Monday, December 30, 2013

2014: Historic Opportunities for Computer Science

Sun Set; Sun Rise
At the end of the year it is natural to think back about the past year and forward to the coming year. 2013 has been a huge year for computer science and 2014 looks like it could be even more important. After years of effort by many people, that seemed at times to fall on deaf ears, suddenly it seems everyone is talking about one important aspect of computing: coding. Who would have thought?

Coding is not all there is to Computer Science obviously, but it is central to a computing education and the fact that coding has become a subject of widespread conversation is nothing short of fantastic. Not only that, the conversations about coding are putting computer science into a very good light and people are getting enthusiastic about it.

What really excites me about that is the positive fallout of this enthusiasm. I am seeing more and more attention placed on what computing technology can do for people. For society. For the environment. As attention is paid to computing at the level of introductory coding, attention is also being paid to what people who persist in coding, then further computing studies, can do in the world with these skills. That is where the big picture rubber hits the road. Today you code a few lines; a few years from now you can... your imagination is your only limit. 

For example, "entrepreneurial thinking" has taken on the status of buzzword. Every other advertisement for something seems to find a way to toss in "entrepreneurial". As with commercials in general, some use of the word is more plausible than others. Such is the nature of the media. But you know, we have the opportunity to leverage the moment, and the media attention, to make the clearest connection possible between computer science education, computing workforce opportunities and the positive opportunities stemming from technology entrepreneurship.

In the past year we have begun to see widespread STEM education conversations more often recognizing the ubiquity of computing and the opportunities for mutual gain from working together across disciplines. More people have been talking about the goals shared by STEM educators. I have been reading more papers and proposals advocating for, and conducting, cross-disciplinary computing research. Systemic challenges in the K-12 and post-secondary arenas are being examined and we are increasing horizontal and vertical bridges within computing education. I am seeing more and more fascinating uses of computing in support of important issues such as disaster relief, disaster prevention, ecological prediction, and raising global standards of living.

Another area that is receiving (finally!) increased media attention, is the very real economic impact of computing jobs and the need for increasing the number of highly skilled computer science graduates. We are also starting to hear a lot more outside of traditional computing education communities about the need for students with deep knowledge of computing in all sorts of fields. These include the humanities, the arts, the social sciences. The conversations in the so-called "soft fields" about the role of computing are just starting to happen, but they are starting. This conversation is long overdue and it is exciting to see it begin.

Much of what I just touched on wasn't happening a year ago. We are on a roll.

2014 is going to be a critical year for computer science education and computing jobs. We have work to do in all arenas: K-12, community colleges, 4 year colleges and universities, broadening participation and addressing pervasive equity challenges. All is not roses and light. We have our work cut out for us.

In fact, one of the results of all the attention on computer science has been a resurgence of attention paid to some of the pervasive sexist behavior that takes place in areas of the technology industry. Some of what I have read is truly horrible and disgusting. It would be hard to believe that this stuff happens in the 21st Century, except that with social media providing instant and precise transcriptions of people's words, this stuff comes out in the open. The good news? More and more people are recognizing just how destructive, on all fronts (personal, professional, educational, economic, you name it), discriminatory words and behavior are. We have before us an unprecedented opportunity - and obligation - to institute cultural change where it is needed.

I am excited about the opportunities for computer science, and computing in general,  in 2014. We made giant leaps forward in 2013.  Enthusiasm is growing for computer science, computing, computational thinking. Many more people are sticking their toes in the waters of coding and discovering it can be fun! We are talking about curricular opportunities all through K-12 and up through graduate school. New connections and collaborations are being formed between academia and industry in support of increasing the numbers and diversity of highly successful, well prepared computer science graduates. People who never thought about computer science, or who didn't think they had a reason to think about computer science, are checking it out.

What are we going to do with all of this enthusiasm and opportunity? Big ideas are brewing; creative minds are pondering; entrepreneurial spirits are breaking new ground.The onus is on all of us to take part in this historic opportunity. There are so many ways you can help keep up, speed up, the roll we are racing along on, set the direction.

Whatever you are already doing to improve the planet through computing: 
keep at it in 2014. 
Whatever ideas you are percolating on to improve the planet through computing: 
resolve to put them into action in 2014. 

Have a Safe and Happy New Year

Monday, December 23, 2013

Marketing, UX, Consumer Tech Alert: Pink?

Perhaps there's a market for sea gulls
If you are caught up in the materialistic shopping frenzy you are not alone. The shopping malls can be scary places at this time of year. A few days ago I was trying to get to the grocery store in a nearby strip mall and the scene in the parking lots was closely reminiscent of sharks that had smelled blood circling a school of fish. Silly me. Silly me and silly about a hundred other sharks creeping our cars along looking for the tell tale sign of blood-red brake lights coming on, or keys swinging in someone's hand, salivating as we watched narrow eyed, wondering if the nearest ambulatory biped was going to stop at a car in this aisle or at the last moment cut across to another one, leaving us to resume the hunt all over again.

I had just decided that it wasn't worth throwing this much added pollution into the air and wasting this much time for the sake of a few edibles, and had headed for the exit, when, lo and behold, the very last parking spot in the very last aisle vacated a vehicle right in front of me. I pulled in, momentarily in shock that I wasn't still creeping along stalking pedestrians. Disembarking, I set my trajectory for the Kale.

As I navigated my way on foot through the ever circling cars, drivers clearly saddened that I was not heading in the correct direction, the over the top use of Pink in certain places that clearly targeted women was hard to ignore. Why do they think that if it is Pink women will dive right for it? I had a passing image of the pinky color of  frothy blood in the ocean. Ew. I paid more attention to where I was criss-crossing. Eventually, safe in the grocery aisle in front of my precious greens I wondered when some marketing genius would decide to create Pink Kale, Pink Broccoli, and Pink Spinach.

The Exit Strategy was more of the same in reverse. But I had the veggies firmly in hand.

[Fast Forward] Today, as I caught up with the online technology news and information, happy that I had no burning need to go anywhere near any retail establishment, I came across a wonderfully timed article about marketing technology to women. Not surprisingly, pink came up in the discussion.

This fast read is great for developers, UX people, marketing types, and oh, yeah, consumers. I have to share this just in case you are still out there contemplating gifts for your favorite technology nerd (male or female), or in the event you ever plan on buying another technology item, or if you are in the realm of designing technology and are thinking about those oh so talked about "demographics"...

Read On.

Happy Peaceful Quiet Calm Holidays 
that focus on something other than the frenzied accumulation of lots of stuff

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Funding Opportunity: Think CS Education and Jobs

You probably are aware that computing jobs pay very well.  Every state in the country has high paying computing jobs. Did you know that? Yeah, it's true. All 50 states have high paying computing jobs. Not only do computing jobs pay very well but they exist in virtually every significant industry. The public conversation doesn't always focus enough on the ubiquity of computing and computing jobs as it relates to economic and workforce issues.

Sometimes I wonder why, because computing technology supports a global economic infrastructure that we all rely on. However, I'll sit on my hands, leaving the "why" for another day, and stick today with an important aspect of "what":

When we hear talk in the media about the growing numbers of STEM jobs, it really means computing jobs in a big way. That means potential economic benefit all around. You don't need to be in Silicon Valley or working for a traditional high tech firm in order to get a really good computing job.

Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. It is a word that gets people's attention. It's a word that gets government attention.

Given the very slow economic recovery (I heard on the news last night that the U.S. national unemployment rate is still around 7.5%)  it seems a no brainer that there would be a variety of federal funding opportunities to encourage preparing students for these jobs. Funding opportunities that computer science educators can take advantage of.

Many people I work with routinely look to the National Science Foundation for funding opportunities, but not so many people are aware that funds are also available at the Department of Labor. It makes perfect sense actually, given the economic importance of computing to our economy. 

