Archive for April, 2013

Learning about learning in a musical: The power of deliberate practice in a whole setting

I am working set crew for a musical for the last two weeks and through this weekend. This is my third year doing it, so I’m not quite the novice I was when I first wrote about the experience.  We’re doing “Curtains” which is a show-in-a-show musical — the setting is a theater in Boston where a Western musical is being readied for Broadway, when murders start backstage.

Again, I’m struck by the complexity of musical theater.  The actors have been at it since January, and everything they have to learn amazes me.  As stage crew, I only owe them three weeks of every evening, but I still have had a lot to learn in a short time.  In part of Act Two, I’m setting flats, then racing back to help actors with their quick change (it’s way harder to button someone else’s shirt buttons than your own), then lift a globe into place (turning it sideways to fit through door frames), before racing back to set up a river in the next scene.

What’s particularly striking me this year is how we have not only learned some fairly complex activities, but we have learned them well enough to self-monitor and invent.

  • During one performance this last weekend, I was the last crew still on stage when the stage manager whispered to me, “The rope!”  The rope that held the globe still had come loose and was dangling.  I grabbed it and dove behind a riser — just as the lights came up.  I was trapped.  (Not seriously, of course.  The worst that would happen is that the audience would see a guy in black crawl by at the back of the stage.  But the whole point of theater is to maintain an illusion, so you avoid those kinds of incongruities.) The stage manager whispered to me to climb up the ladder behind the globe without being seen, and tie the globe down, which I did.  Now, I’m trapped on a ladder behind the scene and thinking, “What do I do next?”  In the next scene change, I was to be a real stagehand acting like a stagehand.  “Curtains” is a play about a play, so at a few times in the show, someone yells, “Clear the set” and we stagehands come out (in the lights! in front of the audience!) to clear the set.  When Lt. Cioffi yelled, “Let’s bring in the river,” I ran out to bring in the river scene — from behind the globe.  Nobody would have noticed or cared where the stagehand came from, so the illusion was maintained.
  • During last night’s performance, the trap door that drops the heavy sandbag (an attempted murder) didn’t work.  One of the actors on stage invented dialog to get around that flub and keep the story going  — that was quick thinking.  The trap door failure created a challenge for the set crew.  Why didn’t the trap door work?  Was it going to get unstuck and drop a weight during the middle of another scene?  While one member of the set crew started crawling around to check the trap door, the rest of the stagehands covered his chores.

I could go on and on.  A prop is missing, a costume breaks, someone flubs their line or doesn’t get on stage quick enough.  Things happen, and people have to think on their feet.  Let’s compare this to introductory computer science class, where  students famously have difficulty figuring out one way to do something in 10-15 weeks of practice.  Or when they do something the one way that they can figure out, it just barely works and the code is frequently awful — ugly and hard to read.

What we see going on in the musical is complex learning, with flexibility. It’s not quantum physics, but it is complex.  If you’ve ever learned a dance or martial arts, you know that remembering and recreating a sequence of physical moves can be challenging.  Now combine that across multiple scenes, with rapid timing (quick changes have to be completed before the orchestra finishes the song), with lots of people involved, and it’s complicated.  I just bought the “Curtains” soundtrack and am impressed.  Our actors and singers can hold their own with the original cast recording.

How did everyone involved in the musical learn so much, so well, in such a short amount of time?  And why doesn’t that happen so often in formal education?  There are lots of things going on.  Here are two that I’ve been thinking about:

