NSF, and it’s pretty exciting.  Types of proposals are no longer determined by amount of money or objectives.  Now, the three tracks are about different focus areas for the research:

CE21 thus supports efforts in three tracks:

Computing Education Research (CER) proposals will aim to develop a research base for computing education. Projects may conduct basic research on the teaching and learning of computational competencies; they may design, develop, test, validate, and refine materials, measurement tools, and methods for teaching in specific contexts; and/or they may implement promising small-scale interventions in order to study their efficacy with particular groups. Efforts can focus on computational thinking as taught in computing courses or infused across the curriculum, they can target students or their teachers in informal or formal educational settings, or they can address any level within the K-16 pipeline, from elementary school through high school and college.

CS 10K proposals will aim to develop the knowledge base and partnerships needed to catalyze the CS 10K Project. The CS 10K Project aims to have rigorous, academic curricula incorporated into computing courses in 10,000 high schools, taught by 10,000 well-trained teachers. CS 10K proposals can address a wide range of needed activities, including the development of course materials, pedagogy, and methods courses, as well as professional development and ongoing support for teachers, approaches to scaling, best practices for increasing the participation of students from underrepresented groups, and strategies for building K-12, university, and community partnerships.

Broadening Participation (BP) proposals will aim to develop and assess novel interventions that contribute to our knowledge base on the effective teaching and learning of computing for students from the underrepresented groups: women, persons with disabilities, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and indigenous peoples. Proposed interventions should be designed to engage and retain students from these groups and, at the same time, to increase their knowledge of computational thinking concepts and skills. Proposers are encouraged to leverage the resources provided by the existing BPC-A Alliances and to develop interventions that, if proven successful, could be implemented within a BPC-A Alliance. For additional information on the Alliances, see

In aggregate, CE21 projects will contribute to our understanding of how diverse student populations are engaged and retained in computing, learn its fundamental concepts, and develop computational competencies that position them to contribute to an increasingly computationally empowered workforce.

via Computing Education for the 21st Century (CE21) (nsf12527).

January 25, 2012 at 9:55 am Leave a comment

Claim: Average Taxpayers Are Heavily Supporting Elite Colleges

I don’t understand the claim of this study, which makes it hard for me to believe it.  I can sort of see how it’s possible that average taxpayers are providing subsidies to elite public schools.  While the state contribution to elite state universities are decreasing, because the elites are so much more expensive, they probably still take a larger part of state taxpayer dollars than other institutions in the state.  But elite private schools?  How?  Through Pell Grants and other federal programs?  How can that be more than the non-profits and middles?

An October study by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) entitled “Cheap for Whom?” showed one way that  the university system is rigged in favor of the rich. It said:  “Average taxpayers provide more in subsidies to elite public and private schools than to the less competitive schools where their own children are likely being educated…. Among not-for-profit institutions, the amount of taxpayer subsidies hovers between $1,000 and $2,000 per student per year until we turn to the most selective institutions . . . Among these already well-endowed institutions, the taxpayer subsidy jumps substantially to more than $13,000 per student per year.”

via Average Taxpayers Are Heavily Supporting Elite Colleges.

January 24, 2012 at 10:22 am 4 comments

Making iBooks vs. Making iBooks for Learning CS

The announcement about Apple’s new iBooks Author application was pretty exciting for me last week.  As readers may recall, we just started a new NSF project in October to create book-like electronic media to support high school teachers learning CS.  Here’s a new authoring tool just for building electronic books for learning!  Just what we were hoping for!

From what I have learned about it (I need to get a newer Mac to run it), it does sound exciting.  I love a lot of the features, like the variety of multi-touch widgets provided and the support for general HTML5 drop-ins.  I am eager to play with it.

Here are my four biggest concerns about it right now:

(1) It’s made for a narrow definition of learning.  We know that students learn based on what they do and think, not what the lecturer or the book does.  Below is the quote for what iBooks Author provides for students to do, in what they currently call “Chapter Review” questions.  You can answer multiple choice questions, or you can label images, or you can identify the right image for the term.  Huh?  So, I can learn a variety of simple propositional statements, some with images.  Is that it?  That’s all that we might want students to learn from iBooks?

Chapter Reviews

Let readers test their knowledge using a variety of question types: multiple choice, choose the correct image, label the image, or a mix of all three. Authors can include six possible answers to each question.

via Apple – iBooks Author – Gallery.

(2) There is no support for complexity.  I gave a panel talk at the C5 Conference on Friday about needing an infrastructure for building complex electronic books.  Given a choice between Word and LaTeX for writing a book (meaning you know both), I know of no one who prefers Word for writing books.  Word just doesn’t support building large and complex documents like what LaTeX provides.  Books are big, complicated things, with lots of referencing between them.  You want to be able to name things, so that you can easily reference it elsewhere, and build tools to track the names.  You want to be able to change things, and names (for regions, and for details) make that easier.  A tool can be WYSIWYG and still support symbols and naming, and even have a programming language underneath (as LaTeX does).

iBooks Author, at least in its current version, supports even less complexity than Word.  Apple has bragged about their terrific support for glossaries and accessibility, both of which are great. There is no support for references or footnotes. I can’t reference figures, pages, or sections as a symbol or name.

(3) I don’t think I can teach CS with it.  That’s what I am most interested in doing. Much of what I want to do with eBooks, I can’t do with iBooks Author.  Can I build an interpreter or simulation in that HTML5 generic segment?  Can I have code visualizations?  Or connect to a course/cohort-only social space where students can talk about what they’re reading and doing, and see that they’re really doing fine in the class (because we know that self-efficacy is a significant factor in CS1 success)?  The current iBooks Author only goes so far, and that’s not far enough to meet what I believe are the unique needs of computing education.

(4) Apple’s EULA is “greedy and evil.”  The end user licensing agreement for iBooks Author requires authors to only sell iBooks through Apple.

As ZDNet reports:

The nightmare scenario under this agreement? You create a great work of staggering literary genius that you think you can sell for 5 or 10 bucks per copy. You craft it carefully in iBooks Author. You submit it to Apple. They reject it.

Under this license agreement, you are out of luck. They won’t sell it, and you can’t legally sell it elsewhere. You can give it away, but you can’t sell it.

That’s almost like Microsoft saying that they have all rights to sell whatever you create with Office.  (“Almost” because it is the case that iBooks Author produces…iBooks, that only run on Apple devices.)  It’s a pretty frightening document.  I am not sure that I would want to go to the effort of creating a book under these terms.

Bottomline: iBooks Author looks like an advance from what tools we have now for eBooks, and it’s really exciting. There are still some pretty big concerns that will keep me from using it, particularly for computing education.

January 23, 2012 at 8:16 am 10 comments

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January 2012

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