Archive for March, 2013

Interview with Code.org video director

Interesting interview with the director of the Code.org video.  The comments are intriguing and reflect the diverse and contrary perspectives on these issues: “There are nowhere near 1 Million unfilled software engineer jobs in the United States. Becoming a software engineer is a choice that is not a sideline choice, it becomes your whole life. While learning some coding may be a help for students, the premise of Code Stars is deeply flawed.” (Thanks to Mark Miller for the tip!)

Michelle Fields talks to filmmaker Lesley Chilcott about her film Code Stars. There is a dearth of computer engineers in America, and Chilcott is trying to reverse this trend through documentary film. Hear how many computer engineers started their lucrative careers at a young age with very simple programs, and how you can too.

via Decoding Success: Striking It Rich in the Tech Industry – YouTube.

March 29, 2013 at 1:55 am 2 comments

Women’s experiences in the Tech industry: Death by 1000 paper cuts

What a sad posting.  It’s particularly sad because it’s 10 years after “Unlocking the Clubhouse.”  Really?  Haven’t we figured out how to do this any better yet?

My college classes have next to no women in them. A professor makes creepy comments about “geeky girls” during class. One of my few female classmates tells me she’s just doing this to prove her father wrong. Classmates don’t take me seriously until I scream. The first time I learned that you get to be a bitch or you get to be ignored – a choice that would later follow me to the working world. Four years of paper cuts. Four years of pushing myself too hard because I wanted to prove something.

via My experiences in tech: Death by 1000 paper cuts.

March 29, 2013 at 1:34 am 5 comments

Cybersecurity as a motivation for drawing high schoolers into CS

We’ve talked about the UK and the US worrying about having enough cyberwarriors to deal with future cybersecurity issues.  CMU is helping to build a game to entice high school students into computing, with cybersecurity as the focus.

Carnegie Mellon University and one of the government’s top spy agencies want to interest high school students in a game of computer hacking.

Their goal with “Toaster Wars” is to cultivate the nation’s next generation of cyber warriors in offensive and defensive strategies. The free, online “high school hacking competition” is scheduled to run from April 26 to May 6, and any U.S. student or team in grades six through 12 can apply and participate.

David Brumley, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, said the game is designed to be fun and challenging, but he hopes participants come to see computer security as an excellent career choice.

via Carnegie Mellon, NSA seek high school hackers – Yahoo! News.

March 28, 2013 at 1:37 am Leave a comment

Feds give nudge to competency-based education: Beyond the Credit Hour

Of all the open learning movement initiatives, this may be the most important.  The credit hour is a poor measure of learning-attained.  It’s too large a grain size to be important as a measure of instruction.  Moving to competencies (whatever that may end up being) is a move in the right direction, in terms of facilitating our ability to measure the amount of learning and the amount of teaching effort involved in an education program.

The U.S. Department of Education has endorsed competency-based education with the release today of a letter that encourages interested colleges to seek federal approval for degree programs that do not rely on the credit hour to measure student learning.

Department officials also said Monday that they will give a green light soon to Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, which would be the first to attempt the “direct assessment” of learning – meaning no link to the credit hour – and also be eligible for participation in federal financial aid programs.

via Feds give nudge to competency-based education | Inside Higher Ed.

March 28, 2013 at 1:07 am 2 comments

Meet Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Anyone Can Code

It sounds like you can only use Lua for encyclopedia-like functions (e.g., handling citations), but what a wonderful step toward having a tool for building simulations and data processing & visualizations into the encyclopedia.  It’s a nice new motivation for “Computing for Everyone.”

It began as the encyclopedia anyone can edit. And now it’s also the encyclopedia anyone can program.

As of this weekend, anyone on Earth can use Lua — a 20-year-old programming language already championed by the likes of Angry Birds and World of Warcraft — to build material on Wikipedia and its many sister sites, such as Wikiquote and Wiktionary. Wikipedia has long offered simple tools that let tens of thousands of volunteer editors reuse little bits of text across its encyclopedia pages, but this is something different.

“We wanted to provide editors with a real programming language,” says Rob Lanphier, the director of platform engineering at the Wikimedia Foundation, the not-for-profit that oversees the online encyclopedia. “This will make things easier for editors, but it will also be significantly faster.”

via Meet Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Anyone Can Code | Wired Enterprise | Wired.com.

March 27, 2013 at 1:33 am 2 comments

MOOCluhan: Using McLuhan to Understand MOOCs

Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” — Marshall McLuhan

When I first heard this famous quote from McLuhan, I was insulted.  Surely, McLuhan must not appreciate high-quality education, that he considers it no better than mass-market education!  Now, I have a better appreciation for what that quote is saying, and I realize that what he’s saying is deep and important, and relates to what MOOCs are missing.

The student population on my campus is mostly low-income, working part-time or full-time, first-generation college students, nearly all from groups underrepresented in the sciences. These are, by definition, disadvantaged students. This isn’t an insult, just a fact – the deck is stacked against them based on their background. They have a competitive disadvantage against those with more resources and against those with a pedigree that creates access to fancier opportunities.

