Tag Archives: education

Student Insights 2016

As part of their first assignment my students answer some questions about the interfaces they prefer to use and also reply to a divergent thinking prompt that changes by year. Here are two insights from the last round.

Emphasis on Mobile OS

Despite Apple’s decision to give up entirely on advancing their hardware in any reasonable fashion (Touch screen function bar… why not just a full touch screen with real pixel space? Abandoning the Air, iMac and trashcan) and their absolutely atrocious continued decent into dongle hell (courage?) a lot of people, myself included, really still appreciate many features in their computer operating system. I’m excited to see the vibrant OSx86 community that’s going to grow out of a need to preserve it for use with modern hardware. Anyway, surprising to me, for the first time ever during my OS preference poling my students actually liked an entirely different category more overall: mobile operating systems. It’s been dominated by Windows vs Mac for so long that I didn’t really think that the category, broadly combined, could rival it! I worry this has implications for a diminishing desire for generativity and control integrated into good interface design… but that’s not what this post is about, just wanted to explain the pie chart. More interesting:

A Reminder of Institutional Power of Education

The 2016 divergent thinking prompt was this:

You’ve been asked to re-imagine the 4 traditional disciplines (math, science, history, English) present in much of the American school system. What would you replace them with? For instance, instead of having math class every year you could have art class or speech class or a class on civic engagement, etc…

Many of the answers were those that I’d expect, the ones that help make a case for informatics, interdisciplinary learning, application and project-based classroom spaces and so forth: gym class, practical economics, art (digital or not), engineering/problem solving open studio settings and contemporary history. All quite worthy considerations and great ways to disrupt the norms and potentially better prepare students for participation in society and the workforce.

But I like the radical ideas more.

What if every child growing up in America learned to garden? Or skateboard? Or participate in theater?

These are activities that we typically think of as extracurricular or secondary. But if every single person knew at least the basics of how to garden – we’d have this massive industry built around it, many houses would be structured around gardens (the opposite of now), we might have gardening reality TV shows and I’d argue we’d have radically realigned relationships with food production, sustainability, the environment and more. This is the true power of education. It’s not just that it teaches sets of skills or is a place to put students while the parents are at work, the socialization that occurs there is a reflection of values. We so often talk about it in terms of how problematic the system is in its present state, or changing it in minor ways to accommodate agendas such as STEAM or computational thinking but I absolutely love this whacky brainspace we get into when we think of everyone in America being a skater or gardener or actress. Or what if we all, from day one, emphasized learning to how listen to one another in dialogic form regularly? This is the kind of utopia (or maybe distopia?) I could get on board with. Or at least craft an interesting movie or book universe about 🙂

A School Invention Project

In 5th grade my primary teacher had each student in his class independently come up with an invention. Parents were allowed to help but it had to be mostly driven by the kids themselves. Mine was a golf putter with an aluminum tube attached to the side that could hold and deploy balls that would enable you to rapidly practice putting and assess the nearby ground. This was probably the kind of project that ultimately helped to propel me into the worlds I’m in now.

I only remember a few of the other kids’ inventions – mostly the ones that were really bad. Some kind of pizza turn table and a basketball hoop with a laundry basket mounted on the bottom. Makes me wonder what enabled and inhibited creativity in us back then.

DSC_0120DSC_0121 DSC_0138 DSC_0129Anyway I was reminded of all of this during our past winter holiday family outing when my 10 year old cousin and I deployed what we affectionately dubbed “the bowling stick” – a 2 meter long flimsy PVC pipe with a confusing, twisted assemblage of pipe parts and pads for chair legs attached to the bottom. It was the invention of my Aunt, who really intended it to be a low-impact Adaptive Bowling instrument that required a little more skill than a ramp that she and my grandmother could use. For my little cousin and I, however, it breathed new life into bowling like nothing else could have. Normally the game seems pretty predictable: you fling a ball down the lane, aiming for the center pin hoping to knock them all down… and after regular practice can get spares and strikes quite easily. There’s little in the way of thrilling competition or real athleticism involved, I get the sense that it’s more about having an easily interruptible game medium that can serve as a pseudo-escapist way to punctuate conversation.

