Monday, March 25, 2013

Suggestions to a School Considering External STEM

Prepackaged All-In-One Brain Food
I had an opportunity recently to do a little investigation into an organization that is selling its system of STEM learning to K-12 school systems. A friend of mine is the Principal of a K-8 public school that is looking at ways to beef up its technology offerings and STEM in general. I had a meeting with my friend and another of the school administrators to discuss their needs and to hear about a company that has been recommended to them.

I did my due diligence prior to the meeting and reviewed the Common Core State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and of course, the CSTA recommendations for computing in K-8. I also reviewed PARCC, and existing state standards in their state.

For those of you not intimately familiar with all of the above, here are a few items to set the context: The Common Core is sweeping the nation; most states are on board and at some stage of planning and implementation. The Common Core covers English/Language Arts (ELA) and Math. Science is not included, and technology merits a mere mention under "Media and Technology" where it is suggested that technology be integrated throughout as a support tool for other subjects. The NGSS covers science, but explicitly omits computing, suggesting that it belongs under math (for more details see my post on the K-12 Computing Hot Potato).

It was painful to look at the department of education's STEM guidelines web  pages in my friend's state. Practically nothing was there. Sparse would be putting it mildly. Especially compared to the finely detailed descriptions for other areas of study. Oddly enough, for Primary School the STEM listings indicate STEM as Physical Science, Math and Art (Art?). In Middle School it is the same with the addition of some mention of technology under Career Technical Education (CTE for short, and commonly known as vocational education).

Now it became clear to me why there was such an appeal to a slickly developed set of web pages promising to provide a full STEM curriculum, complete with detailed learning goals, class lectures, exercises, assessments, materials, and professional teacher training and support.

The selling organization knows how to do its PR. They use all the right lingo. I was intrigued. I was curious. Of course none of this comes free; there is a hefty price tag. Not necessarily unreasonable - after all, someone put in a lot of work developing this educational system. I sure wish we paid our teachers commensurately with the work they do! I decided to investigate further.

Once I got past the glossy print and graphics, I realized there were very few substantive details. Transparency was not the goal here. Not in the least deterred, I donned full archeological gear and went website digging. This was fun.


If you know what you are looking for you can glean some interesting things from such digging. You read the bios of the leadership team, and the board of directors. What is their educational background, professional education career experience, non-academic experience, affiliations, interests? What is the legal status of the organization? Who is likely to benefit from sales of this system? It's often all there if you look hard enough, in this case about 7 levels down the site tree.

What wasn't there were any examples of syllabi, curriculum, assessments, detailed learning goals. One has to buy their system, and ... here is the kicker: you have to commit to teaching their two base classes.

In the spirit of being open minded, I concede that the company wouldn't want to give away their methodology enough that someone else could scoop them.

It just felt a bit weird, considering all the brough-ha-ha about the need for transparency and accountability in public education.

All of which leads to fascinating speculation about the role and potential contribution from corporate education. Any given system and materials might be of high quality. On the other hand they might not.

What is a school, feeling perhaps left in the dust by the less than transparent maneuvers of their various state agencies and politicians, to do?

After sharing all the interesting specifics I learned about the company in question with my friend and her colleague, I recommended a few things:

- Ask the organization to supply their curricula for examination. The school could offer to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement. This happens all the time in industry, so although perhaps strange to a small school, it shouldn't come as a novel idea to the educational company. There is no reason I can think of why this offer shouldn't result in a "yes".

- If that fails to produce the desired result, and you are still determined to check out this curricula, track down some current users and interview them. In fact, I'd recommend doing that anyway. The organization should be more than willing to supply names as references. Ask those adopter schools the questions that matter to your school and see what they have to say. Also, ask them to share some of their curricular materials with you. Again, this is common, smart, strategy in the business world; same thing when interviewing for a job! Check out the company before you commit!

- One last thing. If, as in this case, the company requires you to commit to using a significant portion of their system, thus locking you in, ask to what extent the required curricular materials can be customized to fit your local situation. You don't want to be forced to teach in a way that conflicts with your mission, culture, students in any substantive way.

Wouldn't it be interesting to do an in-depth comparison of industrial K-8 educational models with traditional public education models? 

