Thursday, March 27, 2014

That Was Then, This Is Now. Can Coding Improve Reasoning Ability?


Back in the 90s when I was starting my teaching career we used to talk in the CS Ed community a lot about the importance of math as a prerequisite for computer science. More precisely, I recall discussions about what level of math and what kind of math. I was working at a community college at the time and had perhaps the most diverse students I have ever had since.

Some were fresh out of high school, some were recent Veterans, some had been laid off from a dying  industry, some were re-entering the workforce after taking time to raise kids, some were in workforce retraining programs, some were retired. Some students had a prior Bachelors degree, some had barely made it out of high school. I encountered home schooled students, immigrants from war zones (one particular student from Cambodia comes vividly to mind) and those seeking to leave lives as migrant farm workers.

They shared a desire to obtain a computing degree and enter the computing workforce. The majority were highly motivated and great to work with. Yet many had limitations placed on them by external agencies or other equally firm obligations that restricted how long they could be in school and how many courses they could take - especially courses considered pre-college level, and thus remedial.

Thus the arguments about what math and how much math to take had very real consequences. Tell a student they had to take x courses before they could start college level CS and this could set them back a year or more that they did not have. As a result, in our college, as in others, the question of what math to require became in great part one of what the reason was to have the math.

The most common argument of the time, one I haven't heard as much recently, was that math, algebra in particular, trained you to think logically and sequentially. The extent to which this was true was taken as a given; I didn't have exposure to the math ed literature until some years later. However, I did learn pretty quickly that, although correlation does not equal causation, those students who had survived college algebra were less likely to look at 20 lines of sequential code and suggest executing them by bouncing back and forth around the screen like a ping pong ball. And of course, the bottom line was that if they wanted to transfer from a 2 year computer science program into a 4 year computer science program they were going to need that math.

Nowadays the CS Ed community is discussing equally energetically the usefulness of learning to program and the doors coding can open. Coding: the typical entry into a computing degree and a constant throughout. And, as we know from lots of hard data, computing degrees can lead to exciting and well paying careers. There is also an enthusiastic conversation going on about the useful things that can result from learning to code and getting that computing degree even if you ultimately decide to enter a seemingly unrelated field (ref: computational thinking and computational XYZ from art to geology and on through the humanities)

In one of those "that was then, this is now" moments, I'm wondering...wondering if learning to program, supports a general ability to reason. Before you say "of course - duh!" ask how you know. I'm  talking about more than low level step by step logical/sequential reasoning. I'm thinking about a more holistic reasoning ability.  Have we studied this? This would be so cool to study.

I suspect that the answer will be yes or no - it depends. As with so many things, such as with math and logical thinking, it depends. Context matters for one thing. For example, I posit that if we teach coding in the context of well chosen societally relevant challenges and follow through on the social impact of every stage of project development...hmm, yes, I think so. Holistic reasoning ability could well improve. (Who wants to fund the study?)

A belief in the importance of societal considerations throughout computing is one reason why the CS2013 curricular guidelines (pdf file) include an expanded section on Social and Professional Issues. Good technical decision making assumes results that ack and respond to complex problems requiring complex reasoning. We as a community are starting to get with the program (ow) and to value integrating societal consciousness into our technical projects as never before. I bet, that many of my former community college students, wherever they are, get it loud and clear.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Speed Rounds on What's Going 'Round in San Diego UX

It was Show & Tell for the San Diego UX Speakeasy crowd last night at our host Qualcomm. In our ongoing mission to build community, have fun, and demonstrate there is a lot of interesting UX work going on down here in Southern California we held speed rounds. Five energetic souls had 5 minutes each to wow the 100+ people (all the room could hold) with something UX-ish and interesting. Truly, only 5 minutes as the guy with the timer was on the job. There was a bit more breathing room during the following Q&A and for the most part the audience complied nicely with questions, comments and suggestions. All while noshing on some really good food.

First out of the gate was Erin Porringer making a report on World IA Day and the exciting ride up to Los Angeles on the Magic Bus. Apparently the bus ride was as wild and colorful as last year when I reported on it (sadly, I was unable to attend this year). But the best part of course was the event itself, which, according to Erin, involved, among other things, breaking up into groups and proposing solutions to some of LA's worst problems. Such as traffic.

If you have never experienced 14 lanes  (7 in each direction) going 85 mph then you haven't lived. Conversely, if you have never experienced those same 14 lanes (7 in each direction) crawling along at 5 mph for mile... upon... mile... then you haven't lived. (Now that I think on it, that particular stretch might be in Irvine.) A user experience in need of help for sure. It seemed only fitting to hear that one of the proposed solutions was to create a version of Google Maps with ratings - love that freeway? 5 stars. Hate that freeway? 1 star. I wonder if comments were going to be included for highlighting such things as really cool billboards and entertaining driver antics.

