December 31, 2014 10:15 AM

Reinventing Education by Reinventing Explanation

One of the more important essays I read in 2014 was Michael Nielsen's Reinventing Explanation. In it, Nielsen explores how we might design media that help us explain scientific ideas better than we are able with our existing tools.

... it's worth taking non-traditional media seriously not just as a vehicle for popularization or education, which is how they are often viewed, but as an opportunity for explanations which can be, in important ways, deeper.

This essay struck me deep. Nielsen wants us to consider how we might take what we have learned using non-traditional media to popularize and educate and use it to think about how to explain more deeply. I think that learning how to use non-traditional media to explain more deeply will help us change the way we teach and learn.

In too many cases, new technologies are used merely as substitutes for old technology. The web has led to an explosion of instructional video aimed at all levels of learners. No matter how valuable these videos are, most merely replace reading a textbook or a paper. But computational technology enables us to change the task at hand and even redefine what we do. Alan Kay has been telling this story for decades, pointing us to the work of Ivan Sutherland and many others from the early days of computing.

Nielsen points to Bret Victor as an example of someone trying to develop tools that redefine how we think. As Victor himself says, he is following in the grand tradition of Kay, Sutherland, et al. Victor's An Ill-Advised Personal Note about "Media for Thinking the Unthinkable" is an especially direct telling of his story.

Vi Hart is another. Consider her recent Parable of the Polygons, created with Nicky Case, which explains dynamically how local choices and create systemic bias. This simulation uses computation to help people think differently about an idea they might not understand as viscerally from a traditional explanation. Hart has a long body of working using visualization to explain differently, and the introduction of computing extends the depth of her approach.

Over the last few weeks, I have felt myself being pulled by Nielsen's essay and the example of people such as Victor and Hart to think more about how we might design media that help us to teach and explain scientific ideas more deeply. Reinventing explanation might help us reinvent education in a way that actually matters. I don't have a research agenda yet, but looking again at Victor's work is a start.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Teaching and Learning

December 29, 2014 3:27 PM

Exceptions Should Be Exceptional

Exceptions signal something outside the expected bounds of behavior of the code in question. But if you're running some checks on outside input, this is because you expect some messages to fail -- and if a failure is expected behavior, then you shouldn't be using exceptions.

That is a snippet from Replacing Throwing Exceptions with Notification in Validations, a refactoring Martin Fowler published earlier this month. The refactoring is based on an extraordinarily useful piece of software design advice: exceptions should be unexpected. If something is expected, it's not exceptional. Make your software say so. A notification mechanism can carry as much information about system behavior as exceptions and generally provides superior cohesion and division of labor.

Over the last few years, I've come to see that is really a tenet of good system design more generally. A couple of examples from my university experience:

  • If your curriculum depends on frequent student requests to enable programs of study that faculty accept as reasonable, then you should probably modify the curriculum to allow what is reasonable. Not only are you gumming up the larger system with unnecessary paperwork, you are likely disadvantaging students who aren't savvy or cheeky enough to disregard the rules.

  • If the way you pay for instruction and equipment doesn't match the stated budget, then you should change the budget to reflect reality. If you don't control the writing of the budget, then you should find ways to communicate reality to the budget writers whenever possible. Sometimes, you can work around the given budget to accomplish what you really need for a long time. But over time the system will evolve in response to other external forces, and you reach a point where the budget in no way reflects reality. A sudden change in funding can put you in a state of real crisis. Few people will be able to understand why.

People sometimes tell me that I am naive to think complex systems like a university or even a curriculum should reflect reality closely. Programming has taught me that we almost always benefit from keeping our design as clean, as understandable, and as truthful as we can. I am pragmatic enough to understand that there are exceptions even to this tenet, in life and in software. But exceptions should be exceptional.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Managing and Leading, Software Development

December 28, 2014 11:12 AM

A Little CS Would Help a Lot of College Grads

I would love to see more CS majors, but not everyone should major in CS. I do think that most university students could benefit from learning a little programming. There are plenty of jobs not only for CS and math grads, but also for other majors who have CS and math skills:

"If you're an anthropology major and you want to get a marketing job, well, guess what? The toughest marketing jobs to fill require SQL skills," Sigelman says. "If you can ... along the peripheries of your academic program accrue some strong quantitative skills, you'll still have the advantage [in the job market]." Likewise, some legal occupations (such as intellectual property law) and maintenance and repair jobs stay open for long periods of time, according to the Brookings report, if they require particular STEM skills.

