Archive for February, 2012
My colleague, Ellen Zegura, works to use technology to help the developing nation of Liberia. She and I were talking recently about her project to teach programming in Python in the iLab in Liberia. The iLab is the most advanced computing lab in Liberia with the best bandwidth — but it’s still pretty awful. Ellen said that they figured out that simply downloading OpenOffice to the iLab would take 14 hours. With that kind of bandwidth, you think carefully before you download IDE’s and different Python distributions. This limits what kind of technology you can provide for learning.
We got to talking about our work in CSLearning4U, and the challenges of teaching computing in high schools. I told her about the Alice project report which found that they couldn’t install Alice because the computers in their high schools had CD/DVD drives removed and all the USB ports filled by glue gun. I told her about Lightbot, which is a cool programmable activity being used in several of the CS:Principles pilots – but Lightbot can’t be used in most Atlanta-area schools, because the activity is hosted on a games website which is blocked by the county’s firewall. As far as we can tell, nobody in the county has the ability to un-block a site. It’s pretty easy to add site to the blocked list, though. All of this limits the kinds of technology that we can provide for learning in high school computing courses.
We then realized that learning computing in US high schools is like learning programming in the developing world. While Atlanta-area schools have better connectivity than in Liberia, and better computers in general, they are so locked down that the constraints are pretty similar. In fact, the folks in Liberia can access Lightbot (even if too slowly), so they really have more flexibility than Atlanta-area schools.
If you develop a great technology for teaching programming in US high schools, you better be browser-based, and host it on a server that’s not blocked by firewalls. Otherwise, you might be better off offering it to Liberia.
At the NSF CE21 meeting last week, I got a chance to catch up with Aman Yadav, who teaches Purdue’s computer science methods course — a course on how to teach computer science specifically (as opposed to general teaching methods that one would use with reading, history, science, or mathematics). He teaches what is, best as I can tell, the only regularly offered CS methods course in the country. These are necessary courses to be able to establish teacher certification programs. I met him at last year’s meeting, at which time I learned that he had all of one student. This year? One more student.
Columbus State University hosts the only high school CS teacher certification program in Georgia, for an “endorsement” in CS. An endorsement is a credential on top of an existing certification — nobody can be certified as a CS teacher in Georgia, but you can get an “endorsement” on top of a business or science or math certificate. Columbus had to have a CS methods course to meet the requirements of an endorsement in Georgia. So last summer, Wayne Summers co-taught the course with a methods instructor from their Education school. Total enrollment? One student.
CS10K: If we built it, would they come?
I know that there’s an argument that we can’t ramp up teacher production fast enough, so we should give up and develop technology to replace the teacher. However, the reality is that we don’t know how yet. We don’t know how to teach CS well enough at the high school level via technology. It’s an open, important, and interesting research question. So is how to teach high school teachers about computer science at scale, including making the learning engaging and drawing teachers in. Yes, we know a lot about adult education, but it’s in no way an answered question. We can do it better, and that’s the research question in which I’m more interested.
The National Research Council just released a new report on Computational Thinking last week. Marcia Linn of Berkeley came to present the report to the NSF CE21 meeting last week. It’s on how to teach Computational Thinking. I saw Marcia Thursday night before she spoke, and she asked me how I defined CT. I declined to answer her (because last time I came up with one, the response was mostly how wrong I was), and asked her for her definition. She gave a nice one that involved relating computing to the problem domain context, but admitted that that was her definition. The committee couldn’t come to a consensus on a definition. I asked her if she thought computer scientists would agree with her definition. She said that she was able to convince the ones she found most difficult (because her definition included programming, and that was key to the computer scientists she worked with), and that was good enough for her.
There is lots of pressure to teach and assess computational thinking — for which we have too many definitions and too little consensus. Really hard to make progress on a goal if we don’t know what the goal is.
In 2008, the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate of the National Science Foundation asked the National Research Council (NRC) to conduct two workshops to explore the nature of computational thinking and its cognitive and educational implications. The first workshop focused on the scope and nature of computational thinking and on articulating what “computational thinking for everyone” might mean. A report of that workshop was released in January 2010.Drawing in part on the proceedings of that workshop, Report of a Workshop of Pedagogical Aspects of Computational Thinking, summarizes the second workshop, which was held February 4-5, 2010, in Washington, D.C., and focuses on pedagogical considerations for computational thinking. This workshop was structured to gather pedagogical inputs and insights from educators who have addressed computational thinking in their work with K-12 teachers and students. It illuminates different approaches to computational thinking and explores lessons learned and best practices. Individuals with a broad range of perspectives contributed to this report. Since the workshop was not intended to result in a consensus regarding the scope and nature of computational thinking, Report of a Workshop of Pedagogical Aspects of Computational Thinking does not contain findings or recommendations.
Here’s another way to make software engineering sexy — point out how important it is to issues that the students value, and how the results can be a carefully-guarded secret.
The 23-year-old’s job is a mystery even to some senior staff in Chicago, yet they say they hope the skills he brings are a secret weapon: he’s a software engineer.
