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Talking Sense about MOOCs and Online Education: the New Post-Hype Era

August 1, 2014 Leave a comment

At this year’s CRA Snowbird conference (the every-other-year gathering of chairs of CS departments), I organized two panels on MOOCs and online education. While I’m told that Snowbird 2012 was dominated by hyperbole about MOOCs, our discussion this year was eminently sensible. In our panel “MOOCs and Online Education: The Evolving Big Picture,” Nelson Baker (Georgia Tech), John Mitchell (Stanford), and Marian Petre (The Open University) talked about the realities. There’s a lot we can do with online education. It’s wonderful that GT’s new online master’s of computer science is reaching working professionals who otherwise couldn’t pursue higher education. But how to do it well and how to make the bottom line add up are challenges. It’s not cheaper if you do it right. We had standing-room only for the panel, and both the positive hype and negative hype were absent. People were talking sense.

In our second panel, we discussed MOOCs and online education as active areas of computer science research. Marti Hearst (UC Berkeley), Scott Klemmer (UCSD), and Rob Miller (MIT) showed some current research in progress on how to design new software for online education inspired by good pedagogy. Right now we’re still in the horseless carriage stage of online ed–trying to understand the new medium in terms of the old one. How to do this well is an open area for research. And we need research done in both ischools, ed schools, and computer science departments. There is a complicated interaction between what the technology can do and what good pedagogy says we should do. Making those work together is a challenge. And department chairs and deans need to think hard about whether they are able to fully support faculty members doing such interdisciplinary work.

One thorny area that needs further community discussion is research ethics. Whenever you do research on students, you need to recognize that there is an unavoidable power relationship between faculty and students, particularly if investigators are doing research on their own classes. Petre emphasized that as faculty we have a duty of care. The rule book on the ethics of researching real students in online classes is still being written, and it has more nuance and complication than recent controversies about social network sites conducting research on their members.

What was noticeably absent from our online ed mini-track was hype–both positive and negative. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and is much more complicated than you might think. And we’re just at the beginning.

I had a funny conversation years ago with a faculty member at MIT who has taught artificial intelligence (AI) for many years. At the time, AI was unfashionable. And he said he liked that better, because when AI was trendy they got lots of shallow people going into the field for the wrong reasons–just because it was “hot.” During the “AI Winter” when it was unfashionable, he had a smaller influx of potential students–but nicer ones, who were more sincerely interested in the discipline. Thank heavens we have gotten past the latest hype bubble about online ed, and are left with sincere people working on some interesting and worthy problems!

MOOCs: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

March 27, 2014 6 comments

Can a MOOC teach course content to anyone, anywhere? It’s an imagination-grabbing idea. Maybe everyone could learn about topics from the greatest teachers in the world! Create the class once, and millions could learn from it!

It seems like an exciting idea. Until you realize that the entire history of human-computer interaction is about showing us that one size doesn’t fit all.

I went to two terrific talks on MOOCs a few weeks ago. At the GVU Brown Bag, Karen Head and Rebecca Burnett talked about their brave attempt to teach an English composition class free online, for anyone interested. They encountered intriguing challenges. The course said you needed to be fluent in English as a prerequisite, but some people who signed up were far from fluent. The course did reach people all over the world, but some of those people disapproved of Karen’s style of dress. Her attire was conservative by American standards, but the world is a big place and some people felt otherwise and said so, loudly. The instructors used YouTube as part of assignments, but YouTube is banned some of the countries their students live in. Trying to accommodate everyone everywhere turned out to be a stressful endeavor.

The second talk was by Ed Cutrell of Microsoft Research India at the ACM Learning at Scale conference. Ed has been studying engineering education in India. He explained that the top-level universities in India serve about 40,000 engineering students per year. The rest of the universities serve another 4,000,000 engineering students per year. The quality of teaching at lower tier universities in India is wildly variable. In some cases, the instructors don’t know the material themselves. Many aren’t career teachers, but are teaching on a temporary basis until they can find an engineering job. Given those constraints, Ed and colleagues are using a blended learning model where short videos by experts are followed by class discussion. With this approach, the instructor and students learn the material together. Trying to respond to the particularities of a learning context, Ed was able to design a successful solution.

If I am designing a class, even if I limit my audience to “Georgia Tech students,” that isn’t a specific enough. I would design a different class for undergraduates versus graduate students, for computer science (CS) majors versus majors in computational media (CM). I don’t always have the luxury of making those classes different—economics dictates that the CS and CM majors take almost all their classes together. Financial considerations push us to generalize.