Enter the stick. Neither one of us knew how to use this thing, and while it felt a little like hockey it was much harder to control the heavy ball. It was adjustable and you could use all kinds of techniques to send it down, amounting to a substantial amount of silliness and chaos. Anyway I thought it would make an excellent updated version of the 5th grade invention project:

  • First and foremost it could be used as an excellent excuse to teach physics and engineering – angles and spinning with the ball, bending and tensile strength of the stick, force created from different swing techniques , friction of various surfaces and so on.
  • As a kid I would have been pretty bored by talking about this kind of physics until we actually had to apply it! And that’s the beauty of this thing – you could take what you learned and attempt to make improvements to your technique and the actual construction of the device, and then observe and test them in an iterative and scientific method type fashion. What happens when you add more or different prongs on the end? Alter the wheels or put pads everywhere instead of just on the bottom?
  • A variety of models could be developed around each kind of ball propulsion technique, with advantages and disadvantages and instructors could help students to learn that it doesn’t have to just be about speed or efficiency. Perhaps the controlled-instability and unpredictability makes the game more fun. Might there be other improvements, like making it height-adjustable for multiple players or able to hook on to a table without falling over? How might the aesthetics alter the experience we have using the stick?
  • And this of course could build into other related projects: can we make a new off-shoot of bowling based on this stick? What makes a good game? What would it take to make a Kickstarter out of it? Do we need to create a video and how do we categorize and present the features or benefits? How can research data be collected about health impacts, possible damage to the floor or other issues that might come up?

Anyway just a thought. I’m not really qualified to be a full-time teacher for 10 year olds but if any of them want to come to the Fab Lab to pioneer a bowling stick, just tell them to drop me a line. I sent the same cousin home with an Arduino this year. $10 says she loses or breaks it, but maybe, just maybe, she’ll get to thinking about what to invent with it 🙂

What’s Missing in Digital Aristotle – RE: CGP Grey and the limits to learning with the internet

I love CGP Grey. And Hank and John Green on YouTube. But I don’t think a customized version of this sort of thing is the ideal future (or solution) to education. Here’s my take – start by watching this video:

Two experiences come to mind:

  1. I teach (and previously attended class) in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UIUC (GSLIS). It’s regarded as one of the most highly-ranked schools in the country and has many cutting edge programs, including a distance learning system known as LEEP. While LEEP isn’t exactly what he’s talking about here it has many characteristics in common – the school acts as an intermediary for providing learning materials, assignments, guidance on subjects and evaluations, at a comparatively lower cost for all involved. Students generally pursue these materials on their own timeline (save for a 2 hr online class held at a regular time) and largely in front of a computer screen. One of the biggest problems with LEEP (in my opinion, though we have some research on this topic) is that students find it harder to be engaged when they’re stuck in front of a screen instead of amongst peers in a classroom. We try to counteract this by having on-campus days for in-person activities, which usually go well, but fact of the matter is their motivation is often less because they’re often less committed to participating in a class. Students listen to lectures while doing their dishes, slack on doing online readings and so on. And these are top-tier masters students. It’s easier for them to not care because we trust them to do more self-guided learning and we don’t check on them as much. I don’t think this problem is endemic to online learning, I think there’s a lot of variance in how much people actually enjoy learning at all. Many of the undergrads at U of I aren’t here because they like or want to learn, they’re here because it’s the path that’s been laid out for them.
  2. I’ve had a few years of experience teaching classes in informatics in GSLIS for both graduate and undergraduate students. A lot of the time we’re working on technical application skills, like building websites or learning to code, and since this stuff moves at a pace that’s too fast for even me to keep up I do a lot of referral to online learning resources like videos and sites like Lynda.com or the Khan Academy. I do what I can to inspire ideas, answer questions, provide interesting, challenging and realistic assignments and create an environment where students work together and feel supported. I encourage only self-driven potentially-independent individuals to enroll. Even in this environment I’ve noticed that as many as half in a given class has difficulty driving themselves to evaluate and make the most out of learning materials out there. They often have trouble caring about it given all of the other classes and deadlines on their plates, especially when it’s a “learn at your own pace and work at will” kind of setting.