St. Clair is among more than a dozen developers hired by the campaign to leverage technology to wring out more votes in what Obama’s advisers say may be an election as close as the contested 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. From Seattle startups to International Business Machines Corp., they’ve left lucrative jobs to mine for swing voters. They’ve added a new term to the strategic lexicon: microlistening.
I promised a Computational Media student here at Georgia Tech that I’d post this. He’s running an experiment to understand what ratios will work best for using HTML5 Canvas on current Internet devices. If you’re willing to participate in his (very short) experiment, please do visit http://moarcodeplz.com/a-one-size-fits-all-approach-to-cross-platform-development/.
A couple people sent me links to this story. What I’ve seen written about this story has a tone of “Those luddites!”
There’s something deeper going on. In the quote below, Sabrina Laine talks strings being attached and a lack of training and support. Maybe the real issue is that we don’t know how to put computers into schools well, and spending time on it is taking time away from teaching and learning.
One could imagine a similar scenario playing out over earlier media, from pencil and paper, to filmstrips and televisions. Administrator says, “You have to start using this technology — it will improve your students’ learning dramatically!” backed up with “That’s what I heard!” or “I read a study!” or even “Like the salesman said!” The teacher asks, “How? What do I do with it? What’s it good for?” And the administrator may reply, “Figure it out!”
It’s that last part that the teachers in Idaho may be complaining about: They don’t want to figure it out. They have enough to do trying to teach and to cajole students into learning. They’re willing to use it when the technology is ready.
The problem is that it may never be ready like that. Using a new medium or technology for learning gets figured out in practice, and many innovations figured out in the lab, without the teacher’s input, never work. The teachers have to be involved to make a technology work well, but it clearly places yet another demand on them. It’s a tough situation.
This change is part of a broader shift that is creating tension — a tension that is especially visible in Idaho but is playing out across the country. Some teachers, even though they may embrace classroom technology, feel policy makers are thrusting computers into classrooms without their input or proper training. And some say they are opposed to shifting money to online classes and other teaching methods whose benefits remain unproved.
“Teachers don’t object to the use of technology,” said Sabrina Laine, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, which has studied the views of the nation’s teachers using grants from organizations like the Gates and Ford Foundations. “They object to being given a resource with strings attached, and without the needed support to use it effectively to improve student learning.”
This is a really interesting question, and an important one for building an economy around specially-built courses. Can a college outsource its foreign language courses to the commercial company Rosetta Stone? I was amazed at the anger at James Madison University’s plans to do just that. This isn’t an issue of whether a for-profit can provide reasonable learning. This is about a non-profit outsourcing single courses. I like the idea — I’d like to see higher education control costs by creating a market for high-quality courses. The faculty can serve as both a broker and as quality control, which it sounds like they are doing in the James Madison case. Of course, the last question in this quote is the key one.
Feal, the MLA director, said James Madison’s program “sounds like buying college credit.”
“If a college is charging tuition and essentially turning their students over to Rosetta Stone with very little value added, that is scandalous,” said Feal. “Why would a student need to go through a college for that experience?”
I’m pleased to see this question being raised in the national media, but I’m not sure that we have any way of answering the question. Do most Americans care if students learn in higher-education? Or is certification enough, and is flexibility and cost (what the non-profits excel at) more important than quality of learning?
But look again at Obama’s criteria for “better”: holding down costs, graduating students and helping them get jobs. There’s no mention of whether the students are actually learning anything.
At most institutions, including my own, we have no idea if they are. Sure, professors assign grades in their courses, and students are asked to evaluate the classes they take and the professors who teach them. But neither measure gives us any real answer to the $200,000 question: What knowledge or skills are students acquiring in exchange for the skyrocketing tuition they pay?
And we now have some alarming national data to suggest the answer: not nearly enough. My New York University colleague Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa recently tracked several thousand undergraduates as they moved through two dozen U.S. universities. They found that almost half of them didn’t significantly improve their reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college. And after four years, subsequent research showed, more than one-third of students still showed no significant gains in these areas.
I appreciate Businessweek getting on the bandwagon, promoting the idea of computer science for all. It’s particularly interesting to make that demand of our Congressional representatives — that those making laws about the Internet ought to understand the Internet.
There was no official slogan for the public pushback against perceived government meddling with the Web, but the unofficial one might have been a headline that appeared on the online magazine Motherboard: “Dear Congress, it’s no longer ok to not know how the Internet works.”
A growing number of people agree that not only should Congress understand how software is made, so should everyone. Designers, economists, doctors, and others with no direct connection to the technology world are embracing coding as a way to advance their careers, automate boring tasks, or just a means of self-improvement, a hobby like learning Spanish or doing crossword puzzles. And they have access to an expanding universe of free online coding tutorials from startups and universities such as Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Programming is becoming “a much more fundamental piece of knowledge, similar to reading or writing,” says Andy Weissman, a partner at New York’s Union Square Venures, which led a $2.5 million investment round for Codecademy, a site that teaches people basic programming skills.