As an example, I want to point you to one such opportunity which hasn't received much press: the YouthCareerConnect grant program. From their web page:

"The Department of Labor will use up to $100 million in revenues from the H-1B visa program to fund approximately 25 to 40 grants for individual or multi-site projects. Grants will be awarded to local education agencies, public or non-profit local workforce entities, or non-profits with education reform experience. All grantees will have to demonstrate a strong public/private partnership, and must include, at a minimum, a local education agency, a local workforce investment system entity, an employer, and an institution of higher education."

My guess is that this CFP (Call For Proposals) is being overlooked by computing educators because of its location in the DOL and because it casts a wide net. Nonetheless, this could be an excellent opportunity to make a large impact, especially if you are already working with, or in conversation with, other entities interested in pushing full steam ahead on the computer science education front.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Investigating the Inner Critic

I can be a bit critical of self-help books, so when Global Tech Women's next book club selection  ("Inner Critic Inner Success" by Stacy Sargent) fell so loudly and clearly into that category, I wasn't sure what I was going to think of it.

The reason my inner critic is so cynical about self-help books is that they are often loaded with well polished statements and implications about how the reader can rid themselves of some undesirable trait or situation with a minimum of effort. These books very often prey upon the reader who hopes that by shelling out a few dollars they will magically transform their life. 

However, I decided I would give it a fair shake, and so I dove right in.

Within a few pages, the inner critic in my head was reciting a well worn script telling me not to expect very much from this book. It seemed I had logic and facts to support this assertion. I found myself noting critically that Sargent was not saying anything new; everything she was talking about in the opening section had been written about in the cognitive science and psychology literature. And why didn't she cite the references? my little voice nagged dismissively.

A more forgiving and compassionate voice in my head waved to get my attention. It pointed out that Sargent was doing a pretty nice job of making those cog sci findings accessible to the average reader. I mean really, spoke up the quieter voice, how many people outside of the academic research community are going to read peer reviewed research studies? If putting the helpful information into a widely accessible form with a beneficial end goal in mind - might that not be a commendable thing to do?

Round 1 was declared a tie between the cynical critic and the compassionate commentator.

Having made strides on clearing the way mentally, things started to get interesting because this book is FULL of exercises and activities. Detailed exercises and activities. I don't have time for this! I groaned at first (the obstructionist cynic), but it occurred to me (the determined optimist) that perhaps I wouldn't be in a position to reach any justifiable conclusions if I didn't give it, all of it, a fair go.

How so? Well, it just so happens, that I am in the middle of undertaking some pretty exciting professional career planning. Thinking big, and figuring out how to pursue things I am really passionate about. Which, as you could probably predict, leads at times to wondering just how crazy I might be.

So when the book started asking me to apply certain activities and introspection to things that might cause me to get in my own way I discovered I had plenty of fodder to work with. The first couple of activities I embarked on were perhaps toughest because that same cynical voice said things like "you know yourself well already, you know what your greatest inner critic is, you can skip this exercise". I squashed that voice, but only because I had promised myself I would.

Er...and discovered on the very first activity, that, as Sargent suggested, things change as we progress in our lives and careers, and what I had assumed was my primary self-imposed stumbling block was no longer true (e.g. The Perfectionist voice is no longer my biggest inner critic. Other voices have insidiously taken front seats). That discovery meant that I could stop putting so much energy into addressing non-existent problems and pay more attention to other ways I might get in my own way.

That first discovery was enough to convince me that this book was on to something. I kept right on plowing along through activity after activity, not worrying about whether or not I was going to finish the book in time for the conversation this Friday. Because by that point, I found I was discovering quite useful things that I can apply to my entrepreneurial career planning. Perhaps foremost being: fooey on what the stick in the mud cynics out there might have to say (including my own inner critics, who pop up up like Whack-a-Moles).

I still haven't finished the book. Maybe I will by Friday, maybe not. No matter: things have come around full circle andI heartily recommend Sargent's book.  Not only that, I'm really looking forward to hearing what other women have to say at the Global Tech Women book club meeting: join us this Friday at 9:00am Pacific Time.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Day After Thanksgiving - Means What?


The stories that come in about Black Friday can be incredibly disheartening. However, as the day drew to a close I was reminded that there are people out there working really hard, and making headway, to point society in other directions.

One of the cartoons making the rounds on Facebook today said "Black Friday, because only in America, people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have." Although we aren't the only society with too much focus on self-absorbed acquisition of "stuff", it still hurts to read.

I was watching the news stories about stores that opened on Thanksgiving, followed by the shots of thousands of people pushing and shoving, fighting, to be among the first into stores in order to buy such important items as a blender. There were the stories of the people who got shot, and of the policeman who was dragged along by a shopper's car, and I have an image stuck in my mind of pre-dawn store doors bursting open and the first of hundreds of people racing in, a woman pumping her arms in the air and yelling "I'M IN!!!!!".

As I was watching and feeling a bit sick, there was a loud repeated knocking on the door. I opened it and a man was there and he was determined to talk me into giving him money so he could go on a trip to London. Or Paris. Or Rome. He wasn't eager to take no for an answer. Getting rid of him politely was not easy. Just say no. No No No NO. Sigh...

Back to the news broadcast. The next story (thank you PBS NewsHour) was an interview with David Risher, CEO of an organization called WorldReader. They were discussing the organization's work to bring ebooks to children around the world using tablets and cell phones. At first I was mildly interested, no more, because there are many related initiatives - all good, all important - and I wasn't expecting anything particularly stand out about this one.

But then Risher discussed his vision for creating big social change.  His goal is to irradicate illiteracy. He laughed as he said this, as if knowing that some people would shake their heads, dismissing the idea as unrealistic dreaming. But he continued speaking, saying just how much knowledge matters to uplift society. His whole demeanor changed and spoke more than words.

The news anchor politely cut him off and directed the conversation back to an implementation question, but I wasn't listening, because I was still with the afterimage of Risher's uplifted body language and voice.

At that moment, I remembered something I heard  a few nights ago in an interview with Louis Gates Jr on this same news program. Gates and his interviewer (Gwen Ifill) are both African American, and at one point Gates said to Ifill [very slightly paraphrased]*:

"They didn't know that slavery would ever end. But they acted as if it would. They didn't care about public perception or what society had to say...They couldn't imagine that you [Gwen Ifill] would ever be co-anchor of a major news program...They couldn't imagine that you'd be interviewing me, a Harvard professor who has created a six hour series on Black history."

You know what? Who is to say we can't leverage computing technology to help irradicate illiteracy?  Who is to say we can't include a socially and environmentally beneficial awareness into all things computing and technology**?

Or whatever your personal vision is - go for it.

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy [Black] Friday

*I was writing as fast as I could and believe I caught his words accurately. However, the interview should be available as part of the PBS NewsHour broadcast online from Tuesday this week if you want to hear it first hand
**(see also recent posts on November 23 and November 19)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

An Answer to the Vexing CS Ed Question: "What Should We Do?"

A few days ago I was  having a conversation with some computing faculty about their proposed curriculum development; the topic came up of how to make certain courses appealing to under represented groups. These faculty are all too aware of the need to increase the demographic diversity in the computing classroom. We talked about a variety of approaches that made sense for their situation and laid out the beginnings of a plan to implement the ideas.

Later on, as I was mulling over the next steps in their plan, it occurred to me that I have had a similar conversation a lot recently. It often starts when, somewhere in a curriculum revision discussion, someone mentions the low numbers of certain demographic groups. A few moments later someone says "what do we do?". Accustomed to focusing on the technical aspects of curriculum development the group is silent.

