Archive for June, 2013

Why AP CS:Principles is a good thing: Responding to Gas Station without Pumps

Kevin Karplus recently wrote a post (on his highly-recommended Gas Station without Pumps blog) about why funding the new AP CS:Principles (AP CS:P) is such a bad idea, mentioning my positive comments on the news. I actually agree with many of the Gas Station points, but I have a more optimistic take on them.

CS:P was never meant to give credit towards a computing degree. The attestation effort showed that many schools do offer some kind of course like what’s in CS:P. It’s true at UCSC, too:

My own campus has several intro programming courses, some at the level of the AP CSP course.  I suspect that our campus would offer credit in these low-level courses for the AP CSP exam. These lowest-level courses do not count towards any major, though—they provide elective credit for what should be high-school level courses.  The intent (as is apparently the intent for AP CSP) is to provide an extremely low barrier to entry into the field.

That’s really the main point. We need more CS education in high schools. When there’s only 1 AP CS teacher for every 12 high schools, there is very little computer science education out there. AP courses is a big lever to get low barrier courses out there.

Gas Station then points out that courses like these may not actually have much of an impact downstream.

I don’t know how well the low barrier to entry works, though.  I’ve not seen much evidence on our campus that the lowest level courses produce many students who continue to take higher level CS courses…We still have appallingly low numbers of women finishing in CS (and the new game-design major within CS is even more heavily male), so I can’t say that the lower-level intro courses have done much to address the gender imbalance.

That’s a fair point. We don’t know that it will work to get more students into computing. I just did a Blog@CACM post that suggests that the evidence we have is promising in terms of impact on careers, especially for under-represented minorities. You can’t really use a single campus to test the idea though. The game is at the level of thousands of high schools where there is no computer science at all.

I share the Gas Station concern over the professional development challenge.

The success of CSP also depends on thousands of high schools suddenly deciding to teach the course and getting training for their teachers to do this. I (along with many others) have grave doubts that the schools have the desire or the ability to do this. It is true that the CSP course should be a bit easier to train people for than the current AP CS A course (if only because Java syntax, the core of CS A, is so deadly dull).

The question that we need answered is: how important the “Advanced Placement” lever is? Is it so important (big payoff) that having a more accessible AP course in CS (thus, lower cost to adopt) changes the balance for schools? I just had an all-day meeting with folks from the Georgia Department of Education two weeks ago, and they are building AP CS:P into their curriculum plans because it’s now AP. That designator matters. Does it matter enough to draw more teachers into professional development, to get more schools to hire CS teachers? I’m optimistic, but I share the Gas Station concern.

We should also be clear that there really isn’t a single “CS:Principles” course yet. There have been several pilots, and some assessment questions tested, but there is no well-defined curriculum yet and no exemplar test. I have exactly the same question as Gas Station:

The new CSP exam is not supposed to be so language-dependent, which may allow for better pedagogy. Of course, I’m curious how the exam will be written to be language-independent, and whether it will be able to make any meaningful measurements of what the students have learned.

The plan is to use a portfolio approach, like what’s being used in art AP exams now. I really don’t know if it’ll work. I trust that the people working on it, but do see it as an unsolved problem.

I don’t share the Gas Station concern about “Gresham’s Law for pedagogy” (which I’d not heard of previously):

I suspect that the easier AP CSP will replace AP CS A at many high schools, and that CS A will disappear the way that CS AB did in May 2009 (Gresham’s Law for pedagogy: easier courses drive out harder ones).  Whether this is a good or bad outcome depends on how good the AP CSP course turns out to be.

The fact that there already are CS:P-like courses on many campuses, co-existing with CS1’s (intro CS for majors) is evidence that easier courses don’t always drive out harder ones. On our campus, we offer three CS1’s. The MediaComp course would probably be easier for Engineering students than the challenging MATLAB-based on that they currently require, but the Engineering faculty have not been eager to swap it out. The existence of “Physics for Poets” and Calculus aimed at different kinds of students is more evidence that Gresham’s Law doesn’t always hold for classes.