  • I’m currently listening (in my work commutes) to “Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking,” where she talks about Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice.  I’m not suggesting that the actors or stagehands in the musical have put in ten thousand hours or are experts (though I would not be surprised if some of our top actors, who do a lot of theater and commercial work, may cross that threshold).  I am suggesting that Ericsson’s conditions for developing expertise are present here: “The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.”  We do the musical over-and-over.  We are motivated to get it right.  The directors critique, and we critique ourselves.  “That didn’t go well,” or “we could do that better.”  That doesn’t happen in formal education so much.
  • I’m reading David Perkins’ “Making learning whole,” where he talks about how we tend to teach piecemeal in formal education, but in informal education (in his introduction, it’s learning baseball), the learner knows what the end product is supposed to look like.  The actors and stagehands in a musical know where we’re going.  We have a complete picture of the role of each piece.  We know what a good show looks like.  We focus on this number here, and this set change there, but there’s no question that everything is supposed to fit together.  It’s not like “We’re learning recursion, and I’m not sure why I’d ever want to do this.”  Students in formal education often don’t understand the relevance of what they’re learning, of how it all fits together.

P.S.  If you’re in Atlanta, there are shows this Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 4 pm. Come see it!

April 30, 2013 at 1:43 am 5 comments

New Center for Research on Cyberlearning

This is a pretty exciting center.  EDC does very good work, and Jeremy Roschelle is an excellent researcher in learning sciences (author of the JLS article on economic benefits of STEM education that I blogged on last year).

The new center aims to maximize the potential of NSF-funded projects focused on learning with technology, with the goal of addressing pressing needs in STEM education. Of particular interest are technological advances that allow more personalized learning experiences, that draw in and promote learning among those in populations not currently well-served, and that allow access to learning resources. EDC’s role will be to assess the needs of NSF grantees, foster the development of partnerships, and facilitate and lead events that bring together grantees and stakeholders from the national cyberlearning community.

“This initiative brings another NSF program resource center to EDC and allows us to harness our collective experience and knowledge in this area,” said EDC’s Sarita Pillai, who will lead the EDC team. “Through this work, we expect to accelerate progress in the field of cyberlearning and to improve student learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math.”

“This is a timely, important opportunity to connect high-quality research with the rapidly growing market for digital learning, an area of intense need and investment in Silicon Valley and throughout the country,” said SRI’s Jeremy Roschelle, director of CIRCL.

via EDC a Partner in New Center for Research on Cyberlearning | Education Development Center.

April 29, 2013 at 1:32 am Leave a comment

Making Education a Team Sport

This is a compelling vision.  Set aside MOOCs or not — how could we use a team-based approach in building postsecondary education, so that we have the best of texts, tools, in-class experiences, videos, and individualized tutoring and advising?  If we want higher-quality, we can’t expect one teacher to perform all roles for increasing numbers of students.

The real threat to traditional higher education embraces a more radical vision that removes faculty from the organizational center and uses cognitive science to organize the learning around the learner. Such models exist now.

Consider, for example the implications of Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. More than 10 years ago, Herb Simon, the Carnegie Mellon University professor and Nobel laureate, declared, “Improvement in postsecondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a community-based research activity.” The Open Learning Initiative (OLI) is an outgrowth of that vision and has been striving to realize it for more than a decade.

via Essay on how technology and new ways of teaching could upend colleges’ traditional models | Inside Higher Ed.

April 29, 2013 at 1:20 am Leave a comment

LiveCode Community Edition is released: HyperCard is free again and runs on anything!

I’m excited about this and find myself thinking, “So what should I do with this first?”  LiveCode isn’t as HyperCard-like as it could be (e.g., you edit in one place, then compile into an application), and it has all of HyperCard’s limitations (e.g., object-based not object-oriented, lines are syntax).  But it’s freeincluding all engines.  I can program iOS and Android from the same HyperCard stack!  I can build new kinds of programming languages and environments on top of Livecode (but who in the world would want to do something like that?!?) that could compile into apps and applications!  It’s a compellingly different model for introductory computing, that sits between visual block programming and professional textual programming. Wow…

LiveCode Community is an Open Source application. This means that you can look at and edit all of the code used to run it, including the engine code. Of course, you do not have to do this, if you just want to write your app in LiveCode there is no need for you to get involved with the engine at all. You write your app using LiveCode, the English-like scripting language, and our drag and drop interface. Fast, easy, productive and powerful.

via Community Edition Overview | RunRev.

