Voices – LATICE 2017

[Edit: The conference is now being held in Hong Kong. I don’t know the reason behind the change but the original issue has been addressed. I have been accepted to Learning @ Scale so will not be able to attend anyway, as it turns out, as the two conferences overlap by two days and even I can’t be in the US and Hong Kong at the same time.]

There is a large amount of discussion in the CS Ed community right now over the LATICE 2017 conference, which is going to be held in a place where many members of the community will be effectively reduced to second-class citizenship and placed under laws that would allow them to be punished for the way that they live their lives. This affected group includes women and people who identify with QUILTBAG (“Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans (Transgender/Transsexual), Bisexual, Asexual, Gay”). Conferences should be welcoming. This is not a welcoming place for a large percentage of the CS Ed community.

There are many things I could say here but what I would prefer you to do is to look at who is commenting on this and then understand those responses in the context of the author. For once, it matters who said what, because not everyone will be as affected by the decision to host this conference where it is.

From what I’ve seen, a lot of men think this is a great opportunity to do some outreach. A lot has been written, predominantly by men, about how every place has its problems and so on and so forth.

But let’s look at other voices. The female and QUILTBAG voices do not appear to share this support. Asking for their rights to be temporarily reduced or suspended for this ‘amazing opportunity’ is too much to ask. In response, I’ve seen classic diminishment of genuine issues that are far too familiar. Concerns over the reductions of rights are referred to as ‘comfort zone’ issues. This is pretty familiar to anyone who is actually tracking the maltreatment and reduction of non-male voices over time. You may as well say “Stop being so hysterical” and at least be honest and own your sexism.

Please go and read through all of the comments and see who is saying what. I know what my view of this looks like, as it is quite clear that the men who are not affected by this are very comfortable with such a bold quest and the people who would actually be affected are far less comfortable.

This is not a simple matter of how many people said X or Y, it’s about how much discomfort one group has to suffer that we take their concerns seriously. Once again, it appears that we are asking a group of “not-men”, in a reductive sense, to endure more and I cannot be part of that. I cannot condone it.

I will not be going. I will have to work out if I can cite this conference, given that I can see that it will lead to discrimination and a reduction of participation over gender and sexuality lines, unintentionally or not. I have genuine ethical concerns about using this research that I would usually reserve for historical research. But that is for me to worry about. I have to think about my ongoing commitment to this community.

But you shouldn’t care what I think. Go and read what the people who will be affected by this think. For once, please try to ignore what a bunch of vocal guys want to tell you about how non-male groups should be feeling.

Reflection: Why I’m stopping daily updates

I’ve written a lot in the past month and a half. Now, because I’m committed to evaluation, I have to look back at all of it and think about some difficult matters:

  1. Is anyone reading this?
  2. Are the people reading this the ones who can make change?
  3. Is the best way to do this?
  4. Should I be doing something else?

There are roughly 1,000 people who see my posts, between direct subscribers who read in e-mail, Facebook and the elusive following community on Twitter.

Twitter shouldn’t count, as I know from direct experience that the click-through rate from Twitter is tiny. (My posts have been shared by people with 5-10,000 followers and it has turned into maybe 10-20 more people reading.) Now I’m down to maybe 4-500 readers.

Facebook shares a longer fragment of my ideas but the click through is still small. Perhaps this brings me down to the roughly 200 followers I have, who have (over time) contributed about 1,000 ‘Likes’. However, almost all of these positive reinforcements stem from a different phase of the blog, a time when I was blogging conferences and being useful, rather than pontificating on the nature of beauty. My readership used to be 100 people a day, or more. I can’t crack 80 today and the way that I’m blogging is unlikely to reach that larger audience, yet it’s what I want to do.

The answer to 1 is that a few other people a day are reading what I write. I’d put it as high as twenty on a good day but most days it’s under ten.

2’s a tricky question. We can all make change; that’s one of my firmest beliefs. However, there is making change and then there are change makers. I know several people in this area quite well and they read me occasionally but it’s not something that they dedicate time to do. I have people that I always read but I can’t make the changes they need. It’s frustrating. No doubt, my ideas appeal to some people but change takes will and capacity to change, not just a sympathetic ear. I don’t want people to read this and feel trapped because they can’t make change. The answer to 2 is, probably, ‘no’.

