Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thoughts From a Live Node in the Network

Last night's UX Speakeasy meetup was a bit of a mind bender when you stopped to consider the implications of everything Matthew Milan (CEO of Normative) tossed at the audience. After a momentary thick silence at the end of Milan's talk, the flood of questions started. Too bad the guy had to catch a red eye to Miami. We could have kept him talking late into the night.

It was all about design, but not design in any way you are likely to have thought about it before. After flipping up a rather staid and traditional definition of "design", Matthew said something to the effect of "we're still talking about making sh*t up". But that's ok, because one of his company's mantras is "Always Be Learning". A phrase worth bolding.

When you consider his suggestion that "the network" is everything connected by an IP, and that more and more we are connected to multiple IPs in a constant slurry of invisible signals zinging through the air, and technology companies are fire hosing us with new wearable or embedded everything, just like this sentence, Matthew pointed out correctly, at least for the majority of people in the developed world "we spend the majority of our time being a live node on the network".

I never thought about myself that way. This notion makes me think of the time a few weeks ago when I was on a business trip and my internal GPS had been lost on a contrail somewhere. I decided to use Google Maps to look up the location of the city I was in. I got more than I bargained for. Google Maps not only showed me the city I was in, but put a nice little label on the location of my hotel along with a tag listing the dates I was staying there. The *only* way they could have accessed that last information was by scanning my gmail account and pulling the information out of a reservation confirmation message. I was creeped out. Not cool Google. Perhaps Google thought it was being helpful but all I could think was: Get OUT of my email!

One can understand the audience member last night who said that after listening to Milan's talk he was very uncomfortable.  He felt like he was part of one big experiment. Yup, I'm afraid that he may be correct. We love our toys but through them we are live nodes dangling on the end of a virtual fish hook. To his credit, Matthew replied to the stressed out audience member "This stuff isn't supposed to make you comfortable". No attempt to cover up the ubiquitous networked nature of everything with some sugar coated marketing gobbledy gook.

For me, a message I received from Matthew's talk was that we need to wake up and pay attention to what we are designing and how we put it to use in society.

There was a good deal of talk last night about "computational design" that left me sucking on my pen and rolling my eyes upward in thought on more than one occasion. It wasn't what you might think; people and machines are to be thought of on an equal footing in our oh so networked environment. In trying to describe some aspect or other of this point, Matthew said in an unscripted moment that we should think about how to be empathetic to the machine. He then corrected himself, suggesting that "empathy" probably wasn't the right word because, well, you know ...

Not so fast. Check out this news release from the National Science Foundation about a robotics initiative which contains the quote:

 "people not only trust [the robot's] impeccable ability to crunch numbers, they also believe the robot trusts and understands them"


"The humans trusted the robot to make impartial decisions and do what was best for the team...As it turned out, workers preferred increased productivity over having more control"

Now that is scary. It may be too late to suggest we not have empathy for digital technology.

On a lighter note, (and at this point I need to remember the lighter moments), one of my favorite Matthew Milan quotes was "we are always putting ourselves in these crazy boxes". What made this really funny for me was that rather than going down some intense psychological route, his first item in the list was clothing!

I never thought of my clothes as a box, did you? Since that moment, I've been thinking about my shirt as a box. A box with 4 air vents to provide circulation. A box with flexible siding. A red box (today at least). I have a closet full of boxes to put myself into. And then...ok, I couldn't help but think about myself as that live node and the future of wearables and I began to have empathy for my soon to be sentient shirt.

Today my shirt might be thinking: "oh dear, not that cheap moisturizer again" or "did she forget to use deodorant today? That means she is going to drool on the underside of my sleeve. Talk about a bad hair day. Sigh...the things I put up with  in order to see the world"

Parting words from Matthew Milan included: Design Creates Culture.

"Having your head in the clouds" takes on a whole new meaning doesn't it?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

My Spider Plant Made Me Write This.

Now what? An Outer View

I can't blame the foliage, but it's because I want to stop dictating blog posts to a piece of greenery at 4am that I'm breaking my unplanned silence. I've been dictating blog posts to the Spider Plant. Ok fine, but they haven't been getting from there to here. What gives?

In a recent Twitter message, someone pointed out that science bloggers write when they just can't stop thinking about something.* But I have been thinking non stop, at speeds that defy measurement, for months now. I have been radiating ideas, any one of which could have become, but haven't become, a great blog post. For example:

The Computer Science Education Research class I'm teaching this Fall provides endless opportunities to discuss what happens when you have undergraduate CS students conducting real, not toy, research on real, not toy, human beings. The qualitative research methods we use cause the computer science  and social science worlds to collide. No number crunching here. One of my favorite quotes from a student discussing his experience conducting a research interview "...and then my brain exploded". Hearing what people are really thinking in an unfiltered way can do that to you sometimes. It's one reason I love qualitative research. It's one reason I love this class.

My other class, Great Papers in Computer Science, is no less stimulating. Unlike a traditional "Great Papers" class, we wrap our heads around the non-technical factors that aided and abetted a seminal paper having the impact that it did. Just yesterday, when someone asked what an example of a psychological factor would be, we found ourselves discussing how McCarthyism bred fear, and  speculating how that fear likely led to certain kinds of research and publications being supported while others were suppressed. On a lighter note, and in another era, someone jested that Hippies might have had a connection to the development of Unix. Maybe not Hippies per se, but I can envision formulating an argument that there was a direct relationship between the Civil Rights Era mindset and the later Open Source Movement.  I love that class!

In my work as a Independent Evaluator for education research projects, I have been crisscrossing the country quite a bit recently and each trip fills my head with ideas. For example, just last week I found myself thinking, not for the first time, about how early childhood development relates to the ability to acquire computational thinking skills. How early can children learn to code? What constitutes coding anyway? How does teaching computational thinking morph eventually into teaching computer science? What role do teachers play in this transition? What do teachers need the most to succeed? What are the critical leverage points?

Those examples from my teaching and research are only for starters. Why hasn't it all come out in blog posts?

For the past few months I have been focused on People and Process. Relationships. In itself nothing new, but perhaps more than ever; it's like a fire under my feet and burning up and out. Among other things, ever since I stumbled on the Science Communications community a few months ago I have wanted to know where computing and technology fit in. Can fit in. Should fit in. Why aren't we there? 
My mind was like this
Yesterday in class, one of my students said something to the effect that it could be hard to speak up in class when there was so much going on, so much being discussed, so many stimulating ideas, that you could get lost in a sea of potential.

That's it! My radio silence wrt blog posts hasn't been about writer's block or lack of ideas. The process of writing, assuming there ever was "a process", is, yes, about being unable to stop thinking about something, but that something isn't always directly a technology or science issue. Perhaps I thought I had nothing to say to my predominantly tech audience because I was being consumed by thoughts of the importance of people, process and relationships.

What ever was I thinking? I'm going to go fertilize the Spider Plant right now.