There is much noise these days about the importance of STEM, both for educated citizens and for jobs, jobs, jobs. STEM isn't an especially cohesive category, though, as the quoted Vox article reminds us, and even when we look just at economic opportunity, it misleads. We don't need more college science graduates from every STEM discipline. We do need more people with the math and CS skills that now pervade the workplace, regardless of discipline. As Kurtzleben says in the article, "... characterizing these skill shortages as a broad STEM crisis is misleading to students, and has distorted the policy debate."

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Teaching and Learning

December 27, 2014 8:47 AM

Let's Not Forget: CS 1 Is Hard For Most Students

... software is hard. It's harder than
anything else I've ever had to do.
-- Donald Knuth

As students were leaving my final CS 1 lab session of the semester, I overheard two talking about their future plans. One student mentioned that he was changing his major to actuarial science. I thought, wow, that's a tough major. How is a student who is struggling with basic programming going to succeed there?

When I checked on his grades, though, I found that he was doing fine in my course, about average. I also remembered that he had enjoyed best the programming exercises that computed terms of infinite arithmetic series and other crazy mathematical values that his classmates often found impenetrable. Maybe actuarial science, even with some hard math, will be a good fit for him.

It really shouldn't surprise us that some students try computer science and decide to major in something else, even something that looks hard to most people. Teaching CS 1 again this semester after a long break reminded me just how much we expect from the students in our introductory course:

  • Details. Lots and lots of details. Syntax. Grammar. Vocabulary, both in a programming language and about programming more generally. Tools for writing, editing, compiling, and running programs.

  • Experimentation. Students have to design and execute experiments in order to figure out how language constructs work and to debug the programs they write. Much of what they learn is by trial and error, and most students have not yet developed skills for doing that in a controlled fashion.

  • Design. Students have to decompose problems and combine parts into wholes. They have to name things. They have to connect the names they see with ideas from class, the text, and their own experience.

  • Abstraction. Part of the challenge in design comes from abstraction, but abstract ideas are everywhere in learning about CS and how to program. Variables, choices, loops and recursion, functions and arguments and scope, ... all come not just as concrete forms but also as theoretical notions. These notions can sometimes be connected to the students' experience of the physical world, but the computing ideas are often just different enough to disorient the student. Other CS abstractions are so different as to appear unique.

In a single course, we expect students to perform tasks in all three of these modes, while mastering a heavy load of details. We expect them to learn by deduction, induction, and abduction, covering many abstract ideas and many concrete details. Many disciplines have challenging first courses, but CS 1 requires an unusual breadth of intellectual tools.

Yes, we can improve our students' experience with careful pedagogy. Over the last few decades we've seen many strong efforts. And yes, we can help students through the process with structural support, emotional support, and empathy. In the end, though, we must keep this in mind: CS 1 is going to be a challenge for most students. For many, the rewards will be worth the struggle, but that doesn't mean it won't take work, patience, and persistence along the way -- by both the students and the teachers.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Teaching and Learning

December 26, 2014 8:32 AM

Editing and the Illusion of Thought

Martin Amis, in The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 151:

By the way, it's all nonsense about how wonderful computers are because you can shift things around. Nothing compares with the fluidity of longhand. You shift things around without shifting them around--in that you merely indicate a possibility while your original thought is still there. The trouble with a computer is that what you come out with has no memory, no provenance, no history--the little cursor, or whatever it's called, that wobbles around the middle of the screen falsely gives you the impression that you're thinking. Even when you're not.

My immediate reaction was that Mr. Amis needs version control, but there is something more here.

When writing with pencil and paper, we work on an artifact that embodies the changes it has gone through. We see the marks and erasures; we see the sentence where it once was once at the same time we see the arrow telling us where it now belongs. When writing in a word processor, our work appears complete, even timeless, though we know it isn't. Mark-up mode lets us see some of the document's evolution, but the changes feel more distant from our minds. They live out there.

I empathize with writers like Amis, whose experience predates the computer. Longhand feels different. Teasing out what what was valuable, even essential, in previous experience and what was merely the limitation of our tools is one of the great challenges of any time. How do we make new tools that are worth the change, that enable us to do more and better?

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General

December 24, 2014 2:05 PM

Computer Science Everywhere, Christmas Eve Edition

Urmson says Google is better positioned than a traditional automaker to crack the riddle of self-driving, because it's more about software than hardware: "When you look at what we're doing, on the surface, you see a vehicle. But the heart of it is computer science.

That is Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving car program, quoted in this article. (Apparently, senior citizens are a natural market for driverless cars.)

