Saturday, August 28, 2010

Journalists and Coders Combine Forces

Right after my last somewhat downbeat post about the possible  future of Skype, I ran across this post that lifted my spirits. This looks like collaboration in a new and possibly very fertile way. It is supported in part by the Mozilla Foundation which really caught my attention:

"Hacks/Hackers, Mozilla, the Medill School of Journalism, The Media Consortium and others are teaming up to develop a solid six-week online curriculum that will benefit both "hacks" and hackers (that's journalists & programmers, in plain English). Each week the course will focus on a different topic, and each week the participants will be joined by a different subject-matter expert (or two) from the field of news innovation. The course readings, online participation, and a seminar are expected to require roughly 4-6 hours per week."

The full story is here. 

Skype Going IPO - will we lose a wonderful technology?

Earlier this month, the news broke that Skype was preparing to go public, i.e. to file an IPO. The New York Times article  said early in the article:

"Skype, which offers free or low-cost voice and video calls over the Internet, has grown rapidly since it was founded in 2003 by two entrepreneurs, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis." 

Yes. For good reason. Skype has been a boon to the average person who wants to connect with friends, families, relatives, who live far away. If you only call nationally within the US, then you likely have a "nationwide" cell phone plan, and do not pay for long distance domestic calls. But if you wish to call overseas, and talk for any length of time, the costs can be prohibitive for the average Jane or Joe. Skype was designed as a benefit for society, for all of society. The founders, Zennstrom and Friis had philanthropic ideas in mind when they decided to distribute Skype free, and dirt cheap if you chose to call from a computer to a regular phone. 

After they sold Skype to eBay which then sold it to an investor group, Zennstrom and Friis had to go to court to regain some control, after they didn't like the direction they saw their product being taken. And now, it looks like there are again possible signs of trouble for the philanthropically minded.

The same NYT article quoted above said:

"Skype, which is mostly used by private individuals, has also been trying to move into the corporate market, where potential customers have had security concerns."


"Unlike some technology companies that turn to the market to raise money, Skype is profitable, reporting net income of $13 million, on revenue of $406 million, in the first six months."

What does this mean? Will Skype move away from the philosophy of equal access freely available to computer users that was championed by the founders? It sounds like this could happen. Very worry some, considering that a profitable entity that has done a world of good (no pun intended) for people from all walks of life may go the route of putting increased profits ahead of a philosophy of helping people that was originally intended. When they aren't even losing money!

We have to wait and see what happens. I am sure I'm not the only person holding my breath and hoping for a positive outcome for "the average" Skype user who just wants to stay in touch with friends and family far away. It would be a shame to take away this incredibly positive use of computing technology.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What is a Very Small Business To Do?

Today I am puzzling over how the very smallest businesses, those owned by one or two people, who employ  a few people on a part time basis or perhaps employ no one aside from the owners at all, who are not particularly interested in computing and computers, but realize there is a tool there to be used... how can such a business best take advantage of computing? Yes, I was inspired by someplace specific. I am thinking about the studio where I practice yoga, Yoga Del Mar here in San Diego County (the town of Del Mar not surprisingly). Along with a few other interested students I have been discussing with the studio owner and long time yoga teacher Geri Portnoy how to best use computing, and social media in particular, to the studio's best advantage. I don't think I'd be going out on a limb by saying that all of us involved in that conversation would agree that yoga has been one of the best things to happen to us -  in my case, in terms of putting life in perspective. What better thing could I hope to share with others?

If this is all somewhat foreign ground to you, let me say that yoga has been around a looong time, and depending upon how you choose to define it, its origins vary. Ancient artwork depicting meditation goes back thousands of years. Writings discussing philosophical tenets often associated with yoga, via Buddhism for example, go back perhaps 2500 years or so. It all gets very complex very fast because there are now many styles of yoga and the history of each one varies. For example, one style that is suddenly very popular in the USA is called "hot yoga"; it is actually a variant of a style of yoga with a more formal name: Bikram yoga.  Did I mention that in this style of yoga you practice in a room temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degrees Celsius) with a humidity of 40%?

Not my style, but some people love it. Personally I prefer something a little less gung ho and a bit more mind and body well rounded. Recently, someone rather vigorously tried to convince me what great exercise! their particular style of yoga was and how I should ditch my current practice (Anusara) if I wanted to get a really good workout!!!

I had a fleeting thought that I could point out some nice musculature I have acquired as well as to demonstrate some limb flexibility...but that would have been a bit immature.

