Tag Archives: education

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Celebrate Computer Science Education week with An Hour Of Code

Anyone know how to get this to Miley Cyrus?

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Google gets its piece of the Raspberry Pi

Google had just launched a program to turn the Raspberry Pi into a mini web server. Download this code onto an SD card and the Pi becomes an educational tool to teach kids the basics of app coding.

5 things I learned about MOOCs in 2012

About  a month ago, The New York Times declared 2012 the year of the MOOC. That’s Massive Open Online Course, in case you haven’t come across the term yet.

Given how much time I spent enrolled in MOOCs this year, I kind of knew this already. But for those now dipping their toes into this phenomenon, here are the top 5 things I learned this year.

1.  MOOCs are addictive. Like seriously addictive.  You think the internet is distracting now.  Wait until you’re juggling the demands of the five fascinating  Ivy League courses you signed up with through Coursera.  I’m kidding, but not entirely. Somewhere around July I found myself wrestling between my Code Year resolution with Codecademy and my determination to complete the Studio Track of Stanford’s Human Computer Interaction course. What began as a five week project soon stretched into something closer to eight weeks as Stanford realized how unprepared most people were for the work involved in field researching, building, testing and peer reviewing a web app.  I did it.  But by September I was burnt out.  Had I not dropped out of Machine Learning after half a video and made a firm decision to bear down, I never would have grocked Python (or learned the word “grock”).  So if MOOCs are something that might interest you in 2013, make a resolution now not to become a MOOC slut.

2. MOOCs are an awesome way to meet people in your home town. This is especially true if you live in a tech oriented city. If there isn’t already a meet up somewhere in your town in the subject you’ve become interested in you can probably start one. Or you can start meetups specifically around the course you happen to have enrolled in. Those meet ups will no doubt lead to other meetups. After organizing the first Code Year meet up in Montreal, I met and introduced people who went on to put on the first Montreal Maker Faire. The interests I cultivated through that venture led me to  WordCamp Montreal, Semantic Web meet ups,  MTL Girl Geeks, MTL Girl Hackers, to mention only a few groups I discovered over the year. Problem was I was so over enrolled in MOOCs, I often couldn’t go to all the things I wanted to.

3. MOOCS are like running.  They’re free. They require little expense or equipment. They’re outside the usual  parameters of civilized life. You make your own challenges. You feel your strength, endurance, and confidence build. You’ll want to quit right before you reach the finish line/personal goal/personal best.  But if you bear down, you’ll learn the effort is really worth it.

4. MOOCS are like a treadmill. They can be a great stepping stone to real life learning. If you’re shy of university life for whatever reason, or you want to try out a subject first to see if it’s for you, MOOCs are great.  But at a certain point you need to find an entry point into the complexities of real life learning.  That might be a meet up, a project independent of what you’re learning in the MOOC, or, in the end, a classroom course in that subject. If MOOCs are your only source of learning you’re going to get bored.

5. MOOCs are especially great for women. At one point this year, I came across a popular  tech ed blog, where it was speculated that the gender ratio of MOOCS were probably not much different from those in regular Computer Science courses. i.e dismally biased towards men.  I’m not convinced that’s true. Almost all the people who showed up to my Montreal Code Year meet ups were women. My experience of peer review in the Coursera HCI course is that there were many women in the course. And, while I don’t know the numbers, I feel safe speculating that MOOCs will be a significant factor  in restoring gender balance to computer science. (Yes I did use the word RESTORE.)

MOOCS in my experience are a great gateway to equity. This isn’t to say that societies should abandon a commitment to traditional learning.  We’re all going to have to be careful to make sure that MOOCs enable low cost high quality learning, not undermine it.

But I’m from Montreal.  Here we march in the streets and bang kitchenware to keep university tuition fees low.  As a result one out of two  Montreal university graduates are first generation (i.e. the first person in their family to go beyond highschool), by far the highest ratio in North America.

The MOOC can be an excellent learning path, and can do much to fill the equity gap, but it will never be a substitute for a deep social commitment to affordable higher learning.

Things Being More Equal Than Others

It will soon be six months since I started my Code Year pledge with codecademy.com. I’m still going strong. I’ve even started beta testing a few courses ahead of time.  But this doesn’t mean that learning to program has been easy.