This year, a few undergraduates who have worked with me are heading off to great graduate programs. What all of them have in common is that they started working with faculty at my university in the classroom and in the lab, in person. They’ve all told me and my colleagues that there’s no way they would have been able to do what they’ve done without us as a resource and as an influence. I take them at their word.

via Online learning is the ghetto of higher education | Small Pond Science.

I added the emphasis above.  The author of the above blog post is working with students who are working against odds to succeed in higher education.  I’m sure that the author is right — the face-to-face involvement of teachers who care about the students is exactly what it takes for those students to succeed.  What is it that can be provided 1:1 that MOOCS at 1:10000 are unlikely to provide?  I suggest: Engagement, immersion, transcendence.

The best entertainment has that quality.  You’re watching a play, and you forget that you’re in a theater at all.  You’re somewhere else, totally engaged in the moment of the story.  You can get the same thing from reading a book, and when it’s really good, from a movie or television show.  In any case, high-quality entertainment takes you away from the world where maybe the deck is stacked against you and creates a new reality.

I have had educational experiences like that, and I hope that I have (occasionally) provided them to my students.  I know that I have had to chase students out of class, because they were totally absorbed in the activities and problems and constructions of class.  That’s engagement.

I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts about MOOCs.  So far, I’ve never yet read the line, “The MOOC was so engaging.  I was immersed in it.  I was no longer staring at my laptop screen, I was…”  In a lecture hall with 300 people at Stanford, maybe?  I’ve heard people talk about how much work MOOCs are, how it requires extreme motivation and resilience to complete.  That doesn’t sound like engagement, immersion, or transcendence.

Absolutely, there is entertainment that requires real work.  There is wonderful literature that is “hard fun” to dig into and understand.  That’s exactly where McLuhan comes in.  That wonderful literature is only accessible to a few.  MOOCs only work (right now) for the few.  To get the mass student audience, to educate everyone, we have to think more like mass entertainment and work at engagement and immersion.

 

March 27, 2013 at 1:08 am 3 comments

Guided Computer Science Inquiry in Data Structures Class

Inquiry-based learning is the best practice for science education.  Education activities focus on a driving question that is personally meaningful for students, like “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why is the stream by our school so acidic (or basic)?” or “What’s involved in building a house powered entirely by solar power?”  Answering those questions leads to deeper learning about science.  Learning sciences results support the value of this approach.

It’s hard for us to apply this idea from science education and teach an introductory computing course via inquiry, because students may not have many questions that relate to computer science when they first get started.  Questions like “How do I make an app to do X?” or “How do I use Snap on my laptop?” are design and task oriented, not inquiry oriented.  Answering them may not lead to deeper understanding of computer science.  Our everyday experience of computing, through (hopefully) well-designed interfaces, hides away the underlying computing.  We only really start to think about computing at moments of breakdown (what Heidigger called “present-at-hand”).  “Why can’t I get to YouTube, even though the cable modem light is on?” and “How does a virus get on my computer, and how can it pop up windows on my screen?”  It’s an interesting research project to explore what questions students have about computing when they enter our classes.

I realized this semester that I could prompt students to define questions for inquiry-based learning in a second computer science class, a data structures course.  I’m teaching our Media Computation Data Structures course this semester.  These students have seen under the covers and know that computing technology is programmed.  I can use that to prompt them about how new things work.  What I particularly like about this approach is how it gets me out of the “Tour of the Code” lecturing style.

Here’s an example.  We had already created music using linked lists of MIDI phrases.  I then showed them code for creating a linked list of images, then presented this output.

An image created with PositionedSceneElement nodes

I asked students, “What do you want to know about how this worked?”  This was the gamble for me — would they come up with questions?  They did, and they were great questions.  “Why are the images lined up along the bottom?” “Why can we see the background image?”

I formed the students into small groups, and assigned them one of the questions that the students had generated.  I gave them 10 minutes to find the answers, and then report back.  The discussion around the room was on-topic and had the students exploring the code in depth.  We then went through each group to get their answers.  Not every answer was great, but I could take the answer and expand upon it to reach the issues that I wanted to make sure that we highlighted.  It was great — way better and more interactive than me paging through umpteen Powerpoint slides of code.

Then I showed them this output from another linked list of images.

Images that are both positioned and layered

Again, the questions that the students generated were terrific.  “What data are stored in each instance such that some have positions and some are just stacked up on the bottom?” and “Why are there gaps along the bottom?”

Still later in the course, I showed them an animation, rendered from a scene graph, and I showed them the code that created the scene graph and generated the animation.  Now, I asked them about both the animation code and the class hierarchy that the scene graph nodes was drawing upon.  Their questions were both about the code, and about the engineering of the code — why was it decomposed in just this way?

Questions-on-board

 

(We didn’t finish answering these questions in a single class period, so I took pictures of the questions so that I could display them and we could return to them in the next class.)

I have really enjoyed these class sessions.  I’m not lecturing about data structures — they’re learning about data structures.  The students are really engaged in trying to figure out, “How does that work like that?”  I’m busy in class suggesting where they should look in the code to get their questions answered.  We jointly try to make sense of their questions and their answers.  Frankly, I hope to never again have to show sequences of Powerpoint slides of code ever again.

 

 

 

March 26, 2013 at 1:57 am 7 comments

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