Magical thinking on school tech

School technology inspires a lot of magical thinking, writes Larry Cuban.

Massive Open Online Courses — free to anyone with an Internet connection — were supposed to “revolutionize” and “transform” higher education. Cuban writes. In the Gartner “hype” cycle, MOOCs have reached the “Trough of Disillusionment” in only three years.

The move to teach coding in elementary school and computer science in high school is in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” writes Cuban.

Britain’s national curriculum now requires “computing” in secondary schools.

In the U.S., coding and computer science “are being sold to school boards and parents as ways of teaching logic, thinking skills, as well as preparation for future jobs,” Cuban writes. He’s dubious.

Chicago Public Schools is “rolling out computer science classes at all levels” and plans to make computer science a graduation requirement, writes Scott Shackford.

Computer science educators worry about maintaining quality, he writes. “Just because every high school in the country is ordered to provide computer science classes doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be any good and that students will learn from them.”

Technology won’t save our schools, writes Austin Dannhaus on edSurge. “Education technology has seen over $3 billion of venture capital investment in the last two years. A corresponding rise in education outcomes, however, has been much more elusive. “

Who will teach computer science?

All New York City public high schools will offer computer science in 10 years, pledges Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Who will teach computer science? asks Naomi Schaefer Riley in the New York Post. Public schools already have trouble finding qualified math teachers and it will be even harder to hire computer science professionals, who have much more lucrative options.

IBM worked with New York City public schools and the community college system, to create P-TECH, which prepares students for technology careers.

IBM worked with New York City public schools and the community college system, to create P-TECH, which prepares students for technology careers.

Tech CEO Daniel Gelernter doesn’t look for a degree in computer science when he’s hiring a software developer, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “University computer science departments are in miserable shape: 10 years behind in a field that changes every 10 minutes.”

If universities can’t keep up, how can the city’s public schools? asks Riley. “The equipment will be outdated before it’s even installed. And the kind of knowledge that will actually be useful in the real world is changing constantly.”

De Blasio hopes computer science classes will help prepare students for technical careers. But will they?

A number of years ago, a girl I mentored told me that she planned to attend the John Jay High School for Law because she wanted to become a lawyer and her middle school guidance counselor told that school would start her down the right path.

When I explained that to be a lawyer, you needed to go to law school and in order to go to law school you needed to go to a good college and in order to go to a good college you had to learn a lot in high school and that John Jay was one of the worst in the city, she and her immigrant mother looked flabbergasted.

Nationwide, a quarter of high schools offer a programming course; 6 percent teach Advanced Placement computer science.

New York City officials aren’t talking just about AP. They want to expand computer science from elite high schools to schools where most students are below grade level in math and reading, reports the New York Times.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson, who financed the new Academy for Software Engineering, believes the program shows that all students can benefit from computer science classes.

But I’d guess the academy hires computer science teachers who understand computer science to students who have some interest in the subject.

For years, California offered bilingual classes without having anywhere near enough bilingual teachers. It didn’t work.

Libraries add ‘coder time’ to story time

Librarian Brooke Sheets uses colored cups to teach algorithms and debugging to girls at Los Angeles’ Central Library. Photo: Alex Schaffert-Callaghan, KPCC

To play a drawing game called Phenomenal Turtle, nine-year-old Perla Hernandez had to “break down big complex problems into small sequential steps,” writes Alex Schaffert-Callaghan on KPCC. She was one of a dozen children who came to a Los Angeles’ library for “coder time.”

 Children can program a turtle to create designs in Phenomenal Turtle

Children can program a turtle to create designs in Phenomenal Turtle

Librarian Joanna Fabicon “would love coding to be as ubiquitous in libraries as story time.” She works with an afterschool program to reach children at eight LAUSD elementary schools.

Girls feel comfortable coming to the library, said Brooke Sheets, a children’s librarian at the central branch. “More than half the kids in Hernandez’s class were girls, a ratio most computer science programs can only dream of,” writes Schaffert-Callaghan.

At the end of the lesson Hernandez showed her game to the group. “The kids watched as a small green turtle moved quickly across the screen, filling it with a rainbow of intricate pop-art patterns, earning a big round of applause.”