So, as you’ve probably guessed, my issue with CGP Grey’s idea here is that he’s missing three big issues that relate to education:

  • Motivation – This varies a lot by individual but often times people can’t be entirely (or optimally or joyfully) self-driven. They need to be paid for work, get recognition for it by others, or find it constantly relevant to their in-the-moment tasks and challenges. Online learning faces a myriad of issues with motivation. Look into Nicole A. Cooke’s research for more on this issue. I think many of the people who learn online effectively in technical fields have inherited motivation and self-teaching strategies from prior in-person schooling in their early years. If my college (and above) level students struggle with this I can’t imagine what high schoolers and below in socially excluded settings go through.
  • Socialization – Another reason we have people in school is to teach them how to participate in society – as part of the workforce, as citizens in countries or communities, and as individuals. Online learning doesn’t provide as much of an opportunity for this, and I think it can even be dangerous. I make all of my kids learn about how racism, sexism or homophobia relate to technologies, regardless of if they want to because it’s part of our duty as educators to work to do so. If a learner gets to just pick and choose material Ala-cart online they’ll avoid this total package that I think is so essential to holistic and contextual learning. If we make them take ‘perspective-taking 101’ how can we assure that they’ll ever advance past the first class? How do we even know this kind of thing can be taught without real human-to-human interaction? How do we prevent ‘personalized’ from becoming ‘isolated’ in negative ways?
  • Edutainment – I’m not really convinced the internet is going to have any less interference and distraction than TV, radio or the other technologies that have failed to be our saviors in years past (see the 2:30 mark in the video). How many hours have been lost to people watching cats on the internet? There’s a reason that educational material is not the most popular – there’s not as much money there. Many instructors already feel pressured to be especially entertaining to compete with this stuff, I think this will happen on the web too. TL; DR is one of the most infuriating expressions of this I think I’ve ever run into.

So, ultimately, what am I saying? That we shouldn’t have personalized online learning? No, not at all! Does a Digital Aristotle program have a place within schools? Absolutely. Is it a good idea to split kids up by ability within given subject areas, instead of age? Sure. Can self-guided learning be powerful? Probably more so than any other type!

I’m saying I’m excited to see models where we can solve issues with motivation, continue human-to-human socialization and avoid being pwn’d by digital capitalism. I don’t know what these are yet but they’re certainly not a bunch of kids just being plugged into computer sockets in a classroom (or at home) with no real teacher. As much as the fallout from standards might cause problems (like exams being a horrible method for assessment) I think having some sense of what we want all students to know and do is useful. If we are going to implement systems like Digital Aristotle let’s be careful about ensuring they can work with an entourage of strategies to ensure well-adjusted, adaptive learners.

The Value of STEM?

Just some disorganized thoughts on this one. So we have this concept called STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education – where the US falls short according to many measures (though, interestingly, our national report card has yet to include engineering until recently). People invoke it as a kind of mandate frequently, and to what purpose matters quite a bit:

  • If the question is should we be doing things like trying to get more socially excluded populations into engineering – I’d say absolutely yes. This has as much to do with how we broadly socialize women and people of color to participate in society as it does how they experience education (yes, this too is part of socialization, I realize).
  • If the question is if we should emphasize STEM activities more in schooling – I’d say maybe. I wonder what STEM is in opposition to (or an advancement over).

Step 1

First off, what are we missing if we break it down by basic subjects?

The humanities, social sciences, languages and the arts.

Scratch that, we’ve got STEAM, advocates who take the position that design is what makes innovation in any STEM field possible – I’d agree on all accounts, except for say, math.

And, actually, there’s an interesting similarity between Art and Math – they both gain considerably more value when embedded in application. Math for Math’s sake is about as relevant or job-related as Art for Art’s sake, I think. Graphic design to communicate ideas or make interfaces more usable – or – statistics and predictive algorithms to make experiments possible or to solve problems – these seem to ring more true to innovation and “usefulness” for me.

Update: Er, scratch that too – according to the NSF “Science” here includes the social sciences. I think many people aren’t including these when they refer to STEM, however. Anyway, continuing…

So, generally, do I think we have too much emphasis on the social sciences, languages and humanities in schooling?

