Friday, December 28, 2012

The K-12 Computing Potato is Heating Up

Heading Into The Pipeline Soon
This won't be news to some of you - but we have a problem in K-12 Computer Science education. It isn't news to me either, but I have been seeing just how sticky it is from a new perspective recently. One of my projects has led to my reading detailed documentation about existing and proposed national education standards. And boy is it fascinating.

Now, we think (we know) we have some challenges in higher education because computing (the more internationally preferred term) is not always given the recognition it is due and that national and global economic needs indicate it most definitely deserves. One of the puzzlements (is that a word?) is reflected in the fact that post-secondary computing departments are sometimes found within Engineering, sometimes within Mathematics, sometimes under the Natural Sciences. But at least we recognize it when we see it. We have curricular recommendations for several computing programs (one of the most recent is CS2013 which I have written about before) and there is the option of rigorous departmental accreditation by ABET which is appropriate for some programs.

But I'm realizing in a profound way that part of the pipeline problem (whereby not enough students are coming up through the K-12 pipe who are both interested and prepared to study post-secondary computing) is that in some quarters - perhaps in a lot of quarters - there is fundamental confusion about what Computer Science is.

In curricular guidelines known as the Common Core, currently being adopted by many states in this country, the focus is on English Language Arts and Mathematics. No doubt the lead is taken from federal initiatives that emphasize the same. Unfortunately, No Computer Science prominently displayed. Now, we can find technology/information technology courses taught in many Vocational-Technical programs. Some of the Voc-Tech programs with an IT focus are really well done; well thought out, well taught, well assessed - but they aren't Computer Science.

Then there are the developing revisions of national recommendations for K-12 Science Education Standards. The last guidelines came out almost 20 years ago and it is well recognized that much has changed since then. However, based upon the Framework for Science Education it appears that Computer Science is not going to be included here either. Why not? Because it is deemed to be a branch of mathematics. The problem is, as I already noted, the K-12 Mathematics recommendations don't include Computer Science either.

Do you see where this is leading?

If no one is claiming computing then it gets lost in the shuffle. Not a trivial matter. 

Everyone agrees that computing is everywhere and undergirds professions everywhere. But there isn't a rush to claim it under any existing or proposed curricular umbrella. This feels like a game of pass the potato. It isn't a hot potato - yet.

On the optimistic front:

The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) has put together some impressive recommendations for making computing integral to K-12 (click here and scroll to the bottom of the page for the K-12 specific Model Curriculum document). Having read these guidelines in depth I am impressed by the thought that has gone into this tough task. It fits the bill and it makes perfect sense. There should be no question in anyone's mind after reading this documentation just what computing/computer science is with regards to primary and secondary education.

Now the hard work is really under way: making it happen.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Breathe. Or Else the Pink Will Get You.

Are you holding your breath? It is that time of year. I may have forgotten to breath several times recently. I've been head down up to my eyeballs both hands in feet buried in several big projects. Although many people go on vacation or disappear at this time of year, some people find that the approaching end of the calendar year means more than the possible end of the world. It means deadlines. From the people at the brokerage houses frantically trying to push through online trades before the so called fiscal cliff throws us all over the edge and for some people slams them with tax increases on their assets to the people employed in the retail stores at the pink pink pink colored malls who want your credit card and dollars in an ever so desperate way.

I found myself in a large mall recently and was overwhelmed by the PINK. My eyes, my brain, were registering screaming pink everywhere. Not red mind you, but PINK. Unfortunately for me I was wearing a pink sweatshirt so I blended in just fine. The keyboards behind the computerized cash registers were slick with greasy finger oil from sweating not terribly cheerful sales personnel.  Just buy the darned thing otherwise don't bother me. And I had a conversation with someone who works in the financial industry who sounded like they were about to pull their hair out (alas, I do not have to worry about any enormous assets) as they told me their computer was responding slowly that day. I'm sorry, it's a busy time of year, can you hold while I transfer you? Push 1 for our hours, Push 2 for online services, Push 3 for tech support... Push 14 for a Representative (followed by: I'm sorry but all of our representatives are busy. If you would like to leave your number we will return your call and you won't loose your place in line. Promise.)

I tortured a colleague by having him test an online Java tutorial today - he was gracious enough to spend part of his Saturday on it. I'm not sure if he was actually in his vacation hot tub in Arizona at the time but it is a distinct possibility.We had a video chat afterwards and I wasn't quite sure if the steam was coming from his head or from bromated water.

Meanwhile, my external hard drive went kaput. Shortly after I backed up years worth of pictures and data onto it, and deleted them from my computer - it died. Fully and completely died. I sadly retrieved it from the repair guys (a woman actually) who told me they had done their best but the data is DOA. I saw more women than men working at the Geek Squad today. Techies. Made me want to ask them about their professional interests in computing, but I was too preoccupied with the demise of my records. From the tight feeling in my chest later, I think I may have been forgetting to inhale much of the time.

Although the world did not come to an end yesterday, some, like House Speaker Boehner, may have felt that it did. I don't believe he can lay it on a computer however. Or the Mayans.

Crazy things happen at this time of year. You learn things you never expected to learn and you see things you never expected to see and people tell you things you never expected to hear. And sometimes you don't.

Impermanence. All things will inevitably change. The year will come to a close. The PINK will (hopefully) recede somewhat into the retail background and the dented keyboards at Macy's and Nordstrom and The Gap will have a chance to recover their shape or at least to dry off. The stock market computers and all the computers tied into them will prepare for the next hair raising economic and political upheaval. Projects will move on to their next stage of life. People will too.