Instead I have been thinking even more about how my studio can take advantage of computing to tell the world (in a mature fashion :) about what they have to offer. And as our small group discussed this topic yesterday, I considered the constraints that any local community based business operates under (fiscal, personnel, background and experiences far from the computing arena). Many of the people and businesses I have spoken about here or in my magazine column Percolations (appearing quarterly in the ACM Inroads Magazine) are medium to large organizations that can draw in one way or another upon a set of resources not available to small but equally important businesses.

Some creative thinking is in order here about the role computing can play, because long term self-sustaining methods and strategies are in order. There are many really valuable small businesses out there engaged in wonderful society enhancing activities. They have no desire to grow larger or more impersonal. This is going to take some thinking...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Contextualized Computing Taken to the Next Level

Something that is clear to me about The Nature of Computing perhaps needs to be tossed out there for wider consideration. Maybe you (being direct here for a minute) haven't thought about it the way I'm about to propose. After all, modern learning theories are all about how people perceive the world differently from one another! I'm talking about that Big Question: "what IS computing?"

If you are like me, sometimes you hear this topic come up and want to sneak out of the room quietly. Stay with me for a minute ok?

As I was writing my last post about the arguments for and against contextualized courses, I was thinking wouldn't it be great if all computing classes from CS1 up through the most advanced theoretical coursework were contextualized? Grounded in exciting real world use?

Then I started thinking about that question concerning "what computing IS". (don't touch that browser button just yet!)

I started mentally playing with the words "contextualize" "interdisciplinary" "integrated", all words I have used in recent posts - words used by different people in different...contexts (sorry, couldn't help that).

What do "contextualize" "interdisciplinary" "integrated" all have in common?

They have to do with making connections. Making connections between content and ... something. Something concrete, something "real", something (by my extension) interesting. Something beyond the abstract interestingness that many computer scientists and computing educators see in the raw content for its own sake.

Making connections throughout the curriculum. I like the sound of that as a catch phrase. That would be a productive way to think about making computing interesting to many more students (parents, legislators?). We know that computing underlies (or overlays!) so much in the world around us. Well, by making connections to it, we can  walk the talk in and outside of class.  Students, the public in general, don't have to take our word for it. From Day 1 it is just there. And it does NOT mean watering down our content or lowering our standards. That is a straw man argument. Really.

Consider: the redesign of a computing curriculum such that every class incorporates making connections to an outside world context.

Consider: that making connections is viewed as integral as any other aspect of the course.

What if a course that does not make significant real world  connections is considered a poorly designed course both from computing and pedagogical perspectives?

Take the above three suggestions as non negotiable givens. Suddenly everything looks different doesn't it? Radical idea?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Is Contextualized Computing Appropriate?

Following the conversations about whether "contextualized" content, particularly in CS1, is appropriate or not, is getting more interesting. The standout example and prime target is of course Media Computation, initiated by Mark Guzdial at Georgia Tech and now being disseminated across the United States for both computing and non computing students.

Mark reported recently in his blog post about the ICER conference that another well known computer science education researcher, Moti Ben-Ari said as follows:

"Moti did say during his talk that he's against contextualized computing education (fairly pointedly to me). He says that it's ok for a short while to gain motivation, but decontextualized knowledge is better, more transferable, and more creative."

Moti's claim is not new, but a variant of the concrete vs. abstract "which is best" discussions that have been going on in our community for years. The comment also leads down the well trodden path of Constructivism and related learning theories so I'm not going there today.

Where I am going is to look at newer arguments against contextualized computing. My set of "reporters" from the recent ICER and ITiCSE conferences have told me that some of the complaints against Media Computation (and presumably other contextualized approaches to teaching computing) are using interesting arguments:

  • Contextualized computing is "fooling" students. This argument leads directly or indirectly to:
  • Media Computation / contextualized computing is not "real" computer science
  • Contextualized computing in CS1 does not properly prepare students for transition to CS2. This argument leads directly or indirectly to:
  • Contextualized computing takes away from / distracts from / cuts out time for "real" computer science
The third bullet point is currently being studied by several faculty around the United States, so we shall soon have data by which to assess the claim. The second and fourth bullet points will be topics of future posts here.

Today I am zeroing in on a part of the first bullet point: Contextualized computing is "fooling" students.

Something disturbing was relayed to me from one of the conferences. One of my "reporters" told me that a speaker said something to the effect that we need to hold onto women students until it is too late for them to change majors. The implication was that we should do whatever it takes to keep women in computing classes, even if it means misleading them about what computing "is".