  • Well, at the K-12 level I’m not sure we actually have any significant social science. I mean sure there’s geography and social studies (which is history, really) but generally I don’t see a lot of psychology, sociology, anthropology and political science in high school – and I think actually it would be great to have more of those. In high schools like mine the tests we were being taught for (ACT/SAT sure but also more importantly AP tests) didn’t include those, they included emphasis on base subjects like math or English.
  • Languages, I think offer another similar dimension. Sure learning French or German is probably less useful and a sign of privilege or specialization. But you had better bet Spanish, Portuguese, Russian or Chinese would help you greatly in the future economy and job landscape.
  • And then we land on the humanities. Generally I’d say that we teach the same American-centric history too many times and that English focuses far too much on making sense of written texts instead of the grand entourage of media we engage with today. These issues aren’t an unsolvable problem, though, we could just focus more on contemporary history and on cultural studies that think of “text” in a multimodal kind of way. And both of these areas help to emphasize important subset skills – perspective taking, critical inquiry and rhetoric – or the effective expression of ideas.

So, really, I’m not ready to say we should deemphasize them. I would, however, be ready to suggest that we replace Math class at the high school level with Engineering class – where advanced math would be taught but always in application to something – integrated into practice where possible.

Step 2

Second, what are these disciplines (or subjects) really about? I feel like we’d be better off to think about it in terms of literacies or skills. What kinds of competencies do we want our students to have coming out of an education system. STEM, to me, suggests the following:

  • Science – Experimentation, causality and empiricism, internally consistent truth
  • Technology – Well, for me this is digital literacy, and I’ll get to in a second
  • Engineering – Problem-solving in an applied context, most often with physical objects or systems
  • Math – Problem-solving and algorithms in an abstract context

So, really, I’d agree that we might not be focusing enough on some of these skills, but I’d also say that they’re not any more important than others that might be cultivated by the humanities and social sciences – critical and creative thinking, expression and perspective-taking and so on.

Digital literacy is hard to really reconcile in all of this – I see it as a composite of skills and perspectives – but on another level you could think about just pure competency in being able to manipulate tools as a fundamental. That is, everyone should know how to type, use a mouse and find information on the internet. In my dream world I’d rather say everyone should know how to question the black box, reverse engineer, remix, program, control a 3D interface, draw with a mouse, present stories on the internet and so much more. As you can see my categories already branch into any number of the skills and areas mentioned above.

Step 3

So, in other words what’s this really about?

I think it’s about an assumption of mapping schooling to jobs. We have great demand for jobs in STEM (and STEAM, really) but not so many in the humanities like history, English and cultural studies or social sciences like sociology, anthropology and political science. And, really, that wouldn’t be a problem if the humanities were like aviation or sculpture, where only a few people go in, make it out and land jobs, but instead we have situations like UIUC, where our highest enrollment major is Psychology (1150 students in 2013), but there is probably not that much demand for people in psychology-related careers. Similarly we have a rather high count of people in communications (742), political science (552), and animal sciences + vet med (applied but probably not that many jobs – 923). Engineering, science and business majors dominate the majority of enrollment, comparatively. The other “useless” majors aren’t actually as populated as you might expect – English (323), history (217), sociology (207), anthropology (126), global studies (195), recreation (163) and so on. Though you do see interesting things like 300 PhD’s in computer science or 90 PhD’s in English but that’s a different issue.

So, at the end of the day – I think I want to go back to just focusing on ways to integrate engineering and other practice/problem-solving based learning into all curriculum for kids and focusing on areas where we have inequalities, such as women enrolled in engineering, or, from a different perspective that’s important to me in particular, men (or extroverts or people of color!) in library science. 🙂

Strange social norms

This post was a while back, but I juts now have gotten to it. A fellow PhD student, in an attempt to help us brainstorm more creative ways to recruit new information science students, sent us the following advertisement for reference:

As he explained, it’s a puzzle meant to draw you in:

In this poster, everything is hidden in the binary code (please ignore the girl at the background).

The decipher process can be found at http://xrl.us/bnx5jc (in Chinese). Here are the steps to get the material in natural language (I skip some trial and reasoning steps):

  1. OCR the binary code from the image.
  2. Save it as a binary file and name it bin.gz (you can get the name of the file by interpreting the binary code).
  3. Unzip the file and get a file called bin. This is a java class (again, tell from the binary code).
  4. Save the file as a java class and run it. You can get the correct name of the class (i.class) from the java error message.
  5. Run the class again and finally you will get an url: www.i.u-tokyo.ac.jp/fun/hikari-loveletter

What puzzles me about it is not actually the number cipher, which I imagine is pretty neato, but the the relevance of the woman in the background. Is she supposed to be just a pretty background, like a flower pattern? Are they assuming only heterosexual men apply and that this woman will get their attention? Is this like insurance companies that put naked ladies on billboards, but a subdued version? I’m not yet ready to label it sexist, simply because I don’t understand Japanese culture enough to comprehend the context. Right now I can’t help but see it as comically non-sequitur!