All my new learning is at the fresh cement stage. If I don’t take stock while I can still see the rocky road behind me, I become useless to the people still on it. So, I’ve decided this would be a good time to write about one of my biggest stumbling blocks coming out of the gate.

It was that damn = sign, and the subtle, but really important ways that this sign is different in imperative programming than it is in arithmetic and algebra.

For those of us who never continued with math beyond high school,  = has a pretty rigid meaning. It means “the same as”.  Things on each side of it evaluate as the same.  Sure, we understand that the value of a variable can change.  If  x = y + 1 in one algebra exercise,  we accept  x = 2y + 1 in the next one.  But essentially, what isn’t supposed to change is that both things on each side of that symbol have the same value.

In JavaScript, however,  = means something more like “attached to”.  Or “associated with” or “same type” or “contains all of these things” or is the same as “for a limited time only!”,  depending on the context in which it is being used.

Much of  coding is  building quickie archives of associations, archives that can just as quickly be dismantled. So programming needs an equal sign to have a much broader, less sticky meaning than it does in math.  In math the equal sign is like glue.  In programming it’s more like a post-it note.

For instance  x = 0 used in a programming algorithm usually does not really mean x is equal to 0.  It’s a way of saying that x is a number and  it will be starting at 0. So if we put x in a standard programming loop like (x = 0; x < 10; x++)  it means that x’s value is going to increase in numerical value by one, each of the 10  times we run that loop.

If we write x = ”  ” then  what we’re saying is that x is a string, i.e. some kind of phrase,  which usually means x will be used as a container for whatever words or sentences we want to plug into x.

If we want to make x stand for a particular series of actions,  we turn it into a function by writing  x = function (). That series of actions will be repeated every time we write x().

X can also be an array, a list of things, as in x = [1, train, $, 104, poodle].

In programming if you want to convey that something is actually equal  in the way normal people understand equal, you add an extra =, or just to be safe two extra equal signs, x === y.  This gives x what is called a “Boolean” value, i.e.  the variable either is or isn’t exactly this thing. For example:

 if (x === 3) {do this thing};

in this case  x has to be 3  for the action in  between the curly brackets to be executed.

if  (x !==3){do this thing};

means  do this thing only if x isn’t 3.

Write:  if (x=3) {do this thing},  and the computer will spaz out because your definition of  x is too vague, so it doesn’t know what to do.

****

If you learn to program with a bright sixth grader, as I did,  you may find that they grasp this floaty = concept much faster than you do.

Sixth graders don’t have to unlearn the = sign because they’ve just started learning algebra. Their brain has just freshly opened to the fact that an equal sign can be used in more interesting ways than previously known.

If your sixth grader is anything like my sixth grader, he or she  may very well kick your ass in the first twenty hours  of programming, as you stumble again and again  over whether that variable is the “same as “ or “sort of like” something, and hurt your brain further,  trying to figure out why it’s attached to that meaning in one place of the algorithm, but not in another place.

Even when I understood the difference theoretically, my brain kept reading the sign badly again and again. It was like that Stroop Test,  where someone shows you the word BLUE written in green ink.  When they ask you the color of the ink,  you keep saying blue because your brain prioritizes the language definition over the visual.  My brain was clamped on equal being equal, even when I knew it wasn’t.

“But wait!”, you and an unfortunate number of other educators might say.  “If we expose children too early to the more complex and nuanced programming concept of = won’t they get all confused when they learn algebra?  Don’t they need a period of time when the = sign has a more limited scope?”

You may even develop this idea further.  “What if after being exposed to all this = sign confusion, some children end up learning algebra [cue music to soundtrack from Psycho] at a slower rate. What horrible things will this do to their self esteem?  Maybe they’ll give up and refuse to learn algebra all together, in total frustration!”

This is the argument used by those  who think only really, demonstrably super smart kids should be exposed to programming in middle school.  Ideally in expensive summer coding camps reserved just for them.  And this is probably the argument that will solidify the growing gap between the technologically literate, and the now merely language literate, for much longer than it should exist.

It’s also the argument that will keep girls from mastering code as a matter of course, since they don’t tend to sign up for summer coding camp as frequently as boys, and by the time the girls are given the option of learning programming, they’ve developed a misconception about computer science as something only of interest to social isolates (var nerdyGeek = “social isolate”).

