SIGSCE Day 2, “Focus on K-12: Informal Education, Curriculum and Robots”, Paper 1, 3:45-5:00, (#SIGCSE2014)

The first paper is “They can’t find us: The Search for Informal CS Education” by Betsy DiSalvo, Cecili Reid, Parisa Khanipour Roshan, all from Georgia Tech. (Mark wrote this paper up recently.) There are lots of resources around, MOOCs, on-line systems tools, Khan academy and Code Academy and, of course the aggregators. If all of this is here, why aren’t we getting the equalisation effects we expect?

Well, the wealth and the resource-aware actually know how to search and access these, and are more aware of them, so the inequality persists. The Marketing strategies are also pointed at this group, rather than targeting those needing educational equity. The cultural values of the audiences vary. (People think Scratch is a toy, rather than a useful and pragmatic real-world tool.) There’s also access – access to technical resource, social support for doing this and knowledge of the search terms. We can address this issues by research mechanisms to address the ignored community.

Children’s access to informal learning is through their parents so how their parents search make a big difference. How do they search? The authors set up a booth to ask 16 parents in the group how they would do it. 3 were disqualified for literacy or disability reasons (which is another issue). Only¬†one person found a site that was relevant to CS education. Building from that, what are the search terms that they are using for computer learning and why aren’t hey coming up with good results. The terms that parents use supported this but the authors also used Google insights to see what other people were using. The most popular terms for the topic, the environment and the audience. Note: if you search for kids in computer learning you get fewer results than if you search for children in computer learning. The three terms that came up as being best were:

  • kids computer camp
  • kids computer classes
  • kids computer learning

The authors reviewed across some cities to see if there was variation by location for these search terse. What was the quality of these? 191 out of 840 search results were unique and relevant, with an average of 4.5 per search.

(As a note, MAN, does Betsy talk and present quickly. Completely comprehensible and great but really hard to transcribe!)

Results included : Camp, after school program, camp/afterschool, higher education, online activities, online classes/learning, directory results (often worse than Google), news, videos or social networks (again the quality was lower). Computer camps dominated what you could find on these search results – but these are not an option for low-income parents at $500/week so that’s not a really useful resource for them. Some came up for after school and higher ed in the large and midsize cities, but very little in the smaller cities. Unsurprisingly, smaller cities and lower socio-economic groups are not going to be able to find what they need to find, hence the inequality continues. There are many fine tools but NONE of them showed up on the 800+ results.

Without a background in CS or IT, you don’t know that these things exist and hence you can’t find it for your kids. Thus, these open educational resources are less accessible to these people, because they are only accessible through a mechanism that needs extra knowledge. (As a note, the authors only looked at the first two pages because “no-one looks past that”. ūüôā ) Other searches for things like kids maths learning, kids animal learning¬†or kids physics learning turned up 48 out of 80 results (average of 16 unique results per search term), where 31 results were online, 101 had classes at uni – a big difference.

(These studies were carried out before Running the search again for kids computer learning does turn up Hooray, there is progress! If the study was run again, how much better would it be?)

We need to take a top down approach to provide standards for keywords and search terms, partnering with formal education and community programs. The MOOCs should talk to the Educational programming community, both could talk to the tutorial community and then we can throw in the Aggregators as well. Distant islands that don’t talk are just making this problem worse.

The bottom-up approach is getting an understanding of LSEO parenting, building communities and finding out how people search and making sure that we can handle it. Wow! Great talk but I think my head is going to explode!

During question time, someone asked why people aren’t more creative with their searches. This is, sadly, missing the point that, sitting in this community, we are empowered and skilled in searching. The whole point is that people outside of our community aren’t guaranteed to be able to find a way too be creative. I guess the first step is the same as for good teaching, putting ourselves in the heads of someone who is a true novice and helping to bring them to a more educated state.



The Bad Experience That Stays With You and the Legendary Bruce Springsteen.