Do you own any clothing that is one-size-fits-all? It works great for my nightshirts, but it wouldn’t work if I tried it for pants. And there are some people who don’t fit into one-size-fits-all, even for nightshirts. The analogy to online classes works pretty well. There are a few simple things where one size will work tolerably well. But in most cases we should stop trying to make one size fit all.

Categories: education, HCI, MOOCs, teaching

VLRCs (MOOCs): The Aggravating and the Important

March 12, 2013 5 comments

Throughout his career as an orthopedic surgeon, when my father saw sweeping changes in the practice of medicine, he met them head on.  In response to soaring medical malpractice costs in California in the 1970s, he and friends co-founded The Doctors Company, a new medical insurance company that keeps costs down by refusing to insure bad docs.  He has written workman’s compensation regulations that reduce wasteful spending on pseudoscience treatments not by banning them (which would be politically impossible) but by limiting the number of allowed treatments.  As systemic changes have hit his profession, he has jumped in and engaged.  So when he asks me about my lack of involvement in possible sweeping changes in my profession, he has a lot of credibility.  On the phone a couple weeks ago, he asked:

Dad: “Honey, you really know about online education. Why aren’t you jumping in?

Me: “Because it makes my blood pressure spike.  Life is too short.”

Well, I may yet change my mind about jumping in.  But I want to try to articulate two separate things: why the whole thing aggravates me, and what is actually important going forwards.

The Aggravating

 Disingenuous Motivations: People who have never invested much time in reflecting on their teaching or improving their teaching practice are suddenly crazy excited about online education.  Their reasons are grounded almost entirely in personal advancement.  Administrators want to build careers.  Evidently simply doing what we’ve always done and doing it even better is not enough–to be a successful academic “leader,” you need some big new initiative that you can claim credit for.  Individual faculty aspire to star status–they want to be the famous professor who is known for their topic.  Their primary motivation is personal advancement, fame and money.  No one seems to care about the students, or even understand what might help or hinder student learning.

Lack of Historical Context: The Open University in the UK has been doing online education for 40+ years, and doing it well.  There is nothing new about online education.  Administrators here are rushing a new program into place and explicitly saying, “We will be the first!”  You’re more than 40 years too late to be first. And you won’t be the second or third either. And by the way, those folks at the OU have learned a few things.  One key thing is that developing a quality online course well takes extensive investment.  Materials need to be high quality, and need to be kept up to date.  Simply asking someone to modify their lecture notes and then say them to a camera does not make an effective online “course.”  It doesn’t even make an effective “video textbook.”

Lack of Involvement of Knowledgable People: Have you noticed the excited involvement of faculty from schools of education in VLRC efforts and VLRC startup companies?  Uh, me neither.  Take for example Udacity.  It’s a spinoff from Stanford, which has one of the best schools of education in the world.  Now look at the list of founders and advisory board members for Udacity.  See any ed school folks on the list?  Nope. Believe it or not, schools of education know a thing or two about education. Their lack of involvement in most of these initiatives is telling.

Lack of Sound Pedagogy and Recognition of Unsolved Problems: Video is a one-to-many transmission medium.  It’s akin to a textbook that you read out loud.  Learning requires more than reading/watching textbooks. Online classes are experimenting with ways to create more interactive learning experiences–like discussion groups and projects.  Maybe intelligent tutoring systems can help.  But how to do all this with a very low teaching staff-to-student ratio and no face-to-face communication is a hard problem that is currently unsolved.  How can we start offering such classes for credit when we haven’t yet figured out how to create successful learning experiences at this scale?

The Important

None of those things bode well, but none of them is important per se.  Here are the some issues that I believe we need to keep an eye on going forwards:

Inequality in Education: If online classes catch on, they could democratize access to education–or they could make the gap worse.  If we can actually create quality learning experiences at scale, then there is tremendous positive potential for democratizing access.  The fear, however, is that the online courses we are creating are going to stay pretty crummy, and as time goes on more and more people will find only the online versions accessible to them.  The children of the elite will still get a face-to-face college experience, and more and more regular folks will get some videos to watch and a standardized test to take.  The outcome here is uncertain.  We could be on the verge of a revitalized meritocracy and increased access to quality education–or the opposite.  This is the ball we need to keep our eye on.

The Teaching Profession: We already have an intolerable situation where adjunct faculty do the lion’s share of the teaching work (especially at community colleges), but are barely compensated for their time.  The risk going forwards is that a growing percentage of the higher education teaching profession may be relegated to similar poor treatment.  As music has become available for cheap or free on sites like Spotify, fewer people are able to make a living as musicians.  Major stars make money from tours, and others are no longer fairly compensated.  Is education trending the same way?  Will a few superstars get superstar salaries while more people who do the hard work of real teaching get compensated poorly like today’s adjunct faculty?  Some of the VLRC-hypers are dreaming of their future rock star status, but future adjunct-like status is more likely.