Complex and challenging it is. Whole books and endless research studies have identified things you ought to pay attention to. One of those things is context. Context is everything, including but not solely limited to, your institution and your student population. As much as we might like, there is no silver bullet, no one size fits all. That is why it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

Fortunately, there is something concrete you can do to get moving in the right direction and make a difference. Something that any one can do.

Start by asking yourself these questions:  What specific examples do you plan to give in class, in modules you develop? What exact contexts do you plan to embed your assignments and projects in? As much as possible try to avoid answering in generalities.

Probably you find these examples and contexts interesting or else you wouldn't choose them. But does the under represented demographic group you want to attract and engage find them interesting as well? How do you know? Do you think so? Do you assume so? Where's the data to back it up?

It is easy to act upon assumptions. It is easy to overlook that you are making decisions based upon unexamined assumptions. It is easy to assume that something you find interesting is likewise interesting to others.

Yet, in terms of getting students excited about [fill in your topic], those assumptions can lead to problems when we belatedly find out that the demographic of student we care about just doesn't find our examples relevant to their lives. (perhaps the most classic example is presenting science and math concepts using automobiles and sports. these subjects have a pretty solidly documented track record of being far less appealing to girls than boys.) Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as finding "neutral" examples. As ample research has also shown there really isn't any such thing as a "neutral" example.

However There is Hope! Herein lies a simple thing you can do to get the ball rolling. It is so simple that it can be overlooked. I suspect that is why I get asked "what should we do?" as often as I do. 

Place your technical content in a social context in which coming up with the solution allows the student to see a positive difference made for someone or something. A lot of students really grok that.

If you don't believe me, you can dig up the research. If you do so, you will find along the way that it is very important to use social contexts that your target groups have an affinity for. Don't just choose whatever comes into your head or you are likely to be back where you started - winging it and hoping your demographic population also finds it interesting. So you have some work to do. You need to find out what is interesting to them. This doesn't mean something trivial. As a matter of fact, trivial fluffy examples are disastrous - you trivialize the material and yourself in the eyes of the students. You do have some work to do to discover what are meaningful non-trivial examples.

We aren't going to solve the entire problem of recruitment and retention in computing by integrating socially meaningful examples into all aspects of technical content presentation. But it is an important start.

Becoming aware of the fact that you may be making implicit assumptions about what are (are not) interesting contexts is a huge step in the right direction. Taking stock of the context in which you frame your technical content and questioning your assumptions about why you think it is engaging is another huge step in the right direction. Going out and attempting to find out what the students you want to engage in computing find interesting is a humungous step.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Internet or Imperial-Pigeon? A False Choice*

More individuals and organizations are starting to realize that silo-d thinking and the related concept of existence as a zero sum game are not only unnecessary but counter productive. Counter productive even to traditional western definitions of success. Consider the fact that best seller status is being achieved by the book Give and Take, which provides compelling evidence that ultimately the most successful people are not those who try to maximize their own benefit at the expense of others. It is an eye opening book for anyone stuck on the idea that to rise to the top in a capitalist, technology driven society you have to claw your way over the bodies of every one and every thing in your way.

Then there is the notion that some hold onto with a death-like grip that says that digital technology and nature are diametrically opposed. This is similar silo-d thinking: one must dominate at the expense of the other. This mindset can at first appear intransigent, because clouds and computers seem so different. Wait a second...  Why do we come up with terms like "cloud computing"? Why do we like that juxtaposition so much?

Earlier this year, in the magazine put out by The Nature Conservancy there was a short spot on using mobile devices such as tablets to get our techno-swamped kids out into nature. As much as I personally love, value, pine for the opportunity to get out into nature without being trailed by digital anything, I thought that perhaps it was pretty slick to use nature apps to lure techno-addicted kids away from the indoors and get them to appreciate the natural world.

Predictably, some letters to the editor loved the idea and others thought that it was horrible. Yet this should not be an either-or choice. Tablet or tree. Smartphone or slug. (If you don't think slugs are fascinating, you should really take another look at them, especially some of the dinosaur look-a-likes from the US Pacific Northwest). It's all a matter of perspective and attitude.

But wait, perhaps it is more than that. I was really pleased to see a blog post by Richard Louv, who popularized the notion of "nature deficit disorder" making the case for the need for both the natural and digital worlds. More than a need, an imperative. In his post Louv says:

"I believe that a central goal of modern education should be ... to nurture the hybrid mind: to stimulate both ways of knowing in the world: digital and direct experience"

Louv advocates for ensuring a digital/nature balance in children, but the case is equally strong for adults, and for applying this balance to how we do business. When someone replies to you "yeah but..." and starts talking in generalities about competition and economics, respectfully suggest they pause and investigate the growing evidence out there that supports an alternative viewpoint. We can consider it as yet another interdisciplinary computing challenge.

*The Imperial-Pigeon is a type of stunningly colorful Australian bird. There are several types of Imperial-Pigeon and they, along with some of their likewise stunningly feathered relatives, will eliminate once and for all any notion you might harbor that pigeons are uninteresting.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Entrepreneurial MOOCs at the ACM Ed Council Meeting

Pardon the sizzling neurons: I'm attending the ACM Education Council meeting this weekend. This afternoon we heard from a panel of 4 tech industry speakers who are innovating in the MOOC realm; all are teaching introductory programming. The 4 were from: Khan Academy, CodeHS, Tynker and Google. Thought provoking to say the least.

There were some striking similarities among the 4 although they had different visions and philosophies. They all shared huge enthusiasm - incredibly dynamic enthusiasm. They were passionate and excited about teaching coding to kids. They focused on engagement; thus there was a lot of talk about "fun" and "cool" and one of the speakers was almost hopping up and down as she spoke - that was Pamela Fox from Khan Academy. With her partially purple hair. I would love to put Pamela in front of a bunch of middle or high school girls - she was technical, personable, enthusiastic and would debunk the idea that coding was blah or anti-social. Pamela spoke of community building, mentioned a concern with working for gender neutrality and incorporating accessibility into online learning; all the while sprinkling the conversation with blurbs that make it clear she was a solid techie. In fact, most of Pamela's talk was detailed info on her approach to designing an effective coding learning platform for kids. Her biggest focus was with creating solid debugging environments. She clearly gets the notion that what happens when we make mistakes is critical - do we come back and want to keep coming back or do we bail in despair?

One thing in particular Krishna Vedati from Tynker said really stuck with me. Like many of the panelists, he talked about asking kids what interested them and then having them code around that thing. While discussing the finer points of their software and approach he mentioned that he has a son and a daughter and his daughter always wants to write stories and his son wants to create games; he doesn't want to make his daughter code to create games (and by implication: he doesn't want to make his son code to write stories). It was a passing comment, but it captured an important piece of messaging embraced by most of the speakers.

One of the founders of CodeHS was Jeremy Keeshin and he was interesting enough that several of us had a long involved conversation with him at dinner. Grilled him actually. Jeremy put up with us with good cheer. Not only because he was surrounded on all sides and would have had to crawl under the table between us to get away. As part of his work Jeremy travels around the country spending time in classrooms where the rubber hits the road - meeting teachers and learning about what they do, why they do it, what they think and feel. His company works hard to work with teachers and schools rather than going around them. I am going to talk to Jeremy again in the near future because I think he and his company would interest enough of you that I want to write more here. Stay tuned.

Of course there was controversy; members of the Ed Council asked all of the panelists some tough questions. One recurrent theme had to do with how they know what they are doing works. Evaluation (how? what kind? what makes sense? what is practical?) is an ongoing challenge in any pedagogical setting and when you are talking about a startup (as 3 out of the 4 companies on the panel were) in the fast paced world of high tech - it's tricky. Some panelists addressed this question better than others. Needless to say I spent quite a bit of time on this - it was one of the longer topics of discussion over dinner at my table.

