Thursday, June 28, 2012

Science is for People; Not for Itself

I am still puzzling over something someone said recently in a conversation forum I am part of:

"Technology is for People, Science is for Science".

This statement makes no sense on many levels.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary:

"Science: 1a. The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena...4. Knowledge, especially that gained through experience"

and from the same source:

"Technology: 1a. The application of science, especially to industrial or commercial objectives. 1b. The scientific method and material used to achieve a commercial or industrial objective..."

Technology and science have several features in common, and indeed they overlap in significant ways. Not so distinct as some might think.

Another practical objection: why would anyone take part in science if not for some reason that has something to do with themself? I'm not talking only about straightforward material objectives (although those apply) but also about objectives that have to do with creating, preventing, addressing, exploring change. Change in something. Something we care about. With that in mind, can you imagine science existing in a vacuum?

Let's say the writer holds to the related belief that knowledge should be pursued for the sake of gaining knowledge. It is hard for me, endlessly curious me, to argue against learning for the sake of learning. Because you never know when it might come in useful. Oops...useful. Useful, using, used. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge (and nothing else, not ever!) would mean no application of that knowledge, wouldn't it? Nothing Useful.

Or...still on the idea of engaging in knowledge acquisition through science for the sake of science that even possible? If I enjoy undertaking scientific inquiry, then am I not doing so in part for myself? Yes, I am. I wouldn't believe anyone who claimed otherwise. If I hate undertaking scientific inquiry yet take part in it anyway, then there is an even stronger personal motivation (unhealthy as it may be) at work here.

I am no Physicist, but I have read enough about quantum mechanics to understand that if one adheres to a quantum view of the universe, then it is virtually impossible (in fact, provably false) to claim that any scientific endeavor (however you choose to define or restrict the term) could possibly take place without interactions between those conducting the science and the objects of the investigation. Scientific investigation, science, cannot exist in and of itself and for itself.

Finally, let's talk ethics for just a moment. There is something creepy about claiming, in this globally connected (and often violent) 21st Century, that we humans should pretend (yes, I said pretend) that when we take part in scientific investigation or exploration or experimentation, that we can do so without societal repercussions. If we instead embrace the interaction of science with society, and the fact that we do engage in science for very human reasons, we have the opportunity to point that science towards positive goals and outcomes.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Social Computing Abounds at ACM Education Council Mtg.

It seemed that social issues in computing were popping up all over the place in the ACM Education Council meeting (see the last post for a first pass at sharing some of the meeting). This is no doubt a reflection of the tumultuous issues for computing education in general. Here are some additional, not-comprehensive, unusual items that jumped out at me during the meeting (which ended yesterday).

K-12 education is in the spotlight. It permeated many many of our discussions. If this is all new to you, here is something for you: check out these 2 contrasting spots recently aired by the PBS News Hour in the US - in the first spot, the Gates Foundation's latest push for more formalized teacher assessment, and in the second spot former Deputy Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch spoke about why she has changed her position on teacher accountability. Here is the surprise for me: I was told in a side conversation that the Gates Foundation does not address, nor have an interest in addressing, the issue of computing education in K-12.  

Why would Bill and Melinda Gates not be interested in supporting computing education in K-12? Puzzling, if true.

On the other hand, we learned more about recent exposure for the Computer Science Education Act, which is bringing much needed attention to computing in K-12. Go Team!

In the "arg!" department, someone suggested that undergraduate education is becoming commoditized and that the university brand is moving to graduate education. Once you start thinking about that notion, the implications are unpleasant (what would the term "college" mean?). This also gets back to the contentious question about whether or not students are "clients" (what is the purpose and function of a college instructor?).

Another view from a participant, heard while traveling on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) was that online skills development is "education", and "training" is...well, I got lost at this point and couldn't quite figure out what my colleague was driving at.  I told you in the last post that there was difference of opinion as to the definition of "education" vs. "training"! Also heard on the BART: the purpose of undergraduate education should be skills development and any breadth acquired is secondary. There wasn't time to sort all this out, because shortly thereafter I had to hop off at my airport terminal (which turned out to be the wrong terminal, but that's another story).

How about some uplifting, if still somewhat controversial, ideas that came my way?

Social and professional issues (SPI) are becoming central to conversations of computing curricula. This is fantastic. I was in a subgroup discussing the Information Assurance and Security part of the Strawman Draft of CS2013 and the conversation about SPI inclusion was not whether it should be there or not (as in years past) nor whether SPI should be taught outside of computing departments (as in years past) but to what extent SPI curricular guidelines should be a separate section of  CS2013 cross referenced by IAS, vs. an included part of IAS.

(FYI, in case you haven't reviewed the Strawman Draft, there is an SPI section, and there are also inclusions of SPI items in the other content sections)

If you have an opinion on this or other computing curricular issues, the CS2013 Strawman Draft open comment period is open for a short while longer.