A rosier picture of the future of the teaching profession has higher ed teachers fairly compensated, and able to teach students better because they leverage a rich array of online materials to help them do their job (both face-to-face and online) better.  Where classroom time is dedicated to stretching students’ understanding, and offering personalized support.  How do we make that happier picture a reality?

Categories: education, VLRCs

It’s All About the Money, Stupid (Economically Less Advantaged Youth Want a Credible Path to Economic Empowerment)

December 8, 2011 2 comments

NB: This post is about my education research.

I feel so stupid–I should’ve seen it all along. It’s all about the money.  About searching for a better life. In a way that is believable. In the context of a system where adults and institutions are regarded with suspicion.

When my PhD student Betsy Disalvo started Glitch Game Testers, she first tried the activity with kids of different ages.  In Glitch, economically less advantaged African American youth work testing  pre-release games from real game companies. Their work game testing is integrated with intro CS education. Almost all of our students have chosen to go to college and study CS or related disciplines as their major.  When Betsy did preliminary workshops with 14 and 15 year-olds, they seemed not quite mature enough for the activity. For that reason, we decided to focus on 16 and 17 year-olds. And then it occurred to us that those teenagers are old enough to hold part-time and summer jobs. Kids from poor backgrounds needs to earn money if they can. How could they have time for school, a job, and Glitch? It didn’t all add up. So we decided to make Glitch a paying job.  Our original grant from the National Science Foundation didn’t plan for that–we just had budgeted for a small honorarium for our participants. So we took some of the money meant for my summer salary and got permission to give it to our teens. We raised more money for their salaries from the Arthur M. Blank Foundation. We made it work.

Our initial reasons were  practical–a detail.  But as we’ve worked with our teens for the last couple years, it became clear that this was a central factor in why the program was such a success.  What we’ve learned is so astoundingly obvious and simple. It was there all the time and we never saw it. Kids from less advantaged backgrounds want a secure future. Adults and school officials know that education is the path to that better future. But kids don’t believe them.  And why should they? They often don’t have role models who have gone to college and found success.  It doesn’t seem real as a possibility.  The role models for success they have are prominent African Americans in the sports and entertainment industries.  The documentary film Hoop Dreams does a great job of documenting these young men’s dreams. The kids in Hoop Dreams want a better life, and basketball is the path they can imagine.

They imagine themselves as basketball or football stars, but those dreams are unlikely to come true. How do we help them to imagine themselves as high-tech workers?  The role models exist, but are rare compared to those from the entertainment and sports industries. What we discovered in Glitch is that one way to encourage them to dream of being high tech workers is to make them legitimate high tech workers. Our Glitch students work for real game companies. They realize they can work in the game industry because they already are doing so.  And that higher education is the path to making this real.

And now that I realize this was key, I see it everywhere. For example, the Computer Clubhouse Network creates drop-in computer centers in economically less advantaged neighborhoods to encourage these youth to get interested in computer science. My students and I have volunteered at clubhouses in Atlanta from time to time over the years, and we consistently observe one thing: each clubhouse has a computer music suite, and making your own electronic music/rap is by far the most successful clubhouse activity.  The clubhouse kids will tell you that they are hoping to become rap stars.  They work hard on their music–incredibly hard.  Because there’s a dream behind it. The creators of the clubhouse network were hoping the kids would work hard on learning real computing skills, and dream of being part of the computer industry. And that does happen–but much more rarely.

The research questions then becomes, how do we help kids from less advantaged backgrounds to embrace dreams with a higher chance of success? The Glitch model embodies a core concept from educational theory: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP).  People can learn to be part of a community of practice by starting to do simpler tasks that meaningfully contribute to real work. It’s important that as they do their work, they have a chance to observe the work of more senior members of the community on a day-to-day basis.Over time, they can take on more and more important roles in the community. So here’s my pitch: we should create more opportunities for teenagers to do paid internships with real businesses.

I do work on encouraging kids to get interested in computing, because I’m a computer science professor. And because we have a shortage of computing professionals and a lack of  diversity in the computing industry which both hurt the industry. But honestly I don’t care whether  teens go into computing or engineering or teaching or finance…. What I hope for the kids and for our society is economic mobility. That whoever you are, if you work hard and stay in school you can build a better life for yourself and your family.  It seems to me that LPP is the way to make this happen. Every 16-year-old should have the opportunity to do an internship with a real company.  To try out real work, contributing to a real business in a meaningful way. To develop friendships with adult workers who can guide them on realistic career paths. To realize that they can be part of the industry of their choice and contribute meaningfully–because they already are.