I was talking with a friend of mine and we were discussing perceptions of maths and computing (yeah, I’m like this off duty, too) and she felt that she was bad at Maths. I commented that this was often because ¬†of some previous experience in school and she nodded and told me this story, which she’s given me permission to share with you now. (My paraphrasing but in her voice)

“When I was five, we got to this point in Math where I didn’t follow what was going on. We got to this section and it just didn’t make any sense to me. The teacher gave us some homework to do and I looked at it and I couldn’t do it but I didn’t want to hand in nothing. So I scrunched it up and put it in the bin. When the teacher asked for it back, I told her that I didn’t have it.

It turns out that the teacher had seen me put it in the bin and so she punished me. And I’ve never thought of myself as good at math since.”

Wow. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better way to give someone a complex about a subject. Ok, yes, my friend did lie to the teacher about not the work and, yes, it would ¬†have been better if she’d approached the teacher to ask for help – but given what played out, I’m not really sure how much it would have changed what happened. And, before we get too carried away,¬†she was five.

Now this is all some (but not that many) years ago and a lot of things have changed in teaching, but all of us who stand up and call ourselves educations could do worse than remember Bruce Springsteen’s approach to concerts. Bruce plays a lot of concerts but, at each one, he tries to give his best because a lot of the people in the audience are going to their first and only Springsteen concert. It can be really hard to deal with activities that are disruptive, disobedient and possible deliberately so, but they may be masking fear, uncertainty and a genuine desire for the problem to go away because someone is overwhelmed. Whatever we get paid, that’s really one of the things we get paid to do.

We’re human. We screw up. We get tired. But unless we’re thing about and trying to give that Springsteen moment to every student, then we’re setting ourselves up to be giving a negative example. Somewhere down the line, someone’s going to find their life harder because of that – it may be us in the next week, it may be another teacher next year, but it will always be the student.

Bad experiences hang around for years. It would be great if there were fewer of them. Be awesome. Be Springsteen.

EMBRACE YOUR AWESOMENESS! Don't make me come over and sing "Blinded by the Light!"

EMBRACE YOUR AWESOMENESS! Don’t make me come over and sing “Blinded by the Light!”

“Begrudgingly honest because we might be surveilled?”

A drawing of a prison built as a panopticon with all cells visible from the centre.

The Plans of the Panopticon

O’Reilly Community are hosting an online conference on “Data, Crime, and Conflict”, which I’m attending at the rather unhealthy hour of 3:30am on the morning of January the 8th (it’s better for you if you’re in the UK or US). Here’s an extract of the text:

A world of sensors gives us almost complete surveillance. Every mobile device tracks moves, forming a digital alibi or new evidence for the prosecution. And with the right data, predictions look frighteningly like guilt.

How does a data-driven, connected world deal with crime, conflict, and peacekeeping? Will we be prisoners in a global Panopticon, begrudgingly honest because we might be surveilled? Or will total transparency even the balance between the enforcer and the citizen?

Join a lineup of thinkers and technologists for this free online event as we look at the ways data is shaping how we police ourselves, from technological innovations to ethical dilemmas.

¬†I’ve been interested in the possible role and expansion (and the implications) of the panopticon since first reading about it. I even wrote a short story once to explore a global society where the removal of privacy had not been the trip down into dystopia that we always expect it to be. (This doesn’t mean that I believe that it is a panacea – I just like writing stories!) I’m looking forward to seeing what the speakers have to say. They claim that there are limited places but I managed to sign up today so it’s probably not too late.


Three Stories: #2 Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

This is a story I’ve never told anyone before, but I hope that it will help to explain why I think many students struggle with making solid change in their academic and life practices. They focus on endpoints and set deadlines reactively, rather than focusing on process and finding a good time to change. Let me explain this in the narrative.

When I was younger, I was quite a bit heavier than I am now – by about 30% of my body mass. As I got older, this became more of a problem and my weight went up and down quite a lot as I tried to get a regular regime of exercise into my life and cut back on my eating. Unfortunately, when I get stressed, I tend to eat, and one of the things I used to get stressed about was … losing weight. It’s a common, vicious, circle. Anyway, one year, after a Christmas where I had found it difficult to fit into my ‘good’ clothes and just felt overstuffed and too hot most of the time, I decided that enough was enough. I would make a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight. Seriously. (As background, Christmas in Australia is in Summer, so we sing snows about snow and eat roast turkey while sitting around in 90-100F/32-38C heat – so if your clothes are squeezy, boy, are you going to feel it.)