*Thank you Paige Brown Jarreau @FromTheLabBench for aiding and abetting the foliage

Thursday, October 2, 2014

UX Speakeasy Enlists Big Data & Qualitative Research to Explore its Growth

Data Data Data

San Diego UX Speakeasy has a problem. We are popular. Yes, that is a problem. Sort of. We find ourselves in a growth spurt reminiscent of adolescence when things ache because they are being stretched beyond the current physical boundaries.

Such it is with us. Last night's Meetup about "Big Data & Qualitative Research" hosted by Mitchell International maxed out at close to 90 attendees and we had a wait list almost as long. Our seemingly unstoppable growth in popularity is a topic we have been discussing in Board meetings for a while. In a mere three years we have grown from a dozen crazy UXers who knew, just knew, that there were others like them in San Diego and wanted to do some community building to prove it, to hundreds of diverse and crazy UXers who just love to hang out, socialize and learn.  We have built a community. How do we manage our growth without taking ourselves far too seriously?

This all sounds suspiciously like a Startup Problem. However, no IPOs will ever be involved, no stock shall be issued. (We incorporated as a Non Profit at the beginning of this year in case you wanted to know. Primarily to make our lives easier at tax time).

Last night was perhaps one of the best of our meetups I have attended in the past three years. We decided to harness the enthusiasm and commitment of attendees in an analysis of The Problem. After all, we are all about inclusion, and we don't like having to say No to people. Yet, we want to keep the informal, interactive get-to-know-you mission that clearly works so well.

It just so happens we have some awesome members who have accumulated oodles of statistics about attendance at events. We also have some awesome members well versed in how to look beyond the numbers. Hence, the attendees were divided into groups and tasked with taking either a quantitative or qualitative look at The Question.

Somehow I missed hearing just exactly what The Question was. No one I randomly asked seemed to know exactly what it was either.  But it was not a representative sampling. Perhaps like me they spent critical moments during the Introduction drooling over the melted Brie with jam stuffed into it and fresh raspberries placed on top. I thought this absence excusable because I work in qualitative research almost daily; besides I wanted to check out the cheese. Qualitatively. With random sampling to ensure self-selection bias was not overly present.

No matter. Everyone set to work exploring the data about UX Speakeasy. For example, we have 405 members who have never (ever!) attended a Meetup. These are Lurkers and they have no clue what they are missing. But stats can be misleading. Because we don't know why they didn't attend do we? Is it because they wanted to but couldn't get in? Is it because they gave up in despair - if so, those people do have an inkling what they are missing.

We also could see from the brightly colored graphs that attending a Medium Sized event is more likely to result in someone becoming a Regular Attendee. Regular attendees are those who have attended 3 meetups. Being Wait Listed for a Medium Sized event decreases the chances of a person becoming an Active Member more than being Wait Listed for a Large Event, although any sort of Wait List decreases persistence. And then there are those Dabblers - those who have attended 1-3 meetups.

Why might that be? What can you conclude? Theories were flying. For example:

"More engaged people come to smaller events" 

or perhaps 

"Smaller events lead to more engaged people" ?

The quantitative groups were playing madly with the data and making insightful discoveries.

Oh *that* meetup [Name Withheld To Protect the Innocent] produced all sorts of Dabblers and a high overall attrition rate. But *that* meetup [Name Withheld For Equity Purposes] clearly blew the socks off the local community because attendees came back and back and back and back. 

The qualitative groups delved into things such as how they feel about coming to a meetup before, during and afterwards. What factors affect last minute changes of mind? Long day at the office? Tired....grumpy.... Commuting through traffic? Seriously depressed.... Awesome food and beverages? Happy Happy So Happy to have braved the traffic! When they reported back to the larger group they used words such as "guilt" "regret" "happy" "anxiety" "pumped!"
Experience Mapping

The really interesting thing was that in the greater group sharing it became quite apparent to everyone why both qualitative and quantitative data have something to offer. One group would spur a question that the other group was able to answer. Back and forth. So it went.

People were so engaged last night - everyone had the opportunity to contribute to the UX Speakeasy community. Lots of new people were there mingling with long time attendees. For 80+ people it felt like a much smaller crowd.

At the end of the evening they had to practically throw everyone out of the building. People wanted to keep talking and discussing the future of UX Speakeasy. People wanted to know what more they could do. A member of the Board explained that we are in the process of instituting several measures to accommodate more members while keeping the warm and fuzzy feeling we have all grown to deeply appreciate.

These initiatives include adding additional activities each month  (UX Karaoke? someone did suggest that really). We have another conference in the works (save the date November 8) and more. For all of which Volunteers will be needed!

Seriously, at least as seriously as we ever get, the networking and job announcements and socializing and Random Acts of Education will continue. As we grow.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

ACM Education Council Meeting - Day 1

Ceiling Lights with an Encoded Message?

What a wonderful brain sucking invigorating day at the ACM Education Council meeting. We hit the ground running with a stimulating discussion of Data Science and Computing Education and barely slowed down until many long hours and too many sugary cookies and bad coffee later, we ended with a discussion of the current status of the Ensemble Computing Portal. In between we heard about and discussed the latest on AP CS Principles, (I learned what a "MOOClet" is*), 's education, advocacy and outreach activities, goings on with the CSTA, various ACM SIGs with education initiatives and ....

I happily tweeted about it all day, performing a spontaneous ear to brain to finger transfer of interesting goings on. (twitter handle : @lisakaczmarczyk) You can check my feed for a dynamic view of the day. It crosses my mind I could go back, pull those tweets and create a poem from them. I'm putting it on my To Do list for when I need  a mental break . I feel creatively inspired.

Unofficial theme of the day: interdisciplinary. The discussion of Data Science, presented by Heikki Topi from Bentley College, was an exciting way to start the morning and get us off on a brain stretching foot. Data Science is an intersection of statistics, IS, CS, Math, Informatics, and various domains of practice. Methodologies in use include those found in machine learning, data management, data visualization, statistics, sensors, programming, scalable hardware and software systems. We find Data Science in the environmental, physical, and social sciences. None of this would be possible without significant contributions of the computing disciplines.

The above begs the question: how should computing education be involved?  Not a straightforward question and the answer deserves deep and broad consideration. We barely started the conversation this morning. For example, consider this: Should there be universal learning objectives?  

A conversation to be continued! As Heikki pointed out, there is an opportunity (an imperative?) for interdisciplinary collaboration, with a goal of our contributing to achieving a high quality of [education] programs. 

I have come to think of active and engaged teamwork and team building as an interdisciplinary enterprise. Teamwork opportunities and challenges came up often today. For example, we heard a report on the [deep breath long name coming] Partnership for Advancing Computing Education Research (PACE) Workshop hosted by the National Academies and funded by the NSF. Attendees represented a range of computing sub-communities and, among other things, revisited the truth that they have common interests across computing education (e.g. the pipeline problem). An important question becomes: What can we do to build structural mechanisms that enable these computing education research sub-communities to work together?