NB2: Glitch Game Testers is the creation of Betsy Disalvo. Who you should hire for a faculty position, because she’s brilliant and all this is her work.

Categories: education, kids

The Role of Academic Blogging

November 2, 2011 7 comments

My colleague Mark Guzdial has a popular blog on computing education.  I commented to him last week that I was impressed with how often he’s able to come up with thoughtful posts. He posts several per week, and they’re all great.  He laughed and said “well, I usually just find an article I like and write a few lines before a quote from it. It’s not much really.”  Some of his posts are long, thoughtful essays, but a lot are as he describes–a pointer to something new that just came out with some framing comments.

I smiled and nodded and shook my head–I could never post that often on Next Bison. But it took me a few days to realize why. If you want a pointer to what’s going on in social media, you can read TechCrunch or Mashable or many others. There are a host of folks who make a living blogging about social media.  Y’all don’t need me.  Well, you might need me once in a while for a longer commentary on something thorny. But you don’t need me to do the more news-like, regular updates. Other folks have that covered.

Computer science education is  more important to our society than social media.  I have three half sisters, and they have degrees in anthropology, theater, and international studies. And as of last week they are all working on web design, development, and marketing.  Why aren’t we educating people for the jobs that are actually available?  Why aren’t there more computer science teachers? CS isn’t even offered at most schools.  Raise your hand if you have a friend  with a humanities degree who is now working in web design or management of information systems.  We all do.  Our education system is broken. Every kid should learn to program at age 12 at the latest, and have a full offering of different kinds of CS classes through high school.  CS education is important. There should be a Mashable for CS Ed, but there isn’t.

This brings me back to the role of academic blogging. Academic bloggers like Mark play a really important role.  Whether they’re writing insightful essays or just short posts drawing attention to what’s happening in their field. Going forwards,  I believe blogging is a central part of what academics have to offer the world.  It’s about taking all our hard-earned knowledge and sharing it with broader circles than journal readers and conference attendees.  What could be more important than that?

Grading and Mediocrity

June 7, 2011 6 comments

(Nota bene: This post is about education, not social computing.)

I’ve been pondering lately whether letter grading teaches the wrong lesson to our students. Are the social norms of the classroom incompatible with the norms of the workplace? Let me share two contrasting pictures:

The happy picture: Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to supervise a number of students who stunned me with their professionalism.  Students with top communications skills and work habits who showed up on time every time, asked clarifying questions about what was expected, and delivered work that  exceeded expectations and was beautifully presented.  I’m thinking in particular of Lori Adams Murphy (now at CNN) and Addy Lee Beavers (Yahoo).  It won’t surprise you to learn that they are both huge professional successes.

The sad picture: a sad friend (SF) who slouched through college with C’s and D’s, and then got an uninspiring job, and at that job often called in sick or showed up late.  In this tight economy, SF was laid off and now is long-term unemployed (3+ years). SF had a really promising job interview a few months ago, but then the potential employer checked references and that was the end of that.

So here’s my question: does our grading system encourage slouching into C’s? In a college class, you can do a distinctly mediocre job and get a C and who really cares about your college grades anyway, right? Does a habit of half-completed low-quality school work encourage a mediocre work ethic when the students move to the workplace? I see this in particular with new undergraduate researchers in my lab. I often sit down and explain to them that in their classes they can slouch into a C, but in my lab I expect excellence and professionalism in everything they do. Yes, you can be late for class–you might miss something, but you can be late. You can’t be late for your appointment to meet your research supervisor (unless something unusual happens and you call or email me in a timely fashion).  No you can’t show up every week for our meeting with a long story about work in your other classes and nothing to show me. (You can get away with it once in a while, and ideally you tell me in advance: “Next week I have three midterms and two projects due. Can we meet the week after?”)  Some students understand that a job has a different work ethic than a class, but many don’t.

I’m not sure a different grading system would’ve helped SF–a lot more is needed than that. But I do wonder if we should encourage students to take lighter course loads and demand higher quality work from them. I’m not sure if you can teach the kind of professionalism and polish that Lori and Addy embody.  I didn’t teach it to them. But sometimes I think our grading system is teaching the opposite.

Categories: education

Balancing HCI and Computational Thinking: Levels of Abstraction and Agency

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

My colleague Mark Guzdial wrote a great blog post last week called “HCI and Computational Thinking are Ideological Foes.” A lot of HCI wants to make the computer invisible, like Heidegger’s hammer. While you’re using it, you’re thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish–not about how to use the (computer/hammer).  But computer science education takes the opposite approach: please, please look at the computer/hammer!  It’s interesting, and if you’re going to really use it, you need to really look at it.

