Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ken Robinson on how to effectively run an education system - Command and Control isn't the right choice.

Ken Robinson surely must earn a lot of air miles giving talks at TED conferences. Here's another one, from fairly recently. May 2013 is when it was published to Youtube.

Ken Robinson: How to escape education's death valley

I did laugh out loud, so he still manages to give an entertaining talk, but he compares the scale and challenges of Finland's education system to that of a US state. I can accept that for at least some states the scale is comparable. Texas, New York, and California and perhaps Illinois are likely outliers in the size distribution, but that can presumably be solved by carving things into administrative regions. Except on matters of revenue collection, upstate NY surely doesn't want to be lumped in with New York City anyhow. But I do think there are vast differences in the educational challenges faced by the US vs. those faced by Finland. Wikipedia tells me that 91% of the people in Finland speak Finnish and 41% of the population can speak Swedish. There are various other languages spoken by a fraction of the population, but the totals are in the thousand's of people. Compare that to the languages of New York where the total of non-English speakers runs into the millions, thanks to NYC's long term position as a port of entry into the "melting pot" of US culture. I believe there is also more cultural diversity in the US than in Finland and that this makes it easier to run a successful high school in Finland than in Brooklyn.

So, I don't think that Robinson has been entirely convincing in his talk. Nonetheless, he makes lots of valid points about how and how not to effectively run an education system. The prevailing testing culture imposed on US schools seems well captured in this "What real-world skills do you have?" cartoon.

If you didn't see Robinson's previous TED talks on education, see the links from my January, 2013 Blog article "TED Talks on Education". They were enjoyable and informative talks too.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Told You So - MOOC forum participation is important

If you have been a regular reader of this blog and have a long memory, you may recall that back in December of 2012, in my article "Is the Udacity CS101 Course Watered Down?", I strongly emphasized my opinion that a vital part of getting the most out of the course is to participate actively in the forum. As strong as my opinion on this matter was, it was just my opinion. But now I've got data to back me up.

John Duhring has posted to the Google+ STEM Community today a link to an article "Effective Habits of Power Users: A Look At Recent MOOC Research". The article reports on a study of the small percentage of folks who completed the MIT "Circuits and Electronics" course that edX offered as a MOOC in March 2012. About 155,000 folks registered for the online course and only a few more than 7,000 completed the online course and earned a certificate of completion. There was a follow-up study to see what distinguished the folks who made it to the goal line from the rest. The report says the level of participation in the forum is the big differentiator.

Many years ago when I was a college student, I had the pleasure of sharing housing just off-campus with other students taking many of the same courses as I was taking. We had marvelous arguments with each other as to what the professor really was saying in the lectures we'd attended. They were friendly arguments with much hand waving at speeds approaching C to explain space-time dilation and other such hot topics. I'm quite certain that those discussions were an extremely important part of going to a residential college and greatly increased my learning.

I've been watching my wife's kids slow progress as commuter students to a local college and I think part of the problem is that they come home right after class and so don't have any of the discussions that cement into the brain the material of the course lectures. MOOC's bring a similar handicap of splendid isolation of the students from each other, but the forum provides a way for them to virtually get together and have those opinionated arguments with each other through the keyboard (hand-waving is not useful on the forums so some specific verbal skills are called for. At least you are safe from flying meter sticks approaching the speed of light).

So, again, if you take a MOOC, do take the time to participate in the forum associated with the course. Remember what Radio talk-show host Barry Farber used to say at the end of each broadcast: "Keep asking questions!"

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Chem teacher cautions against "Pseudoteaching"

Several times now I've come across mentions of "Pseudoteaching" in my reading, and I confess to not quite grokking what that meant. Today, the Google+ STEM community shared this short video and I think I'm beginning to understand.

"Blow something Up!"

I remember Mr. Greenberg, my high school chemistry teacher, but on the one hand I have trouble cataloging him as an "entertainer', but on the other hand I was always troubled by the seeming "magic" in chemistry class. See, when we stir these 2 clear liquids together, it turns pink. My brain would gripe "Why?". And that's probably why I went into software, not chemistry.

I think this video pairs nicely with the one linked to my blog post of 02/2013 "STEM Education Ideas".

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Frequently Asked Question on the Udacity CS101 Forum

On the Udacity CS101 Forum, I've been surprised at the number of questions that were posted for quiz 2-18. For example there's this question: and several many more that are much like it.

Now part of the confusion, I think is that when Python prints the string value "True" and prints the Boolean value True, there's no visible distinction between the 2 outputs. e.g.:

>>> print "True", True
True True

But I think it is perhaps worth noting that in the coursera course "Introduction to Systematic Program Design", there is strong emphasis in the course's "How to Design Functions" recipe on starting by writing down the function's "signature", the types of its inputs and of its outputs, which for quiz 2-18 would be:

# String -> Bool

(Mostly irrelevant is the detail that Udacity CS101 is working in Python 2.7 while the coursera course is working in "Dr. Ratchet", another programming language, and one that is new to me).

For as small a quiz as 2-18 is, and as often as similar questions have shown up in the forum, I think it is clear evidence that CS101 needs to add emphasis on function "signatures". It would also make sense to soup up the auto-grader for this problem to give more specific feedback if the function returns string values instead of the desired Boolean values.

For what it is worth, here's my answer to the question I cited in this article's opening paragraph.

I didn't actually run your code, but I see your function returns string values of "True" or "False". Python has special Boolean values of True and False (NB. no quotation marks). They behave in many ways like 1 and 0, but they are easier to read in the source code.

So, my best guess is that the autograder is looking for Boolean True and False, not the strings that you are handing to it. Further reading: Truthiness and Falsiness. By the way, the version of Python that CS101 is using has changed a little since I wrote that blog article last year. Also, be aware that None is another special value in Python.