3 follows from 1 and 2. If my readership is small and my ideas have little influence then this is not the best way to do things. We face enormous challenges. We need effective mechanisms for sharing information. If I am to make change, I have to invest my time wisely. I am not a large-scale player or a change maker. I need help to do it and if that help isn’t coming from this avenue, I have to choose another.

4 is easier. I can focus on my scholarship, practice, and research, rededicating the time I’ve been spending on this blog. People read papers where they don’t read blogs. Papers drive recognition. Recognition gets you the places to speak where your voice can be heard. There is no point having written all those words in a blog if it’s rarely read. This has been a highly rewarding experience in many ways but you have to wonder why you’re doing it if very few people read it or remember what you’ve written.

I wanted people to think and to talk about the ideas shared here. For those of you who have let me know that this worked, my thanks!

I’m tempted to keep going with the daily blog but the aesthetic argument traps me here. Spending time on something that isn’t working and insisting that it’s valuable is self-deception. Investing energy into an avenue that isn’t achieving your goals isn’t good. I cannot deprive my students of the hour or so a day that I’ve been spending doing this unless I achieve more for them than I would by doing some other aspect of my job.

Students and teachers: the true focus of any aesthetic discussion of education; the most important aspects of any discussion of what we should be doing because they are people and not just machine parts. As for us, so for them.

There are more discussions to be had but they’ll show up in more formal places, most likely. I’m always happy to talk to people about ideas at conferences. I’ve already started a face-to-face discussion about taking some of these ideas further in a more traditional research sense and I’m very excited about that.

But perhaps it’s time to let this blog go, listen to the numbers, reflect on the dissemination of knowledge, and accept that I would not be following my own advice if I were to continue. I love the beauty argument. I think it’s great. I stand by everything I’ve written this year. I just don’t think that this is the way to move people towards that agenda.

Thus, the daily updates stop with this post. I’ll still post things that interest me but there’ll be fewer of them.

I’ll leave you with the message I wanted to get across this year:

  1. Educational philosophy is full of the aesthetics of education. Dewey and Bloom just scratch the surface of this. The late 19th and early 20th century were an incredible time of upheaval and we still haven’t addressed many of the questions raised then. To the libraries!
  2. Fair, equitable, well-designed and evidence-based education is at the core of any beautiful system.
  3. Every day, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing is beautiful, good or true, taking into account all of the difficult questions of how we balance necessities against desirabilities, being honest about which is which. If we aren’t managing this, we need to either seek to change or accept that what we are doing isn’t right.
  4. We should leave enough time for ourselves in all of this, as there should be no sacrificial element to beautiful education.
  5. Change is coming. Change is here. Pretending that it won’t happen isn’t beautiful.

I hope that you all have a fantastic learning and teaching year, with many amazing and beautiful moments and outcomes!

This year, I hope to be at several conferences and I look forward to talking to anyone about the ideas in this phase (or any other phase) of the blog.

Have a great year!


Beautiful decomposition

Now there’s a title that I didn’t expect to write. In this case, I’m referring to how we break group tasks down into individual elements. I’ve already noted that groups like team members who are hard-working, able to contribute and dependable, but we also have the (conflicting) elements from the ideal group where the common goal is more important than individual requirements and this may require people to perform tasks that they are either not comfortable with or ideally suited for.


Kevin was nervous. The group’s mark depended upon him coming up with a “Knock Knock joke” featuring eyes.

How do we assess this fairly? We can look at what a group produces and we can look at what a group does but, to see the individual contribution, there has to be some allocation of sub-tasks to individuals. There are several (let’s call them interesting) ways that people divide up up tasks that we set. Here are three.

  1. Decomposition into dependent sub-tasks.
  2. Decomposition into isolated sub-tasks (if possible).
  3. Decomposition into different roles that spread across different tasks.