Breathe. It is the holidays and the end of the year and perhaps a vacation of one sort or another or perhaps not or perhaps it is just plain crazy time. Breathe.

Sometimes we just forget to stop moving and breathe. And do it again.


As one friend of mine likes to say:

Now take

three deep breaths.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

M & M s

Definitely Not A Hot Topic

Two puzzling phenomenon have been running around in my head for some time and I'm wondering if there is a connection between the them. If there isn't, let's make one.

I spend a lot of time working with researchers in the computer science education community, and I have at least one of my limbs firmly planted in computing education policy circles. There is, I suspect, no computing educator or affiliate who is not familiar with "the MOOC question". One of computing education's favorite topics of conversation for several years has been the Massive Open Online Course. Things are only heating up. Who is involved in their creation and propagation, who is not? Where is the quality and where is it lacking? What is the potential and what is the threat? How do we respond?

There are probably those who would rather sit this one out. In response to that and other burning MOOC issues, in my next column for the ACM Inroads Magazine, due to appear in March, I go on for about 1000 words about the importance of engaging  creatively with MOOCS. I don't hear too many people vocally advocating for ignoring MOOCS. That would be inherently contradictory.

The point is: in computing education circles, the hottest topic of the day is, arguably, MOOCS.

Not so in the private tech sector. I also spend a lot of time with people in the private sector and many of them barely know about MOOCS. Or they simply don't feel it is of concern to them. Having done a bit of asking around, I hear, and am told by well-placed friends as well, that the private tech sector isn't all that engaged with the MOOC question. There are a whole host of reasons why they should be engaged with it. Maybe I'll write a column about that...

On the other hand, one of the hottest topics in high-tech is Mobile. Mobile is not The Future. Mobile has Arrived, as one of my UX (User Experience) colleagues reminded me recently. The markets are hot, hot, hot in all sorts of places related to hardware, software, services based upon Mobile. If you aren't into Mobile you are behind the innovation curve. Those industry colleagues I know who aren't working with Mobile in some respect say, either aloud or quietly, they wish they were. Or, at the very least, think they should be. Whether for personal interest, professional mobility (ouch), or simply for not being perceived as behind the times.

As with the MOOC issue and computing educators, it is an endangered species of high-tech employee that will advocate for ignoring Mobile.

On yet another hand, computing educators and in particular computing education researchers don't seem to be doing much with Mobile. The primary discussions about Mobile are about how to get students to unglue from their devices and pay attention to their education.

Which brings me to the burning desire to ask:

What are the possibilities for getting the greater high-tech industry more actively engaged with MOOCS in creative positive ways? 

What are the possibilities for getting the computing education / research community more actively engaged with Mobile in pedagogically creative ways?

Mobile MOOCS? 
Not a far fetched thought at all. 
What else?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

UX Design, Classic Art and Grounded Theory

Lo and Behold: Art meets User Experience Design meets Grounded Theory. At a local brewery no less.

This month's meeting of the UX (User Experience) Speakeasy group featured Julie Morgan from Digitaria sharing a few design case studies using a tool called Optimal Workshop. Standing in front of a large tank, presumably full to the brim with fermenting beer, Julie enthusiastically popped up images of artwork ranging from Van Gogh to Gustav Klimt to Jasper Johns, with a Roman arch tossed in for good measure.

Each of these pieces of art was an analogy to something in the user design research process. A Klimt piece related to music, which related to patterns and the search for harmony in web design. An early version of Van Gogh's Potato Eaters was tied to UX sketching and a later version to the final online design. There was something about a Roman arch in there when discussing Information Architecture. I didn't catch everything she said about it, but now I'm thinking about how one little center stone at the top holds the whole thing up for centuries. Brilliant. It also connects two sides, as in the desire to bridge the gap between users and designers - one of Julie's main points last night.

You see, that is what made the classical art analogies so interesting - they got you thinking in new ways. Looking for connections and inspiration from old to new.

Such as when Grounded Theory popped into my head. As Julie was explaining the different ways a technique called Card Sorting works, and how it can be done with Open or Closed categories, I knew I had heard this before. In Grounded Theory (a well established form of Qualitative Research methodology dating from the 1960s) you can observe people in their natural setting and see what patterns emerge, what categories or activities appear, and eventually develop a behavioral hypothesis from it. This would be a purist form of Grounded Theory. Very much like a UX Designer providing users a stack of cards with labels on them about something they care about, and watching what happens as they discuss them and sort them into categories of their choosing.

Alternatively,with Closed category Card Sorting you can test a user experience hypothesis about something (e.g. "they think this way about web design XYZ...and will behave this way...") using predetermined categories. Use the same cards as in the Open approach, and watch what happens as the users try to put the cards in your categories. Maybe all will go as predicted. Maybe it won't and they push back in some way. Oops, hypothesis not true, users hate this design. Very much like going into a Grounded Theory study with a hypothesis about user behavior, seeing what happens and adjusting codes, taxonomies and theories accordingly.

Inspiration takes place in all phases of these monthly meetings. Somehow, after the formal presentation, while discussing the relationship between art, design and how the commercial world works, I found myself in a deep and meaningful conversation about how to outwit Wireless providers (yes, those organizations that provide service for your mobile phone). There is art and skill to legally outsmarting those guys. Perhaps this reflects the desire to move from Edvard Munch's "The Scream" towards Monet's "The Magpie".