There are lots of challenges to CS:P. AP CS Level A is doing better these days, and I’m glad for that. I want both to succeed. I want a lot of CS in lots high schools. Will the new AP CS:P lead to more CS majors and more people in computing careers? I don’t know — I think so, but I’m not really worried about it. I believe in “computing for everyone” and that lots of people (even non-IT professionals) need to know more about computer science, so having more access to computing education in more schools is a positive end-goal for me.

June 28, 2013 at 1:57 am 23 comments

Zydeco: Supporting Cross-Context Inquiry in Formal and Informal Settings

In a sense, what Chris Quintana is doing here is a connectivist MOOC, but one where the student is guided via software-realized scaffolding through a self-study on a topic of their own interest.  It’s an interesting idea, to help students organize a wide variety of learning opportunities in support of inquiry learning.

We aim to support cross-context inquiry that spans formal and informal settings by developing Zydeco Sci-To-Go, a system integrating mobile devices and cloud technologies for middle school science inquiry. Zydeco enables teachers and students to create science investigations by defining goals, questions, and “labels” to annotate, organize, and reflect on multimodal data e.g., photos, videos, audio, text that they collect in museums, parks, home, etc. As students collect this information, it is stored in the cloud so that students and teachers can access that annotated information later and use it with Zydeco tools to develop a scientific explanation addressing the question they are investigating.

via Zydeco | Mobile Devices for Cross-Context Inquiry in Formal and Informal Settings.

June 28, 2013 at 1:21 am Leave a comment

Even for Experts! What Makes Code Hard to Understand?

When I visited Indiana earlier this year, I got a chance to meet with Rob Goldstone who told me about these fascinating results that Michael Hansen describes in the blog post linked below — that adding two blank lines to a Python program (which has no change to execution) significantly changes how programmers understand the code.  Are his participants getting confused, because spacing matters horizontally in Python but not vertically?

The other experiments that Michael describes below, like the one I’m quoting below, are also amazing.  Michael isn’t dealing with students — most of his participants are programmers with 2-10 years worth of experience, and graduate degrees.  How could they get this code so wrong, when the problem is the kind of thing we might give on a CS1 exam?  Here’s one hypothesis: We really don’t know just how hard programming is, and both students and programmers understand it far less well than we expect.

Why did 50% of our participants get this program wrong? There is a strong expectation amongst programmers that you don’t include code that won’t be used. Elliot Soloway identified this and other maxims (or rules of discourse) in 1984. Like conversational norms, these unwritten rules can have a powerful influence on interpretation.

via What Makes Code Hard to Understand? | synesthesiam.

June 27, 2013 at 1:31 am 7 comments

Learning for today versus learning for tomorrow: Teaching evaluations

Really interesting set of experiments that give us new insight into the value of teaching evaluations.  The second is particularly striking and points to the difficulty of measuring teaching quality — good today isn’t the same as good tomorrow.

When you measure performance in the courses the professors taught i.e., how intro students did in intro, the less experienced and less qualified professors produced the best performance. They also got the highest student evaluation scores. But more experienced and qualified professors students did best in follow-on courses i.e., their intro students did best in advanced classes.The authors speculate that the more experienced professors tend to “broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material.” p. 430 That is, because they don’t teach directly to the test, they do worse in the short run but better in the long run.

via Do the Best Professors Get the Worst Ratings? | Psychology Today.

June 26, 2013 at 1:20 am 1 comment

Disaggregating Asian-American educational attainment

Computer science is mostly white or Asian and male.  We have lots of data to support that.  What I didn’t realize was how sub-groups within Asian-American differ markedly in their educational attainment.  A new report from NYU and ETS disaggregates the data, and below is the startling graphic that Rick Adrion pointed me to.

Ed-attainment-Asian-American

June 25, 2013 at 1:06 am 32 comments

17th in the Top 100 Influential Education Blogs

I don’t know who Onalytica is and if they do high-quality rankings, but I found the methodology interesting. This blog came in 17th among the top 100 most influential education blogs. What’s surprising is that it has one of the lowest “popularity” rankings in the top 20, but one of the highest “over-influence” ratio of influence-to-popularity. As Alfred Thompson suggested to me on Facebook, that points to the small community of CS Ed researchers and bloggers, but that a high percentage of them read here. I appreciate that!

