Monday, February 24, 2014

Making Connections b/w Computing Education & International Development Expertise

The concerns and constraints impacting computing education efforts in developing and developed countries surely differ in important ways that effect strategy and policy. To cite just one obvious example, when electricity is not reliable or perhaps even available, assuming people will learn on computers is not a given. Hence, as I mentioned in my previous post, the centrality of mobile phones as communication and delivery mechanisms in the developing world.

On the other hand, based upon much that I heard at the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week (UMLW), many issues of related to economics, pedagogy, and equity are shared by many countries and regions regardless of where they are on the development spectrum. What this means is that in policy conversations there are significant opportunities for cross fertilization of knowledge and understanding.

For example, let's consider pedagogical knowledge: Over the past few decades the education research community has delved deeply into both quantitative and qualitative studies of cognition and affect as it relates to student learning. Branches of this community have specifically focused on educational technology in the classroom. Other branches have focused on the STEM disciplines. We learned some time ago that technology in and of itself does not solve problems and that computing technology brings with it new classroom control and assessment challenges. In response there has been, and continues to be, research and significant dialog about how to leverage technology in support of student learning.

If you are part of the computing education community then most likely I am preaching to the choir. The reason I bring it up is because at the UMLW many people asked questions about basic pedagogical issues that arise when computing technology enters the classroom. My impression was that this was, for many, a new topic and a serious concern. It appeared there was a lack of awareness of existing relevant research. Here lies an opportunity for the education research community (computing, engineering, STEM) to share with like minded peers in the development community.

Now let's consider gender issues: The development community has extensive experience with the relationship between gender participation and economic development. My understanding is that it has been well documented how targeting women for education and training leads to improved economic circumstances well beyond that achieved by the women themselves. A lesser impact is seen when men in the same communities are the sole recipients of interventions.

You often get more bang for your buck (literally) by actively working to equalize opportunities for women in arenas where they are under represented or excluded. Fact, not philosophical position. Why should this be thought a phenomenon that applies only to developing countries? When one starts to delve into the details, it seems crazy to make such an assumption. Here lies an opportunity for the development community to share with like minded peers in the education research and policy communities (computing, engineering, STEM).

Then there is the matter of high wage high skill computing jobs world wide. In the US we have recently been discussing Department of Labor statistics about the large and growing number of well paying computing jobs predicted at least through 2020 (as far forward as current projections go). I heard virtually the same story about ICT workforce development projected statistics in Europe: a projected increase of 16 million high skill workers needed by 2015, and a projected lack of 900,000 people to fill these jobs by the same year. The speaker who rattled off these statistics then discussed affiliations with industry, education and policy leaders that sounded much like those we are cultivating in the US.

Although I didn't catch statistics, I heard reports on the growing need for engineering and technology savvy workers in countries across Africa as well. There was an interesting presentation about an Engineering education initiative that UNESCO has started in response to this need.

Policy and strategy implementation have to be contextualized. Considerations of such things as whether a country has a centralized government, an active Education Ministry, an established national curriculum, and a host of other things too numerous to mention are reminders that one size will not fit all when it comes to computing technology (ICT) education initiatives we may contemplate.

By touching on just one or two areas where I see opportunities for sharing and collaboration between communities working in the Developed and Developing world, I hope I have piqued your interest. Whether you are in education, industry, computing/ICT or the development field, I hope you are pondering ways we can learn from one another in pursuit of our common goals.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

UNESCO Mobile Learning Week: Global Initiatives Abound

I spent the last two days attending the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week (UMLW). It has been a while since I have seen so many black and pin striped suits in one gathering. The rare academic in attendance was often identifiable by not having on wing tips. As one might expect, this was a global event, with representation from every continent (perhaps excepting Antarctica), developed and developing countries, industries, governments and teachers - lots of teachers.

The theme of this year's UMLW was "Empowering Teachers With Technology" and I was privileged to hear about initiatives and policy from Chile to Ghana to Pakistan and beyond. Languages abounded, along with excellent simultaneous translations in many of the presentations. I learned a fun piece of international vocabulary when a Portuguese speaker, who offered to speak in Spanish, apologized in advance to the translators if he slipped into "Portagñol". 

So many fascinating projects ... for example, I heard from a Palestinian speaker about coordinated use of SMS for teacher professional development in 5 countries across the Middle East (Gaza, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon) by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). They are working with curriculum contextualized for each country and coordinated with regard to policies. As you can imagine there are interesting challenges to overcome.

