Monday, November 26, 2012

What is Your Opinion About Sustainability in the Computing Curriculum?

I'm making final edits to my blurb on Sustainability for a panel presentation description about social and professional issues in the computer science curriculum*. More precisely, I'm thinking about conflict. There isn't much time when you are on a panel. What to focus on, what to focus many choices and I'm conflicted. And oh boy, so will be some of my audience. Conflicted. Perhaps many of them, if past performance is any predictor of future performance. Which market analysts remind us all the time is not the case.

Yet, enlightened educators and psychologists tell us about the beneficial opportunities for managed conflict. Not the kind where you duke it out and slug your neighbor, but the kind where something provocative lands in your lap and you wrestle with it in a civilized manner as a group.

Sustainability in the computing curriculum is my little piece of the panel presentation**. When I wrote my original blurb I ended it with "Lisa will discuss the sometimes controversial sustainability knowledge unit in the social and professional practice knowledge area".

One of the anonymous reviewers asked: what is controversial? I wasn't sure if s/he was positively inclined and surprised by the statement or didn't know much about the issue and was just curious. I am 99.99% sure the reviewer was not negatively inclined towards the idea of sustainability in the computing curriculum. Anyone who gets all p.o.'d about the idea knows they are in conflict with a growing movement.

Another reviewer suggested that I bring up to speed members of the audience who are not familiar with the fundamental issues. In light of the first reviewer, this makes good sense. Ok, will do - if you wrote that and are reading this, then yes, I will make sure when I speak to cover the fundamentals for those who are not already deeply embroiled in everything.

And embroiled many people are. I was momentarily surprised to read the question asking what is controversial about infusing sustainability into the undergraduate computing curriculum. Perhaps because I routinely encounter professional colleagues who have strong opinions on the matter. In prior outreach on this issue I have encountered everything from:

"Thank goodness AT LAST this issue is being taken seriously!" 
"Oh no, not ANOTHER mandate being shoved down my throat!"

(Mandate? Mandate? They are called "recommendations" for a reason).

There are also people in the professional community of computing education who are curious, curious, to hear about what the controversy is all about. Not ready to bite my head off nor to shower me with roses. Just curious.

I am reminded by this reminder that rather than presuming either roses or rotten tomatoes when I speak next March, I can view this as a micro-classroom opportunity. Perhaps challenge the crowd with comments such as these:

Sustainability is part and parcel of computer science and you ignore it at your peril

Sustainability is more than reducing your electricity load - which we suck at by the way

The "solution" isn't sending your old electronics off to a developing country for recycling  and patting yourself on the back

I believe all of the these, and I could continue with some evidence, but the point isn't (and won't be) for people to sit and take solemn notes about the pros and cons and the logic of it all. The whole point here will not be for me to talk talk talk but to get people off their comfy little conference hall chairs and engaging with the challenge of sustainability in their classrooms. What a panel can provide is an opportunity for constructively dealing with a difficult, challenging, conflicted topic with one's peers. In person. Where it is a lot harder to flame someone.

If you are a computing educator and think sustainability in the classroom is great stuff but haven't overcome the challenges of curricular rubber hitting the road let's all wrestle with your excitement and questions.

If you are a computing educator and think infusing sustainability in the classroom is silly or impossible let's all wrestle with your skepticism.

If you are a computing educator and not sure what you think - even better. I would like to put you right smack in between your opinionated peers and let's all talk about it.

*The Panel will be presented at the SIGCSE 2013 Symposium in Denver, Colorado and is called: "Computer Science Curriculum 2013: Social and Professional Recommendations from the ACM/IEEE-CS Task Force".

**My fellow panelists and wonderful colleagues are: Beth Hawthorne - bravely moderating this adventurous panel, along with Flo Appel and Carol Spradling, both of whom are battle seasoned veterans of the social and professional issues world of computing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What Do Elections and University Lectures Have in Common?

If you said "Ug" or something to that effect, you are not alone. Countless voters and students would agree with you. Making the effort to vote and the prospect of attending large lecture classes engender similar non-plussed reactions in many people.

I have been percolating on a relationship between the challenges of encouraging active, informed participation in a democratic electoral system and the challenges of encouraging active, informed participation in a traditional large college lecture course.

No doubt the alignment popped into my head earlier this month. Not only was it the waning days of a long painful national election, but I was simultaneously onsite with a university team that is developing an innovative model for increasing intrinsic motivation. Their focus is on those huge lecture courses often seen in large public institutions. The electorate, like the student body nationwide, may feel "I'm just a number, what does it matter, I have no real voice". Why bother to pay attention?

All of which leads to an electorate declining to vote, and/or voting without digging into the facts and implications of individual candidates and issues. Similar perhaps to students declining to attend class, and/or turning in homework and projects without truly engaging with them. Cynics stand back! because participation really does matter.