Part of working with a group is knowing whether tasks can be broken down, how that can be done successfully, being able to identify dependencies and then putting the whole thing back together to produce a recognisable task at the end.

What we often do with assignment work is to give students identical assignments and they all solemnly go off and solve the same problem (and we punish them if they don’t do enough of this work by themselves). Obviously, then, a group assignment that can be decomposed to isolated sub tasks that have no dependencies and have no assembly requirement is functionally equivalent to an independent assessment, except with some semantic burden of illusory group work.

If we set assignments that have dependent sub-tasks, we aren’t distributing work pressure fairly as students early on in the process have more time to achieve their goals but potentially at the expense of later students. But if the tasks aren’t dependent then we have the problem that the group doesn’t have to perform as a group, they’re a set of people who happen to have a common deadline. Someone (or some people) may have an assembly role at the end but, for the most part, students could work separately.

The ideal way to keep the group talking and working together is to drive such behaviour through necessity, which would require role separation and involvement in a number of tasks across the lifespan of the activity. Nothing radical about that. It also happens to be the hardest form to assess as we don’t have clear task boundaries to work with. However, we also have provided many opportunities for students to demonstrate their ability and to work together, whether as mentor or mentee, to learn from each other in the process.

For me, the most beautiful construction of a group assessment task is found where groups must work together to solve the problem. Beautiful decomposition is, effectively, not a decomposition process but an identification strategy that can pinpoint key tasks while recognising that they cannot be totally decoupled without subverting the group work approach.

But this introduces grading problems. A fluid approach to task allocation can quickly blur neat allocation lines, especially if someone occupies a role that has less visible outputs than another. Does someone get equal recognition for driving ideas, facilitating, the (often dull) admin work or do you have to be on the production side to be seen as valuable?

I know some of you have just come down heavily on one side or the other reading that last line. That’s why we need to choose assessment carefully here.

If you want effective group work, you need an effective group. They have to trust each other, they have to work to individual strengths, and they must be working towards a common goal which is the goal of the task, not a grading goal.

I’m in deep opinion now but I’ve always wondered how many student groups fall apart because we jam together people who just want a pass with people who would kill a baby deer for a high distinction. How do these people have common ground, common values, or the ability to build a mutual trust relationship?

Why do people who just want to go out and practice have to raise themselves to the standards of a group of students who want to get academic honours? Why should academic honours students have to drop their standards to those of people who are happy to scrape by?

We can evaluate group work but we don’t have to get caught up on grading it. The ability to work in a group is a really useful skill. It’s heavily used in my industry and I support it being used as part of teaching but we are working against most of the things we know about the construction of useful groups by assigning grades for knowledge and skill elements that are strongly linked into the group work competency.

Look at how teams work. Encourage them to work together. Provide escape valves, real tasks, things so complex that it’s a rare person who could do it by themselves. Evaluate people, provide feedback, build those teams.

I keep coming back to the same point. So many students dislike group work, we must be doing something wrong because, later in life, many of them start to enjoy it. Random groups? They’re still there. Tight deadlines? Complex tasks? Insufficient instructions? They’re all still there. What matters to people is being treated fairly, being recognised and respected, and having the freedom to act in a way to make a contribution. Administrative oversight, hierarchical relationships and arbitrary assessment sap the will, undermine morale and impair creativity.

If your group task can be decomposed badly, it most likely will be. If it’s a small enough task that one keen person could do it, one keen person probably will because the others won’t have enough of a task to do and, unless they’re all highly motivated, it won’t be done. If a group of people who don’t know each other also don’t have a reason to talk to each other? They won’t. They might show up in the same place if you can trigger a bribe reaction with marks but they won’t actually work together that well.

The will to work together has to be fostered. It has to be genuine. That’s how good things get done by teams.

Valuable tasks make up for poor motivation. Working with a group helps to practise and develop your time management. Combine this with a feeling of achievement and there’s some powerful intrinsic motivation there.

And that’s the fuel that gets complex tasks done.

Brief reflection on a changing world

Like most published academics, I regularly receive invitations to propose books or book chapters from publishers. Today, one of the larger groups contacted me and mentioned that they would also be interested in any proposals for a video lecture sequence.