Women and Wikipedia, a rant.

A friend emailed me a link to an interesting visualization on Wikipedia and authorship (http://flowingdata.com/2012/09/11/wikipedia-is-dominated-by-male-editors/) that demonstrates the sheer contributions gaps. I of course freaked out about it:

This has been an issue for a while now :/ I’ve been running into more and more people that are starting their own community wikis because of the higher level restrictions imposed on authors for source citation. It’s sort of a funny backlash, coming from teachers and academics (old farts mostly I think) who think Wikipedia is rubbish, which has in turn created this kind of hostile environment for new editors and people exploring the system, as well as those who think about knowledge differently. “No I don’t have a citation for the meaning of this statue, I have a story about it” isn’t legitimate in some systems of logic. Probably an example of institutionalized sexism built into our construction of knowledge – you don’t get to say “I think it’s this, maybe?” you have to be gruff and shout “it’s fucking this damnit” and then intimidate anyone else who opposes you. Rampant in the dialectic world that surrounds me here, be it humanities or engineering or whatever, sadly.

Or at least that’s my impression of the social dynamic underlying it. The technical aptitude thing is a little different, I think, in that our systems of education suck at teaching people to hack and build with computer systems. Wikipedia’s input method isn’t all that friendly but it’s very simple for anyone who has been taught to program. Generally women are swayed away from learning to create with information interfaces in the same way they’re discouraged from doing math. This is starting to change, though, as many women have adopted and driven social media development and programs in informatics are growing and increasingly diverse while computer science becomes even more white/Asian male dominated. Lately my answer hasn’t been “Oh let’s get more women in CS” it has instead been “Fuck CS and abstract math, let’s get more people of all kinds into interdisciplanary studies that relate computers to real people and real practice.”

A long-winded trip of a response to your frustration. I’m sorry it sucked to try to modify Wikipedia. I’m not sure what the answer might be for you personally, other than maybe making it a project with the hubby or a more tech-experienced female friend, but I know as an instructor I can do something like modifying Wikipedia as an assignment and using the peer-learning/social-support classroom environment to make it more possible. We have at least a couple of professors in LIS that do this (and remember, GSLIS = 85% women, most of them ultra-timid introverts, so this is a big deal).

You landed on a very good question, though -> which professions contribute more to Wikipedia? My money would be on those with more educated people and ones that fit more into that masculine dialectic dynamic I related above. Also people with free time and a computer available. Maybe what we need is a really good cell phone app for Wikipedia.

That’s colored bright pink.



Computer Donations

I had a moment that made me smile today. A friend asked me if I knew of good home for an old G5 Mac she wished to donate. I of course could think of a half a dozen places offhand, but this isn’t exactly what made me happy. As a kid I always envisioned myself as ‘growing up’ to be someone who was actively engaged in producing social good. If I think about it, I really have been involved with a whole lot of groups around this community, and I really do know many of them well enough to know truly how in need they are and some actual impacts they provide. I guess I already knew this, I just don’t think about it from an externalized angle too often. The list, in case you’re curious or feeling charitable:

In order of most-in-need

Shadow Wood Lab
The trailer park just south of 74 by the train tracks
Mostly used largely by poor Latin@ kids and (potentially) undocumented workers
Community Journalism lab, could make great use of iMovie
Run by CU Citizen Access, who will be responsible for upkeep

New Hope Academy
After school program and safe space in north Champaign
Kids computer lab and adult public computer lab
Will be the main computing center for the successor to the Dorsey Homes house project
GSLIS Alumni and UFL librarian Joel Spencer will help ensure upkeep

Rantoul Public Library, children’s computer lab
Technical librarian Violet Lapine will take care of it and could use it for tutoring
Their kids computers are already all macs, so it fits well
Library serves a community with high unemployment and poverty

Eagle’s Nest Homeless Services Center
Located in East St. Louis
Run by Martha Watts, a friend
No one to do upkeep aside from the occasional visit by GSLIS students from LIS451
I’d take it down next visit

Tap In Leadership Academy

After school program for underprivileged youth
GSLIS students under assistantships will ensure upkeep
Probably tax-deductable, but would take considerable effort