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.


  1. Sounds like a very interesting panel.Neil Fraser sounds a lot like Steve Jobs. He never listened to customer feedback either unless there was a problem. He would say people really don't know what they want/need.

  2. Pamela here! Glad you enjoyed what I had to say. I do actually volunteer with high schoolers now, as part of GirlsWhoCode. It's a whole different crowd from the adults I'm used to, I'm still figuring out the best jokes and examples to use with them. They're a lot of fun though, and so smart.

  3. User feedback is incredibly important for most fields. The point I was making (that I apparently failed to make clear), was that entertainment and education are two fields where user feedback can kill the program if implemented literally. Some examples:

  4. It was nice to meet you, and thanks for including us in your post!