April 26, 2013 at 1:28 am 9 comments

Google’s Computer Science Teach Fellows Program

At first, Google contacted us to find existing CS teachers to be part of their new teaching fellows program, but they’ve just opened it up to new grads as well.

Google is searching for talented (STEM) Science, Technology, Engineering or Math teachers to join a 2-year post-graduate program designed to grow leaders in computer science education. The program targets new graduates passionate about the future of computer science education. Applications are being accepted on a rolling basis for a two-year program that begins in June 2013. Applicants must be able to commit to the entire two years. As a part of the practicum, you will be working with thought leaders in education to learn the newest techniques and programs for computer science pedagogy, implementing programs with area schools and students, and creating your own innovative approaches to student learning. You can apply for the position and find more details about the program on this website. Please direct any questions you might have to

The role: Computer Science Teaching Fellows, New Grad 2013

Minimum Qualifications:

• Bachelor’s degree in computer science or related field

• Some form of teaching or instruction experience (e.g., teaching assistant, tutor)

• Able to commit to a 2-year program and start June 2013

• Willing to relocate to/within South Carolina

April 25, 2013 at 1:14 am 5 comments

School for Poetic Computation

I love the idea of this school.  It reminds me of Donald Knuth’s Turing Award lecture Computing Programming as an Art and of Guy Steele’s call for an MFA in software practices.

We are interested in craft, and the idea that every writer needs space and time to hone their trade. Our school aims to provide a safe haven – so you could get acquainted with the craft at your own pace, make it your own, find that part between your true creative process and the craft. This takes time, encouragement, the right push at the right time, conversations with colleagues, and more time.

via SFPC – mission.

April 25, 2013 at 1:09 am 2 comments

Diversity programs give illusion of corporate fairness: Costs of just a little education

Reminds me of the Jump$start program that made students over-confident and worse at making financial decisions.  Teach people a little about diversity, and they think it doesn’t exist anymore.

Diversity training programs lead people to believe that work environments are fair even when given evidence of hiring, promotion or salary inequities, according to new findings by psychologists at the University of Washington and other universities.

The study also revealed that participants, all of whom were white, were less likely to take discrimination complaints seriously against companies who had diversity programs.

via Diversity programs give illusion of corporate fairness, study shows | UW Today.

April 24, 2013 at 1:28 am Leave a comment

NSF TUES is Cancelled: Where will CS Ed funding come from?

The report on the requested NSF budget for 2014 has a pretty dramatic list of programs that have been cancelled as part of the administration’s desire to  reorganize and “consolidate” federal STEM education programs.

CAUSE is an NSF-wide investment that incorporates funding from established programs in the EHR directorate and other NSF directorates funded though the Research and Related Activities (R&RA) account. It is created by consolidating three Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) programs: STEM Talent Expansion Program (STEP), Widening Implementation and Demonstration of Evidence- based Reforms (WIDER), and Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES); several R&RA programs: BIO’s Transforming Undergraduate Biology Education (TUBE); ENG’s Research in Engineering Education and Nanotechnology Undergraduate Education (NUE); GEO’s Geosciences Education and Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences (OEDG); and the cross-NSF program, Climate Change Education (CCE).

TUES used to be the Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program.  TUES and CCLI have funded most of the federally-funded efforts presented at SIGCSE. Earlier, CE21 was cancelled, and its replacement isn’t announced.

An article in the latest Science magazine describes the new programs (and how surprised everyone in the STEM education community has been).  K-12 belongs in the Department of Education (what does this mean for CS10K?), undergrad and grad in NSF, and informal ed in the Smithsonian (the Smithsonian?!?).

As far as I can tell, the NSF budget document is the only reference to the new NSF CAUSE (Catalyzing Advances in Undergraduate STEM Education).  There is no solicitation, and no date for submitting proposals.  Bottomline: the programs that have funded most of CS curriculum support are now gone, and the replacements do not yet exist.   I hope that this all works out well, but it’s a little scary right now.

