Celebrities and computing

One of the benefits of working on projects that focus on gender and computing is that people send me articles about the topic. The most recent article I got was entitled Karlie Kloss Announces #KodeWithKarlie Scholarship So Teen Girls Can Learn to Code. Karlie Kloss, for those who aren’t avid readers of trashy fashion/celebrity magazines like I am, is a model well known for walking the Victoria’s Secret runway (among many, many others) and being friends with Taylor Swift. What I didn’t know about her is that she took a programming class last summer and became so enamored of it that she’s now trying to encourage girls to take it. As the article quotes her saying:

Code is only going to continue to play a major role in defining our future. I think it’s crucial that young women learn to code as early as possible to ensure that we, as young women, have a voice and a stake in what the world looks like.

Yes, there are some problems with this characterization of computing. First, of course, it’s more than coding. Problem solving and computational thinking as a whole are given short shrift in any description that reads like this. That overly narrows the field, and probably doesn’t do us any favors in the end.

Still, I can’t help but be happy about this. A woman known for wearing clothes and being the BFF of a pop star is embracing something that I care about, and let’s face it, making that activity cooler with girls who might not otherwise think of it as being something for them. Well done, Ms. Kloss. I hope you make a difference.

Student work as model solutions

A couple of weeks ago I attended the DePaul Teaching and Learning Conference, where I got to hear a colleague of mine talk about her work with the Digital Youth Network. Denise Nacu is in my college and I should know more about her work, so I was happy to hear what she had to say. At one point she talked about the roles that educators can play for students and particularly mentioned the role of “promoter,” meaning someone who showcases or highlights excellent student work.She was referencing this paper in particular, which is worth reading.

I liked that she was drawing attention to the idea of promoting student work since I’ve found it to be a productive classroom technique. For a long time I’ve used excellent student submissions as model solutions for assignments. I ask students with submissions that are clear, very well done, or unique in some way if I can start a class discussion using their submission, and most of the time they’re fine with it. In fact, some of them get downright excited as witnessed by the following email response I received last week from a student when I asked if I could use his solution:

Absolutely! I was actually hoping that one of my homeworks would make the class example! Thank you :)

I do try to balance the choice of students, for example, by not picking a student too often. It also requires me to be very quick on the grading, since I need to know who has good work by the time I get into the class where we are discussing the assignment. But I like that it shows the students that their classmates are capable of producing interesting and valuable solutions, and it diminishes the idea that I’m the only one in the room with something to say.

They know I care

Two weeks ago I attended the DePaul Teaching and Learning Conference. It was the 20th year of the conference, and it impressed me even more than it has in previous years. The keynote presenter this year was Todd Zakrajsek, and he had a lot of interesting things to say in his talk. The one that got the most laughs was when he told us that it’s important to make students believe that you care about them. Once the laughter died down he pointed out that the alternative to that state is having students who don’t think you care about them, which made what he had to say simultaneously funny and profound.

Of course, Dr. Zakrajsek isn’t the first person to talk about the importance of caring when it comes to students. I’ve written previously about a study examining whether students believe that faculty care and what impact that has on learning, something I presented at a School of Computing Teaching Lunch last spring. Sadly, I didn’t find the time last summer to look at more research on caring and computer science, but maybe this summer will be different.

What I am happy to discover is that at least some of my students know I care. This week I had a student send me a link to a New York Times article discussing the role of professors and how it’s changed over time. He said he thought I would find it interesting, and I did. But what I took away from the interaction is that this student knows that I think about the role I play in my students’ lives and that I’m interested in reflecting on that role. I consider that to be a great compliment.

There is no pause button

We’re a bit more than halfway through the spring term, and this is a typical time for those of us on the quarter system to start despairing. Every other academic (it seems) is finishing final grades or celebrating graduation or has already started summer, but finals are another month away for us. (And thank you to my Australasian friends for being the exception to this). Deadlines also leave me feeling like I’m juggling imminent disaster. I’ve tried over and over to find a sustainable pace for the winter and spring quarters, and pretty much every year I fail.