I can’t remember the details of the New Year’s Eve party but I do remember waking up the next day and thinking “Ok, so now I lose weight”. But there were some problems.

  1. It was still very hot.
  2. Everything was closed because it was a public holiday.
  3. I was still stuffed from Christmas/NY indulgence.
  4. I was hungover.
  5. I had no actual plan.
  6. I hadn’t actually taken any steps towards either dietary change or exercise that I could implement.

So, instead of getting out of bed and doing¬†anything healthy, I thought “Oh, ok, I’ll start tomorrow.” because it was just about impossible, to my mind, to get things started on¬†that day. I made some plans as to what I’d do the next day and thought “Ok, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow.”

But then a friend called on the 2nd and they were in town so we caught up. Then I was back at work and it was really busy.

And… and… and…

When I finally did lose the weight, many years later, and get to a more stable point, it wasn’t through making a resolution – it was through developing a clear plan to achieve a goal. I set out to work up to walking 10 miles as loops around my block. Then, when I achieved that, I assessed myself and realised that I could replace that with running. So then, ever time I went out, I ran a little at the start and walked the rest. Finally I was (slowly) running the whole distance. Years later, a couple of bad falls have stopped me from long-distance running, but I have three marathons and numerous halves under my belt.

Why didn’t it work before? Well, lack of preparation is always bad, but also because New Year’s is one of the worst possible times to try and make a massive change unless you’ve actually prepared for it and the timing works for you. Think about it:

  1. New Year’s Eve is a highly social activity for many people as are the days after- any resolutions involving food, alcohol, sex or tobacco are going to much harder to keep.
  2. It’s high stakes, especially if you make your resolution public. Suddenly, failure is looming over you and other people may be either trying to force you into keeping your resolution – and some people will actively be trying to tempt you out of it.
  3. There’s just a lot going on around this time for most people and it’s not a time when you have lots of extra headspace. If your brain is already buzzing, making big change will make it harder.
  4. Setting your resolution as a goal is not the same as setting a strategy. This is really important if you fall off the wagon, so to speak. If you are trying to give up smoking but grab a quick cigarette on the 3rd, then your resolution is shot. If you have a plan to cut down, allowing for the occasional divergence, then you can be human without thinking “Oh, now I have to abandon the whole project.”
  5. New Year’s Resolutions tend to be tip of the mind things – if something had been really bothering you for months, why wait until NYE to do it? This means that you’re far less likely to think everything out.

After thinking over this for quite a long time, I’ve learned a great deal about setting goals for important changes and you have to try to make these changes:

  1. When you have a good plan as to what you’re trying to achieve or what you’re just trying to do as a regular practice.
  2. When you have everything you need to make it work.
  3. When you have enough headspace to think it through.
  4. When you won’t beat yourself up too badly if it goes wrong.

So have a Happy New Year and be gentle on yourself for a few days. If you really want to change something in your life, plan for it properly and you stand a much better chance of success. Don’t wait until a high stakes deadline to try and force change on yourself – it probably won’t work.


Matt Damon: Computer Science Superstar?

There was a recent article in Salon regarding the possible use of celebrity presenters, professional actors and the more photogenic to present course material in on-line courses. While Coursera believes that, in the words of Daphne Koller, “education is not a performance”, Udacity, as voiced by Sebastian Thrun, believes that we can model on-line education more in the style of a newscast. In the Udacity model, there is a knowledgeable team and the content producer (primary instructor) is not necessarily going to be the presenter. Daphne Koller’s belief is that the connection between student and teacher would diminish if actors were reading scripts that had content they didn’t deeply understand.

My take on this is fairly simple. I never want to give students the idea that the appearance of knowledge is an achievement in the same league as actually developing and being able to apply that knowledge. I regularly give talks about some of the learning and teaching techniques we use and  I have to be very careful to explain that everything good we do is based on solid learning design and knowledge of the subject, which can be enhanced by good graphic design and presentation but cannot be replaced by these. While I have no doubt that Matt Damon could become a good lecturer in Computer Science, should he wish to, having him stand around and pretend to be one sends the wrong message.

Matt Damon demonstrating an extrinsic motivational technique called "fear of noisy death".