April 24, 2013 at 1:04 am 5 comments

Reading student writing: The value of what can’t be automated

I really liked this post, in part because of how differently it is being interpreted within my department.  I posted it on a school-wide discussion list, to emphasize the value of what we do that cannot be automated.  However, my MOOC-favoring colleagues read this post in exactly the opposite way to how I interpreted it. “Anyone can do this kind of grading, so we shouldn’t waste our time at it! Instead, we should abandon all courses that require this kind of grading.”  What can’t be automated isn’t worth doing?

I know that a lot of MOOC-proponents are pushing automatic grading of papers as a cost-effective way to handle classes with over 1000 students.  Quite frankly, the idea appalls me—I can’t see any way that computer programs could provide anything like useful feedback to students on any sort of writing above the 1st-grade level.  Even spelling checkers (which I insist on students using) do a terrible job, and what passes for grammar checking is ludicrous nonsense.  And spelling and grammar are just the minor surface problems, where the computer has some hope of providing non-negative advice.  But the feedback I’m providing covers lots of other things like the structure of the document, audience assessment, ordering of ideas, flow of sentences within a paragraph, proper topic sentences, design of graphical representation of data, feedback on citations, even suggestions on experiments to try—none of which would be remotely feasible with the very best of artificial intelligence available in the next 10 years.

via Reading student writing | Gas station without pumps.

April 23, 2013 at 1:24 am 7 comments

Universities should stand by core values

Rich DeMillo emphasizes in his book Abelard to Apple that higher education institutions need to differentiate themselves, to avoid being a commodity.  I think Amherst College is doing that, in being articulate in their core values and choosing not to partner with any MOOC companies.

“It’s not something they reject totally,” Martin said in a telephone interview, referring to the faculty’s online ambitions. “They just don’t want to do it right now through a firm that may or may not end up allowing us to do what our core values suggest we do in the form of teaching and learning.”

via Despite courtship Amherst decides to shy away from star MOOC provider | Inside Higher Ed.

April 23, 2013 at 1:10 am 1 comment

ACM Europe recommends computing for all students

From the new report from Informatics Europe and ACM Europe:

Recommendation 1. All students should benefit from education in digital literacy, starting from an early age and mastering the basic concepts by age 12. Digital literacy education should emphasize not only skills but also the principles and practices of using them effectively and ethically. 

Recommendation 2. All students should benefit from education in informatics as an independent scientific subject, studied both for its intrinsic intellectual and educational value and for its applications to other disciplines. 

Recommendation 3. A large-scale teacher training program should urgently be started. To bootstrap the process in the short term, creative solutions should be developed involving school teachers paired with experts from academia and industry. 

Recommendation 4. The definition of informatics curricula should rely on the considerable body of existing work on the topic and the specific recommendations of the present report (section 4). 


April 22, 2013 at 1:23 am Leave a comment

CSTA 2013 Conference Registration now open

ECEP is going to have a presence at this year’s CSTA Conference.  Hope you can join us!

July 15 & 16, 2013 Boston Marriott Quincy, Quincy, Massachusetts

 July 15: Hands-on Workshops

July 16: Keynotes and Breakouts


You are cordially invited to attend the 2013 CSTA Annual Conference (formerly known as the Computer Science & Information Technology (CS&IT) Conference). This year’s conference will be held at the Boston Marriott Quincy, just outside of Boston in Quincy, Massachusetts.


The CSTA annual conference is a professional development opportunity for computer science and information technology teachers who need practical, classroom-focused information to help them prepare their students for the future.


Learning and Networking Opportunities:

Take advantage of this opportunity for relevant professional development!

·      Explore issues and trends relating directly to your classroom

·      Network with top professionals from across the country and around the world

·      Interact with other teachers to gain new perspectives on shared challenges


Some of this year’s session topics include:

·      AP Computer Science

·      CSTA’s K-12 Computer Science Standards

·      Equity & Diversity

·      Mobile Applications

·      Robotics


Act now to register for the 2013 CSTA Annual Conference at:


Pre-registration is required and will be accepted for the first 300 teachers. The registration deadline is June 16, 2013. Also, please note that you must complete the payment portion of the online form in order to be fully registered for the conference!


