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.