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Tipping Point? Perhaps - It's Up to Us

3-D Matrix
The SIGCSE conference ended Saturday and the ACM Education Council meeting ran the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday and I suspect we are all happily exhausted. Of all the interesting things that happened over the weekend, there is one particular item I want to ponder aloud with you. It has to do with

At our conference lunch on Saturday, the thousand or so of us listened to a very interesting talk by Jane Margolis about the impact of  . When she started off by saying that she assumed most people in the audience had seen this gone-viral video, I looked around and wondered if I was the only person in the room who had no idea what she was talking about. Apparently I wasn't the only one, but the majority of the audience was in fact aware of this amazing phenomenon that has attracted incredible public attention and enthusiasm for coding. Jane showed us the short version of the video (there are three versions, approximately 1 minute, 5 minutes, 9 minutes) in which everyone from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to some basketball star (you can tell I don't follow basketball) to a rap musician (you can tell I don't follow rap) talked about how cool coding was and how important for kids to learn in school.

One of Jane Margolis' main points was that although we are justified in being very excited and happy about the groundswell of positive PR for coding that is now happening, we must not sit back and put our feet up. We have to recall on several levels that "trickle down does not". In other words, if things continue to go well and more computing classes or activities such as clubs become available to students, we should not forget to be actively alert to issues of equity and equal access for all populations. Our decades old problem with attracting and retaining women and under-represented minorities to computing isn't going to magically evaporate merely as a result of increased popularity of the field. We need to maintain vigilance.

Shortly thereafter, in the ACM Ed. Council meeting, the creator of the video, Hadi Partovi, spoke to us about his experience creating the video, the thousands and thousands and thousands of emails he has received and the social media firestorm it has created. One of the central issues Hadi brought up for the Council to discuss, and something all of you can think about is: what now? There is this incredible groundswell of people from parents to kids to engineers to school superintendents wanting to do something to bring coding into the school system. What do we do to leverage this moment in time?

For it is a Moment in Time. There is an opportunity; this can be a tipping point if we take advantage of it. The computing community, in particular the computing education community, has been working for years to draw attention to the importance of computing in the classroom. All of a sudden, as a result of Hadi Partovi and 's video, we are witnessing an incredibly powerful, positive, public response.

We should keep passing this video around to anyone who hasn't seen it - especially those even remotely involved in K-12 education, computing education, STEM education, education policy, parents.

But what else can we do? Everyone can contribute in some way to leveraging this opportunity. The incredible video from is a starting point.

What action will you take?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

SIGCSE: The Perils of Textbook Publishing

Today was a split day - SIGCSE in the morning and the beginning of the ACM Education Council meeting in the afternoon. Oh...and snow in between. A small romp on the sidewalk in the lovely snow, which unfortunately had all melted by evening when we popped out of meetings. It was great while it lasted.

Snow was a good mental cleansing agent after a fairly serious morning session about the high price of textbooks. There were four people on the panel - two publisher representatives and two authors. One of the publisher representatives was my editor from CRC Press, who I have nothing but good things to say about. I wanted to be in the audience as a friendly supporting face if needed.

No one disagrees that textbooks are very highly priced. Whenever I have to tell someone what my book costs I am prepared for sticker shock if that person is not from the academic world. And my book is definitely on the low end of textbook costs, in part because my publisher tries very hard to keep the cost of its books down.

What I learned, both from having been through the process of being an author, from specifically asking my editor about the subject, and then even more from listening to all points of view during this panel today, is that it is a complicated issue.

So here are some of the interesting things to consider. No one, including textbook representatives, will try and tell you that they are ok with the high price of textbooks - at least not anyone I heard from today. I was impressed to hear just how aware they are of how unhappy a lot of people are about textbook prices, and how much they are looking at different models to reduce prices. Depending upon who you are talking to, publishers are exploring a whole host of alternative business models from ebooks to custom publishing, to interactive online one point the representative from Wiley put up a list of options that was mind boggling. I had no idea. My brain hurt looking at it. So did at least one member of the audience who said it was all too complicated and could they please just make it simple?

Which leads me to another set of issues. It is flat out complicated and expensive to bring a textbook to market as compared to a trade book. A good publisher (and I count mine as one of those) works closely with an author, providing support, guidance, answers, and a whole host of services such as editorial development, professional design, layout, copyediting, typesetting (which is more labor intensive for textbooks than for a novel) iterative feedback, solicitation of professional peer reviews and other things - all before the book ever becomes a physical object. Then there is marketing and promotion. A myth is that printing costs are one of the major expenses for publishers and thus with the influx of ebooks prices should come way down. Not so I learned - printing costs are a very small percentage. And creation of quality ebooks is complex and expensive for a whole host of reasons I won't belabor here. And then there is volume - textbooks will never sell anywhere near what tradebooks can sell. So there are few economies of scale available to textbook publishers that are available to trade publishers.