Perhaps that interpretation is not what the speaker intended. But at least one audience member understood it that way quite clearly. A message that arguably proposes misleading students plays right into the hands of those who contend that contextualized computing is not real computer science. (At this point you should have an idea where I stand on the issue if by some odd chance you didn't previously)

There is another problem with the "hold onto them until it is too late" argument, whatever the intent. Suppose that students don't realize until their third or fourth year that they dislike computing, the courses are not what they wanted and they want out? Students are not stupid. They will find a way out. I have an example.

Some time ago I published a journalism piece about a Hispanic woman who now is a successful software engineer. During our interviews she spoke about her many cohorts who left the field. One story really stood out. A friend of hers decided midway through her program that she did not like computer science studies. She finished the degree because she felt it was too onerous to change late in the game. The moment she graduated she entered the Fashion industry and never looked back.

The bottom line here is: how does it help the computing field if students only stay because we make it difficult to leave, or if we place  the use of known motivational approaches low on the priority scale after the first year? Under either scenario we lose.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

We Are Borg?

Today I am going to take a detour. I am sitting in my public library at a terminal with a little clock at the bottom telling me how many of my 60 minutes are left. When that time is up, the computer will unceremoniously and without warning reboot.

So, this will be a speed of lightening post, racing against the clock. There may be fewer links than usual as a result, for which I apologize in advance. And perhaps a few uncaught typos.

You see, late yesterday my computer suffered a psychotic break. It had been sending me discreet signals for a few weeks that it was under stress, in the form of "You Need a New Battery" messages, which should not be true, given the fact that it is a new laptop and I faithfully power down the battery on a regular basis.

Suddenly, yesterday, the computer went psychedelic. It went into an LSD inspired trip of blue swoops and circles, lime green, orange swirls, blurred edges and flashing that would set off seizures in someone prone to react badly to flashing lights. Amazing colors ......

My first reaction (after the moment of shock and awe) was to make a grab for my external drive and initiate an immediate backup. If I were to lose the last week's worth of work...shudder the thought. While the backup was in progress, I called the manufacturer (the computer is under warranty) and we confirmed together that indeed, the motherboard was on its way out.

Backup completed (phew), service call completed (new motherboard on the way), I started to come to the realization that I was CUT OFF! I had my files, but my old computer was not only unable to read them, but was so slow that I could run a full load of laundry waiting for it to boot up.

The momentous nature of the problem set in rapidly. I couldn't do my research! I couldn't do my writing! How was I to read the New York Times or the BBC or listen to National Public Radio! Nor could I connect with my friends on Facebook! I couldn't pay my bills! I couldn't look up the location of...anything. I couldn't make social plans for the weekend! AAAA!

I realized I had two choices. Choice 1. Sit in front of my psychedelic computer, pretend it was 1968 and I was participating in the Summer of Love. Choice 2. Go to yoga. I chose option 2. Waiting outside the studio with my yoga teacher, I said I felt like I had had my arms cut off. This is when I started to think about just how interconnected everything is to computing.

Spending the next hour and a half mostly upside down put things into a different perspective. Perhaps a lot of blood rushing to the head caused a realignment of my vision. In any event, I thought about the 80s show Star Trek: Next Generation and The Borg - a collective of human-machine "objects" that together constituted one entity. There was no individual, and, for those who remember (probably most readers of a certain age), when a physical object (i.e. former human) was severed from the greater Borg Collective, they went into total confusion, panic, inability to function and were fearful. All they wanted was to be reconnected as soon as possible.

With some amusement and just a bit of serious thought I wondered "Am I Borg?". Computing systems are SO integrated into our lives that for a few moments I felt functionless! But after the aforementioned upside-downness I remembered. Oh... I can pay my bills. I must have a checkbook somewhere. And there was that thing called a telephone . Yes, I could function. I could read something hard copy related to my work. So this morning I spent several hours ensconced with a latte in my local coffee shop reading "Principles of Health Interoperability HL7 and SNOMED" (Benson 2010). Fascinating actually, but a story for another day. The little clock on the library computer is ticking its way down.

What this little episode of motherboard demise is reminding me is just how  interconnected we are to computer systems, how much we depend upon them. And by the way I LOVE my public library system. I was a big fan before, but now I am an even bigger fan. I look around and I see that virtually every terminal is occupied. So in addition to the wonderful access to books for free, they provide access to computers to those that might not have access otherwise. Or those whose computers decide to go on an extended holiday. In the future I will pay more attention to my extension-of-self's physical manifestations of stress, should it have any, and not wait until it screams out at me in living color and keels over.