Finally, I learned something pretty cool. Guess what the iTiCSE best paper award went to last year? The recipient was "Beyond Good and Evil Impacts: Rethinking the Social Issues Components in Our Computing Curricula" by Randy Connolly. If you have access to the ACM Digital Library I highly recommend you read this paper. It is meaty, thought provoking, and extremely well written.

This is all great progress! Social and professional issues are becoming mainstream curricular conversation.

Monday, June 18, 2012

ACM Education Council Mtg. Surprises - Online Learning

I am in San Francisco for the ACM Education Council meeting. We covered all sorts of meaty ground today. Far too much to discuss comprehensively, so I'm going to share one or two isolated things that knocked me a bit sideways in my seat, and you can ponder them with me.

This morning we spent time talking about issues of online learning and CS education. Very interesting on so many fronts. This is not an issue one can ignore given the explosion of media and controversy resulting from Khan Academy, various free course offerings by Stanford, Harvard, MIT and others.

We listened to an invited panel discuss various online learning initiatives they are doing. Some of them are incredibly creative.

There are huge issues to address. Scalability is a huge issue. Transferability is a huge issue. Diversity is another issue.

Here is something that concerned me:

One of the panelists claimed that we don't know very much about how people learn.

I have to disagree. We know a lot about how people learn. Educational psychologists, cognitive scientists, educational theorists, cultural anthropologists - there are many many areas in which human learning  has been studied extensively and the research-based data is out there. This begs the question: Are all the necessary people and their fields part of the conversation?

Perhaps in some quarters we need better inter-disciplinary communication.

Who needs to be on board? Computing content experts, yes of course. Cognitive Scientists? Educational psychologists? Sociologists? Yes, yes yes. All these people have solid contributions to add to the conversation. Who else?

There are issues of scalability - which aspects of engagement and learning scale well? To upwards of tens of thousands of students?

There are issues of transferability - if initiatives are started at well financed wealthy institutions, how (can we?) extend them outwards to institutions that lack those same resources?

Issues of diversity - different cultures have different modes of viewing the world, of interacting with their perceptions and reality. Those differences effect how they learn. In some arenas there has been in-depth study of the interaction between culture and learning. How do we incorporate those understandings into large scale online learning? Some cultures learn in a fairly linear and systematic manner; other cultures learn in a fairly holistic and convergent manner.

Here is something else that surprised me:

One of the panelists said something to the effect that online learning spells the end of the community colleges. 

Where did that belief come from? There was so much going on that this claim wasn't followed up on. Unfortunately. From all the evidence I am aware of, the demand for 2 year colleges is growing in a big way. For a lot of reasons, that, if you are in education, you are no doubt well aware of. It seems important to understand what perspective led the speaker to say that. Any thoughts on that one?

What is the difference between training and education and how does large scale online learning address those differences? It may seem to some of us that the differences are fairly clear, but after some of what I heard today, I now believe that the distinctions are not well agreed upon. A bit unnerving because I thought that this was a topic that, although not everyone agreed upon the role of higher education, at least we mostly agreed upon the definitions. Not So.

I learned today that one of the biggest benefits of the explosive controversies surrounding large scale online learning is that it has drawn people into the conversation about teaching and learning who never wanted to talk about it. That is very good news.

On the other hand I learned today that with the expanded conversation, we have to set aside many of our assumptions about what is "well known" and engage in conversations about topics that we thought (hoped) we had settled.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

UX: Taking the Unexpected in Stride

A woman walks up to a bar, spots some people she knows, and heads for the edge of the group where there is an empty stool next to a friendly looking guy. His buddy is off somewhere, leaving a blue drink on the counter. The woman slides onto the stool and starts friendly conversation. The guy is very nice, pleasantly surprised at her arrival and seems quite happy to chat, indicating that yes, his friend will be back in a few minutes and it is no problem to take his stool. The woman and the nice guy spend  5- 10 minutes in chipper conversation, during which time the buddy whose blue drink awaits, comes up and oh so politely sits down on the other side and hangs out quietly. The woman apologizes to the blue drink guy for taking his stool; everyone is in a particularly friendly mood and the nice guy seems oh so pleased to be having this conversation with the woman.

Wondering when the formal presentation she drove out for will start, the woman notices that some of the people she knows are wandering off towards a back room near the bowling lanes. She turns to her new friend and asks when he thinks the presentation will begin. He says he doesn't know. She asks if this is his first time at a UX Speakeasy meetup.

Nice Guy: "What?"
Woman: "The UX meeting"
Nice Guy: "UX?"
[It is a bit noisy in the bar area - hard to hear]
Woman: "User Experience"
Nice Guy: "Where is that?"
Woman: "Here, the UX Meetup"
Nice Guy: "Where are you from?"
Woman: "Here, we are all from here"
Nice Guy: "I see" [smiling cheerfully]
Woman: "Are you part of the UX group?"
Nice Guy: "No" [still very happy to be in this conversation]


I made a polite, rapid exit.

Fortunately, the topic of the meeting this evening was Work-Life Balance. Having some fun.