For a detailed explanation of the methodology we refer to out previous post. As before, we report the following metrics: Onalytica Influence Index, Popularity and Over-Influence.

Influence index is the impact factor of the blogs, similar to the impact factor of academic journals; Popularity measures how well-known a blog is among other education blogs and Over-Influence seeks to capture how influential a blog is compared to how popular it is.

The movements in the ranking have been caused by a change in the quantity and quality of citations that a blog has received. If a blog has gone up it means that it has been cited by more influential blogs lately and/or has received a higher number of citations. Moreover, there are new influential blogs that we have only recently started monitoring.

Change In Rank Rank Name Influence Popularity Over-Influence
New Entry ★ 17 Computing Education Blog 35.9 9.0 2.7

via What has changed in the Top 100 Influential Education Blogs ranking? | Onalytica Blog.

June 24, 2013 at 1:40 am 3 comments

NCTQ and US News Report on Teacher Prep: Making CS Teacher Prep Better

The National Council on Teacher Quality and US News and World Report have  released a state-by-state report on teacher preparation — and it’s pretty dismal.  I’ve copied some of the top “take-aways” below.

Important “take-aways”

  • In countries where students outperform the U.S., teacher prep schools recruit candidates from the top third of the college-going population. The Review found only one in four U.S. programs restricts admissions to even the top half of the college-going population.

  • A large majority of programs (71 percent) are not providing elementary teacher candidates with practical, research-based training in reading instruction methods that could reduce the current rate of reading failure (30 percent) to less than 10 percent of the student population.

  • Only 11 percent of elementary programs and 47 percent of secondary programs are providing adequate content preparation for teachers in the subjects they will teach.

via Teacher Prep: Findings.

There is some significant critique of the NCTQ study, particularly on its methodology. This is from Diane Ravitch’s blog:

NCTQ is not a professional association. It did not make site visits. It made its harsh judgments by reviewing course syllabi and catalogs. The criteria that it rated as most important was the institution’s fidelity to the Common Core standards.

As Rutgers’ Bruce Baker pointed out in his response, NCTQ boasts of its regard for teachers but its review of the nation’s teacher-training institutions says nothing about faculty. They don’t matter. They are irrelevant. All that matters is what is in the course catalog.

via That NCTQ Report on Teacher Education: F | Diane Ravitch’s blog.

I’d rather see the NCTQ study as pointing out problems for computing education programs to avoid. Given the results coming in from the UChicago Landscape study, I doubt if we’re doing much better now in computer science.  From a positive perspective, the best practices identified in the NCTQ report can inform what we do in computing education teacher professional development.  As Jeanne Century said at SIGCSE this last year, one advantage we have is that we’re starting from a pretty much clean slate — there’s not much out there.  We can try to build it right from the start.

June 24, 2013 at 1:18 am Leave a comment

Data from edX’s first course offer preliminary insights into online learning

Really interesting — the data are starting to appear on what’s going on in MOOCs.  I wouldn’t have predicted differences in media preferences in homework vs. exam.

In their analysis of 6.002x resource usage, Pritchard and RELATE postdocs tallied clickstream data, such as where and when users clicked on videos, discussion threads, tutorials or textbook pages when working on homework, in comparison to when they were taking the midterm or final exam.

Interestingly, the group found that in completing homework assignments, users spent more time on video lectures more than any other resource. However, during an exam, students referred most to the online textbook, which they virtually ignored when doing homework. The data, although preliminary, illustrate how students may use different online strategies to solve homework versus exam problems.

While use of the discussion forum was not required in the course, the researchers found it to be the most popular resource for students completing homework assignments. In fact, 90 percent of the clickstream activity on the forum came from users who viewed existing threads without posting comments.

via Data from edX’s first course offer preliminary insights into online learning – MIT News Office.