And so the world changes.


Something something radio star.

“Guest” post by Buckminster Fuller


Biosphère Montréal

I’m about to start a new thread of discussion, once I’ve completed the assessment posts, and this seemed to be good priming for thinking ahead.

“The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Buckminster Fuller, reference.


Being honest about driverless cars

I have been following the discussion about the ethics of the driverless car with some interest. This is close to a contemporary restatement of the infamous trolley problem but here we are instructing a trolley in a difficult decision: if I can save more lives by taking lives, should I do it? In the case of a driverless car, should the car take action that could kill the driver if, in doing so, it is far more likely to save more lives than would be lost?

While I find the discussion interesting, I worry that such discussion makes people unduly worried about driverless cars, potentially to a point that will delay adoption. Let’s look into why I think that. (I’m not going to go into whether cars, themselves, are a good or bad thing.)

Many times, the reason for a driverless car having to make such a (difficult) decision is that “a person leaps out from the kerb” or “driving conditions are bad” and “it would be impossible to stop in time.”

As noted in CACM:

The driverless cars of the future are likely to be able to outperform most humans during routine driving tasks, since they will have greater perceptive abilities, better reaction times, and will not suffer from distractions (from eating or texting, drowsiness, or physical emergencies such as a driver having a heart attack or a stroke).

In every situation where a driverless car could encounter a situation that would require such an ethical dilemma be resolved, we are already well within the period at which a human driver would, on average, be useless. When I presented the trolley problem, with driverless cars, to my students, their immediate question was why a dangerous situation had arisen in the first place? If the car was driving in a way that it couldn’t stop in time, there’s more likely to be a fault in environmental awareness or stopping-distance estimation.

If a driverless car is safe in varied weather conditions, then it has no need to be travelling at the speed limit merely because the speed limit is set. We all know the mantra of driving: drive to the conditions. In a driverless car scenario, the sensory awareness of the car is far greater than our own (and we should demand that it was) and thus we will eliminate any number of accidents before we arrived at an ethical problem.

Millions of people are killed in car accidents every year because of drink driving and speeding. In Victoria, Australia, close to 40% of accidents are tied to long distance driving and fatigue. We would eliminate most, if not all, of these deaths immediately with driverless technology adopted en masse.

What about people leaping out in front of the car? In my home city, Adelaide, South Australia, the average speed across the city is just under 30 kilometres per hour, despite the speed limit being 50 (traffic lights and congestion has a lot to do with this). The average human driver takes about 1.5 seconds to react (source), then braking deceleration is about 7 metres per second per second, less effectively in the wet. From that source, the actual stopping part of the braking, if we’re going 30km/h, is going to be less than 9 metres if it’s dry, 13 metres if wet. Other sources note that, with human reactions, the minimum overall braking is about 12 metres, 6 of which are braking. The good news is that 30km/h is already the speed at which only 10% of pedestrians are killed and, given how quickly an actively sensing car could react and safely coordinate braking without skidding, the driverless car is incredibly unlikely to be travelling fast enough to kill someone in an urban environment and still be able to provide the same average speed as we had.

The driverless car, without any ethics beyond “brake to avoid collisions”, will be causing a far lower level of injury and death. They don’t drink. They don’t sleep. They don’t speed. They will react faster than humans.

(That low urban speed thing isn’t isolated. Transport for London estimate the average London major road speed to be around 31 km/h, around 15km/h for Central London. Central Berlin is about 24 km/h, Warsaw is 26. Paris is 31 km/h and has a fraction of London’s population, about twice the size of my own city.)

Human life is valuable. Rather than focus on the impact on lives that we can see, as the Trolley Problem does, taking a longer view and looking at the overall benefits of the driverless car quickly indicates that, even if driverless cars are dumb and just slam on the brakes, the net benefit is going to exceed any decisions made because of the Trolley Problem model. Every year that goes by without being able to use this additional layer of safety in road vehicles is costing us millions of lives and millions of injuries. As noted in CACM, we already have some driverless car technologies and these are starting to make a difference but we do have a way to go.