I subsequently spoke to a woman named Susan Lee who told me about an app her company has developed called "Period Tracker", which can be used to track one's menstrual cycle. It has a calendar which predicts your next Period, and a way to list symptoms such as bloating, headache, acne and cravings. Apparently popular with those trying to get pregnant, the app can be used to track basal body temperature. I'm wondering if the UX Gods were having a good time with me this evening - from accidentally almost picking up a nice guy in a bar to learning about a mobile app that tracks hormonal activity.

Later we all went bowling! I observed Gini Keating (a UX R&D professional) kick butt on the bowling lane, aided by a special technique of sensing the aura of the bowling balls. 

Ok, that wasn't what she says she was doing, but nonetheless she had a knack for picking the best ball.

A great evening out working. And playing.

Friday, June 8, 2012

.apples and .oranges

It is too late to request .trees or .friedegg or .boogieboard but sometime in the not too distant future you might find yourself directed to a domain with one of those names. The official applicant list won't be revealed until June 13, but speculation can run rampant for now. .holdingmybreath

In case you aren't up on all the latest Internet news, there is a grand expansion in the works. After all the technical glitches and legalese are worked out, you will have the opportunity to express yourself online in new and creative ways never before imagined. .anticipation

As far as one can tell, pretty much any word was up for grabs during the application period this spring. There is plenty of room for having a good laugh (imagine some teenage group grabbing .goober for example) but these new domains also provide an exciting opportunity for the creative to stand out from the crowd in productive ways. .marketingopportunities

The public relations folks have probably already had a field day coming up with domain requests that reflect the mission of their organizations, yet will work well with a front-end name. "tea" can stand for the drink made from leaves, or it can stand for the Texas Education Agency, the Tennessee Education Association, or the Themed Entertainment Association.   .trickyevaluatingalternatives

"car" is usually associated with the gas guzzling object on wheels we all know and love, but it also stands for Compass and Ruler (an open source geometry program), the Chicago Artists Resource, Companion Animal Recovery, and of course, for you Lisp fans "car" should be listed first.

June 13 will be a fun day. I wonder if anyone has requested ".internet" or ".url"?


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Medical Smart Phone Apps Used Smartly

National Public Radio's Science Friday ran a story last week about a new twist on technology and healthcare: the development of medical apps that will interface with your Smart Phone. The idea is that there will be apps that will collect and display data (through various means) that you can read on the cell display. Sleep patterns, nutritional patterns, changes in subtle bodily systems over time.

Most of the conversation focused not on the apps themselves but on the larger picture of what such personalized medical tools mean for the future of medicine.  It is a shame that sometimes the comments seemed to imply that the situation was a zero-sum game. The wisest comments seemed to come from those who pointed out that appropriate use and balance was key. Common sense needs to apply.

The development of medical apps should come as no surprise. Mobile device apps are popping up for just about everything. Interfacing an app with a device such as a wireless headband that transmits brain wave data, or that tracks and analyzes blood sugar levels over the course of the day could be incredibly useful. The application possibilities are enormous.

A large proportion of the population has some form of periodic or regular heart murmur; sometimes so mild that it operates below awareness. Let's say you have such a murmur and it is detected on a routine office visit. Today, if  you and your doctor want to learn more about it, the first thing to do is to make an appointment to go in and get tested with an electrocardiogram. A short office visit, you get to see the graphical readout of your heartbeat. An expensive office visit. Perhaps your heart murmur decides not to put in an appearance during your visit. No useful data. Do you repeat this test at regular intervals hoping to catch the murmur in action?

If you want to know more, with a higher chance of success, you can get outfitted with a harness that you wear around for a day or so while it gathers all sorts of data as you go through your normal routine. Even more expensive and several more office visits. What if after all this you and your doctor determine you have a perfectly normal heart and there is nothing to worry about? Fine, if you had the time and the health insurance to accommodate. A great example where those who have financial resources,  insurance and access, can benefit from superb healthcare technology. The rapidly growing population who do not have these resources lose out.

With current technology an app could be developed that would gather this same data and send it to your Smart Phone. The app would most likely cost less than one office visit. You could then take this data in to see your physician and together discuss its meanings and implications. Findings ways to gather more thorough, personalized and reliable medical data could be a win-win.

Of course, there is all sorts of room for concerns about the dangers of faulty self diagnosis and inappropriate healthcare behavior. These are not concerns new to Smart Phone medical apps; the valid concern has existed as long as we have had online medical websites. Longer. The dangers of self diagnosis from insufficient data and depth of knowledge need to be addressed. However, at least in this situation people would be looking at their own data rather than aggregate data from some remote database. This brings us back to the need for collaboration and balance.

These apps are not going to fundamentally change our current structurally defective healthcare system in the United States. But, used appropriately, with, as the Science Friday guests said, compassion and judgement, apps can provide personally relevant information that is often lacking these days. I also see medical apps as an opportunity for well trained cross disciplinary computing professionals to put their skills to work in a cutting edge way and address some of our most pressing healthcare issues. After all, the app developers will be the ones who decide what to code up. Personalized medical apps have the potential to be empowering.