June 21, 2013 at 1:33 am 8 comments

Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried

Fascinating study  — not surprising, but worthwhile noting.  This work was done in Chemistry, so it bears replication in other STEM disciplines.  Some on the SIGCSE-Members list were wondering, “Is this just for research-oriented universities?  Or for teaching-oriented universities, too?”  In our work interviewing faculty as part of our work in GaComputes and DCCE, we heard surprisingly similar concerns at both kinds of institutions.  The faculty at schools with a teaching mission told us that their tenure was based on research publications, and they felt similar levels of stress.

Young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men for three reasons. During their time as PhD candidates, large numbers of women conclude that (i) the characteristics of academic careers are unappealing, (ii) the impediments they will encounter are disproportionate, and (iii) the sacrifices they will have to make are great.

via Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried | Higher Education Network | Guardian Professional.

June 21, 2013 at 1:10 am 1 comment

Unexpected Issues in Online Education Deal: The Bandwidth Catch-22

Interesting issue came up in the efforts to provide online education through San Jose.

“I get this call from San Jose State: ‘Uh, we have a problem,'” recalled Mark Ryan, superintendent of a charter school in Oakland that was taking part in the project to offer for-credit online classes to students, including high school students. According to the newspaper, “It turned out some of the low-income teens didn’t have computers and high-speed Internet connections at home that the online course required. Many needed personal attention to make it through. The final results aren’t in yet, but the experiment exposed some challenges to the promise of a low-cost online education. And it showed there is still a divide between technology-driven educators and the low-income, first-generation college hopefuls they are trying to reach.”

via Unexpected Issues in Online Education Deal | Inside Higher Ed.

So why isn’t there better bandwidth everywhere? The NYTimes says that it’s an issue of “digital literacy.” Which creates this interesting Catch-22 problem: How can we use online education to improve digital literacy if there’s not enough bandwidth for online education because of too little digital literacy?

The major causes for low subscribership, as extensive survey research shows, are low interest in the Internet and minimal digital literacy. And too many American households lack the money or interest to buy a computer. As a result, more Americans subscribe to cable TV and cellphones than to Internet service. Our broadband subscription rate is 70 percent, but could easily surpass 90 percent if computer ownership and digital literacy were widespread.

via No Country for Slow Broadband – NYTimes.com.

June 20, 2013 at 1:09 am 5 comments

It’s time for Teach For America to fold: The lesson for computing education

The piece linked below is about why Teach for America should fold, but the argument being made is the same for why TEALS is not a useful strategy for the long-term health of computing education in the United States.  We need to build up our corps of veteran computer science teachers.  Using professional IT workers as stop-gap measures means that there’s no incentive to develop those veteran teachers, and means that we’re not spending our efforts in teacher professional development that will pay off over the long-term.

The other problem is the wasted investment a school makes in a teacher who leaves after just a few years. Sadly, I’m a poster child for this. I remember my last day at my school in Colorado, as I made the rounds saying goodbye to veteran teachers, my friends and colleagues who had provided me such crucial support and mentorship. As I talked of my plans for law school in Chicago, and they bade me best wishes, I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt. Their time and energy spent making me a better teacher – and I was massively better on that day compared to my first – was for naught. The previous summer I had spent a week of training, paid for by my school, to learn to teach pre–Advanced Placement classes. I taught the class for a year; presumably, I thought, someone else would have to receive the same training – or, worse, someone else would not receive the same training. All that work on classroom management and understanding of the curriculum, all the support in connecting with students and writing lesson – it would all have to begin again with a new teacher.

via It’s time for Teach For America to fold — former TFAer.

June 19, 2013 at 1:22 am 7 comments

CS:Principles is officially going to be AP

Congratulations to Owen Astrachan and Amy Briggs for achieving the goal of CS:Principles being declared “AP.”  This is going to be important for attracting teachers to take CS:Principles professional development.

To help ensure that more high school students are prepared to pursue postsecondary education in computer science, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is making a four-year, $5.2 million grant to the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program® (AP®) to fund the creation of AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSP).

via The National Science Foundation Provides $5.2 Million Grant to Create New Advanced Placement® Computer Science Course and Exam.