This is the same reasoning people use when they bring up studies that show  children raised in bilingual environments exhibit a significant language delay.  (Trilingual environments, they argue are even worse!)

I can only argue against this from anecdotal experience. But I will argue against it, passionately.

I’m a Montrealer, so my son, Ben, learned English at home, but went to daycare in our French speaking neighborhood.  To make matters “worse”,  I had joint custody with his father, who was born in Israel and spoke to him in Hebrew.

Indeed, this created a significant language delay, to the point where, when he was two, we had his hearing tested just to be sure.

But there was no hearing problem.  And not only was there no hearing problem, by the time Ben hit kindergarten he was reading fluently in both French and English, counting to a 1,000 and already starting to grasp a little multiplication.  Because by then, his brain was a language learning machine.

Ben’s not a genius (he’s been WISC tested. Apparently he’s at the high end of average).  He’s just a smart kid whose brain now codes information a little faster than normal kids because he spent his early years in an information rich environment where there was a lot more meaning to sort out.

If your child maintains a coding practice, even if it does cause a little confusion at first,  it’s a good guess he or she will not be falling behind on the math curve for long.  In fact, before you know it they will probably be three times as equal as the other kids.

Or if you want to contemplate a really scary scenario [Psycho refrain] they will probably become three times as equal as you.

Coders turned children’s writers

Last week I discovered a wonderful blog by programmer Jeremy Kubica.  Computational Fairy Tales teaches computer science concept though ingenious charming fairy tales.  My favourite is Hunting Dragons Through Binary Search, but Kubica is extremely prolific and seems to have tale for everything from recursion to parallel algorithms.

He’s not alone.  Today Wired Enterprise published a feature on Carlos Bueno a engineer who works for Facebook, but has just  written a children’s book, Lauren Ipsum, aimed at kids as young as 5 and as old as 12.  The article puts the book in the context of programming education initiatives like Scratch and Codecademy.  As Bueno explains, hands on coding is only part of the process. Metaphors are a key part of teaching computer science. They are the original code. “Stories are distilled knowledge taught through the ages,” he says.

This is good news for families learning to code.

The Dragon Eggs of digital literacy hatching!

Six Reasons a Non-Computer Nerd Might Want to Learn to Code – Technology – The Atlantic Wire

Six Reasons a Non-Computer Nerd Might Want to Learn to Code – Technology – The Atlantic Wire.

This is something of an analysis of the “everyone should learn to code” meme.  Except that it explores only the reasons why people might want to learn to code, which is not exactly the same as why they should learn.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to take the fun out of coding by turning into a moral imperative.  And the last thing any parent should do is  turn this into educational equivalent of vegetables.

But if we’re going to list the real advantages, and get into arguments with elite  programmers who keep telling us that newbies are wasting their time, we need something deeper than “it’s useful.”

If you’re a software engineer whose primary source of work is software manufacturing then yeah, there’s not much motivating you to preach to the masses to learn how to make software.  If, however, you’re a more politically minded programmer devoted to creating a more efficient world or let’s say more open source software that might massively reduce government and educational spending, then it’s more than just “useful” to have a citizens who know what you’re talking about.  It’s essential.

Because nothing is going to change until a critical mass of the population understands enough about computer science to pressure their respective government or administrations into making the significant changes that have all kinds of economic and social advantages.

So there.  A reason we should learn to program: because it might inspire others to do the same, and then maybe we’ll have a society that is better able to function as a more participatory democracy.

But don’t tell the kids that just yet.

The Parent Developer

I’ve actually been coding for a long time, without realizing it.

If we remove all the syntax of computer language and look at what the bare bones of coding is, it’s just using logic, reason and simple commands to create repeatable behaviours.

This is what parents do with children.

They start with small instructions,  baby steps and repeated routines,  appropriate to both the child’s abilities and the parent’s still developing skills as a programmer of babies.  Then as the child  starts to develop cognitive abilities, the parent sets up a system of conditionals: acceptable choices the child can make that will not include choices that will  bugger up their lives.

Figuring this out is a frustrating challenge, but it will probably work well enough while the child is still not much more than a new Object in the parent’s mind, something that in theory should inherit  all her workable (and perhaps not as workable as she’d like) methods.