Within 10 years, all New York City schools will offer computer science, pledges Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Chicago plans to require a year of computer science for high school graduates by 2018, reports the New York Times. (Really! How many can add fractions?) “The San Francisco Board of Education voted in June to offer it from prekindergarten through high school, and to make it mandatory through eighth grade.”

SF plans computer science for all

Volunteer Aimee Menne helps teach computer science at San Francisco’s Mission High. Photo: Andra Cernavskis

San Francisco’s public schools plan to expose every child to computer science from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, writes Andra Cernavskis on the Hechinger Report. What does that mean? The district is trying to figure that out.

“We are not trying to produce an army of software engineers,” said Bryan Twarek, SFUSD’s computer science coordinator. “We want to open all doors to this industry, and right now those doors aren’t open to everyone.”

In fact, only 10 of San Francisco’s 18 high schools offer any kind of computer science class, with just 5 percent of all high school students enrolled in classes at any level, from introductory to Advanced Placement. Most of the students in that 5 percent are white or Asian males. Of the few hundred students who took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science in 2014, only 22 percent were female, and only 3 percent identified as African American, Latino, or Native American.

For the younger grades, educators want to design a program that isn’t just about bringing gadgets and technology into the classroom, writes Cernavskis. Computer programming is a form of problem solving, said Julie Flapan, the executive director of Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools (ACCESS).

AP computer science — hold the Java

Hoping “to increase the number and diversity of high school students taking computer science, the College Board will launch a new Advanced Placement course in fall 2016 that teaches a broader range of computing skills,” reports Education Week.

AP Computer Science Principles is less focused on programming.

. . .  teachers can choose which programming language (or languages) they’d like to teach. For instance, rather than teaching a text-heavy language like Java, teachers can choose a block-based language like Scratch, Alice, or Snap! that can be more accessible for new coders.

. . . Students in the principles course will also study how the Internet works, the global impact of computing, and the ways computational processes can be applied to large datasets.

For those of you who are computer science professionals, does the new course make sense to you?

Teaching computer science — without computers

Teaching computer science doesn’t require computers, writes Annie Murphy Paul for the Hechinger Report. Computer Science Unplugged designs activities that teach the “computational thinking” that underlies computer systems.

A group of children on a playground, each kid clutching a slip of paper with a number on it, moves along a line drawn in chalk, comparing numbers as they go and sorting themselves into ascending order from one to ten.

Another group of children, sitting in a circle, passes pieces of fruit — an apple, an orange — from hand to hand until the color of the fruit they’re holding matches the color of the T-shirt they’re wearing.

. . . In the first activity, they’ve turned themselves into a sorting network: a strategy computers use to sort random numbers into order. And in the second activity, they’re acting out the process by which computer networks route information to its intended destination.

Computer Science Unplugged has been developed at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand over the past two decades. Games, puzzles and tricks are aimed at children in kindergarten through seventh grade.

 Youngsters can tackle topics as apparently abstruse as algorithms, binary numbers, Boolean circuits, and cryptographic protocols.

. . . Younger children might learn about “finite state automata” — sequential sets of choices — by following a pirates’ map, dashing around a playground in search of the fastest route to Treasure Island.

Later, students can learn to program a computer.

Teach programming, statistics — not calculus

Get rid of high school calculus to make way for computer programming and statistics, writes Steven Salzberg in Forbes.

With computers controlling so much of their lives, from their phones to their cars to the online existence, we ought to teach our kids what’s going on under the hood. And programming will teach them a form of logical reasoning that is missing from the standard math curriculum.

With data science emerging as one of the hottest new scientific areas, a basic understanding of statistics will provide the foundation for a wide range of 21st century career paths.

Most students won’t need calculus, Salzberg writes. Those who do can take it in college.

If a few top universities announced they value programming and statistics as highly as calculus,  “our high schools would sit up and take notice,” he writes.

I’m not sure everyone needs computer science, but I would like to see non-calculus alternatives for non-STEM students.

When my daughter was entering 12th grade, I suggested she take AP Statistics, which I thought she might be able to use in the future.  The college counselor said AP Statistics was considered second rate. Elite colleges demanded AP Calculus.

My daughter earned a C in calculus her first semester. The counselor said she’d doomed her college chances. So Allison dropped the course to do an independent study on American poetry, was rejected by Yale, Brown, Penn, etc. and went to UCLA, where she earned an A+ in statistics. After two years, she transferred to Stanford, where she dabbled in programming. (“Everyone knows Java,” she said.)