June 18, 2013 at 1:19 am 1 comment

Misunderstanding MOOCs and Computing Labor Shortage: Andy Kessler of WSJ.com

Andy Kessler of the Wall Street Journal (linked below) misunderstands why we have a computing labor shortage. MOOCs definitely make “computing education” (in general) accessible to more people.  But that doesn’t mean that we’ll shrink the computing labor shortage, as described by Code.org.  Undergraduate computing education is “accessible” to everyone on campus, but rarely draws more than 15% women. We have to go from “accessible” to “engaging.”  Unless we draw in women and under-represented minorities, we can’t close the jobs-graduates gap.  We have to change how we teach to draw more women and under-represented minorities, and MOOCs don’t teach that way.

Anyone who cares about Americas shortage of computer-science experts should cheer the recent news out of Georgia Tech. The Atlanta university is making major waves in business and higher education with its May 14 announcement that the college will offer the first online masters degree in computer science—and that the degree can be had for a quarter of the cost of a typical on-campus degree. Many other universities are experimenting with open online courses, or MOOCs, but Georgia Techs move raises the bar significantly by offering full credit in a graduate program.It comes just in time. A shortfall of computer-science graduates is a constant refrain in Silicon Valley, and by 2020 some one million high-tech job openings will remain unfilled, according to the Commerce Department.

via Andy Kessler: Professors Are About to Get an Online Education – WSJ.com.

June 17, 2013 at 1:42 am 11 comments

Could CS departments be legally forced to change their practices?

The latest Freakonomics podcast is on tipping and whether it should be banned, i.e., made illegal.  One of the arguments for banning tipping is that it’s discriminatory.  White servers get more than Black servers, for example.  Professor Michael Lynn cited a Supreme Court case that I found described below.  If a neutral practice disproportionately affects minorities or women in an adverse manner, then the practice is illegal.

I’ve raised the question here before, whether CS departments could be forced to change their teaching practices in order to comply with Title IX provisions so that more women might participate.  One of the arguments I got in response was that no one adopted any practices to explicitly exclude women.  This ruling says that the motivation for the practice doesn’t matter — even if it’s a “neutral” practice, if the effect is discriminatory, it has to go.  We certainly have evidence that implicit bias exists in computing classrooms and that CS teachers allow their classrooms to develop a defensive climate. Further, we know a lot about how to improve women’s participation in computing.  If we have a legal requirement to make computing education available to women, my guess is that we could be required to make change.  For example, could we be forced to give up MOOCs as a discriminatory practice, since MOOCs have a measurable discriminatory effect?

In Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the Supreme Court decides that where an employer uses a neutral policy or rule, or utilizes a neutral test, and this policy or test disproportionately affects minorities or women in an adverse manner, then the employer must justify the neutral rule or test by proving it is justified by business necessity. The Court reasons that Congress directed the thrust of Title VII to the consequences of employment practices, not simply the motivation. This decision paves the way for EEOC and charging parties to challenge employment practices that shut out groups if the employer cannot show the policy is justified by business necessity.

via Selected Supreme Court Decisions.

June 17, 2013 at 1:08 am 17 comments

The White Geek’s burden

I thought that Julian Assange’s point in this piece in the NYTimes were fascinating, but I was particularly struck by his description of “the white geek’s burden.”  My colleague, Beki Grinter, has pointed to a similar rhetoric going on with MOOCs — that the United States is offering MOOCs for “the developing world” such as “Africa.” As she points out in her blog post, even that phrasing ignores the complexity of languages and cultures in the enormous continent of “Africa.”  Are MOOCs another example of the US gadget consumerism that Assange critiques in his essay?

In the book the authors happily take up the white geek’s burden. A liberal sprinkling of convenient, hypothetical dark-skinned worthies appear: Congolese fisherwomen, graphic designers in Botswana, anticorruption activists in San Salvador and illiterate Masai cattle herders in the Serengeti are all obediently summoned to demonstrate the progressive properties of Google phones jacked into the informational supply chain of the Western empire.

via The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ by Julian Assange – NYTimes.com.

June 14, 2013 at 1:55 am 1 comment

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