I belong to a writers and publishers professional organization in which the majority of the members are independent writers and publishers - i.e. they publish themselves. This allows them to price their books as they choose and keep all the proceeds. The organization (Publishers and Writers of San Diego) provides incredibly invaluable professional-quality information on all aspects of the business side of writing. One of the side benefits of belonging to this organization is that I see just how much work my publisher has done for me and how incredibly expensive it can be to develop your own professional quality book. It can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars and suck up untold numbers of hours on activities most writers have zero interest in (page layout and design for example? ee-yuck).

At times the invective in professional circles against academic textbook publishers has been quite nasty. Sad to say, the situation just isn't as simple as some people think (wish) it was. The situation with regard to traditional publishing is in many ways similar to the situation the recording industry went through recently. Changes in technology led to inevitable eating away at traditional music purchases and huge problems with piracy. The recording industry fought tooth and nail to force people to stick with a traditional model of music purchase.  It was a lost cause from the beginning.

Similar societal and technological pressures face the publishing industry. Until recently I just assumed that the publishing industry was as much a stick-in-the-mud as the music industry. However, it is now clear that publishers, academic publishers in particular (all I can really speak to), are running around like mad trying to adjust and figure out what business model will balance a need for financial viability with responsiveness to demands for greater availability, flexibility and lower cost.

It just isn't easy. New business models have to come into existence that acknowledge the (justified) demand for lower priced textbook while maintaining financial viability of good publishers providing the valuable infrastructure that brings a book from idea to reality.

Finally, I want to point out something brought up today by someone. Higher education is becoming more and more expensive and the financial pressures on students are only getting worse. Many complicated factors contribute to this situation, which those of you in education circles are all to familiar with. It's messy, it's political, it's entrenched in decades of attitudes and policy. We have to do something about our educational crisis and the growing equity gap with regards to access to higher education. However, it was pointed out that textbook publishers are a convenient scapegoat.

It is easy to direct a lot of anger about the overall state of higher education at publishers and textbook pricing. Publishers are not blameless, but should not be treated with such disdain nor blamed for so much more of the problem than is really deserved.

I rarely hear a balanced conversation of the challenges facing the textbook industry. It is hard to see their side of things if you haven't either been in their shoes or have worked with them as an author. As with many things in life, there is a middle way - in perspective and in actions taken. We need to work in a mutually respectful fashion to find that way.

I don't know about you, but my brain hurts again; I'm hoping for some more snow.

Friday, March 8, 2013

SIGCSE 2013: Swimming in Social and Professional conversations

SIGCSE continues and as usual brain cells are becoming a bit challenged in many people I meet. All for a good cause - input much data for many good ideas and opportunities and there are bound to be a few neural casualties along the way.

Yesterday afternoon the panel I am a part of took place and went off swimmingly. Three colleagues and I (Beth Hawthorne, Flo Appel and Carol Spradling) spoke about the new curricular Social and Professional recommendations in CS2013 - curricular guidelines document for undergraduate computer science education. We dove into what the guidelines have to say and discussed with an enthusiastic audience some of the approaches, benefits and challenges. One of the most exciting aspects of our presentation for me was learning that several faculty in the audience that I had not yet met were already implementing modules or complete courses revolving around sustainability. Sustainability in the CS curriculum was my focus on the panel.

So many people are doing good work and flying quietly under the radar. They aren't tooting their own horns but given the opportunity to share what they are doing with interested colleagues they are all over it. In terms of sustainability, I was particularly enthused because we are looking for additional exemplars to include in the final version of CS2013.

We'd love to hear from people willing to share their work with others in the community. 

The Ironman Draft of CS2013 was officially released just as SIGCSE opened, and the comment period will last until June. If you have comments, thoughts, contributions on this final draft please, send them along using the contact information provided on the Ironman Draft site.

There is a lot of synergy around issues of computing and social good these days. Without having planned it, our panel complemented the morning special session on computing and social good that I discussed in my last post. Lots of exciting future projects are being discussed (things I overheard or participated in). There are working group reports, case studies, a growing collection of exemplars....what next?

Today, I participated in many discussions about computer science in the K-12 curriculum in the United States. This is another very important topic and a lot of momentum is building around it. There are an increasing number of state and national initiatives and, as Jan Cuny from the National Science Foundation stated in her lightening talk yesterday:  

"We will need all hands on deck. It  is not 'what can you do' but 'What will you do' ".

More and more people in and out of computing education are realizing the importance of doing something about the lack of computer science opportunities in our primary and secondary schools. Not only that, more and more people are realizing they can play a part, sometimes small, sometimes large, in moving towards inclusion of CS in K-12.

Have you thought about what contribution you can make, given your experiences, areas of expertise and connections?