The most intense part of the day for me came when we broke into sub groups to make actionable education priorities for the Education Council. The groups were: Diversity, International, Cybersecurity, Curriculum (there was one more but I'm blanking on what it was). Each group's task was to come up with two concrete recommendations for the Council and Board.

I joined the Diversity group. It was a challenge - we rapidly found ourselves discussing the recent media storm around the revelations of poor diversity numbers in tech companies, the violence that takes place in some online communities  and the fact that even when URM groups make it through a degree program unscathed, they all too often encounter a culture that causes them to leave. The word "ugly" came up more than once. At moments it was painful. The long and the short of it was that we decided to take the initiative to form a task group and further discuss how we can work for cultural change.  We felt we had so much to say and so many ideas for consideration as action items. I'm proud of our group for deciding to take this on. 

I don't want to end this post on that note. It is an unfinished story and there will be more. I'd rather note that across the several SIGs we heard from 

(SIGCAS - computers & society, SIGCHI - human computer interaction, SIGGRAPH - siggraph..., SIGPLAN (formerly OOPSLA), SIGITE - Information Technology, and SIGCSE - computer science education ) 

we heard over and over again about the intersection and overlap of education concerns, even within separate sub-contexts. People want to find common ground and combine forces on many concerns and initiatives. Someone pointed out that we (computing education) have come a long way in a short 4-5 years. It is heartening and exciting when you step back to look at the big picture. 

Tomorrow, we continue. My twitter feed will continue. I'll be doing my part to get the word out and incidentally generating material for my future poem.

*a small MOOC

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Grading Rubric, Why Oh Why Art Thou as Thou Art?

Having to construct a grading rubric has a way of bringing one down to earth with an unforgiving slam. You know, you are all caught up in visionary ideas of how to do your part in engaging student minds in various exciting and unquestionably marvelous ideas - oh the places we will go. We will read this, talk about that, pull apart and put back together that, create construct and write write write. Stretch and ponder and percolate and ruminate.

You see, I'm going to be back in the classroom this Fall (er, next week) after a few years doing other things. I'm still doing other things, but in addition, I'm about to land myself in front of two sets of computer science undergraduates. I'm psyched. Yes, I am. There is something that just says "yes" about teaching. So, along with a zillion other faculty around the western hemisphere I have spent much of the past several weeks whipping together "the plans". Two courses, one of which is called "Computer Science Education Research".

The chickens came home to roost first and foremost with that class. For CS Ed. Research I have teamed up to co-teach with a friend and colleague; together we have been putting together the pieces on a subject we both hold near and dear. How to conduct this type of research, how to write it up afterwards, how to present it to an audience.

I must say, my colleague writes a darned good grading rubric. She's great at it.  She reminds me that we must be concise and clear. State expectations. Avoid fuzziness. I'm good at fuzziness sometimes.

Back when I was in grad school and simultaneously teaching a course called Technical Writing for Computer Science Majors, I took advantage of workshops funded by a large grant to help instructors teach "substantial writing component" courses. Clearly that was my class. We weren't writing boring user manuals (much); we focused heavily on how to deconstruct a research paper. After we  had spent a fair amount of time talking about what a well constructed conference paper looked like (in CS Ed. of course), I would do one of my favorite activities which was to hand them a paper to perform a constructive critique on.

Predictably, they would tear it to shreds, because it wasn't a particularly well written paper. It needed a lot of help. Also predictably, and this happened semester after semester for 6 years, the students were stronger on the "criticism" than on the "constructive" part. They were often less than kind in their assessment of the unknown writer. This, in spite of our having discussed the role of a reviewer and the importance of remembering there was a person behind this paper. Someone who had worked very hard and done their very best.

There was always a deathly sick silence when I eventually told them I wrote the paper; it was my first ever attempt at a conference submission. It was, quite understandably, rejected. But rejected kindly, which was fortunate for my then fragile sense of researcher self. By the time I was in the front of the classroom several years later, I had developed a thick enough skin to take the worst kind of reviewer commentary (and if you have submitted enough papers you know what I'm talking about).

The point was made better than when I ever just said it - be kind when you must critique someone; there really are real people behind the written word; finally, you never know how things will come back around. My students were luckier than they might have been "in the real world" because I didn't hold anything they had said about the paper (or me, unwittingly) against them.

But back to that grading rubric. The substantial writing component workshops I took advocated for an idea that sounded really great at the time. The idea, roughly, was this: you get highly explicit about what constitutes an F, D, C, B. And what you indicate in the criteria for a B is that you get a B if you do everything you were supposed to do and you do it really well.

So how do you get an A? You go above and beyond. You do something that blows it out of the park. You get creative, innovative, insightful, or visionary. You do everything you were supposed to do for that B and then you come up with something I the instructor couldn't predict. I can't tell you in the rubric what that is, because then it wouldn't be creative would it?

And herein lay the problem. It sounds great doesn't it? Find a way to set that bar high and provide incentive for people to really GO FOR IT. The problem is....

Well, there are multiple problems. It's subjective. Boy is it subjective. My idea of mind blowingly innovative may not include your idea of mind blowingly innovative. My idea of creative may well not be yours. So right off the bat there is all sorts of room for bias. Not only that, students hate it because it is confusing and stressful and not at all the way they have likely ever been graded before. And notice I say "graded" and not "assessed" because let's be real here, it's a table with itemized instructions for obtaining a grade!

The people who ran the substantial writing component workshops and who advocated for this type of rubric claimed there was all sorts of literature backing up the effectiveness of this approach to grading writing intensive courses. They probably had that literature available, and knowing me I probably read it.

But it didn't work for me and I tried it in several different courses. I really worked at it to make it work. I was all for the idea  - sounds great for a free ranging thinker who likes to push the envelope and encourage the same in others. But not so great for people who see the world differently. And that's a lot of people. And in educational system that doesn't operate this way as often as it might. But frankly, the potential for rampant unrecognized bias is what really bothers me now. There are other ways to encourage creativity and innovation in class. I feel confident in saying we will be doing so.

As I worked with my colleague on our CS Ed. Research class I got tasked with making the first pass at several of our grading rubrics. Yuck. Ok, I said it: yuck. I'd much rather have worked on something else. But it has been very good for me. It reminds me that vision and grand ideas have to come down to earth sometimes, especially if you are in front of the classroom. At least for a while.  Having to push against my natural instinct to avoid the precision of the grading rubric, and having my colleague point out every time I have gone fuzzy, is an excellent opportunity for me to learn too.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Newbie's Introduction to UX Speakeasy

Someone reminded me this evening that we created UX Speakeasy almost 3 years ago. I didn't realize so much time had gone by. We started with a dozen people and suddenly we have more people than we can fit in a good sized auditorium. Not that we ever meet in auditoriums. This month we met at Societe Brewing Company, hidden back off a busy street. Very pleasant atmosphere, lots of wood, and a very nice bartender.