UW seeks ‘equity’ in grades, majors

Blacks and Latinos should achieve “equity” in grades and high-demand majors at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, according to the Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence passed by the Faculty Senate. No one challenged the plan or debated the consequences, charges W. Lee Hansen, an emeritus economics professor, in Madness in Madison.

The framework is vague, a “thicket of cliches,” writes Hansen. However, an Ad Hoc Diversity Planning Committee has formulated goals and recommendations based on “Inclusive Excellence” framework  adopted earlier by the Board of Regents.

The  “representational equity” section calls for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.”

What does that mean?

 Suppose there were a surge of interest in a high demand field such as computer science. Under the “equity” policy, it seems that some of those who want to study this field would be told that they’ll have to choose another major because computer science already has “enough” students from their “difference” group.

Especially shocking is the language about “equity” in the distribution of grades. Professors, instead of just awarding the grade that each student earns, would apparently have to adjust them so that academically weaker, “historically underrepresented racial/ethnic” students perform at the same level and receive the same grades as academically stronger students.

At the very least, this means even greater expenditures on special tutoring for weaker targeted minority students. It is also likely to trigger a new outbreak of grade inflation, as professors find out that they can avoid trouble over “inequitable” grade distributions by giving every student a high grade.

I’m sure “equity” in grades and majors is a goal, not a mandate. UW professors wouldn’t turn Asian-American males away from computer science majors and tell them to try sociology, Spanish or African-American Studies instead. They wouldn’t set different grading standards by race and ethnicity or give everyone A’s to erase an achievement gap.


If UW wants to help underprepared students succeed in demanding majors, there are real things the university could do. Work with high schools and community colleges to improve readiness. Rethink counseling and tutoring. Set up summer jobs in STEM fields.

Helping minority students earn good grades is a worthy goal, writes Ann Althouse, also a UW professor. “We want all our students to do well.” 

The gender gap is TEM-only

Here’s the percentage of Bachelor’s degrees conferred to women, by major (1970-2012) courtesy of Randal S. Olson.


More than 80 percent of degrees in health and public administration are earned by women, he notes. Nearly 80 percent of education and psychology degrees also go to women. In biology, women earn 58 percent of degrees.

Even in math, statistics and physical sciences, women earn more than 40 percent of degrees. Business is close to 50-50.

He flips the chart to show that men are lagging in everything but engineering, computer science, physical science, math and statistics. Women are close to parity in everything but engineering and computer science.

Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic — and coding

Audrey Hagan, left, and Amelia Flint, both 8, learning to code last month at an event in Mill Valley, Calif. Jason Henry for The New York Times

Computer coding for kids is a “national education movement that is growing at Internet speeds,” reports the New York Times.

MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Seven-year-old Jordan Lisle, a second grader, joined his family at a packed after-hours school event last month aimed at inspiring a new interest: computer programming.

“I’m a little afraid he’s falling behind,” his mother, Wendy Lisle, said, explaining why they had signed up for the class at Strawberry Point Elementary School., a tech-industry group, is offering free curricula and pushing districts to add programming classes — and not just in high school. In nine states, students earn math — not elective — credits for computer science classes. Chicago’s public school system hopes to make computer science a graduation requirement in five years.

In Mill Valley, elementary school children and their parents solved animated puzzles to learn the basics of computer logic. Many parents see coding as “a basic life skill,” says the Times. Or perhaps the “road to riches.”

Some educators worry about the industry’s heavy role: Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have put up about $10 million for The organization pays to train high school teachers to offer more advanced curriculums, and, for younger students, it has developed a coding curriculum that marries basic instruction with video games involving Angry Birds and hungry zombies.

The lessons do not involve traditional computer language. Rather, they use simple word commands — like “move forward” or “turn right” — that children can click on and move around to, say, direct an Angry Bird to capture a pig.

Computer programming should be taught in every school, said Hadi Partovi, the founder of and a former executive at Microsoft. It’s as essential as “learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis.”

I’m not convinced that everyone needs to learn programming in order to use computers. And it’s not the only way to learn logic.

My three-year-old nephew was playing Angry Birds on his tablet today, prepping for his future as a high-tech zillionaire. That 7-year-old in Mill Valley is so far behind.