Late this afternoon I had a small window of unscheduled time and decided to take advantage of it by getting some exercise. The pool at this hotel is an outdoors pool. Considering this is Denver, Colorado and it is early March, and a snow storm appears to be on the way, it was an opportunity to obtain a particularly rapid and effective chilling out session. The pool was heated, so this was no suicidal event, but 82 degrees isn't exactly a hot tub. As I tore up and down the lanes and was forced to focus on the moment and only the moment, I obtained the mental space to remember once again just how grateful I am to be here surrounded by so many people who are passionate about teaching and learning and making a difference.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

SIGCSE: Computing For Good in the Morning

What a day for engaging with issues of computing for social good in computing education. There was a special session this morning called "CS Education for the Social Good". The presenters were Michael Goldweber (Xavier University), John Barr (Ithaca College), and Elizabeth Patitsas from the University of Toronto.

Mikey (as he often likes to be called) Goldweber started off the session by looking out at the audience and saying "This is the group of people who want to save the world". Yes. Yes we do. We want the world to be a better place, and how really terrific it was to be in a room full of people who felt likewise and are using their professional experience and skills to that end. I had a no holds barred warm and fuzzy moment.

Moments later, Mikey G. made a provocative statement that caused us to stop in our tracks:

"What is the message we send when we teach games in introductory computing?" 

If you aren't in computing education you may not realize the full impact of that question. Many computing programs have infused game development, or "gamification" as it is sometimes called, into the curriculum. There has been solid evidence in favor of doing so. Games appeal to  many students' interests. Replacing deadly dull applications (e.g. the fibonacci sequence, tic-tac-toe, vending machine simulation) with game development has become quite popular. Faculty like it, students like it, enrollments in these classes often increase.

On the other are a form of entertainment. Mikey's question asked us to consider what we are saying about what computer science is when we introduce it via entertainment.  It certainly made me stop and think. Does this approach help our overall perception problem? Are we as professionals primarily about entertainment? Are we primarily about short term mindless gratification? Is this a beneficial way to teach first concepts and principles?

Interestingly, there is evidence that although students may enjoy some early gamification, it isn't enough to sustain their interest in studying computer science. After all, this field isn't all about games. In fact, it is very little about games, unless you just happen to get a job as a professional game developer. A lively discussion ensued as some in the room wanted to defend the game approach.

Mikey went on to suggest that there was a difference between appealing to student interests and student values. He posited the idea that in fact, appealing to student values was a more effective way to engage students and that it also provided an opening, not provided by most gamification, to address meaty societal concerns. Also something to stop and ponder.

How to do it? The session members discussed quite a few approaches. One division stood out: there are some areas of integrating social good into computing that necessitate additional content knowledge in another field. In this case it might pay off to collaborate with a content expert in that other field. Or a variety of other approaches to bring in that depth knowledge. Then there is the wrapper approach, which is to repurpose something you are already teaching.

I loved the radioactive rodent example. Apparently, during the Fukushima power plant crisis in Japan a whole lot of mice became radioactive. Now, humans may obey instructions and stay outside the radioactive perimeter, but mice don't obey instructions They migrate wherever they feel like going. Along the way they may die, they may get eaten by other animals, they may (nay, will) poop. This is a problem. So the Japanese sent in robots to hunt down and kill the mice.

I'm not going to comment on the complicated ethics of mouse slaughter. But to some people, this would be a relevant issue. That question did not come up this morning, but I point it out because I know people for whom killing any living animal presents an ethical quandary. An interesting ethics question - the value of human life as compared to animal life. Are there alternatives to addressing the contamination problem? How might the robots be reprogrammed? What are the costs and benefits? Where do values fit into the decisions?

But, back to the discussion this morning. One session member told about how he turned a cops and robber application in his introductory computing class into a cat and mice application. Instead of a police officers hunting down bad guys, he turned the robbers into mice and the cop into a cat. The amount of work on his part was minimal and suddenly he had an activity for his computing students that engaged with a contemporary complicated social issue. And taught core computing concepts at the same time.

This session was chock full of examples of how computing could connect with values rather than interests. Others included, water pollution (modeling?), voting systems (security? algortihms?), sexually transmitted diseases (graph theory), Red Cross disaster relief (Dijkstra's shortes path algorithm).

That was just the beginning. We hadn't even gotten to lunch yet.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Off to a Flying Start in Denver - SIGCAS

I arrived in Denver last night for the ACM SIGCSE conference and settled right in with my roommate, the two of us managing to blow up the hotel room lamp within ten minutes of arrival, as a result of plugging in too many computing devices. Bright light, loud noise, darkness. We also blew out all the lights in the room except for the bathroom; there was just a tinge of a burning smell. I have to give credit to the hotel staff for arriving immediately, getting the lights back on and replacing the lamp without batting an eyelash.