Matt Damon demonstrating an extrinsic motivational technique called “fear of noisy death”.

(And, from the collaborative perspective, if we start to value pleasant appearance over knowledge, do we start to sort our students into groups by appearance and voice timbre? This is probably not the path we want to go down. For now, anyway.)


A Break in the Silence: Time to Tell a Story

It has been a while since I last posted here but that is a natural outcome of focusing my efforts elsewhere Рat some stage I had to work out what I had time to do and do it. I always tell my students to cut down to what they need to do and, once I realised that the time I was spending on the blog was having one of the most significant impacts on my ability to juggle everything else, I had to eat my own dogfood and cut back on the blog.

Of course, I didn’t do it correctly because instead of cutting¬†back,¬†I completely cut it out. Not quite what I intended but here’s another really useful piece of information: if you decide to change something then clearly work out how you are going to change things to achieve your goal. Which means, ahem, working out what your goals are first.

I’ve done a lot of interesting stuff over the last 6 months, and there are more to come, which means that I do have things to write about but I shall try and write about one a week as a minimum, rather than one per day. This is a pace that I hope to keep up and one that will mean that more of you will read more of what I write, rather than dreading the daily kiloword delivery.

I’ll briefly reflect here on some interesting work and seminars I’ve been looking at on business storytelling – taking a personal story, something authentic, and using it to emphasise a change in business behaviour or to emphasise a characteristic. I recently attended one of the (now defunct) One Thousand and One’s short seminars on engaging people with storytelling. (I’m reading their book “Hooked” at the moment. It’s quite interesting and refers to other interesting concepts as well.) I realise that such ideas, along with many of my notions of design paired with content, will have a number of readers peering at the screen and preparing a retort along the lines of “Storytelling? STORYTELLING??? Whatever happened to facts?”

Why storytelling? Because bald facts sometimes just don’t work. Without context, without a way to integrate information into existing knowledge and, more importantly, without some sort of established informational relationship, many people will ignore facts unless we do more work than just present them.

How many examples do you want: Climate Change, Vaccination, 9/11. All of these have heavily weighted bodies of scientific evidence that states what the answer should be, and yet there is powerful and persistent opposition based, largely, on myth and storytelling.

Education has moved beyond the rationing out of approved knowledge from the knowledge rich to those who have less. The tyrannical informational asymmetry of the single text book, doled out in dribs and drabs through recitation and slow scrawling at the front of the classroom, looks faintly ludicrous when anyone can download most of the resources immediately. And yet, as always, owning the book doesn’t necessarily teach you anything and it is the educator’s role as contextualiser, framer, deliverer, sounding board and value¬†enhancer that survives the death of the drip-feed and the opening of the flood gates of knowledge. To think that storytelling is the delivery of fairytales, and that is all it can be, is to sell such a useful technique short.

To use storytelling educationally, however, we need to be focused on being more than just entertaining or engaging. Borrowing heavily from “Hooked”, we need to have a purpose in telling the story, it needs to be supported by data and it needs to be authentic. In my case, I have often shared stories of my time in working with ¬†computer networks, in short bursts, to emphasise why certain parts of computer networking are interesting or essential (purpose), I provide enough information to show this is generally the case (data) and because I’m talking about my own experiences, they ring true (authenticity).

If facts alone could sway humanity, we would have adopted Dewey’s ideas in the 1930s, instead of rediscovering the same truths decade after decade. If only the unembellished truth mattered, then our legal system would look very,¬†very different. Our students are surrounded by talented storytellers and, where appropriate, I think those ranks should include us.

Now, I have to keep to the commitment I made 8 months ago, that I would never turn down the chance to have one of my cats on my lap when they wanted to jump up, and I wish you a very happy new year if I don’t post beforehand.

Skill Games versus Money Games: Disguising One Game As Another

I recently ran across a very interesting article on Gamasutra on the top tips for turning a Free To Play (F2P) game into a Paying game by taking advantage of the way that humans think and act. F2P games are quite common but, obviously, it costs money to make a game so there has to be some sort of associated revenue stream. In some cases, the F2P is a Lite version of the pay version, so after being hooked you go and buy the real thing. Sometimes there is an associated advertising stream, where you viewing the ads earns the producer enough money to cover costs. However, these simple approaches pale into insignificance when compared with the top tips in the link.