Neil Fraser from Google's Blockly project said some things that were unquestionably controversial. The one that really got me was when he said (several times, and with followup detail) that one of the things they had learned was to ignore user feedback. I can't remember his exact words after that but the idea seemed to be that users didn't know what was best for them. Coming on the heels of earlier comments that were less than tactful about computing degree programs and their graduates ... I have to give Neil credit for having the guts to share his views.

My brain is fried, no doubt about it, after a long day of meetings - this panel was just one piece of the long day. Tonight's sharing with you was a blurping of thoughts onto the page and there is a lot I need to process. But I can say right away that I believe we can learn a lot from the panel presentation. There were lots of technical and pedagogical details that I didn't get into here. But it's not that. What we can learn has more to do with - something in the non technical realm that hasn't gelled for me yet. The dialog needs to continue.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

So Close But Yet So Far Wired Magazine!

An article in this month's Wired magazine made me momentarily want to beat my head on the wall. The cover story, with the somewhat misleading title "The Next Steve Jobs", is about how a teacher in an incredibly poor school in Mexico took it upon himself to use a student centered pedagogical approach to teaching which resulted in many of his students leaping into the 99th percentile on national exams.

The story contrasts two extremes: mindless 19th Century inspired rote learning with dynamic engaging student-driven learning. The school doesn't have computers for the students. A roving ed tech instructor shows up holding placards with pictures of keyboards and 3.5" floppy disks. Not long after the teacher takes matters into his own hands, he has students figuring out how to solve complex math and science problems. Students that no one expected anything from proceed to blow away the competition. The plot line is rather predictable.

True, the story is engaging, as magazine articles need to be to maintain readership, and does a nice job of providing a glimpse of the innovative guts the teacher demonstrated. Without training or mentoring or any kind of outside assistance aside from the use of his home computer, he took a dive into turning conventional pedagogy on its head. It worked. One of his students in particular (whose photograph is on the cover of the issue) really excelled - she made the top score in the country on her standardized exams.

The article goes on to point out that the student's teacher received very little credit for his accomplishments. His students, in particular the girl who blew away the rest of the country academically, got the bulk of the attention. In fact, some of the region's administration dismissed the teacher's efforts entirely; one administrator is quoted as saying that teaching methods have little to do with how well students perform. Huh???? That in itself is incredibly annoying but by now the reader can see it coming.

At the end of the article (and here came the desire to whack my head on the nearest flat surface) I realized that the article missed a huge opportunity to rectify matters. It is a compelling story, but what are the take home messages? The casual reader could easily walk away with a variety of impressions about a brilliant girl, a lousy Mexican education system, a brave teacher, and the vague notion that student centered education sounds great. Or not great, depending upon your inclination.

But where are the take home messages that could take it to the next level for STEM education, and since this is Wired magazine, the messages about the digital economy and the need for innovative computing education? After all, they chose to put Steve Jobs name in the title. Then they did nothing with it.

I wish they had put the pieces together more clearly. What a lost opportunity to do more than tell a good story. Thud.

Monday, October 21, 2013

STEM, STEAM, Then What?

All the fields are here

The STEAM acronym has been nagging at me for some time. Just in case you aren't familiar with it, STEAM is short for Science Technology Engineering Arts Math. STEAM comes on the heels of STEM: Science Technology Engineering Math. Prior to STEM there was ST/M and other less linguistically smooth relatives.

These acronyms are everywhere in discussions of education. No doubt you have heard STEM a lot - it's hard not to have. You may or may not have heard of STEAM yet (you will) and perhaps you never heard of ST/M. ST/M isn't used much these days, having been supplanted by STEM.

Things (the acronyms) started when people were looking for easy ways to shorthand the content topics that needed greater emphasis in schools. Especially in the US, but in other countries as well. All sorts of wordy discussions were popping up about how to improve student learning in areas necessary for economically competitive citizenry living in highly competitive global economies. See what I mean? Wordy.

Most of you reading this know the ins and outs of these conversations and all the interesting directions they go. The Common Core State Standards, The Next Generation Science Standards, and hey, why is computer science not there anywhere? Because, just in case you didn't realize it, it's not. Computer Science is Noticeably Absent.

But back to those acronyms for a moment and some implications stemming out of how they are used in discussions of education reform. (yeah, ouch)

STEM : education reform with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. There has been increasing discussion of how to integrate these topics into all aspects of the curriculum. "Interdisciplinary" has taken on buzz-word status in some camps, but one can only hope that this means we are starting to recognize the need for more fluid boundaries in our exploration of the world. It is only in the past few hundred years that we have tried to isolate content matter so rigidly in order to perform controlled experimental studies. We have learned a lot (a LOT) from this approach, but we are often now crashing up against boundaries that require the addition of more holistic integrated perspectives.

STEAM - education reform that values the arts equally to the S T E and M and works to integrate them. Perhaps in part for purely practical reasons, advocates of STEAM appear to be working hard at integration as opposed to simply saying "hey we need Art too". Art is a harder sell in this day and age of economic imperatives and requests for "useful skills".

Pondering the seeming contrast of Art with the others, I realized there was just one more piece needed to find ourselves back to advocating a liberal arts educational foundation. Humanities. Right? In terms of providing a solid, critical thinking based, life long learning supportive education, we often include the need for broad distribution requirements that include Arts and Humanities. Wordy yet again. Hence the usefulness of an acronym. 

Funny how things might be coming full circle. If someone finds a way to effectively advocate for the Humanities, we will be acknowledging the need for a holistic, (hopefully) integrated education.

I'm wondering when someone is going to come up with an acronym that incorporates the H.

I've been playing with how to put in the H but so far I haven't found just the right fit.

HSTEAM     MEATSH    EATSHM    ATSEHM     I see a thematic basis in food (time of day?)
SHTEAM     MEATHS    EATHSM    ATHESM     throat clearing (reaction to allergens?)
STHEAM     MEAHTS    EAHMST    AHMEST     and lisping (sorry code buffs, not LISP)
STEAMH     HMAETS    MAEHTS    AEHMTS    Things (acronyms) are not looking promising.

What we need is to integrate computing into our acronym.


Rome wasn't built in a day; the Hoover Dam was built in 3 years. I think we're getting somewhere.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Global Tech Women: "Voices" Speaks Again

Have you heard about the "Voices" conference? Voices is presented by Global Tech Women and is unique in several ways. For starters, the conference is virtual - you can participate from anywhere on the planet if you have access to an internet connection. Second, the conference is global. It takes place not from one location but from many locations. Third, Voices will circumnavigate the globe for 35 hours. The first session will come from Australia and subsequent sessions will follow the rising sun. The final session will take place in Silicon Valley.

It's high quality stuff and it isn't going to break the bank.

Voices debuted earlier this year on International Women's Day and no one quite knew how it would all go. It turned out to be an incredible grassroots community building and empowerment event. Technical women who had never had the opportunity to participate in a gathering of their peers were able to do so. It was a great way to meet technical women from different cultures, to compare and share ideas and experiences, and to learn from the expertise and perspective of others. People participated and presented from every continent; the topics ranged from the technically nitty gritty to balancing the personal and professional. In my own opinion, the greatest result of the conference was the many lasting relationships that were established.

Therefore, Global Tech Women is putting together the Voices conference again for 2014.

Although International Women's Day is a long way off (March 8th), conference content planning is well under way and the call for participation closes November 1st. This is where you come in and the reason I'm whipping up this post now.

You don't have to be "someone important" to present - in fact, toss that silly phrase right out the window.

Curious? Interested? Have something to share with other technical women? Hopefully, I got your attention and you want more detail about the Voices conference and how to be part of it. Go Here to find out.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Art, UX, Computer Science (happy campers)

Happy Indeed!