And I want this interesting discussion of ethics to continue but I don’t want it to be a reason not to go ahead, because it’s not an honest comparison and saying that it’s important just because there’s no human in the car is hypocrisy.

I wish to apply the beauty lens to this. When we look at a new approach, we often find things that are not right with it and, given that we have something that works already, we may not adopt a new approach because we are unsure of it or there are problems. The aesthetics of such a comparison, the characteristics we wish to maximise, are the fair consideration of evidence, that the comparison be to the same standard, and a commitment to change our course if the evidence dictates that it be so. We want a better outcome and we wish to make sure that any such changes made support this outcome. We have to be honest about our technology: some things that are working now and that we are familiar with are not actually that good or they are solving a problem that we might no longer need to solve.

Human drivers do not stand up to many of the arguments presented as problems to be faced by driverless cars. The reason that the trolley problems exists in so many different forms, and the fact that it continues to be debated, shows that this is not a problem that we have moved on from. You would also have to be highly optimistic in your assessment of the average driver to think that a decision such as “am I more valuable than that evil man standing on the road” is going through anyone’s head; instead, people jam on the brakes. We are holding driverless cars to a higher standard than we accept for driving when it’s humans. We posit ‘difficult problems’ that we apparently ignore every time we drive in the rain because, if we did not, none of us would drive!

Humans are capable of complex ethical reasoning. This does not mean that they employ it successfully in the 1.5 seconds of reaction time before slamming on the brakes.

We are not being fair in this assessment. This does not diminish the value of machine ethics debate but it is misleading to focus on it here as if it really matters to the long term impact of driverless cars. Truck crashes are increasing in number in the US, with over 100,000 people injured each year, and over 4,000 killed. Trucks follow established routes. They don’t go off-road. This makes them easier to bring into an automated model, even with current technology. They travel long distances and the fatigue and inattention effects upon human drivers kill people. Automating truck fleets will save over a million lives in the US alone in the first decade, reducing fleet costs due to insurance payouts, lost time, and all of those things.

We have a long way to go before we have the kind of vehicles that can replace what we have but let’s focus on what is important. Getting a reliable sensory rig that works better than a human and can brake faster is the immediate point at which any form of adoption will start saving lives. Then costs come down. Then adoption goes up. Then millions of people live happier lives because they weren’t killed or maimed by cars. That’s being fair. That’s being honest. That will lead to good.

Your driverless car doesn’t need to be prepared to kill you in order to save lives.

A google driverless car on a stretch of route 66, in the desert. The car is stationary and facing the camera in a posed shot.

And you may even still be able to get your kicks.

Joi Ito on Now-ists

This is a great TED talk. Joi Ito, director of the MIT media lab, talks about the changes that technological innovation have made to the ways that we can work on problems and work together.

I don’t agree with everything, especially the pejorative cast on education, but I totally agree that the way that we construct learning environments has to take into the way that our students will work, rather than trying to prepare them for the world that we (or our parents) worked in. Pretending that many of our students will have to construct simple things by hand, when that is what we were doing fifty years ago, takes up time that we could be using for more authentic and advanced approaches that cover the same material. Some foundations are necessary. Some are tradition. Being a now-ist forces us to question which is which and then act on that knowledge.

Your students will be able to run enterprises from their back rooms that used to require the resources of multinational companies. It’s time to work out what they actually need to get from us and, once we know that, deliver it. There is a place for higher education but it may not be the one that we currently have.

A lot of what I talk about on this blog looks as if I’m being progressive but, really, I’m telling you what we already know to be true right now. And what we have known to be true for decades, if not centuries. I’m not a futurist, at all. I’m a now-ist with a good knowledge of history who sees a very bleak future if we don’t get better at education.

(Side note: yes, this is over twelve minutes long. Watch our around the three minute mark for someone reading documents on an iPad up the back, rather than watching him talk. I think this is a little long and staged, when it could have been tighter, but that’s the TED format for you. You know what you’re getting into and, because it’s not being formally evaluated, it doesn’t matter as much if you recall high-level rather than detail.)