In a local election one's vote can make a visible difference, just as in a small intimate class one's voice will be more easily heard. In neither case will things always come out the way one wants but receiving feedback that one is making a difference often leads to increased intrinsic motivation. More participation follows, more positive learning results.

Some of the similarities don't cross over as well. Small intimate classes tend to be better attended than large impersonal ones, whereas local elections sometimes experience worse turnout than regional or national elections. Of course, attendance in a small class can occur because one loves the class or because one doesn't want to be called out for skipping. Be that as it may, avoiding punishment is an extrinsic motivation and doesn't lead to greater learning for the long haul.

Sad to say, I have no immediate implementable-today suggestions about how to tackle the problem of an electorate that lacks an intrinsic motivation to vote.

However, the educators and researchers I am working with in the Engineering School at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign are creatively tackling the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation challenge in the large lecture class.  For those of you not familiar how tough the situation is, consider these typical factors, which represent only part of the complicated picture around the country:

- Several hundred students are enrolled in a class with just one faculty member assigned to teach the course
- Class meetings are scheduled several times a week in a large impersonal lecture hall
- Smaller breakout sessions (sometimes called labs, study sessions, 'sections') are held once a week, and led by a graduate student teaching assistant
- The faculty member has little formal training in state of the art pedagogical techniques and no resources or ability to seek it out

On the other hand,

- The faculty member truly cares about her or his students' learning and wants students to succeed
- Teaching assistants also care about student learning and may have an eye on a future teaching career
- There is much well supported research about the factors that motivate or demotivate people towards creativity and towards going the extra mile. We know a significant amount about what does and does not encourage intrinsic motivation.
- Much of this research has been conducted on individuals or small groups.

I've given you some big hints about what the team at UIUC is up to. What do you think they might be doing?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Electronic Voting in the US - Lagging But On the Way

At one point in time I might have said that voting and the democratic process was extremely important but boring to think about technically. No longer. In fact, this past Tuesday I had the nail biting experience of being on an airplane for most of election day with no idea what was going on. After circling in the sky for the final 30 minutes, with a possible threat of being diverted somewhere far away, we landed in the fog, I flew out of the plane into my car and boogied up the freeway to a friend's election night gathering, arriving just as they called the election for Barack Obama. Technology has come a long way when we can reliably report results so soon after the last polls close.

I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had been able to vote even though I was half way across the country on election day. That is because California provides the option of being a permanent mail-in voter. Very convenient for those of us who are often away from home.

But what about all those people who live places where you simply have to show up in your designated precinct polling place on election day? And all those people for whom this seemingly simple process is fraught with stumbling blocks? Why, as I was reminded last night at the monthly UX Speakeasy meeting, is our voting technology in the US 10-15 years behind our technology in other areas of society?

A few years ago I learned just how divisive the prospect of Internet voting is in this country. While researching the topic of Internet voting for my book, I posted both a blog post and a LinkedIn conversation on the topic and to my complete surprise there ensued a lengthy heated conversation and I received a few, um...spirited emails.

However, as I have suspected since then, the process of dragging and pushing the US towards secure, reliable electronic voting is continuing in spite of efforts from some quarters to stop it.

Last night at the UX Speakeasy meeting, Mike Joyce spoke at some length and in some detail about his experiences implementing electronic voting around the world. Mike covered many of the "usual" topics to those familiar with the subject (verification, validity, security ...) but there was a unique spin to his talk. He posed electronic voting and the challenges of universal enfranchisement as a usability issue. More than a user interface issue. More than a software issue. Voting should be accessible and easy for everyone, regardless of where you are, and what limitations you might have physically or cognitively.

Here in the US we are unlikely to go the way of the Australians any time soon and make voting mandatory for all citizens, however it was quite instructive to listen to how seriously the Australians take voting and how they put in place mechanisms to try and make everything run smoothly for people in far away Perth (look it up on a map and you'll see what I mean) or in the Outback.

Here in the US it sometimes seems as if, in contrast to what we heard last night about several other countries, we go out of our way to make it a challenge to vote. However, after listening to Mike last night, I am more convinced than ever that the US is going to get Internet voting implemented sooner or later. Of course it won't be perfect, but tell me, honestly, is the current system anywhere close to perfect? And shouldn't we make it easier for people to vote so that fewer people will view it as a burden or an inconvenience? Let's encourage and support participation in the democratic process.

Oh...we had our own little vote last night. UX Speakeasy is busily deciding what the theme of our next mini-conference will be. After polling our membership recently for ideas, we developed a ballot for people to mark up and submit. Not electronic alas, but truly in the spirit of the day and of the week.

Do you have an opinion about the next mini-conference? Then vote!