But at a certain point the child hits  the age where he now has the abstraction abilities and the independence  to start programming his own life.  And this is where the real problems start, because the parent is  no longer the programmer with a child Object.  The parent is now dealing with a junior developer.  And if the  parent does not know how to establish her position as senior developer, there will be blood.

That’s why I think this is such a great time for Ben and I to learn how to code.  Because even if no one in the family ever becomes a professional programmer, we’re still regularly working together on solving problems with commands and the kind of simplification skills that  inevitably spill into our lives.  Ideally this will help us solve problems in ways that are more neutral and productive than what usually happens between adults and teenagers.

Obviously Ben will not stay a junior developer in this family for long.  This is the law of life and technology. Coders move on. But for now it’s still my responsibility to instill good thinking, writing, and commanding habits.

It’s all about those transferable skills.

Family 3.0: A Manifesto

Alright, I’m ready to call it. If the 90s was the decade of the brain, and the 2000s, the decade of impossible to categorize millennial upheaval, this decade is going to be the decade of digital literacy. Or at least that’s what it should be.

When I say digital literacy I don’t mean this is the decade when everyone finally figured out how to use Twitter.  I mean during the next ten years society is going to accept that computer science can no longer remain a field reserved only for specialists.  It needs to become a core subject in schools, as important as math or english. And it needs to be something that all citizens are learning at whatever pace is realistic for them.

There are so many reasons for this, but the most  important, every day we’re  uploading more and more of our personal, professional and financial data into a cloud. If we don’t understand at least the fundamentals of how that cloud works, we’re leaving ourselves and our children vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation, surveillance and violation that we’re not even conscious of. 

Some people will choose to gate themselves off with strict parental controls. But the Internet has the potential to be one of the greatest incubators of creativity, knowledge and social connection in the history of  human civilization.  Who wants to gate their kids off from that?  Or more realistically, how long will you even be able to?

The best way to turn kids into good digital citizens, able to protect themselves and each other, is to direct them towards the knowledge and skills they need to make informed decisions consistent with good values.

Learning to program is no longer about learning how to make  robots.  More and more it’s going to be about learning how to stay human. As Douglas Rushkoff started pointing out last year,  we are  increasingly being faced with the choice of  being the programmer or the programmed.

So how to start? We can call for massive educational reform, like they’re doing in the U.K.  In January the Ministry of Education  announced a huge overhaul of the teaching of information technology in schools. Last month The Observer ran a week-long series called “Why All Our Kids Should Be Taught To Code”  It covered all the best reasons why computer science needs to become a core subject, and why information technology needs to be less about teaching kids how to use software and more about understanding how it is made (there’s an especially great article on why girls need to start learning it early, before puberty when  they start to become more vulnerable to peer pressure.)

Enough with the  stale back to basics testing. Incorporating computer programming into core courses will bring education alive. Fooling around with the functions that make a computer do your bidding, for example, calculating every multiple of three up to 10,000 in under 10 seconds,  is empowering and makes math fun.  Bringing some HTML or CSS into a research project is like mixing a magic graphics potion from twigs. These are challenging skills, but they’re skills with big, immediate payoffs.  Most kids are smart enough to figure that out.

But do we have the time to wait for this educational reform?  If you’re a parent there are great reasons to  simply start learning to code on your own. There are few professions left in which knowledge of code won’t help your career dramatically. Do you really think you can’t learn something that can be taught to eleven year olds? If you’ve cut back from work to raise children, or your college degree is going to be gathering dust for a few years before you head into the work force, learning to code will keep you brain sharp and your skills fresh. And you can use these skills now to build games and projects with your kids. Literacy begins at home, whether it be analog or digital.

Nobody needs to learn enough to become a senior developer.  But just spend  an hour dipping your feet into one of the free coding education programs  that have popped up in the last year. One of the first things you’ll learn is how to create a confirmation box.

In JavaScript that’s as simple as writing this sentence:

>confirm (“Do you like my awesome confirmation box?”);  

Run that in a browser console.  Spend an afternoon hacking that box with a kid.  Make up some nonsense choices.  Another hour and you can learn to prompt some default choices.  For fun try to force each other to make  decisions that lead to embarrassing results. That confirmation box will never again have quite the same unquestioned authority for either of you.

If you do just that, you’re already one giant baby step ahead.