With all of this interdependence, intertwining of computing with everything, there is so much opportunity to be creative and put them to good use. Uh oh....the little clock tells me that shortly I will be severed from my tenous connection to the Collective. Maybe I should take advantage of this, view it as an opportunity and go to the beach?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Integrating Computing into Secondary School Subject Matter

How are we going to entice students into the study of computing in our secondary schools? A hot topic, which I discussed in a previous post about the new CS  Principles initiative. That is an exciting approach off and running. What will happen though, when a school takes a different approach to infusing computing into the curriculum? What happens when computing is a consciously chosen tool to teach required subject matter (Language Arts, Physics etc) as opposed to being the core subject matter itself? Here in my back yard we will soon be able to watch this play out.

There is a new technology oriented public charter school opening this fall in San Diego called Coleman Tech. I read their web site in some detail, and noted that their Mission Statement prominently ends by saying they will teach in a "technology enhanced environment". This past Saturday, I attended one of their information sessions.

An enthusiastic presentation was given by several people on the leadership team, including Vice Principal Neil McCurdy. Neil is a computer scientist who earned his PhD here at UC-San Diego and is a veteran high school teacher. We first met a few years ago when he accepted my invitation on behalf of The ACM Education Council (info here and here) to provide his perspective on the state of high school computer science.

Saturday, after the Coleman Tech team's  power point presentation, Neil demonstrated examples of how computing can be integrated into Biology and Math classes. His approach was to provide pre-written Java code for the students to tweak and thus create ecological competition or a trigonometry dependent screen saver. Altering the code a little at a time (I initially wrote "bit by bit" but decided that was a poor unintended pun) students receive instantaneous, colorful graphic results while learning the subject matter content. Along the way they also learn some Java and computational thinking is gently acquired.

Further comparing the above (dare I say sneaky?) multi-class approach to teaching computational thinking with the CS Principles Project approach of creating a dedicated class, I did a bit of digging. Beyond reading all I could find on the most recent descriptions of the Principles project, I also read a post from last year by Jan Cuny of the NSF where she made the case for the Principles Project. She never uses the words interdisciplinary or integration. But she says "computing is a creative activity that draws upon a wide variety of fields" and that it has a "breadth of application". Hmmm. Sounds like something Coleman Tech would agree with. They don't use the words interdisciplinary or integration in their public documents either.

Each approach has its merits, which have been adequately described by those implementing them.

Each approach has its challenges when it comes to attracting students to a career in computing. The CS Principles documents (and most readers of this blog I suspect) are well aware of the systemic challenges faced by the stand alone course approach. Conversely, the Coleman Tech approach will expose a wide variety of students to computing because the courses are not elective. However, the challenges to this approach are equally demanding:

  • If a high school student is in her or his "Biology" class, and they use computing to do "cool things", will they be attracted to study Biology? Or Computing? 
  • As computing educators (university, college, high school) we have a vested interest in making sure some students at least, are made aware of the computing focus and want to pursue it further. I find it unlikely that this awareness will happen on its own very often. Even if I believed otherwise, experience says that a proactive approach to recruitment is the way to go.
  • How do we address the challenge of proactive recruitment into computing from [other topics] classes? 
Coleman Tech Charter School opens in less than a month. It is going to be exciting to see what effect their "technology enhanced" approach has on student interest in further computing study. I won't be the only one watching, but I'll definitely be blogging about it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Weird Rearranges as Wired - is that Good? Part 1.

On a whim (that I have been considering for about 2 weeks) I decided to purchase a copy of Wired Magazine and flip through it. There is always something (many somethings) that amaze, surprise, intrigue, entertain, or puzzle me. But rarely bore me. In fact, I suspect, that is one of the reasons that Wired has been so successful over the years: it is flashy, sometimes controversial, weird (rearrange the letters W E I R D and you get W I R E D) and, well fun.

Somewhere, within the last year or two, somewhere that I cannot seem to resurrect (darn it) I read a hard edged assessment of the magazine that accused it of  reinforcing all types of socially unhealthy stereotypes and activities. Because I cannot locate the source, or even recall now if it was a book or article, I err on the side of caution and won't try to be more specific. Besides which, at the time I felt conflicted and not sure whether I agreed or not.

Lately, thinking about the need for more attention to be paid to socially beneficial computing activities, I have been thinking about the media. I started wondering what the more popular computing magazines choose to discuss. So of course I thought of Wired. Which I still enjoy reading by the way.