Feeling very pleased, and perhaps amazed, with their luck at finding easy parking in Little Italy, many of the San Diego UX Speakeasy crowd at first walked right past the entrance to Sosolimited, the host for this month's amazing blend of art, design and computer science. Snugly fit into a funky building that looked non descript on the outside but was full of interesting odds and ends on the inside, 70 or so of us gathered for our monthly meeting of food, beverage, and socializing. Oh, and for a really cool presentation.

I was stumbling around in a corner doing something or other when Justin Manor, our host, explained the origin of the company name, but I believe it had something to do with he and his friends originally being in a band. or DJs perhaps? Something musical anyway. Many years later, the expanded team has morphed into working with clients such as The Denver Public Library, the Museum of Science in Raleigh North Carolina, the Center For Strategic and International Studies (in DC) and oh, I almost forgot, the 2012 London Olympics.

The projects Justin showed us snippets of were eclectic and it's hard to succinctly say what they all had in common. Lots of data, interactivity, live processing, .... urg it's hard to describe (fortunately it is all on their web page in lovely visual form). There was genetic patterning and sequencing in there, patterns of natures that flowed and swooped, streaming bits that looked like something out of The Matrix, physical animations of various natural processes, linguistic analysis -

wait. When Justin showed us linguistic analysis of political speeches and pronouncements from the US and UK the crowd got a good laugh while being educated. We watched a clip from the US presidential debates, and various political speeches from both countries. Streamed live at the time, various word clouds formed and rearranged as the politicians spoke, zeroing in on buzzwards, or egotistical references to themselves and a variety of other interesting things. There was one politician who said almost nothing intelligible in a very long winded way and it was quite interesting to see the analytical structures forming around his blathering. So if you sometimes think that some of these guys aren't saying anything, now you could know for a fact when that was the case.

I would love to see some live analysis of the current morass going on in Washington DC over the government shutdown.

You see, it's pretty serious stuff as well as fun - if you think about all the ways that live data analysis, pattern identification and matching in nature, micro to macro, can help us learn new things and understand the world around us. It's research, it's user experience, it's art, it's science. It's dynamic and it's cooooooooooooool!

For those of you who want to get your hands a dirty you know what is equally cool? (Aside from the fact that Justin talked about code and algorithms on more than one occasion.) Sosolimited has put an open source project on GitHub that you can use to do some things with YouTube videos. Again I refer you to their web page for the full scoop.

I realize this has been a somewhat sedate post about a UX Speakeasy meetup compared to some of those in the past. Perhaps it was the contentment I felt with the presence of vegetarian spring rolls. Yummy and healthy. Or a general friendly blurring and purring of memories from the evening. I would be remiss however, if I did not mention one small oddity. The bathroom. I didn't manage to locate it myself, but I was told by several people that to get there one had to go outside (out of doors), take a left, go left again, then left again, up a ramp, perhaps another left I'm not sure, and then one would find the Facilities. These directions involve some interaction with a loading dock (?), and a parking lot (?).

I didn't think to ask the building owner, a very nice guy named Marc Hedges about the Facilities Location. I'm sure he would have had an interesting explanation.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Exciting Ethical Considerations

Who would have thought that a formal code of ethics would be interesting and thought provoking? Having been bored to delirium with some books on foundations of formal ethical principles I didn't expect to get sucked in by reading the ACM Code of Ethics. Surprise!!!!!

What really got my attention is that there is a very active - nay proactive - tone to the whole thing. In contrast to tomes (and I mean TOMES) I have read in the past, which are thorough and informative if you can stay awake, this page and half kept me sitting upright in my chair. The Code suggests - nay instructs - ACM members to take charge in a variety of societal and environmental ways.

Here are several excerpts, with emphasis added by me in each case. Think about what each one might mean to you in your work:

"Therefore, computing professionals who design and develop systems must be alert to, and make others aware of, any potential damage to the local or global environment." (from section 1.1)

"Well-intended actions, including those that accomplish assigned duties, may lead to harm unexpectedly. ... the responsible person or persons are obligated to undo or mitigate the negative consequences as much as possible." (from section 1.2)

"...obligation to report any signs of system dangers that might result in serious personal or social damage. If one's superiors do not may be necessary to "blow the whistle"..." (from section 1.2)

"...provide full disclosure of all pertinent system limitations and problems." (from section 1.3)

"...with the recognition that sometimes existing laws and rules may be immoral or inappropriate and, therefore, must be challenged." (from section 2.3)

"...must consider the personal and professional development, physical safety, and human dignity of all workers." (from section 3.2)

That last one especially hit home.

Many years ago I was given an assignment to work on a scheduling system that was seriously opposed by the home health care providers who going to be forced to use it. The system was going to provide each health care worker with a daily schedule of who to see, what order to see them in and what time to arrive and depart each home. A device in their vehicles would track where they were at any point in the day. Management loved the idea: (supposed) efficiency and (short term) cost savings were their concerns. There was much talk about how helpful this system would be for everyone. However, in prototype trials, the health care workers found themselves driving back and forth, sometimes recrossing parts of town, cutting short time with patients who needed additional assistance, and feeling as if they had lost control of the all important human interaction part of the healing process.

As I gradually found out all this, and I realized what "my" system was going to do, it sucked. That is the only word for it. I felt a huge ethical dilemma because I was putting my skills as a developer to work on a project that would, in my estimation, degrade the lives of the health care workers and the patients. 

I lucked out that time. The system imploded of its own volition for technical reasons before going live, thus removing the problem from my plate. However, I couldn't forget about it and I decided that I'd never knowingly work on a project that caused harm to others again. Not only that, I decided that from then on I'd pay more attention to learning about the impact of my projects, and not leave it to chance that I'd find out.

One of the things I really like about the ACM Code of Ethics is that if you read it, and think about it in the context of your professional activities, it will likely get you thinking in new ways. Before you find yourself faced with an ethical dilemma at work.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

We are Still Leaning Into or Away From Gender Questions

Hands up please if you have heard something about the controversies surrounding Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. Keep your hands up if you have actually read it. How many of you formed an opinion or jumped to conclusions without having read the book?

I haven't read virtually any of the controversy, and I haven't watched the TEDTalk she gave prior to deciding to write the book. Sources tell me (I just love saying that) feedback after the talk led Sheryl to clarify with evidence many of her claims, which as far as I'm concerned shows an admirable receptivity to critique.

Being in the tech world, I can't help but have heard a lot about the whole thing, however I prefer to form my own opinions by going to the source. So I read the book. Sometimes I agreed strongly; sometimes I disagreed. I'm going to focus today on some areas where I resonated with what Sheryl had to say.

Perhaps one area where I have changed the most over the years and where I completely understood what Sheryl was talking about, was when she talked about how pretending that gender doesn't exist, doesn't make it not exist. We are acculturated, especially in the computing industry, to just try and fit in, to believe in a culture of meritocracy.  Sheryl points out - quite accurately in my experience - that gender is always there, just below the surface. It pops up, because as humans, we judge other  humans subjectively even when we think we don't.

I periodically have people tell me "there is no difference between men and women". I used to believe this. I used to operate as if there was no difference, which meant, in reality, that I was trying to be one of the guys. As far back as grade school, long before my life as a computer nerd, I found that the guys never believed for a second that I was a guy no matter how hard I tried to convince them otherwise. It wasn't because I really wanted to be a guy. It was because I learned early on that guys were often doing what I wanted to do and the girls weren't.

Somehow I missed the message that I should want to be doing what the girls were doing. So I busted my childhood butt to be one of the guys. It didn't work as planned, not in 6th grade, nor later in 10th grade, nor as a young software engineer in the 1980s. Just when I would think I was being accepted as an equal, something would come up to remind me we were not the same. In 6th grade it happened when suddenly the rage among the guys was the Playboy Bunny. That little black rabbit head started appearing everywhere in the classroom.