It became crystal clear to me this week just why mobile devices hold such promise for assisting in tackling some of the world's fundamental problems (poverty, illiteracy, health care etc). Although (to cite a revealing statistic) 774 million people around the globe are illiterate, (the majority of whom are in a few countries in Sub-Saharan Africa), mobile phones have deep penetration among these populations. Mobile phones also have greater connectivity and reliability than Internet connections obtained though more traditional sources. 

Literate and semi-literate people want to read on their phones. People also want to learn on their phones. I heard plenty of data (which I'll skip repeating here) about how people want to learn on their phones - feature phones no less. Many of us may grumble about reading on a 2" feature phone screen, but it turns out that millions of people around the world regularly read entire books on these tiny screens. Not only this, but 2/3 of those who are illiterate across the globe are women, and as I learned in my "How to Change the World" MOOC, providing equal opportunities to women for improving their lives has a direct economic effect on their entire family and community.

Thus, the many ongoing creative projects using feature phones - from delivery of informational, motivational and instructional material via SMS, to customized pedagogical videos. There is a lot going on with tablets as well. There were interesting conversations about which to use, why and when.

One of the over riding themes of the UMLW was how to go from the promise of technology to the expected outcomes. Pretty much everyone in these rooms, as well as most of you I suspect, does not need to be sold on the promise of technology. But many of you, as the attendees this week, have been around long enough to also clearly understand that technology in itself does not solve problems and produce sustainable change for the better.

Whether coming from an education background, development and aid background, or policy leadership position there was repeatedly stated concern for finding ways to perform capacity building and creation of sustainable empowerment of teachers. We heard from those in the trenches all the way up to corporate executives and government ministers. In my next post I'm going to pick up on the policy theme and share some additional observations from this week.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Changing the World One MOOC at a Time

"How to Change the World" is packing a punch. This is the MOOC I signed up for a few weeks ago. On the one hand, I am impressed with what can be done in such a setting. On the other hand, I now recognize firsthand some of the unique challenges for MOOCs in the context of their original stated mission. Today, I'll focus on some of the positive highlights.

On my very first peer assessment activity (homework is evaluated by one's peers according to a rubric provided by the course instructor/staff) I read and assessed in order: an essay by someone in an affluent US suburb dealing with plastic waste, an essay by someone in rural India dealing with horrific industrial pollution and a kick you in the gut essay by someone from Syria. The Syrian conflict will never again be to me simply something awful and far way as seen on television. It took just one student's 3 - 4 paragraphs to reorient my perspective.

This was only the beginning of several weeks of reading and interacting with students from around the globe. What an incredible experience. What an incredible opportunity. I find myself dying to get to the end of the day so I can log in and read the discussion forums, student essays and the class Wiki as students delve into complex issues and how to take meaningful action from each of their unique perspectives.

Everything is optional in this class; in other words you watch as many of the lectures, interviews and videos as you like, do as much of the extensive reading as you like, do as many assignments as you like, etc. Staff monitor the Forums to ensure discussions don't devolve into polemics or grandstanding about topics unrelated to the course material. But this is not done in a heavy handed way, and thoughtfully presented controversial discussions are encouraged. Anonymity is allowable for each post; sometimes people choose to post anonymously, but surprisingly few do so.

Extreme poverty, Climate Change, Global Disease and Health - these comprised Weeks 2-4. Not lightweight stuff, and not simplified for general distribution. The nature of this (as with many bricks and mortar based courses) is that if you want to skim through it and pay partial attention you can do so. On the other hand, for those students who want to wrestle with the tough questions and the sometimes polarized approaches posited by leaders in these fields the resources are there. Just as you think you have heard something definitive from the President of the World Bank (interviewed for this class) about "what is", you hear from other experts in the Development field with years of boots on the ground who point out potential problems with his approach. Then, just in case you thought they had the last word, you click a link to hear speakers from the 2013 Social Good Summit who talk about what they are doing effectively.

And on it goes. Every week it is like this. The instructor of the course (Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University) has done an outstanding job of bringing together a multiplicity of informed and contrasting viewpoints and information for participants in this MOOC. In terms of the amount and depth of content available, this class holds its own against many in-person undergraduate classes you might find yourself sitting in.

