Archive for April 9, 2013

Requiring Computing Education: An Impractical Path to Computing Literacy

My thinking on computing education has been significantly influenced by a podcast about hand-washing and financial illiteracy. I suspect that education is an ineffective strategy for achieving the goal of Computing Literacy for Everyone. I have a greater appreciation for work like Alan Kay’s on STEPS, Andy Ko’s work on tools for end-user programming, and the work on Racket.

On Hand-Washing and Financial Illiteracy

I have been listening to Freakonomics podcasts on long drives. Last month, I listened to “What do hand-washing and financial illiteracy have in common?” I listened to it again over the next few days, and started digging into the literature they cited.

At hospitals, hand-washing is far less common than our knowledge of germ theory says it ought to be. What’s most surprising is that doctors, the ones with the most education in the hospital, are the least likely to wash their hands often enough. The podcast describes how one hospital was able to improve their hand-washing rates through other behavioral methods, like shaming those who didn’t wash their hands and providing evidence that their hands were likely to be filled with bacteria. More education doesn’t necessarily lead to behavioral change.

Much more important was the segment on financial illiteracy. First, they present the work of Annamuria Lusardia who has directly measured the amazing financial illiteracy in our country. There is evidence that much of the Great Recession was caused by poor financial decisions by individuals. Less than a third of the over-50-year-old Americans that Lusardia studied could correctly answer the question, “If you put $100 in a savings account with 2% annual interest, at the end of five years you will have (a) less than $102, (b) exactly $102, or (c) more than $102?” More mathematics background did lead to more success on her questions, but she calls for a much more concerted effort in financial education. Her arguments are supported by some pretty influential officials, like Fed Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke and former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill. It makes sense: If people lack knowledge, we should teach them.

Lauren Willis strongly disagrees, and she’s got the data to back up her argument. She has a 2008 paper with the shocking title, Against Financial Literacy Education that I highly recommend. She presents evidence that financial literacy education has not worked — not that it couldn’t work, but it isn’t working. She cited several studies that showed negative effects of financial education. For example, high school students who participated in the Jump$start program become much more confident about their ability to make financial decisions, and yet made worse decisions than those students who did not participate in the program.

The problem is that financial decisions are just too complicated, and education (especially universal education) is expensive to do well (though Willis doesn’t offer an estimated cost). Educational curricula (even if tested successful) is not always implemented well. The gap between education in teen years and making decisions in your 40’s and 50’s is huge. Instead of education, we should try to prevent damage from ignorance. Willis suggests that we should create a cadre professional of financial advisors and make them available to everyone (for some “pro bono”), and that we should increase regulation of financial markets so that there are fewer riskier investments for the general public. It costs the entire society enormously when large numbers of people make poor financial decisions, and it’s even more expensive to provide enough education to prevent the cost of all that ignorance.

This was a radical idea for me. Education is not free, and sometimes it’s cheaper to prevent the damage of ignorance than correcting the ignorance.

Implications for Computing Literacy Education

I share the vision of Andy DiSessa and others of computing as a kind of literacy, and a goal of “Computing for All” where everyone has the knowledge and facility to build programs (for modeling, simulations, data analyses, etc.) for their needs. Let’s call that a goal of “Universal Computing Literacy,” and we can consider the costs of using education to reach that goal, e.g., “Universal Computing Education to achieve Universal Computing Literacy.”

The challenge of computing literacy may be even greater than the challenge of financial literacy. People know even less about computing than they do about finance. We don’t know the costs of that ignorance, but we do know that it has been difficult and expensive to provide enough education to correct that ignorance.

Computing may be even more complicated than finance. Willis talks about the myriad terms that people need to know to make good financial decisions (like “adjustable rate mortgages”), but they are at least compounds of English words! I attended a student talk this week, where terms like “D3” and “GreaseMonkey” were bandied about like they were common knowledge. We invent so much language all the time.

What could we possibly teach today in high school that will be useful in even five or ten years, when those students are in their careers, to be able to build something that they could use? “We’ll teach conceptual knowledge so that they can pick up any tools or languages they need.” We have no idea how to achieve this goal in computer science. It takes an enormous effort to develop transferable knowledge, and progress in computing changes the target task all the time. I have a PhD in Computer Science, and it takes me way too much effort to pick up JavaScript libraries that I might want to use — far more effort than a non-technical person will be willing to put in.

The problem is that education is often inefficient and ineffective. Jeremy Roschelle pointed out that education improvements rarely impact economic outputs. Greg Wilson shared a great paper with me in response to some tweets I sent about these ideas. Americans have always turned to education to solve a wide variety of ills, but surprisingly, without much evidence of efficacy. We can teach kids all about healthy eating, but we still have a lot of obesity. Smokers often know lots of details about how bad smoking is for them. Education does not guarantee a change of behavior. This doesn’t mean that education could not be made more effective and more efficient. But it might be even more expensive to fix education than to deal with ignorance.

Universal education is always going to be expensive, and some things are worth it. Text illiteracy and innumeracy are very expensive for our society. We need to address those, and we’re not doing a great job at that yet. Computing education to achieve real literacy is just not as important.

I am no longer convinced that providing computing education to everyone is going to be effective to reach the goal of making everyone computing literate, and I am quite convinced that it will be very expensive. Requiring computing education for STEM professionals at undergraduate level may still be cost-effective, because those are the professionals most likely to see the value of computing in their careers, which reduces the costs and makes the education more likely to be effective.

Barb sees a benefit in Universal Computing Education, but not to achieve Universal Computing Literacy. We need to make computing education available everywhere for broadening participation in computing. To get computing into every school, Barb argues that we have to make it required for everyone. Without the requirement, schools won’t go to the effort of including it. Without a requirement, female and URM students who might not see themselves in computing, would never even give it a chance. In response to my argument about cost, she argues that the computing education for everyone doesn’t have to be effective. We don’t have to achieve lifelong literacy for everyone. Merely, it has to give everyone exposure, to give everyone the opportunity to discover a love for computing. Those that find that love will educate themselves and/or will pursue more educational opportunities later. I heard Mike Eisenberg give a talk once many years ago, where he said something that still sticks with me: that the point of school is to give everyone the opportunity to find out what they’re passionate about. For that reason, we have to give everyone the chance to discover computing, and requiring it may be the only way to reach that goal.

It’s always possible that we’ll figure out to educate more effectively at lower cost. For example, integrating computing literacy education into mathematics and science classes may be cheaper — students will be using it in context, teachers in STEM are better prepared to learn and teach computing, and we may improve mathematics and science teaching along the way. My argument about being too expensive is based on what we know now how to do. Economic arguments are often changed by improved science (see Malthus).

As Willis suggests for financial literacy, we in computing literacy are probably going to be more successful for less cost by focusing on the demand side of the equation. We need to make computing easier, and make tools and languages that are more accessible, as Alan Kay, Andy Ko, and the Racket folks are doing. We have to figure out how to change computing so that it’s possible to learn and use it over an entire career, without a PhD in Computer Science. We have to figure out how to get these tools into use so that students see use of such tools as authentic and not a “toy.”

“Computing for All” is an important goal. “Access to Computing Education for All” is critical. “Universal Computing Education to achieve Universal Computing Literacy” is likely to be ineffective and will be very expensive. On the other hand, requiring computing education may be the only way to broaden participation in computing.

April 9, 2013 at 1:20 am 34 comments


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