As luck would have it, my friend Reynaldo was hanging out with me this week and expressed curiosity about UX Speakeasy. I asked him if he'd like to come along and give his perspective on things. He was all for it so I snuck him in. Board membership has its privileges. Reynaldo is on the small side and was feeling a bit shy
so he clung pretty close to my shoulder all evening. I didn't mind, because as long as he stuck with me it was easier to show him around and explain this eclectic group of people. Even better, I was able to hear what his experience was like as it happened.

Prior to the official Meetup we held a short Board meeting. Reynaldo was impressed by the fact that this group of people, meeting in a local brewery, were actually incorporated as a non-profit and concerned about making sure there was a structure, designated roles, goals and Vision. He was curious about what UX meant, and I whispered to him that this was sometimes a contentious question. I told him he'd be ok this evening as long as he didn't randomly swap out "UX" for "UI", or worse yet, "web design" in casual conversation . He understood, pointing out that sometimes people confused him with an ocean crab. (This would make sense if you met Reynaldo in person)

Out in the parking lot we had custom oven fired pizza by Red Oven Artisanal Pizza. One of the reasons Reynaldo and I hit it off when we first met is that I'm a vegetarian. So there was no chance I was going to get
us a seafood pizza. We both agreed the pizza was outstanding; it was custom made and fired in the stove as we watched. Somehow they managed to bring in an entire pizza making operation and kiln-like stove just for the evening. Reynaldo tried to pinch more pizza than he was entitled to.

Once the Meetup officially began I walked around saying hi to people and introducing Reynaldo. The guy's a bit of an introvert and didn't say much. But he wore a silly grin and enjoyed watching the 70+ happy attendees playing the card game UX Against Humanity.*

UX vocabulary can be confusing if you are new to the scene. So are the rules to this card game. I was having trouble trying to explain, mostly because I was taking the detailed instruction sheet too literally. It was Reynaldo who pointed out that the small groups of people hunched laughing around the barrel tables were ignoring most of the rules. At that point I decided he was doing just fine, so I begged off to wander around and take photographs.

When I got back from my photo shoot, Reynaldo explained his new understanding of the game. I share his
explanation with you in case you weren't there:

It's reminiscent of Mad Libs, if you are old enough to remember that game. There is a sentence with blanks you have to fill in and the funniest one wins each round. But in this case, the sentences were UX based and the fill in answers had to be chosen from phrases on cards in your hand - UX based as well. So you might end up with totally meaningless sentences like this:

"The future of UX depends upon a hipster's beard dandruff" 


"I'm no designer but have you thought about adding a double rainbow?"

Reynaldo thought this one was particularly funny:

"The worst UX superpower is sniffing your research participants" 

I should explain that Reynaldo comes from a sheltered background and tends to retreat into his shell when things get dicey.** So he felt a bit crabby with some phrases people created that used four letter words and anatomical references. Out of respect for his sensitivities I won't repeat them here.

More to his liking were these phrases:

"The future of UX hinges on one thing: a hair on the rim of your Starbucks cup"

"When I am wire framing I first like to sketch out relieving the cognitive load"

"When I am wire framing I first like to sketch out James Tiberius Kirk" 

"When I am wire framing I first like to sketch out cat memes"

It was a long evening; things got quite silly. Reynaldo and I had a good time, as did a lot of other attendees, judging by all the laughter and enthusiastic game play. He asked me how the group is going to top this event next month but I had to demur.

Instead, I left him to ponder:

"Life imitates: ________________"

Hint: Starbucks is not part of the answer.

*I have Reynaldo's approval to write about him. He read my post, and had the opportunity to edit it.

**His Latin-sounding name not withstanding, Reynaldo spent his formative years in China. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Science Communication Team Building - with Paint. Seriously?

How do you tell a male or female scorpion?

The idea of having to sing in public or play an instrument made my stomach flip. I usually feel that sensation only when landing in the turbulence that seems to always surround the Dallas/Forth Worth airport. However, here I was, feet planted firmly on the Arizona sand, and that sick almost pukey sensation wouldn't go away. I didn't know anyone - how could I possibly say anything?

Along with 35 or so others, scientists and engineers, a philosopher, someone from theatre and several artists, I was newly arrived at the C.O.D. Ranch for  Sonoran SciComm. We were here to work on communication and team building and we had been warned (promised) that we'd be pushed outside our comfort zones. We all wanted to be there, some of us (ahem) having almost fallen all over ourselves at the opportunity. I think it safe to say everyone had a passion for the environment and was working one way or another for sustainability.

But at that moment I thought I might be ill. Try as I might I couldn't bring myself to choose the Music activity. The mere thought that I might suffer a panic attack in front of dozens of people I had never met before was intolerable. Ever since the summer after my Freshman year, when I had an ill fated on-stage encounter with Cole Porter's Anything Goes while working at a Lake George NY resort, I have preferred my singing take place at 75 mph with the windows rolled up. They said they were letting me go because I couldn't make hospital corners. True, I wasn't cut out to be a chambermaid, singing or otherwise.

So, 30 odd years later, back at SciComm, I opted for the Painting. A nice, reasonably solitary activity with which to get my feet under me. So I thought. A dozen of us stood ready to wield our instruments against the canvas: Let us at it!

Then they told us to give our tightly gripped (favorite) painting tool to our neighbor. Bummer. They teamed us up and let us loose with the acrylics. My new friend Liz and I hit it off immediately; she a marine biologist by training and me a fan of all things small and wiggly in the water. We happily created waves and little tadpoles and oceanic abstractions together.We negotiated each other's styles, learning about one another as we had a running conversation about our emerging masterpiece.  Perfect.

Until they told us to pause, move to the right and continue painting on someone else's canvas. But, but... ok, don't get attached to material things. I tried not to look (too often) at what was happening to our abandoned Work of Art. Instead, Liz and I discussed what to do with the canvas left to us (no doubt with an equal level of regret) by another team. We started off tentatively, trying not to change their vision. Whatever it was. Tippy toeing around the edges. Wider ranging discussions developed between the two of us as we not only figured out what to apply where (which by this point had started to include some artifacts stuck to the canvas), but tried to psych out what the whole exercise was really about.

As a result, we weren't particularly surprised when we were told to change canvases again. And then again. Eventually  it was IMPOSSIBLE not to "mess up" prior work. There simply wasn't that much untouched canvas on these easels. Our original work was by now unrecognizable. However, Liz and I had decided we weren't messing it up, they weren't messing it up, but that we were contributing to a group project.

It was only 10am. My attention span was starting to wander. This activity was supposed to continue until noon. I was feeling like I was done. DONE. I think Liz was having similar thoughts. I said something to one of our activity organizers. His polite but firm response was "You must continue!". It wasn't an order; in fact we had been explicitly told the evening before that nothing was mandatory and we didn't have to do anything we didn't want to, so no one would have said a word had I taken a break - and never come back.