This year though I think I’ve found an insight that may lead to an eventual solution. Normally at this time I’m so stressed that I start putting things off. The cat needs to get blood tests at the vet? That can wait until after finals. My dresser has fallen apart, and I need to get a new one? That can wait until after finals. Our bed has given up after more than a decade? That can wait until after finals. While this is less stressful in the immediate term, it also eats away at my peace for the summer break since spend the first month catching up on all the things I put off. About three weeks ago I made the decision that I wasn’t going to postpone things. I would just schedule the vet appointment now. I would buy that dresser and make the time to pare down my clothes to fit into the new one. (Ok, I haven’t made the time for bed shopping, but two out of three isn’t bad). I resolved that there simply was no pause button on my life.

It has made life a bit more hectic. But oddly it’s also made me feel less stressed. Not having to wait for the things I want or need in my personal life makes me happier, and a happier me deals with the stressful spring quarter better. I never expected that having (slightly) more things to do would make me feel less stressed, but it’s a nice discovery.

Not holding back

Anyone who has met me knows that I appreciate and value honesty, even when it’s painful. I also know that not everyone feels the same way, and it’s hard to be completely honest about your research. So I was stunned today when I read the following quote in an article on MOOC research:

“It’s almost like we went through this sort of shameful period where we forgot that we were researchers and we forgot that we were scientists and instead we were just making decisions and proclamations that weren’t at all scientific,” said Mr. Siemens, an academic-technology expert at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Hype and rhetoric, not research, were the driving forces behind MOOCs, he argued. When they came onto the scene, MOOCs were not analyzed in a scientific way, and if they had been, it would have been easy to see what might actually happen and to conclude that some of the early predictions were off-base, Mr. Siemens said.

That is an amazing statement, one that I completely agree with, but one that I never expected to see in print. It gives me yet more hope that MOOC researchers are going to increasingly turn to understanding where and when MOOCs can be useful in education. I can’t wait to see what they find.

Brilliant ideas from my students

One of the best perks of working in an academic institution is that I’m surrounded by people who are so driven by learning that they spend their entire day focused on it. While you might think that I’m talking primarily about my colleagues, in the vast majority of cases that also describes my students. In fact, I could argue that some of my students are more focused on learning than some of my colleagues. If you come to see yourself as the source of knowledge rather than as the convener of a learning situation you can easily disconnect from your own personal development. I’m happy to say that I don’t think that’s the case for most of my colleagues, and it’s most certainly not the case for me. My students help me to learn not only about myself but also about computer science, and I’m grateful for that.

Sometimes in the process of taking a class with me my students share ideas that stun me with their brilliance, making me wonder how I didn’t see the idea in the first place. To give the most recent example I need to explain the collaboration policy in my classes. Academic Integrity violations are a huge problem in the introductory Python courses, in part because Python has simple syntax, because students are accustomed to being allowed to look up answers online, and because there are so many sites that publish code even for problems that are clearly homework. To discourage students from copying code from online sources and also to allow them to benefit from collaboration, I’ve developed a policy that allows students to work with a small number of their classmates. The catch is that they have to document the collaboration, and in a fairly detailed way. “I worked with person X on problem Y” isn’t sufficient. Students hate doing the documentation. Every assignment I have to nag someone about a missing or insufficiently detailed description of their collaboration.

On the most recent assignment one of my students had a brilliant, and yet completely simple, solution to the documentation. At the top of the file he wrote a couple of sentences describing the people with whom he worked. Then in his code he wrote comments surrounding the code on which he had collaborated with someone. The comments were in essence markers indicating the start and stop locations for the code that he developed in collaboration with others. In looking at it I had a perfectly clear picture of the extent and level of his collaboration, and yet I think it was also fairly easy for him to put it together. I have absolutely no idea why I never thought of this approach, but now that I’ve seen it I plan to direct every student who collaborates on their assignments down that path. The idea is simple but completely transforms something that I’ve struggled with for years. And I am fairly sure I will never forget the student who showed it to me.

So proud

I’ve written before about the increasingly parental relationship I have with my students. So it’s natural when one of them receives national recognition that I get excited for them, and I’m happy to say that happened this week. One of my former Python students was recently named as an awardee of the Scholarships for Women Studying Information Security (SWSIS). The 2015-2016 awardees and their bios were made available this week. I couldn’t be more proud of Cindy and her accomplishments.


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