Thanks to the generous donations of our sponsors, the registration fee of $60 (+$60 per workshop) includes lunches, resource materials, and closing session raffle.


Please note that all workshops are “bring your own laptop” and that registration is limited to 30-40 participants, so be sure to register early to get your workshop choice. Workshop registrations are non-transferable and it will not be possible to change workshops onsite. Registration and workshop fees are non-refundable.


The 2013 CSTA Annual Conference is made possible by the generous support of Microsoft, Microsoft Research, Oracle, and the Anita Borg Institute.


Please join us for this exciting event!


Dave Reed

CSTA Annual Conference Program Chair


April 22, 2013 at 1:01 am Leave a comment

What Makes Code Readable: Not What You Think

This is a nice post considering the interaction between language complexity, readability, and learnability.  It could have been made stronger by including some of the empirical data.  Thomas Green in his empirical research on language features didn’t just find that explicit BEGIN IF…END IF blocks were easier to read by novices, he found that they were TEN TIMES easier for novices to read.  Being less succinct is not just easier for novices, it may be so much easier that it’s the difference between success and giving up.

My point is, the larger the vocabulary you have, the more succinctly ideas can be expressed, thus making them more readable, BUT only to those who have a mastery of that vocabulary and grammar.

If we made the English language smaller, and reduced the complex rules of grammar to a more much simple structure, we’d make it much easier to learn, but we’d make it harder to convey information.

via What Makes Code Readable: Not What You Think | Making the Complex Simple.

April 19, 2013 at 1:58 am 8 comments

Computer Science as a great target for Science Careers

Nice interview with Ed Lazowska of U-W in Science about the state of computer science education and research.  The below section is getting picked up elsewhere as an argument for CS as a great choice for students interested in a career in science.

I would have to say “about right.” Ph.D. production in computer science is far lower than in fields with far fewer employment opportunities. And Ph.D.s in computer science have a broad range of employment opportunities that take full advantage of their training. In most other STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields, the vast majority of graduates at all levels take jobs unrelated to their field of study. In computer science, the opposite is true: The vast majority of graduates at all levels take jobs that are in their “sweet spot.” Google hires roughly the same number of graduate students as undergraduate students from the University of Washington. Microsoft also hires a large number of our best Ph.D. students, both for Microsoft Research [MSR] and for the development organization.

I do think we need to be cautious. We need to avoid the overproduction—and, honestly, exploitation—that characterizes other fields. Hopefully we’ll be smart enough to learn from their behavior.

via “We Are the World” | Science Careers.

April 19, 2013 at 1:25 am Leave a comment

The Meme Hustler: Free Software vs Open Source

A difficult but fascinating piece.  I found most interesting this contrast between Stallman’s “free software” and O’Reilly’s “open source.”  These are important distinctions for computing education, as we think about the culture that we’re inviting students into.

This stood in stark contrast to Stallman’s plan of curtailing—by appeals to ethics and, one day, perhaps, law—the freedom of developers in order to promote the freedom of users. O’Reilly opposed this agenda: “I completely support the right of Richard [Stallman] or any individual author to make his or her work available under the terms of the GPL; I balk when they say that others who do not do so are doing something wrong.” The right thing to do, according to O’Reilly, was to leave developers alone. “I am willing to accept any argument that says that there are advantages and disadvantages to any particular licensing method. . . . My moral position is that people should be free to find out what works for them,” he wrote in 2001. That “what works” for developers might eventually hurt everyone else—which was essentially Stallman’s argument—did not bother O’Reilly. For all his economistic outlook, he was not one to talk externalities.

via The Meme Hustler | Evgeny Morozov | The Baffler.

April 18, 2013 at 1:56 am 5 comments

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April 2013

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