I sucked it up. I had a little conversation with myself "I'm not going to sulk. I'm not going to slide out of the room". "As much as I want to go off somewhere and stare meditatively at a cactus, I'm not going to do so. That would mean abandoning the group" .

Yet I was feeling a tad irritable. My cognitive state told me one thing but my affective state was not cooperating. Liz had wandered off somewhere, also feeling a need for change and some time apart. It turned out she was doing something really nifty with the paint out on the porch, a la Andy Warhol, to a series of magazine pictures of stuffy old men .

For myself, I reasoned that no one had said we had to paint on the canvas, so I proceeded to pour long trails of blood and guts black and red down the side of a supply box. It was very satisfying. And you know,  after a while it started to look kinda nifty. Not long afterwards I was back with Liz, sharing the box desecration together and watching her deface the stuffy old men.

Things went on from there. We covered the box, and still an hour remained. So we picked up the paint bottles, threw aside the tools and proceeded to sling great blobs of drooling oozing highly satisfying paint all over the canvases. Other people joined in and soon many of us were smearing, swiping, pouring, and slithering paint all over the place. Attachments were Bye Bye. Interpersonal shyness was a thing of the past. Conversations were as fluid as the running paint.

In hindsight, I think that was the point. After three and a half hours, we had gone from being self conscious, protective of "our" art and ways of doing things, carefully negotiating perceptions of other people's preferences, to happily smearing paint every which way and learning to at the very least appreciate what each other was doing no matter what it looked like or how it got there.

The whole weekend was like that. In case we'd thought we were "done" after the morning's Painting, we were wrong. I never went within range of the musical group, but I did get a chance to scream at the top of my lungs during the Improv Session which was most cathartic.

So began Sonoron SciComm. So continued Sonoran SciComm. So... no, it isn't over. This wasn't just a solo weekend event but a community building activity among a bunch of people who might very well, perhaps now more than before, work together effectively on some very serious and important (and no doubt fun) science.

I'm not ready to belt out Stevie Nicks in public, but perhaps some day. Maybe. With a good team.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer: the Good, the Bad, and the Not Quite Sure

Summer can be an odd time. I had been been thinking I would write a new post when something interesting came along. I realized today that my understanding of interesting was skewed. There have been a lot of very very interesting things happening. Lots of events worth pondering and taking action on. Good or bad, it's all interesting and more importantly, we are immersed in opportunities to drive change.

The Bad: The tech world has been awash in one media report after another revealing poor diversity numbers and overt and subtle (yet highly damaging) acts of sexism and discrimination. It seems that at least once a day something comes across a major media outlet about the latest painful situation. The vitriolic responses that fill the Comment sections accompanying these articles are unbelievable. The seemingly ceaseless flood of stories and reaction has been painful evidence that something is structurally very very wrong.

All this makes me, along with many other people, sick. And yeah, like a lot of women in tech, I can relate personally to some of these stories. Yet, in another way I'm relieved (?) when I see the barrage of headlines. Part of me thinks "it's about time this stuff came out into the mainstream media" and therefore the more I read, the more I think that perhaps now, it will be harder for some people to pretend discrimination and harassment don't happen, are isolated incidents, somehow the fault of the woman involved, "not my problem", exaggerated etc. So maybe the media reports are good?


The Good For Sure: On the other hand, the surge in media reports surrounding girls getting involved in tech, via coding, conferences, meetups, and hackathons is wonderful. The widespread positive attention being given to these initiatives is long overdue. Isolated events for girls and women in tech have been around for a long time. Not only are there a lot more of them now, but people beyond the usual suspects are jumping on board. We need that because we need to reach a critical mass in order to achieve cultural shift.

I'd like to see this enthusiasm for encouraging women to learn computer science and consider careers in computing result in more long term sustained efforts. For example, as I've mentioned in the past, what happens after the tech camp? the hackathon? the intro online coding class? the celebration? We need to morph that Hour of Code into a Week, Season, Year of Code - and beyond.


More Good: Earlier this month I was at Bryn Mawr College* in the capacity of External Evaluator on an NSF funded project that is introducing introductory computer science through the use of digital art. A group of high school and college teachers, men and women, were learning how to use Processing; they discussed pedagogical and technological issues surrounding teaching with this Java based language. As with other Processing workshops I have observed, the level of enthusiasm was unusually high - people routinely tried to work through breaks and dawdled at their computers when it was lunch time. Collegiality and mutual support were running high.

Really Good (and oodles of fun): During a workshop break I intentionally "got lost" in one of the oldest buildings on the Bryn Mawr campus, stumbling around dark, stone walled basement corridors lit only by my cell phone. Many of these buildings are architecturally inspired by English medieval castles, complete with gargoyles of owls reading books. At one point, I popped out into daylight in a Cloister containing  personal and often emotionally worded plaques dedicated to deceased alumnae. Late 19th Century and early 20th Century Philadelphia was clearly teeming with Bryn Mawr women breaking barriers in law, the sciences, politics. Walking around reading these weathered and stained narratives,which were not at all like the usual "in memory of" blurbs, I was reminded yet again of the power and potential of safe, supportive environments where women and girls can come into their own.


The Future is Now: This weekend I'm attending a retreat that centers on team building and communication among a group of scientists, engineers and artists working on sustainability issues. Women and men who care about building bridges among people and disciplines. Out in the desert, far away from the usual technology. Other than 5am yoga, I'm not really sure what I'm in for but it sounds like an opportunity for doing good.

Summer is indeed a time for reflection and taking action.

*Bryn Mawr College is a women's college founded in 1885.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Geek Girl Tech Con - Getting Out There and Doing It

As I wrote in my last post, there were 13 different simultaneous events going on at any one time for most of the day during the San Diego Geek Girl Tech Con. There was of course the Sharkette Tank, (see that last post), but also a slew of workshops, a Hackfest, the Vendor Marketplace, Demos, and a few other interesting odds and end (which I'll get to shortly).
The Technical Help Desk At the Ready

Workshops were what most people were after and the number and variety of them was staggering. At any given time there were on average 10 workshops, changing every hour on the hour. They ranged from beginning technical topics (e.g. HTML and CSS for Beginners) to intermediate (e.g. JavaScript) to advanced (e.g. Programming with Python III). There were also workshops to help advance your career such as Resumes 101: Leverage Your Strengths to Land the Job and Job Seekers: Learn the Secrets to Being Discovered by Recruiters, and for running your business such as How to Write About Your Business Online and Social Media Analytics: Yes, they Really are Important.  As I staffed my post at the T-Shirt table in the main lobby, more than one attendee lamented to me (while picking out their spiffy T-shirt) they were having a really hard time deciding where to go!