I remember the moment I found out what the bunny referred to and realized there was a problem. I had no idea what to do other than ignore it and pretend it didn't exist. It was about that time the guys threw me out of their fort in the woods and told me I was not welcome. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident but it was not. I wish I could say it doesn't ever happen in 2013 but sometimes it does.

Memory of my bunny  moment flashed through my head as Sheryl wrote about going out to dinner with the tech guys to drink whiskey and smoke cigars, only to find it made her sick. These experiences are not uncommon, and as most of us who have been around a while have come to learn, they aren't simply extracurricular activities that can be ignored. They are part of how important relationships are built and business gets done.

So with regard to those people who tell me there is no difference between women and men, I have come to realize that in most of the cases I encounter, these people are well meaning and are expressing an ideal. But that ideal is not reality. Stating it, and thinking that will make it true, is delusion.

Strong words? Yes. Sheryl talks also about how there is a danger, both perceived and real, to speaking openly about gender. As she puts it, you are wading into deep and muddy waters; it can be a no-win situation. Tar pit is what comes into my mind. On the other hand, there are a lot of very good reasons (discussed at some length in the book) for speaking out.  Professional as well as personal. I suggest you read the book and judge for yourself. Go to the source.

If, after reading Lean In, you want to talk about it with other interested people, Sheryl Sandberg's book is the subject of Global Tech Women's next virtual book club on Friday September 20th at 9am Pacific Time. Everyone is welcome.

In addition to all the practical reasons Sheryl discusses for speaking out, I will add that acknowledging what "is" can be a powerful thing. Living either in denial or ignorance doesn't lead to happiness. Becoming attuned to what is in front of you, in your here and now, has the potential to do so however. Not instantly - there is no free lunch. You have to decide what to do with your reality and taking action is work. Sheryl would call this leaning in.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Growing Pains for Inroads and its Fans

Transitions can be painful even when you realize that the eventual outcome will be a good thing. We tend to get comfortable with how things are and we understand how to operate in that world. Sometimes change catches you by surprise and it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under your feet. There are several unhelpful ways we sometimes react to changes that push us out of our comfort zone, including ignoring the situation and operating as if nothing has changed, becoming defensive, and invoking passive aggressive behaviors.

What Makes A Magazine a Magazine? (only 1 is by ACM)

A few years ago Inroads became ACM Inroads Magazine, and as both a columnist and Associate Editor, I have had the opportunity to watch the growing pains inflicted upon all involved. It is a wonderful thing to be a magazine. ACM has just a few magazines, and joining the ranks of those high quality publications brings many benefits. These include greater exposure for computing education, more diverse articles, more diverse readers, more diverse authors, and more interesting articles.

That last item is really where the rub is. By saying "more interesting" I am not saying that articles were not interesting in the past. (Trying to fend off any rotten tomatoes before they are launched). What I want to say is that a magazine has a rather unique kind of mission. What makes a magazine?

Ask yourself: What do the likes of Wired and People have in common? Seriously. Pretty darned extreme differences (and quality) but between them, and along the whole spectrum, there are some commonalities. How about (feel free to suggest non-snarky additions): articles that grab your attention and suck you in - I mean really suck you in, if well written and if you have even the remotest interest in the subject matter. Articles that don't require in depth subject matter expertise just to get beyond the abstract. What a minute: what abstract? Toss out the abstract. And for heavens sake toss out almost all citations. Perhaps include a few bibliographic references for the interested reader at the end. Toss in visually appealing pages - color! Photos? Diagrams? Toss in engaging relevant pictures that may or may not have data involved....

Which brings me to a bottom line: A magazine is not a research journal. Or a conference publication. Nor should it be approached as one.

That fact can be hard to adjust to for authors and reviewers and readers who are used to publications requiring the setting of a theoretical base, providing a literature review, citing prior and related work, defending every opinion (wait, there aren't supposed to be "opinions" except perhaps in the Discussion section - but even then they had better be thoroughly grounded one way or another), presenting data data and more data, drilling the point home and leaving the reader convinced (if the article is well presented) that no other reasonable conclusion is possible [here I smile, because there is always room for disagreement, even if only on a matter as significant as whether Power was reported]

It isn't that we don't know what a magazine is on an instinctive level. It is just that if we aren't used to reading and writing and reviewing for professional magazines, but for research and conference journals, it can be difficult to adjust. This is what I have been seeing in some cases. It doesn't matter how many times the Editor in Chief points out that Inroads is a magazine: heads nod, but when it comes time to read, write and review...some revert to a way of thinking based on the academic model of evaluating publications. Depending upon the personality involved, this can mean a wide variety of reactions to what is clearly not, nor intended to even come close to, a research article. That is what I have been observing.

It's hard to adjust to change. ACM Inroads Magazine (as I am supposed to refer to it when being official) is breaking new ground, reaching out to the wider computing community (Computer Science, Management Information Systems, Information Technology, Informatics, and others), as well as industry readers and leaders who share an interest in education. ACM Inroads Magazine is moving towards articles that grab your attention, don't require a PhD with a specialization in security to be engaged by an article on security, aren't littered with citations, and trade nailing down every statement of opinion or philosophical viewpoint for thoughtful and sometimes intentionally open ended provocative assertions.

No, ACM Inroads Magazine is not turning into People Magazine. Although it occurs to me I could have a great deal of fun writing a tongue in cheek column about what that might look like. We aren't turning into Wired Magazine either. We aren't sacrificing quality; we are applying standards for top rated magazine quality (most decidedly not People magazine). The magazine format provides us a platform to become incredibly useful to a broad audience interested in computing education. That is a good thing, isn't it?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

ICER Day 3: Theory in Practice via Food

When the inside of the brownies are uncooked it is theoretically much easier to not eat them. Unlike for pepperoni, the theory that removing the bits of sausage from the surface will result in the elimination of the meat from the pizza proves to be incorrect. Fortunately, three days of incredibly stimulating theoretical and applied discussions at ICER have prepared me to apply my newly primed computational thinking skills to the task of applying some of the theoretical constructs we learned in a greater context.

Were I to assess the brownie/sausage learning experience via an Active-Constructive-Interactive Framework (attributed to Chi and discussed as part of Quintin Cutts talk) in conjunction with Peer Instruction (PI) I would have to design a PI-centered analysis such that we moved through the Passive Stage (stare at the offending food items) to the Active Stage (cautiously pick up the offending food items) to the Constructive Stage (wrap the pizza around the brownie taco-style) to the Interactive Stage (turn to my friend and offer to trade my sausage brownie taco for her broccoli) while sending an unhappy message about the brownie via Clicker to the Dining Services food database. The pizza mess up was totally my own doing.*

If I assess the brownie/sausage learning experience while holding a Theory View of food choices I would decide that whether or not to eat raw dough and invisible sausage bits was only relevant if the problem was not NP Complete. If, conversely, I held a Programming View I would write a Python program to compare and contrast the tradeoffs of not eating at all vs. eating food that bordered on the undigestible. If however, I held a Broad View, I would pause and evaluate at length the possible origins of the dough, the sausage, the intermingling of ingredients as the two situate on the same plate, and the effect upon the ecosystem if they pass through my body or go straight into the trash bin.**

In the event that I approach the entire episode from an experiential perspective and applied the Zones of Proximal Flow theory (as presented in Alex Repenning's talk) I would take stock first of the momentary Anxiety I felt after I swallowed the solid lump of dark dough and felt the greasy sausage remainders sliding down after it. Then, as I became accustomed to this challenging experience and realized I could perhaps leverage the unwanted protein and sugar in new ways, I would make a mental note that I was in Vygotsky's ZOPED (Zone of Proximal Development). With the assistance of an experienced wise person, I could be scaffolded into a state of Flow (as made famous by Csikszentmihalyi), buzzing along with full attention on the post-lunch presentations and discussions - totally unaware of the nutritional experience taking place below. Much later, after I had fully mastered the experience of the afternoon I might find myself Bored. I'm happy to say that never happened. Although if I had I might have been challenged to eat something even more offputting and start the whole process over again.***

And so it goes. It was no doubt the depth and solidity of much of the research we heard over the last three days that led to so many members of the audience feeling happily brain fried. Whether presenting quantitative statistical results or rigorous qualitative analyses, or while engaging in dynamic give and take with a sometimes hard core questioner, the bar remained high.  Ray Lister, who is known for his willingness to say it like it is, made the point quite well when he said how much he hates claims that begin with "In my experience...." Ray called this The Yoda Argument. Brownies aside, Yoda was not present at ICER 2013. Yet we had a heck of a lot of fun while we learned - good pedagogical theory seen in action.