Everywhere we look these days, we see gadgets. Increasingly, though, at the heart of them is computer science.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing

December 18, 2014 2:33 PM

Technical Problems Are The Easy Ones

Perhaps amid the daily tribulations of a software project, Steven Baker writes

Oy. A moving goal line, with a skeleton crew, on a shoestring budget. Technical problems are the easy ones.

And here we all sit complaining about monads and Java web frameworks...

My big project this semester has not been developing software but teaching beginners to develop software, in our intro course. There is more to Intro than programming, but for many students the tasks of learning a language and trying to write programs comes to dominate most everything else. More on that soon.

Yet even with this different sort of project, I feel much as Baker does. Freshmen have a lot of habits to learn and un-learn, habits that go well beyond how they do Python. My course competes with several others for the students' attention, not to mention with their jobs and their lives outside of school. They come to class with a lifetime of experience and knowledge, as well some surprising gaps in what they know. A few are a little scared by college, and many worry that CS won't be a good fit for them.

The technical problems really are the easy ones.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Software Development, Teaching and Learning

December 14, 2014 9:38 AM

Social Media, Baseball, and Addiction

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, rock star Geddy Lee revealed himself as a fan of baseball, but not of social media:

Geddy Lee isn't a big fan of social media. "I sometimes look on Twitter to follow baseball transactions," he says. "But that's it. I'm also not on Facebook or anything. I see it as an addiction and I have enough addictions. God knows I pick up my phone enough to check baseball scores."

As a baseball fan without a smart phone, I am in no rush to judge. I don't need more addictions, either.

The recently-concluded winter baseball meetings likely kept Lee as busy following transactions as they kept me, with several big trades and free agent signings. My Reds and Tigers both made moves that affect expectations for 2015.

Pitchers and catchers report in a little over two months. Lee and I will be checking scores again soon enough.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Photos

December 02, 2014 2:53 PM

Other People's Best Interests

Yesterday I read:

It's hard for me to figure out people voting against their own self-interests.

I'm not linking to the source, because it wouldn't be fair to single the speaker out, especially when so many other things in the article are spot-on. Besides, I hear many different people express this sentiment from time time, people of various political backgrounds and cultural experiences. It seems a natural human reaction when things don't turn out the way we think they should.

Here is something I've learned from teaching and from working with teams doing research and writing software:

If you find yourself often thinking that people aren't acting in their own self-interests, maybe you don't know what their interests are.

It certainly may be true that people are not acting in what you think is their own self-interest. But it's rather presumptuous to think that you other people's best interest better than they do.

Whenever I find myself in this position, I have some work to do. I need to get to know my students, or my colleagues, or my fellow citizens, better. In cases where it's really true, and I have strong reason to think they aren't acting in their own best interest, I have an opportunity to help them learn. This kind of conversation calls for great care, though, because often we are dealing with people's identities and most deeply-held believes.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Managing and Leading, Teaching and Learning

December 01, 2014 2:05 PM

When YAGNI Becomes "Now We Need It"

The Codist told the story of DeltaGraph last week. It must be quite a feeling to have code you wrote twenty-five years ago still running in a commercial product today. Of course, such longevity creates challenges for the maintainers. The longer a program lives, the more likely that a feature that you thought you'd never need becomes desirable, even necessary.

Like a Windows version, circa 1989:

When I started the UI code I asked two questions of Deltapoint (1) will this code ever be ported to Windows (2) do you want to support multiple documents open at a time. The answer to both was no. Windows was still too primitive to care about and multiple open documents was fairly uncommon.

Within a few years, "You Aren't Gonna Need It" turned into "Now We Need It":

With 3.0 they actually began to port it to Windows 3.1, and it was an immense pain to do. I had spent no time trying to worry about cross platform issues as I had asked up front and been told no. Of course Windows was now becoming important. The port was never very stable as a result and I think it actually became a separate code base, making new features hard to do.

This is one of the balancing essential acts of writing software. Operating with a YAGNI mindset is generally a prudent way to ensure we don't write code that is unnecessarily complex and hard to work with. Yet we have to make our programs open to the changes that will inevitably follow. And some changes are easier to make if we have built hooks and fulcrums into the code.

So, we strive for ways not to build the things we don't need now, but make it possible to accommodate them later. For me, this has always been the great promise of object-oriented programming. I try to think that way even when I'm working in languages that don't support the style directly, but I'm not good enough yet. That only helps me admire the accomplishments of teams like the one that created DeltaGraph even more.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Software Development