Despite my best intentions (and the lure of the Sharkette Tank) I didn't make it to any of the workshops, but I did visit the Hackfest where I had an interesting experience. The Hackfest was a drop in as you like event with people popping in and out all day. Teacher/tutor/speakers addressed various coding topics. During the afternoon, when I popped in,  there was a large group in the back of the room learning how to create iOS apps. In the front of the room I found June Clark, lead teacher for the "League of Amazing Programmers"*. As there was no one with her at the moment, we compared notes about the importance of providing explicit and ongoing encouragement to girls who might be interested in coding so that they don't feel marginalized. We talked about the research that clearly shows how important events like the Geek Girl Tech Con are for contributing to the creation of an ecosystem where girls will feel empowered to pursue coding.

Just then, two girls came running into the Hackfest room and practically flung themselves into chairs in front of open laptops at our table. Their fingers took off on the keyboard. As I peered over and saw the Java code appearing on the screen, I asked, oh so casually, about their prior programming experience.
Way to Go!

None. Absolutely None. They had come in to the Hackfest room earlier that day, never having coded before and with June's help had learned enough to create simple animated programs - which they proudly showed me. No fancy IDE layered on top of code to do it for them - they wrote their programs line by line in a no frills editor and then ran them. They had enjoyed it so much they were back for more. They barely glanced up to tell me how cool this was. I was momentarily at a loss for words. What a great example of everything June and I had been talking about.

It was hard to beat that experience, but I would be remiss not to mention the fun adults were having at the Con. Next to my T-Shirt distribution table in the lobby was the free headshot station, where attendees could have a formal or not so formal photo taken by professional photographers. On the not so formal side I could have sworn I saw Princess Leia (aka one of the Geek Girl staff) , and two members of Star Fleet (two of the workshop instructors) offering to pose with anyone who wanted to - as many did.
Live Long and Prosper Geek Girls

All in all, the Con was a nicely balanced blend of high energy learning and fun. If the Mission, as Geek Girl Tech Con founder Leslie Fishlock said in her opening remarks, is to get more girls into tech, what I observed all day is that things are moving in a good direction. But we have a long way to go, as anyone in the tech world knows. We have to keep on working to build that equitable ecosystem.

Leslie also said that it's about doing it; taking the time to get out there and do it. Geek Girl is more than a conference; they have a Meetup (San Diego incarnation here) and do a variety of activities throughout the year and around the country. Hopefully the momentum generated by this day will keep those girl's and women's fingers coding joyfully.

*June told me the organization has been known as Wintriss Tech, and is in the process of transitioning to the new name and a new URL (although not functional as I write,  the new URL will be 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Geek Girl Tech Con - View into the Sharkette Tank

San Diego Geek Girl Tech Con took place on Saturday and as predicted I wished I'd had a clone so that I could be in half a dozen places at once. The scope of activities was impressive: 13 (yes, 13) simultaneous workshops, speakers and events going on most of the day from 9am-6pm. Energy was high and people seemed thrilled with the opportunity to dive into such a diverse and supportive environment. For those still standing at the end of the day (which many were) there was a lively outdoor reception. Minus a clone, I nonetheless had some amazing experiences; I decided to focus much of my time on entrepreneurial sessions. So in this first post about the Con, I'm sharing observations and insights of the Sharkette Tank.
Sharkette Tank Judges

There were three sessions of the Sharkette Tank, which was made up of a panel of 5-6 judges and 10 local start-up companies making their best pitches to promote their business. With my bird's-eye view from the audience, it was a fascinating opportunity to watch everyone. Some of the product and service ideas were brilliant. In addition, the Sharkette Tank provided a great learning opportunity for anyone thinking of jumping into the start-up world. With that in mind, here are some take home messages.

- Focus, focus, focus. The judges, always polite (unlike their counterparts on network television who can be scathing), suggested more than once that a company was trying to solve too many problems, or trying to solve a big problem before nailing down their core solution to a targeted customer pain point. This can be easier said than done of course, because having vision and a passion to scale impact is what gets entrepreneurs up in the morning. Lose that passion and you lose your reason for existence.
This pitch left no stone unturned

- Distribution Strategy? Quite a few companies received feedback that they had a great product or product idea, but didn't have a concrete, viable plan to get it out there to the people who would want it. In a related vein, had they done a solid test of their idea in the target market? This is another tough issue. It's easy to fall into a "build it and they will come" mentality. Especially when you think, you know, that your product or service is the next best thing since sliced bread. Besides, the leg work necessary to gain a foot hold in competitive markets isn't exciting (to most people).

Which brings me to my next observation:

- Who is missing from the team? A few teams were told that they were lacking a key principle person in some area (e.g. technical, marketing). Companies that want to make an impact, that want to scale, can't be companies of one. Now, here is something really cool I learned about later on when I was having a conversation with one of the judges: Founder Dating. Connecting entrepreneurs with other entrepreneurs. Kudos to the people who came up with this idea!
Bet you can guess what this company is about

- Presentation matters. The best presentations grabbed the judges in the first few seconds and kept them interested and engaged throughout. The bottom line message was "Show Me, Don't Tell Me". It is much more effective to demonstrate your product or service in some way, rather than simply talk about how wonderful it is. You could tell by watching the judges' facial expressions and body language if they were intrigued. Long before you got to the Q&A where the nature of their feedback removed all doubt. You could also get a second read on this by looking around at the audience. When a company was really kicking butt, no one was on their cell phone or chatting with their neighbor.

The judges' favorites included Packsack, a new twist on reusable bags, inspired by observations about plastic on the beach by the surfer founder. This is Southern California! Another favorite was Giftovus, an interesting way to crowd source gift buying and giving. They call it, appropriately, "friend sourcing".

The judges' (and my) hands down favorite was USKey*, who are prototyping an ingenious way to prevent laptop theft. As the two college student presenters noted in the first few seconds of their presentation: don't you just hate it when you get settled into a coffee shop or other public place, with all your stuff spread out and your computer set up, and only then discover you have to go to the bathroom? I think everyone in the auditorium, including the judges, could relate to that scenario. I'm rooting for these two women and their company big time.

From my pov, everyone won. Everyone who pitched in the Sharkette Tank received valuable feedback about the content and style of their presentation as well as about their product plan and trajectory. The audience had the chance to observe first hand what a pitch can look like and what works or doesn't work.

The judges generously donated their time and experience to the community through this event. It didn't stop there because they were accessible all day. I was not the only one who had enjoyable and professionally helpful conversations with them.

Meeting new people and learning new things was happening every where at Geek Girl Tech Con. In my next post, I'll share some of the other goings on at the Con.
Just a few of the Sharkette Tank Entrepreneurs

*As far as I can tell, they don't yet have a website.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bounding Along Towards Geek Girl Tech Con

Warming up my best shoes for the Con

Approximately 10 days from now I'll be writing you about the San Diego Geek Girl Tech Con. I'll be zipping around here and there, helping out as a Volunteer, and taking lots of notes for you. I suppose I just might send out a Tweet or two along the way (get your devices ready to receive). In perusing the latest conference schedule updates I find myself hopping up and down enough that I want to share a small preview. Cool stuff is more cool when it is shared; besides which, I'd rather you were forewarned and had the opportunity to think about signing up rather than hearing about it only after the fact and banging your head on the wall with regret.