Second out of the gate was JC Nesci from Soso Limited. Soso hosted one of our meetups last year and thus we know they are always doing something creative. Last night we learned about a proposed redesign of the UI for Google Fiber network setup and configuration. As JC pointed out and we all know, it can be exceedingly painful to deal with a the likes of a Linksys router interface. (The audience groaned right on cue.) Most interesting, JC shared the thought process they went through testing out various interactive visualization prototypes for Google Fiber configuration. These got more fun as they progressed. Yes, fun - did you ever think online network configuration could be fun? I wanted to reach out and drag and drop those nodes, drag around those connections, plop those overlays on one another. Will Google use their ideas? TBD!

Third in the lineup was UX Speakeasy committee member Elina Ollila who in her day job works at Vigor Systems. Elina brought up a well known sticky challenge for large and small companies alike: where should UX be placed in a company and why? After describing what Vigor does, her job as the one and only UX employee (a temporary state of affairs she assured the audience), and the growing pains this small company is experiencing, Elina asked the audience for suggestions. Elina's presentation produced some of the most enthusiastic Q&A&S of the evening. Audience members made all sorts of helpful suggestions (hence the "S") about the role of UX within a corporate structure and why it might best be placed in one divisision or another - or ideally, integrated throughout all divisions. It was nice to see so many people voicing their ideas and the rationale for them.

Fourth, we heard from Kristine Angell, a UX Researcher, about a project called "The Domestication of the Internet".  Project management investigation for Supermoms on the Internet. Conceptions of time, time & task management. A bunch of data whizzed by in 5 minutes, as we  heard about study participants, mode of data collection and analysis. I was glued to this one because I just love research. 2010: 25 participants, 10 days online, 32 self reports, 5,600 data points. 2012: 12 returning participants, 6 days online, 10 self reports, 624 data points. Several interesting results including this one:  most family members delegate many of their tasks to the mother in the family. Supermom indeed. Lots of audience chuckles on that one. They already knew this particular result.

Last but not least, Paul Lafata from our host Qualcomm telling us all about their foray into wearable technology. In the form of a smart watch. There was also mention of a wireless dog collar to track down canine escapees. Managing to sneak past the allotted 5 minutes, Paul told us about all sorts of features and the tech underlying the smart watch. There was something about their mirasol technology based in some way on butterflies, but I missed the details because I was messing around with my camera. However, the entire audience was invited to a local pub afterwards to continue the conversation and ask Paul questions. I am sure they did so, because this crowd loves a good pub.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Cognitive Hyperlinking from SIGCSE 2014

At Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta

A lot has been happening at the SIGCSE Symposium this year. As usual there are a plethora of interesting presentations about CS education, and as usual by this point in the conference people you meet during the session breaks are starting to sound hoarse as they try to talk while diving for giant sugar loaded cookies, bagels and cream cheese and the coffee. Carbs and caffeine.

First of all, on Wednesday, one day prior to the official start of the conference, the ACM released the report: "Rebooting the Pathway to Success: Preparing Students for Computing Workforce Needs in the United States". The report is a publication of the ACM Education Policy Committee. Many people contributed significantly to creating this report; it was truly a team effort. As I am one of the authors, rather than saying much about the contents here, I am simply going to suggest you check it out for yourself.

Back to SIGCSE, this morning Hadi Partovi of gave the opening talk and brought everyone up to date on 's activities, accomplishments and plans. It was impressive to hear how much they have accomplished in one short year. As Hadi made clear, they are a lot more than The Hour of Code, although that was a spectacular success based upon many criteria and received the bulk of recent publicity. Hadi also took pains to point out they are also more than the creator of spiffy videos. Here are 4 myths Hadi wanted to debunk:

Myth 1: is all hype and the Hour of Code
Myth 2: wants to do everything by themselves
Myth 3: is only about coding and learning to code
Myth 4: is about the software industry coming in and telling schools how to do their jobs

Hadi spent a chunk of his talk addressing why each of these is incorrect. Many people in the audience, myself included, had no idea just how much is doing, how many people and partners they are working with and how many other activities they are involved with. Much of this information is available on their website for the curious to read about.

What Hadi said was a Truth was that they are disrupting how things used to work. Of course, how you view this disruption depends upon a variety of factors, and I'm sure there will be lots of offline discussions about all this.

On the lighter side, I am sharing a hotel room with the same friend and colleague with whom I (we) blew out the electricity last year by plugging in too many hi-tech devices. We have not as yet destroyed anything, although the single cup coffee maker made sounds remotely reminiscent of a minor explosion when I tried to make too many cups in a row without letting it cool down.

In addition, I want to share a phrase heard from my roommate yesterday morning as we were both trying to multi-task way too early in the day (pre carbs and caffeine): "My brain is hyperlinking".

Perhaps you can use that phrase yourself. 

Here in Atlanta, the conference sessions, conversations, meetings, and cookies continue flowing for another 15 hours. If you are here with us, I hope you are having an excellent conference.