As luck would have it, the grocery store was all out. After weeks of walking past the magazine rack nonchalantly, I'm now impatient, so I took the next best approach and went to the online site (linked above). Not as helpful as having the real thing to flip through and scribble upon with my handy pen - my 11th Grade English teacher Dr. Shohet drilled into us that books are not sacred objects and that if you have a reaction to one you should write it down right there! He made us write in our classic novels and non fiction, until we got over the sense of overwhelming guilt that I at least, started out with. He had a good point actually, and I have been periodically writing in books and magazines ever since. With occasional guilt  in regard to books -  I sometimes cheat and resort to the use of colored sticky notes covered in microscopic scrawl.

I wonder how many other people write full on commentary in their books? Magazines?

Back to Wired. I am going to have to wait for the paper copy to fully satisfy my desire to know what the magazine has  in the way of material that qualifies for my "good for society" label seal of approval, but looking through the online site is not encouraging. I cruised through many of the 18 Sections and nothing jumped out at me.

I really need that paper copy, a pen, and a few hours in a coffee shop to do a full analysis. Now I am determined that this will happen.

To Be Continued...

Monday, August 2, 2010

New AP CS Principles Exam and Supporting Courses - Huge Opportunity!

Just out, hot off the press, in case you have not yet seen it, is an Open Letter to the Computer Science Community discussing the development of a new AP CS "Principles" course. The course is being developed in response to the development of a new AP Exam by  The College Board with support from the National Science Foundation

As described in the documentation, this new course and test are not designed to supplant the existing Computer Science AP exam (unfortunately stuck in between Math and Statistics on the web page and accessed via a "math" URL) and preparation course. That course, and the test it prepares the high school student for, will remain for the time being primarily Java programming.

This new AP exam is targeted at a broader audience. Pulling from the long list of benefits cited for this exam  (and by extension the course) are:
  • ... can potentially remove the stereotype that "CS-types" are anti-social maladjusted white males.
  • ...High school students ... will be exposed to a fascinating body of knowledge that they know by personal experience is "relevant and important" to their lives...
Music to my soul. But the story gets better. Not only are there plans for a high school course, but for a college version of the course that will, to use the magic words so important to students and their parents "be awarded credit". Let's be real here - it helps a LOT to get students into a course (which you have to do before you can enchant them with it) by letting them know that - from the student's pov - the course is not "a waste of time". 

The very nature of this course is an opportunity and a call for interdisciplinary computing and for positive examples of applications of the field! Pardon me if I hop up and down just a bit. 

While the Computer Science Principles class is being piloted this coming year there is a lot that needs to be done to publicize the effort and support it. The main page describing the AP CS Principles effort (previously linked above as well) contains a short, readable, do-able list of things that any computer scientist or friend of computer science can help with. 

Let's take this rare opportunity  (just how often do you think that a brand new College Board AP exam is created?) to influence the creation and adoption of a great course to show computing at its most diverse and societal best.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Entrepreneurship: Taking an Idea into Your Own Hands

I was reminded on Friday that "interdisciplinary computing" can mean far more than the intersection of computing and some other well defined field of study. I had a conversation with Margaret Ellis, computer scientist and entrepreneur who recently started her own business called DevelopEase to create and disseminate applications to help schools support children with disabilities.

It was her personal experience with a sick child that led her to see the need for additional assistive technology in the K-12 classroom. But it was her background as a computer scientist which enabled her to recognize and seize an opportunity to leverage existing technology: the Apple iPod touch. She saw that the iPod, if equipped with the right applications, could be used by special needs students to overcome traditional barriers to learning in an engaging and customizable way that other students would enjoy as well - thus helping overcome the stigma of being given "different" activities.

Ellis's computer science background also provided her the technical know-how to get the project off the ground herself, and this eventually led to the formation of  DevelopEase.

Suddenly "interdisciplinary computing" takes on a completely different meaning.

Starting, and being successful with, your own computing business means you are at various times a CEO, CIO, CFO, Marketer, Sales Person/Evangelist...and Software Architect. Not to mention an expert in the technical content. When the idea for the company stems from a very personal connection, as I find is often the case with the projects I investigate, "worlds collide" and "it [is] like a freight train" - to quote Margaret Ellis. In addition to the areas already referred to, "interdisciplinary" comes to mean not only is computing your professional life, but it invades your personal life. But no one yet has told me this is a problem - the enthusiasm and sense of pride in her work that radiated from Ellis spoke far more than any words.

The reason that my conversation with DevelopEase owner Margaret Ellis inspired me so much that I wanted to write about it, was that it stretched my mind to think even more about what interdisciplinary computing can mean - what the potential is and all the directions that a motivated computer scientist can go.