The theme of the course comes each week in three parts:
What Do We Know, Why Do We Care, What Can We Do

In other words, take all this, digest it, wrestle with it and apply it. Network with other students, build coalitions and collaborations, share experiences, ideas, strategies. Every homework assignment so far has had an option to write about (citing class sources of course!) actions you can take for yourself.

Right after we spent a week discussing climate issues and problems related to carbon footprints, and I was reminded yet again how flying lifts one's carbon footprint to astronomical heights I hopped a plane to another country. I find myself in one of the world's largest cities being frequently asked for spare change by people who no doubt fit the global definition of living in Extreme Poverty (earning less than $1.25/day).

Sitting comfortably on the Metro bundled up against the cold in a set of warm layers, I have to stop and think: how do I react to those quiet pleas? Do I fall back into habitual patterns of giving or not giving those spare coins that I don't really need and which, multiplied by the efforts of others could make meaningful difference? What have I learned in class that modifies how I decide to react? It's not simple at all. It's not.

The rubber hits the road in an impressive way when an Internet MOOC pushes you to reassess your everyday choices. For those of us living comfortably in developed countries this is the power of a MOOC. I'm  hearing the voices of my classmates from other countries, in other cultures, who, through engaging in this class with me, are reminding me that I, we, need to wake up.

Especially for those of us who love learning for learning's sake, it's so easy to read, learn, listen, discuss, and then fall back into doing what we've always done because it's convenient. That is a danger to be alert for when the class ends in a few weeks. That option isn't going to change the world.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Shoes of UX Speakeasy - a Poem

There is no end of evidence

that UX professionals are a creative


and eclectic. 
In addition to
the booted and leopard print outfit
that ended my last post, I would like

to share
a selection

of footwear seen at the most recent meeting of the San Diego UX Speakeasy group.
We range from the sophisticated
to the casual, and

we get a few scary characters
once in a while.

Above all

we have fun

Strategic Portfolio Planning UX Speakeasy Style

The rest of the United States may be getting buried in snow *again* but this evening in San Diego the UX Speakeasy crowd was warming up to each other  in another one of our invigorating monthly meetups.

We have our version of seasons - at tonight's venue, if you went outside on the 7th floor patio and looked out over the darkened city sky, the wind blowing in your face might have caused you to feel it was Winter. If you then walked back inside with a reddened face and someone asked you where you got the sunburn you might have felt it was Spring. In the toasty room where we heard our presentation, you might have believed it was Summer. Looking at the leafless plant in the corner (see picture above) you could be convinced it was Fall.

Our marvelous patio view, and begging to be explored set of funky office suites at this evening's gathering were brought to the meetup crowd of 114 people by Vaco San Diego and their enthusiastic recruiting professionals. Our host, Mark Richards, gave the group a nice presentation about what to put (or not put) in your UX portfolio. In: specifics. Out: your cat. Portfolio in the larger sense of the word, for Mark provided his perspective on what to do (or not do) with your LinkedIn page, resume, digital demos and a few other important odds and ends.

While Mark was showing the crowd some interesting examples of online UX portfolios in the packed room, his colleague (Eric?) held up a large fan that was determined to steal the show once in a while. There was a UI issue of sorts here for sure.

Some useful online portfolio resources shared by Mark (take note UX people!) included: Behance, Dribble, and Coroflot. Somewhere in the middle of all this, as I was standing near a glass door, someone jostled someone and the next thing I knew there was a large amount of liquid running down the other side of the door. Very artistic.

Vaco was a great host. Did I mention that Eric (?) brought me a personal hand made name tag shortly after I entered? This was before he put himself in charge of the treacherous fan for the benefit of all sentient beings. For those of you in the San Diego area, if you'd like to connect with Vaco, they are holding their annual March Mingle on March 26th at the Hard Rock 207 (the bar in the Hard Rock Hotel downtown) which will be, so Mark tells me, a great opportunity for technical people of all ilks to network.

Intuit appears to be on a serious UX hiring spree based upon what our second speaker told us. Rich Bessel from Intuit spent a few minutes telling us about some of the things he values in potential hires. In addition to supporting Mark's comments, Rich added: Craft. Demonstrate your craft everywhere. Show your passion and that you care about your work. It should ooze through all your materials (ok, he didn't use the word "ooze" but he could have) because you want to show that you care, really care, about your work. Oh, and by the way: Check Your Ego At the Door.