How much detail should we hide from the user? I think about this every time I run software update on my MacOS computers. The system tells me it has stuff to update, and would I please click OK to install it?  I have to click a button to ask for what it plans to update. I find the dialog infuriating, as if it’s saying “don’t worry your pretty little head about what we’re going to update–we’ll just take care of it, OK honey?” I click to ask for more details, and it tells me that it’s going to, for example, update iTunes and do a system security patch. OK, that works for me–now I click go ahead. But notice that I didn’t say “OK, but what exact part of iTunes are you going to fix? Show me the original code and the patch.” It seems OK to me that they told me it’s a stability update to iTunes. The level of abstraction is right (for me) after I ask it for more details. I don’t want even more details.

Similarly, Mark isn’t arguing that “kids these days–they don’t know their one’s and zero’s any more! They don’t even know what a decrement register is! Whatever happened to punch cards? Why in high school, I had to program our IMSAI to echo characters on the screen by toggling in binary codes with the front panel switches!”  OK, I did have to do that, and I loved that assignment, and I wish everyone could still do that, but it seems impractical. It’s OK in this day and age to keep students at a slightly higher level of abstraction. As Beki Grinter points out in her interesting response to Mark’s post, sometimes we really do want to hide some details from users. Then the question becomes, what level of abstraction is appropriate for what users doing what tasks? And I agree that a lot of HCI today is, like the MacOS software update dialog, pushing the level of abstraction too high.

A complementary concept to level of abstraction is sense of agency. Do I feel like I am taking this action (regardless of whether I’m using more abstracted or lower level tools to do it) or do I feel like the system is doing it for me? The difference is a subtle one. In either case, lower level details are being taken care of without requiring my attention. But when I retain a sense of agency, I feel like I have a clear mental model of what is going to happen and the entire process was set in motion by a deliberate choice on my part. A higher level of abstraction is tolerable when we design in a clarity that helps the user retain that sense of agency.

You might say that designing applications to be used by people and designing CS education are fundamentally different with regard to abstraction and agency. But they are more similar than perhaps it seems at first glance. Consider for example the question of memory management. Do students need to explicitly allocate and free memory? Or is it OK for that to all just happen for them? I suppose that depends on how critical performance is in the application you’re developing, and how good your garbage collection system is. I still think that “serious” programmers need to learn how to do their own memory management, so they understand it, even if they don’t have to do it on a day to day basis. But I do NOT think that serious programmers need to make keys echo by toggling in binary on the front panel switches. The minimum acceptable level of abstraction has migrated upward a bit. Even for the true hacker it has moved up a bit, and for the web developer it has moved up much more.

There’s a delicate and important design problem here. Let’s take the example of creating a new web development environment. How much abstraction is the right choice for this task? How much of how networks and web browsers really work should we expose to the web developer? How do we get the right level of abstraction that lets the web developer have a clear mental model of what’s going on and retain a sense of agency over the task they are accomplishing?  The HCI of programming languages and development environments is an absolutely critical research problem.

There’s still a gap in levels in my argument: What Mark saw on the ischools conference program was a lot of HCI for and about end users. Which you might view as being entirely different than designing for programmers. Except that what I find so exciting about modern computer technology is that maybe there doesn’t need to be such a gap between users and programmers. As technology increasingly surrounds all of us, it’s an open question how much real control ordinary people will have over that technology. But what if we think of everyone as programmers? Think of everyone as programmers who need tools with different levels of abstraction for different tasks. The same person may use a high-level tool for one task, and a lower-level look-at-the-details-of-the-hammer tool for another a few minutes later. How can we create these tools with many levels of abstraction, but which always keep that sense of agency–I am the person doing this with the tool, rather than the tool is doing this for me.  And Mark is dead right that there is not enough dialog about this at the moment at CHI and the ischools conference and similar.  I was thrilled to see a paper accepted for CHI this year on usability of operating system permissions systems. It was one paper. We need 100 more like it.

We underestimate the intelligence and independence of our users when we keep trying to abstract everything away for them, without giving them the choice. HCI and CSED have grown apart, and that’s a tragedy for both traditions of research and for all of us as humans who live with these technologies intertwined through more and more of our lives.

One thing Mark wrote was wrong, though. He concluded his post by writing “Here’s a prediction: We won’t see a panel on ‘Computational Thinking’ at CHI, CSCW, or iConference any time soon.” He’s wrong because I’m going to organize it, and he’s going to be on the panel!

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