This morning we piled down to the pre-conference SIGCAS meeting, which, if you don't recognize that particular acronym, is the Computers and Society organization within the Association For Computing Machinery (ACM). It was wonderful to be surrounded by a dynamic group of people focused on social and ethical concerns within computing education.

We started off by discussing the latest goings on of the organization supporting The Pledge of the Computing Professional. I wrote about this pledge and organization some time ago. In short, the Pledge is intended as a right of passage for graduating computing undergraduates. The Pledge promotes computing as a profession with certain responsibilities, including the ethical and social. A goal is to have students internalize this awareness.

Today's report shared the growing number of colleges and universities that are instituting the Pledge as a voluntary ceremony and how excited students seem to be about it. I was impressed to hear about student enthusiasm for publicly affirming a social ethic. All of us in the room agreed to walk the talk. We stood up, recited the pledge and received our frameable certificates.

We also heard previews of several panels and presentations on computing and society that will take place over the next few days. There was a spirited discussion about how to increase membership in SIGCAS. Computing and Society educators and Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) educators share some unique challenges which should be helpful in expanding the ranks of SIGCAS from within SIGCSE. Both groups have to face peers who sometimes decline to take them as seriously as those focusing on "hard" topics. (As if teaching societal and ethical issues in computing is easy!).

Both groups share a concern with the people oriented factors in computing. Perhaps the SIGCAS organization needs to do some dedicated PR and marketing to get the word out. My sense is that they fly somewhat under the radar. What better time in history to draw attention to goals of making the world a better place?

In terms of working in the context of one's environment, I have also learned on this trip that it is possible to work in the bathtub. It is the little things that make these conferences so special.

Monday, March 4, 2013

International Women's Day & Voices For You

It is the month of March, and that means International Women's Day is right around the corner. Pop Quiz: do you know when International Women's Day is?

March 8th is International Women's Day.

The century-long evolution of this holiday is quite interesting. Are you familiar with the history of International Women's Day? You can read more here.

International Women's Day is no Hallmark Holiday - it was founded, and has continued to grow and evolve based upon real need, real passion, real effort. If anyone thinks "we don't need it" any more I'm going to wonder what rock you have been hiding under. Politically Conservative or Politically Liberal, or Politically Not-Sure (also Politically Disgusted), it is hard to argue that things are just peachy perfect fine in terms of gender equality.

One friend and colleague in the computing world likes to point out to me that different countries and cultures have different perspectives about gender issues, and that what may be a concern in one part of the world may not be a problem at all elsewhere. However, as I like to point out in return, I have yet to hear about anywhere on the planet where there is nothing to be concerned about. And I mean from the point of view of the women and men in those cultures. 

We are not a monolith (that would be boring wouldn't it?). Speaking just of the computing world now, women everywhere have things to express about their hopes and desires, balance between personal and professional life, experiences good and bad. Sometimes there aren't very many sympathetic listening ears. Listening to what other women computing professionals have to say is enlightening. The good, the bad and the ugly. There is a lot of all three, but how often do we take the time to reach out, listen, share, provide support for each others growth?

It is absolutely wonderful (wonderful wonderful) to attend a conference of women in computing. If you are fortunate enough to have attended one of the growing number of WICs, you know exactly what a life altering experience it can be. However, on a global scale, the many thousands of women who have been to a physical WIC conference is a very small percentage of  all the women who are part of, or aspire to be part of, the professional computing world. It takes time, it takes the ability to travel, it takes money. Not everyone has those things in abundance.

However, I'm really psyched to say that there is something new for International Women's Day this year and in particular for  technical women. Something that virtually everyone can take part in. (in my usual style that is a bad pun).

There is a global movement afoot to connect technical women to each other. Many of us already know the power of community building and outreach. But there are people out there who have not yet experienced enough of these opportunities. Most of us, in fact I'd wager. International Women's Day provides a motivational opportunity to continue building and reaching.  In terms of walking the talk, there is no better day of the year to connect technical women to one another.

Voila: The Voices Global Conference: a virtual, global conference for technical women. No travel required, miniscule investment involved. You need access to a computer. That's it. I believe that every continent is taking part in this conference, during their Friday this week (March 8th - International Women's Day). It's all online - talk about creative. It's interactive. It's diverse, it's inclusive...ok, I'm waxing in the direction of poetic. Or something like that.

The Voices Global Conference is an incredible opportunity to learn, to listen, to share, to network, to gain access to some incredibly talented, successful, influential women in the computing world.