First of all, looooook at all the cool women speaking and presenting. I mean oy! I may need a clone or two of myself, because when I mentally take that picturesque 2D matrix and overlay it with the array of workshops (from programming through UX and design to entrepreneurship) I realize that I face a looming temporal  anomaly.

Coder alert: Yes, there will be a hackfest. Just in case you were wondering. The last female hackathon I attended was so much fun to watch that I'm pondering whether I'd prefer to be there, or OR OR OR

AT THE SHARKETTE TANK PITCHFEST!!!!!!!!!!!! I can't begin to tell you how psyched I am about this. "Default Font" just doesn't carry the communicative weight of emotive body language. Ever since last Fall when a good friend of mine and woman start-up founder up in the Bay Area told me I should check out Shark Tank on TV, I have been hooked on the idea. Even more so here because of the focus on tech girls and women entrepreneurs.

So yeah, this is serious business. There are going to be more techie girls and women in one place than I've seen in a very long time. There are going to be years of wisdom and experience to network your happy way through and along. Techie stuff to learn. Fascinating people to meet and speak with, share ideas and plot and plan. I love to plot and plan.

This conference (did I mention the date: June 21) is bound to be mind blowing and transformative. How can I be so very confident about that? The very first time I went to a women in computing conference oh so many years ago, (I cut my geeky girl teeth at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing),  I was blown out of the water by the vibe that emerges when you have technical women congregating en masse. I was also blown out of the water the second time. The third time. The fourth time. (instantiate While (TRUE) loop)

I expect no less this time. So I hope that many of my women tech friends and colleagues will attend. Especially, especially if you are already here in the San Diego area. For those of you living in the nether reaches of the universe I'll be writing something to fill you in on whichever portions of the day I manage to teleport myself in and out of.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

San Diego UX Speakeasy Report aka Dealing with Issues

Today's post will be of most interest to those of you who are part of the San Diego UX Speakeasy/IxDA group. To the rest of the world, perhaps less interesting. With that said and out of the way:
Ready to go to work

Last night the Speakeasy Committee (i.e. Board) held one of its periodic planning and plotting meetings. A cohort of our enthusiastic Volunteers joined the meeting as well. We had serious business to discuss that required the energies and creative input of many. We met at Intuit in a building that assaults you at the entrance with the sound of happily chirping frogs. I think the frog sounds are pre-recorded, but nonetheless it is pretty cool to come out at night and be serenaded with happy croaking.

Our big task of the evening was to tackle the list of Issues that you all (meetup members) assembled at the April meetup. A few additional Issues were added. Here is that list:

Issue: With the size of the group it is hard to find large enough venues
Issue: People have a hard time coming to events from farther away (N. County)
Issue: The group is so large that it is difficult to navigate and initiate meaningful connections
Issue: Some people want more learning opportunities
Issue: We have a hard time retaining new members
Issue: We should have more conferences
Issue: We should have a yearly conference with big names
Issue: There is a lack of perceived value to the groups activities (conferences are too expensive)
Issue: We need to promote UX more externally (to businesses)
Issue: We need to find better ways to involve Colleges and Students
Issue: Planning Monthly Meetups is hard/time consuming  
Issue: We need more variety in our Meetups
Issue: We need a way to find out more about members (either member-to-member or managing)
Issue: We need more focused topics (e.g. Remote  Research, Wireframing) rather than one-size-fits-all
Issue: We need more engagement and interaction at our meetups
Issue: We cannot cover our current costs
Issue: We need ways to cover beer and food for meetups
Issue: We are not getting enough national exposure to attract big name speakers
Issue: Waiting Lists for Meetups are keeping people away
Issue: It is too easy to NoShow and they are keeping Active or New Members from attending
Issue: There are some many varied backgrounds (or non UXers) that we are losing focus
Issue: Many people who join are looking for mentors
Issue: There is an overall lack of involvement (helping) in the group (present company excepted)
Issue: We need to have a way to promote design/UX in San Diego
Issue: We do not want to lose the culture that made the group successful but the larger it gets the harder it is to maintain
Issue: There may be people who want to help but don't know how
Issue: We need a way to prove our value to sponsors
Issue: We need a website and branding to help promote ourselves, are people, and our sponsors
Our Fearless Leader Means Business

Fearless leader Bennett led us in a modified KJ Technique, which was most interesting because
Serious Business
this activity requires periods in which no talking is allowed. None. Imagine this group being told they couldn't talk? Yeah, sometimes it was a
challenge. Nonetheless, Ben cracked the whip and waved the Sharpie and yelled as needed to keep things in order and moving right along.

Several steps later we had arranged, condensed and organized the above list into
the following

Categories (ranked highest to lowest):

Mission of the Organization 
(sticking to what has made us so successful while we grow)

Keeping the Lights On 
(aka Finances. It costs money to run our meetups)
(this also subsumed Waitlist Problems)

People Interaction Issues
(this also subsumed Volunteer Opportunities &  Beginning UXers)

Name in Lights 
(our larger local, regional, national, international & extra-terrestrial branding)

Planning Meetings/Finding Suitable Venues 
(easier said than done)

We formed teams to cogitate on each of these categories and come up with recommendations for the organization's Board to consider.

Sound good? We think so. We're working hard, even on a Friday night, to keep UX Speakeasy fun and responsive to evolving times.

We also spent time plotting and planning great meetups and events for the remainder of the calendar year. Stay tuned. Also, we always need people to help out. Contact any of the Committee members if you can lend a hand, even if you have no idea how. You can do so through the Meetup site. We'll find something for you and we are a fun bunch to hang with.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Engrossing legislative updates for CA Computer Science

Last evening I sat in on a meeting of the San Diego Chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). We met in the San Diego Super Computer Center. In case you aren't all that familiar with the CSTA they are a very active national group of Computer Science Teachers (primarily in K-12) along with supporters and friends of K-12 CS education throughout education, government and industry. Their advocacy work for inclusion of CS throughout K-12 is impressive. They also publish periodic reports on the state of CS Education throughout the country. One of the most recent is "Bugs in the System: Computer Science Teacher Certification in the U. S." which paints a painful picture of the crazily complicated state of certification for would be computer science teachers.

At times there is news to be optimistic about and I heard some of it last night. Jason Weiss, a representative from the office of California State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins gave the group a legislative update on 6 bills of interest for CS education in the state. As you may or may not know, depending upon how much you pay attention to the political process of passing bills, the system at the state level in many ways mirrors the process at the federal level. Both chambers of government have to pass a bill; one, then the other, and if amendments are made the bill goes back and forth to be resolved. Or perhaps it dies a quiet death for one of a variety of reasons. Eventually, if all goes well, a bill pops out of the system, perhaps like a champagne cork, and heads to the Governors office to be signed (or not).