*(with sincere apologies to Quintin Cutts who, I hope, will forgive these unwarranted extensions of his rigorous and compelling work on engagement in the university computing classroom)
**(with full apologies to Mike Hewner who presented these Views of Computer Science as the heart of his research results, with absolutely no intention they be applied in this manner)
***(more apologies, this time to Alex Repenning who gave an incredibly  fascinating and solidly supported research talk on integrating computing into the middle school classroom with absolutely nothing remotely resembling unsound nutrition)

*****Overall the food was wonderful!!!!! Just want to make sure I said that***** 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

ICER Day 2 - Variables Are Hard to Grasp?

One thing I love about ICER is the format: it is designed for interaction. We don't just sit there, sliding progressively lower in our seats as the days go on, hoping for the next coffee break. We listen to a speaker and we discuss the talks and we have spirited Q & A sessions.There were quite a few radical ideas tossed out in today's presentations. In great part because the speakers were, for the most part, energetic and comfortable with uncertainty. I can't count how many times I heard something along the lines of "and these results [just presented] leave us with more questions than answers". At which point we all would happily leap into the discussion fray with each other and the presenter. And no one seemed to take offense, as I have seen in some other research conferences when presenters take themselves a bit too seriously.

Cognitive learning theories were at the heart of the first two talks and there was some radical stuff here. For example, in the first talk of the morning Linda Seiter spoke about her work with computational thinking and primary school students. Not high school, not middle school, but primary school. 2nd grade, 4th grade, 6th grade. We don't hear about research on computing in kids this young very often - not by computer scientists at least. That in itself made me sit up in my seat.

One of her fascinating results started with the discovery that kids have an easier time learning computational concepts that we take as given to be harder, and that kids have a much harder time with concepts we assume are easier and thus teach first. For example, multi-threading, blocking, and synchronization come much easier than variables. It turns out that the concept of variables is really really hard - it isn't a natural concept at all. Young kids just don't grasp variables. Whereas they do grasp those OS related terms I mentioned.

Hold that in your head and then add in this: Linda  also said that 8th graders have similar computational thinking skill abilities as the college students she teaches and they run into the same problems. So although there are periods of predictable cognitive leaps as kids develop (4th - 5th grade seems big) , in terms of skill acquisition ability in computational thinking, there doesn't appear to be much change between 8th grade and freshman year of college.

If that is the case, should we rethink our decades old accepted wisdom about what concepts we teach first and what is necessary as foundational? The work we were hearing about focused on K-12, but what about university computing curricula? We have been beating our heads on the wall for decades on some of the same CS1 and CS2 problems - what if, instead of continuing to rework, tweak, re-present the same basic set of introductory concepts in the hopes of getting them across better - what if instead we look at upending the entire curriculum and putting the so-called hard concepts first? What if many of these aren't really the conceptually hard concepts at all? Conversely, what if the stuff we think of as easy and fundamental gets pushed out much later? Junior year? Senior year?

Why, for example, do we teach variables right off the bat anyway? Because we always have? Because all the textbooks are written that way? Because everyone does it that way? Because they are obviously simpler concepts? Because this is so fundamental to our belief system that we don't question it? Because it would be scary as heck to throw it all out the window? We can come up with lots of reasons why this paradigm shift (as it most definitely is)would be impractical to try. But when have true paradigm shifts ever been comfortable or without large speed bumps along the way?

Here is one of my favorite quotes from this morning: 

"As a teacher you need to forget everything you know and think like a first grader"

Although directed at teachers and researchers working with first graders, I think that it would be healthy for all of us to periodically think like a first grader. Before we have internalized so many fixed notions of how the world works, and, to quote back from yesterday's post, before we have developed Functional Fixations.

Monday, August 12, 2013

ICER Day 1: An Unexpected Foray into Learning & Design

A Layout

Synchronicity can be a freaky and wonderful thing. Within the first two hours of the ICER conference today I realized that I had not left Design behind (see my last several posts), and that a book I am currently reading (and will eventually post about) on egotistical versus empathic people in the corporate world was directly relevant to pedagogy and computing education.

The keynote speaker today was Scott Klemmer, who, in spite of what that link says, has just moved here to UC San Diego, apparently split between the Cognitive Science and Computer Science departments. He was originally trained as a designer and it showed as he took us on an interesting adventure around UI design from the back end - code in other words. He started out with the statement "View Source is a great example of UI design". That got my attention - to spend the next hour talking about the UI (UX) aspects of something users never see (code) but computer scientists see day in and day out. How very very cool.

In contrast to the industry-oriented conference I reported on a few weeks ago, ICER is an academic conference. Thus, Scott's talk was loaded with wonderful theoretical backup, explanations, references and citations, thought provoking ideas and suggestions that researchers love to roll around in. It was great.

So when Scott said "intuition is a difficult thing to teach students" it was the opening volley into wide ranging but highly focused and well supported discussion about using examples to aid learning, to generate creative design, to generate effective design, to arrive at quality prototypes while building group (i.e. team) rapport. One theme: sharing and adapting examples is good technically and good for learning purposes. But in a much deeper way than you might think. The discussion then rolled on into the role of peer assessment in design and how it can be used in software tools. Drool.

One of the interesting areas Scott has worked on is researching single vs. parallel design development. We know (the "research We" for those not used to the lingo) that people become ego attached to their own ideas and are loath to let go of them, even sometimes to their own detriment. It is called Functional Fixation and was written about back in 1945 by a guy named Dunker. But, we are learning that this ego attachment is reduced significantly if people develop multiple ideas in parallel. It becomes much easier to hear critique and drop one idea for another if you have several ideas to compare and contrast. As opposed to if you have only one idea and you are completely invested in it's success or failure.

Lots of very practical application along with some wonderful theory - established theory and theory being built. Some of what Scott spoke about was targeted at formal pedagogy but I can easily see it adapted without too much effort to an industry setting. For example, he spent some time on how to incorporate self-assessment and peer assessment into the development of designs and prototypes in the computing classroom. One of the big challenges, as educators are all too painfully aware, is that novices aren't always very good at providing useful feedback. Even when the faculty supplies an assessment rubric as guide, all sorts of issues arise - if the rubric is too specific, it can stifle creativity and lead students to just check off the boxes without any deep thinking; yet if the rubric is too abstract it can lead students to have no idea what to do with it and either flail or provide random, not very helpful, feedback.

Here comes the useful research note that provides insight into not only the classroom, but the business world too (I refuse to say "the real world", because schooling is real; where ever you are at any moment in time is your real life).

Novices have a very hard time with abstract rubrics. The question becomes how to operationalize a rubric for the particular level of students you are working with? (CS1, CS2, an upper division course)? We have research about how novices become experts and how along the way they gradually become more able to deal with abstraction. Thus, the rubric that works for a sophomore level software engineering class is probably not the same one you'd use for a senior level software engineering class or for a newly hired software engineer or for a seasoned developer.