Ramin identifies two games for this discussion: games of skill, where it is your ability to make sound decisions that determines the outcome, and money games, where your success is determined by the amount of money you can spend. Games of chance aren’t covered here but, given that we’re talking about motivation and agency, we’re depending upon one specific blindspot (the inability of humans to deal sensibly with probability) rather than the range of issues identified in the article.

I dont want to rehash the entire article but the key points that I want to discuss are the notion of¬†manipulating difficulty and¬†fun pain. A game of skill is effectively fun until it becomes too hard. If you want people to keep playing then you have to juggle the difficulty enough to make it challenging but not so hard that you stop playing. Even where you pay for a game up front, a single payment to play, you still want to get enough value out of it – too easy and you finish too quickly and feel that you’ve wasted your money; too hard and you give up in disgust, again convinced that you’ve wasted your money. Ultimately, in a pure game of skill, difficulty manipulation must be carefully considered. As the difficulty ramps up, the player is made uncomfortable, the delightful term¬†fun pain is applied here, and resolving the difficulty removes this.

Or, you can just pay to make the problem go away. Suddenly your game of skill has two possible modes of resolution: play through increasing difficulty, at some level of discomfort or personal inconvenience, or, when things get hard enough, pump in a deceptively small amount of money to remove the obstacle. The secret of the P2P game that becomes successfully monetised is that it was always about the money in the first place and the initial rounds of the game were just enough to get you engaged to a point where you now have to pay in order to go further.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. While it would be trite to describe education as a game of skill, it is most definitely the most apt of the different games on offer. Progress in your studies should be a reflection of invested time in study, application and the time spent in developing ideas: not based on being ‘lucky’, so the random game isn’t a choice. The entire notion of public education is founded on the principle that educational opportunities are open to all. So why do some parts of this ‘game’ feel like we’ve snuck in some covert monetisation?

I’m not talking about fees, here, because that’s holding the place of the fee you pay to buy a game in the first place. You all pay the same fee and you then get the same opportunities – in theory, what comes out is based on what the student then puts in as the only variable.

But what about textbooks? Unless the fee we charge automatically, and unavoidably, includes the cost of the textbook, we have now broken the game into two pieces: the entry fee and an ‘upgrade’. What about photocopying costs? Field trips? A laptop computer? An iPad? Home internet? Bus fare?

It would be disingenuous to place all of this at the feet of public education – it’s not actually the fault of Universities that financial disparity exists in the world. It is, however, food for thought about those things that we¬†could put into our courses that are useful to our students and provide a¬†paid alternative to allow improvement and progress in our courses. If someone with the textbook is better off than someone without the textbook, because we don’t provide a valid free alternative, then we have provided two-tiered difficulty. This is not the fun pain of playing a game, we are now talking about genuine student stress, a two-speed system and a very high risk that stressed students will disengage and leave.

From my earlier discussions on plagiarism, we can easily tie in Ramin’s notion of the driver of¬†reward removal, where players have made so much progress that, on facing defeat, they will pay a fee to reduce the impact of failure; or, in some cases, to remove it completely. As Ramin notes:

“This technique alone is effective enough to make consumers of any developmental level spend.”

It’s not just lost time people are trying to get back, it’s the things that have been achieved in that time. Combine that with, in our case, the future employability and perception of that piece of paper, and we have a very strong behavioural driver. A number of the tricks Ramin describes don’t work as well on mature and aware thinkers but this one is pretty reliable. If it’s enough to make people pay money, regardless of their development level, then there are lots of good design decisions we can make from this – lower risk assessment, more checkpointing, steady progress towards achievement. We know lots of good ways to avoid this, if we consider it to be a problem and want to take the time to design around it.

This is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about studying behaviour, even as a rank amateur. Observing what people do and trying to build systems that will work despite that makes a lot more sense than building a system that works to some ideal and trying to jam people into it. The linked article shows us how people are making¬†really big piles of money by knowing how people work. It’s worth looking at to make sure that we aren’t, accidentally, manipulating students in the same way.