Of the six bills, (CA AB1764, CA AB1530, CA AB1539, CA AB1540, CA AB2110, CA SB1200) most are making good progress.

They talk about a bill being "engrossed". Most of these bills were engrossed. I don't know who came up with this word choice; believe it or not it means that a bill is in a certain stage of that bouncing back and forth. Specifically, it means the bill has come out of (escaped?) from the chamber that initially filed it and it is on its way to the other chamber. Considering that amendments have often been incorporated, perhaps "engorged" would be a better word.

Most of the bills are doing well so far on their journey:

CA AB1764 would allow 3rd year Math credit to be awarded for Computer Science. This bill exited out at the end of April without opposition. How nice! (I originally wrote "passed out" but that has potential for far too many amusing interpretations)

CA AB1530 would include CS in the K-6 curricula. This bill exited out May 27th also without opposition. Moving right along...

CA AB1539 Sets content standards for computer science. Jason Weiss wasn't sure of the status of this bill as it was being considered yesterday afternoon, but from my wading through the weeds of relevant web pages, it appears to me to have passed along successfully.

Likewise, CA AB2110 which also relates to CS and content standards, continues its journey; gorey details can be found here, as does CA SB1200 which would establish standards for CS to be set that would be accepted by (presumably CA state) colleges and universities. It is on its way ....

And yes, that last one is SB1200 not AB1200. If you look up AB1200 you will find yourself reading about a vetoed bill related to recycled water in agriculture.

The lonely exception to this optimistic news is CA AB1540 which relates to high school students being able to take CS courses at community college. Jason told us the bill didn't get a hearing, which is better than being Vetoed I suppose. Officially, as they say,  it is "held under submission" (go figure). Jason told us this most likely has to do with a cost issue of some sort that needs to be addressed. So we haven't necessarily heard the last of CA AB1540. But for this year at least it languishes. It doesn't even get to claim to have been engrossed.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What If a Student's MOOC Assignment POs Someone?

What would happen if something a MOOC student submitted for an assignment offended someone not involved in the course? It's bound to happen sooner or later. Considering the global reach of a MOOC there could be a lot of blow back. Wouldn't it be a great idea to take a pedagogically proactive approach to the possibility?

I had such a terrific time taking my first MOOC earlier this year ("How to Change the World" read about the experience here) that I signed up for another one. The MOOC I'm currently enrolled in is called "Beyond Silicon Valley : Growing Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies" led by Michael Goldberg at Case Western Reserve University. I am having as excellent an experience this time around. Beyond Silicon Valley is challenging, thought provoking, engaging and as with "How to Change the World" I'm learning incredibly useful information that has already paid off professionally in more ways than one.

One nice difference this time is that the course faculty are taking active part in the forum discussions. That provides an added sense of connection. On the down side, the assignments are assessed this time based solely upon word count and whether or not you submit the assignment on time. I found this out when I misread a due time (did "midnight" mean the start of the day or the end of the day?) and also when my assignments were scored instantaneously. I have to say that I miss the peer grading from my last MOOC; it wasn't always high quality, but it was interesting. And the opportunity to read and ponder other student assignments was enlightening and sometimes mind blowing.

As with my first MOOC, "Beyond Silicon Valley" asks the student to dig for answers and reflect on their implications for their own situation. But it goes beyond that with a midterm that asks the student to interview local entrepreneurs and write about their findings.

Herein approaches the sticky issue.

Some pretty sensitive stuff can come up when asking business owners about their company. Having interviewed people in a variety of professional settings for years, I know that even the most cautious interviewee let slip things they might prefer not be put in writing. A good interviewer can facilitate this happening. It then falls on the interviewer to employ wise judgement when writing up their story.

Having high journalistic standards (whether as a professional or student writer) is important. I suspect the vast majority of my peer students are not out to muck rake or hurt anyone. Hopefully they pay attention to how and what they write, and in sensitive situations perhaps run proposed text by the people they report on.

But do all students in a given class take such care? Perhaps more important for an educator to ask: Do students even know to think about this?

No, they all don't.

In a Coursera MOOC (both of my classes were by Coursera) the student signs an agreement not to distribute, copy, report or otherwise share anything written by another student without that student's express permission. This is good, and thus, should there be a leak of one student's material by another student, the source of responsibility and liability is pretty clear.

On the other hand, students also sign an agreement when they first sign up with Coursera  acknowledging they are aware that all their contributions will be readable by the university course staff and by Coursera personnel. In addition, the student agrees that Coursera may, at it's own discretion, use portions of student submissions. I can't remember the details, but basically the student agrees that Coursera has wide latitude in how it chooses to use student material. I have no problem with that. Coursera has the right to make that request in return for the educational service they are providing - for free. Until proven otherwise, I default to trusting Coursera not to abuse the situation.

Back to the stickiness.

Consider a scenario in which a student in a course such as "Beyond Silicon Valley"submits an assignment based upon an interview with a business entity. It's good. It's interesting. It's quality. As a result, someone on university or Coursera staff uses part or all of it for training or PR purposes. The business becomes offended for some unforeseeable reason.

The business may have assumed confidentiality, especially as this was a student assignment. The student may have not thought about the possibility that either a) what s/he wrote would bother anyone or that b) it would ever be seen outside the virtual course wall. The student may have not discussed the possibility of the the interview becoming public in whole or part. Yet Coursera has the right to use the student material. Everyone was acting in good faith. Nonetheless, the stuff hits the fan.

Who is responsible? Who is going to take the heat? Who is going to come out ok and who will be severely bruised?

It would be completely counterproductive for all concerned if this situation becomes bogged down in legal and bureaucratic wranglings. We're talking about education here folks; social change. Let's take the high road shall we and try to cut this off at the pass.

In a live or virtual classroom there is an opportunity for faculty to discuss issues of confidentiality, privacy, contractual agreements; implications of what you write, possible scenarios of how material can be used. Especially with regards to interviewing and how the material is written up. We shouldn't assume that intelligent well educated adults (as most MOOC students are) know all about this. Even if they do, the topic bears revisiting. It's good for faculty and students alike to remember that you can have all your facts and knowledge and entrepreneurial ducks in a row, yet if you step on the wrong person's toe you are toast.

Pedagogically, there is an important difference here between a traditional class and a MOOC class. The sense of distance inherent to a virtual environment can lead to increased complacency or denial of interpersonal communication landmines. Thus we have a challenge that needs to be addressed proactively.

Pedagogically we have a great opportunity.  MOOCs such as Coursera's want to change the face of education and benefit society by leveraging the power of the Internet. I'm all for it. In these early entrepreneurial stages of MOOC development, let's watch for these sticky issues and talk about them until we solve them.