A technique, one that Scott is working with, is to create the rubric such that up to a certain point it is fairly concrete (i.e. you can get 90% of the possible points) and after that it is more abstract (you want an A, then you have to go above and beyond). What he didn't discuss, but where my thoughts were going, was that you could take the same (or similar) rubric and start shifting that abstraction point downwards as you work with more advanced students or professionals.

Fascinating idea to consider. Fascinating idea to strategize, design, prototype, implement.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Question of a Universal Icon Leads to Bathroom Talk

(Warning: This post is Rated PG-13)

There is this thing called The Noun Project. I find it somewhat challenging to tell from their web pages just what they do. However, my sense, based upon an activity I took part in last night with the UX Speakeasy crowd, is that has to do with ... nouns. And icons? The idea that nouns can be represented with icons. And that there are many possible representations for any given noun - in icon form. (iconic? Icon is a noun; iconic is not ("Of, relating to, or having the character of an icon." )

It is fun to play with words; with nouns. To share icons about nouns. That seems to be what The Noun Project is about. Led, in part with operatic vocalizations, by Jeannel King a Graphic Facilitator and founder of Big Picture Solutions, about 100 of us went through an enthusiastic activity where Jeannel whipped off a series of nouns with only seconds between each one and we had to draw each one. No thinking - just draw it! A round of ten words coming almost as fast as those legalese voices at the end of commercials. Draw each one with large markers "Big Fat Lines for Big Fat Ideas".

There was a certain amount of squawking at first from those who really wanted to "think" - but Thinking Was Out, and Instinct Was In. Whatever you draw is good enough - tough for those who want to get it right. To realize there is no "right".

Which was part of the point. My gut level interpretation of "banana" is not necessarily your gut level interpretation of "banana"; nor the instinctive perception of "banana" held by someone who lives in the far reaches of the Arctic. And we know that much of human behavior comes from gut level rather than cognitive decision making.

The warm up round was comprised of relatively easy nouns: cloud, money, beer, banana, house, tree. Everyone put marker to sticky note and drew their 2 second bananas. And we put them up for all to see and discuss. Although one could justifiably claim that the following rounds of nouns were harder, e.g. "user; interaction; design; context; information; usable; innovation; perception; research; input" that would be too simplistic a conclusion.

At one point the guy next to me said "Are we being mono-culture?" - because so many people put up $ for "money" and no one made a peep about it. GOOD CALL! Yes, that indeed was part of the point, as, seconds later, Jeannel drew everyone's attention to the implicit and often unconscious assumptions we make. Even on the simple things. And if we want to talk to the world, how to guard against assumptions and inherent cultural perceptions?

All of which begs the question: Is there any such thing as a universal symbol? Pulling my investigative
journalist hat on snugly I set out to discover what the crowd thought about this.

The first two people definitively said "no". There can be no symbol which is universal. So I moved on.

The next person said "yes". They seemed surprised when I then asked for an example (you'd think someone would see that coming a mile away!). After the briefest of pauses: "The Play Button". I looked quizzical (so much for being the objective reporter) but they held their ground. Their conversation partner sensed where I was going and stepped in with "it depends upon your anthropological approach". I looked more quizzical, not wanting to let them off the hook just yet. So he said "It depends upon your ethnography".

The next person said "Yes" and "math is the same in every language". Someone else also played the math card and said "+ and - are the same in every language".

Really? Is that so? If one knows one's anthropology and has done some ethnography one might question the universality of math symbols. +, - or otherwise.

The next answer, one which I got from several people, was fun to think about: "Yes". "Guy and girl
bathroom pictures".  Are Universal.

Putting my quizzical expression back on (in the name of investigative journalism) an interesting introspective then took place in which the person started thinking aloud about pants, skirts, men with skirts, putting the same symbol on both doors, and transgender bathrooms with possible symbol (icon) complications. One then wonders: Would a sufficiently transgender icon lead to unisex bathrooms? Or to some people being able to choose either bathroom but others being restricted to one or the other? Would people spend so much time trying to decipher the icon that they would stand outside the bathroom doors puzzling until their bladder burst?

This, I believe, is really what our exercise last night was meant to encourage people to do - think about the meaning behind words, the symbols we choose to use for them, the context and the audience. Do so with some depth and question assumptions and the things we take for granted. If we want to be effective communicators that is.

But just in case you think the matter is settled, the last response I received may be one of the harder to parry. I popped the question about the possibility of a noun with a universal symbol and this person enthusiastically, hopped right over the "yes" part, and not waiting to be looked at quizzically, said "PENIS!".

I leave you to imagine the conversation that followed; and invite you to draw your own conclusion about the possible universality of a symbol for the "p" word.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

MOB'dUP: Eliminating Frustration & Bringing It Home

In looking over my notes from the MOB'dUP conference Saturday I notice several interesting themes and a heck of a lot of good quotes. I am going to share just a few. And then I am going to give you a small task to test your ability to implement some of the tools and techniques learned at the conference.

Theme: Frustration. No, I don't mean conference attendees were frustrated. Quite the opposite. However, bleeding through many of the talks was evidence that UX professionals feel they have a tough row to hoe. Whether sharing strategy to outwit a corporate mindset that thinks that because mobile devices are small, the budget for mobile UX should be equally small (theme picked up in Greg Zapar's talk) or that there is inherent antagonism between developers and designers (themes included in talks by Guy Meyer and Asa Williams - bios in here), I sensed a certain amount of angst.

"Being a _____ just doesn't cut it anymore" [fill in the blank with just about any traditional job title]

"We aren't artists; most of what we do is Business Design" [said in the context of a rude awakening]

"I sometimes think designers go to the color wheel and just point and pick - every time. So you never get the same color twice" [said by a developer with great frustration]

Theme: Non Linearity. If ever the dominance of the Waterfall Method of doing anything was gone, it was Saturday. Just as OOP greatly displaced imperative programming, and parallelization is now de rigueur, speakers were drop kicking any lingering notion any audience member might have had that design and development were sequential activities. Designers and developers were exhorted to work together from start to end. Designers were exhorted to become more technical.  Crossing boundaries, blending perspectives, eliminating silos.

"The designs are finished. All you have to do is implement it" [Does anyone actually fall for that line anymore?]

"Be nice to your Developer. They work really hard to make it perfect" [Encouraging the manifestation of compassion in a frustrating world]

Now, for your challenge. It has to do with overcoming suffering. Because this is most definitely not what you want your users experiencing.

Setup: Despite the overall presence of non linearity, there was one particular linearity, found in Chad Martin's talk, that I really glommed onto. The "Delight vs. Frustration Map". This is an incredibly practical and useable technique for charting the story of an experience. Either predicted or completed.

Put on your UX Designer creativity hat and intuit the storyline that your software created that resulted in this  Delight vs. Frustration timeline:

Got it?

Now here is the actual storyline as it took place:

1. (bright and early morning): Boot up computer
2. Launch browser - notice it seems a bit slow to come up
3. Attempt to log in to mail - it is really slow
4. Attempt to read mail - painfully slow
5. Give up on mail and try to join video conference
6. Give up on video conference and attempt to send email explaining absence
7. Telephone colleague
8. Colleague suggests running a Speed Test
9. Make coffee while Speed Test application loads
10. Run Speed Test with anticipation
11. Get results: Download speed: .04 Mb/s; Upload speed: .10Mb/s
12. Try to reach Cable company online
13. Give up and telephone cable company. Have a pretty good interaction with support desk.
14. (Bright and early the next day): Cable guy comes over
15. Cable guys cleans up exterior wiring apparently messed up during recent renovations
16. Computer is faster
17. Cable guy finds other unrelated technical problems that are outside his purview.
18. Enjoy chatting with cable guy anyway. Cable guy then leaves.
19. Make coffee and get on with the day

Your Challenge: 
What would you do to help your user to raise those Frustration ratings and transform them into Delight?