Monthly Archives: September 2013

Coding as One Subject or All Over the Place?

Teaching coding is going to be ever more important in education. We should prepare our children with enough programming skills and the logical thinking behind. It is needed in today’s and tomorrow’s (work)life.

But here’s a question: should coding be taught as a separate subject or embedded in other subjects? Lately we’ve seen examples of both. Estonia, as far as I understand, takes the former approach. In Estonia they start to teach programming as its own subject to seven year old first graders. Excellent!

Another model comes from Massachusetts. Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, MA, is including coding in virtually all of its subjects. Not only in the usual suspects like math and STEM, but even in theater and music.

Without going into pedagogical discussion of which of the above models actually delivers better learning results regarding programming skills, let me take another approach, related to professions. I think it is safe to assume that future work is going to be more multidisciplinary than it is today or was yesterday.

Multidisciplinarity is going to be realized both on team and individual levels. Heterogeneous teams are going to be formed to solve new kinds of problems. Team members have to understand and respect each other, and that calls for some degree of multi-talent also from each of its members.

What does this have to do with teaching programming? Well, it is difficult to find work today that has nothing to do with computers and software. Understanding how computer( program)s work, not being afraid of them, being even able to manipulate them is something that everyone should handle. To a certain degree, of course. Not everyone should be educated to be an engineer.

As long as we teach programming as a separate subject, it is more likely that we maintain the current categories of some people being “technical” and others not. The ones who get excited about programming go deeper and deeper while others just try to cope with it, even if it were a mandatory subject.

That is why I am currently more inclined to favor the Massachusetts model. Not isolating coding as something totally separate from other subjects makes it easier to approach. Students will have much more touch points with programming if it is embedded in their lessons throughout the day than if they take one hour of it once or twice a week.

That being said, there are also pros in the Estonian model. First of all, it starts at a more appropriate age (1st grade) than Beaver Country (6th grade). Secondly, it has more potential in teaching the logical foundations of programming, which I consider very important.

So as a conclusion, I want a hybrid model: start very young and include both pure and applied coding in your curriculum. Thank you very much.

Artificial Intelligence, Y U Follow Me?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the tendency to follow me wherever I go. Maybe I am to blame, since I first went to it when still studying at the universiy. I wrote my Master’s thesis in 1999 about software agents, which at that time were the main manifestation of AI.

These agents were supposed to start roaming the web delivering all sorts of interesting content to their masters, the web users. Then I moved on to researching the Semantic Web, which was intended to provide healthy food for these agents.

Next were context-aware mobile phone apps. The simplest form of context-awareness is based on the user’s location: provide the user with content which is relevant in her current place, e.g. nearby restaurants with good deals.

There are many more attributes describing the user context than mere location, however, and combining those into a meaningful framework is tricky. It’s so tricky that doing it right in my opinion requires quite strong AI. You’d have to know the user’s current goals, social surroundings, mental and physical state, etc. in order to provide her with the most suitable content and services.

I was able to hide from AI for a couple of years, working mainly on market research and social media. Now since more than two years I’ve been in education and AI has yet again found me, this time in the form of personalized learning.

Personalized or adaptive learning is a great goal to pursue! What better for a student than to provide him with the materials and solutions that best fit his skill levels and learning style preferences? By the same token, doing it all the way it is tricky. Very.

Complete understanding of the user context basically requires telepathy. As Nagel pointed out, one person cannot fully understand what it is like to be another person. It cannot be objectively communicated. Similarly for learning: students are unique individuals and facilitating each one best is (at least next to) impossible.

There are many things that can be done, however, and are actually being done already. Adaptive learning solutions are going to enter education the same way intelligence enters the automotive industry: slowly but surely, without us even noticing it.

If you would bring a modern self-parking car with cruise control and windshield wipers adjusting to the weather to say 1940s, locals would treat is as (artificially) intelligent device for sure. However, these innovations have emerged over time and that’s why we are reluctant to claim them as AI.

So keep calm and carry on, adaptive learning solutions are going to pop up here and there. It’s going to be an evolution, not revolution.

10 More Things You Shouldn’t Do While Presenting

After reading this delightful post about things not to say during presentations, I got into a small Twitter conversation about more similar things with Jon Marshall and Pauliina Perttuli. Let me list those here, as well as some extras. (Note that the original list was about things not to say, but I’ll extend it to things not to do.)

11. Double/triple introduction

12. Conclusion – bah!

13. Wannabe lightsaber man

14. Does anyone have questions at this point no ok so let’s move on…

15. Laptop solipsism

16. Don’t you dare interrupting me

17. You can find more info in http://www yada yada

Showing URLs on your presentation slides is one thing, they might actually be useful for the audience. Like giving more info links on the final slide. But reading them out loud? There’s an odd chance that someone could grab what you’re saying with Siri or some such, but it’s quite far-fetched.

18. Back to the audience

Don’t do it. You shouldn’t have to look at the big screen. Either maintain eye contact with your laptop or, better, memorize what you are saying so that you don’t have to read anything.

19. My topic is the most interesting there is

It is usually good to assume that the audience has little or no knowledge about your topic. After all, they have their own areas of expertise which are different than yours. This approach helps in coming up with a well-structured and informative presentations.

20. Busta Rhymes

Talk slowly. Seriously.

China’s Interesting New Education Reform Commandments

In the spring of 2011 I had the privilege of visiting Shanghai with a Finnish delegation researching the future of work and education. (The trip was part of a bigger project. Should you be interested, the end report of this project can be found here [PDF].)

One of the final visits of our Shanghai trip was to the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, and we got a great, funny presentation by its Deputy Director-general, Dr. Zhang Minxuan.

We were sitting around a long table. Every couple of minutes Zhang would pause his talk and slide handfulls of candy at us listeners, yelling “Eat, eat!”, and then getting back to his talk on how to develop the Shanghai educational system.

Why am I blogging about this now? After all our trip took place over two years ago. The reason this new blog post by Joe Bower. You see, when I was listening to Zhang, I got the feeling that they were not going to stop there. They had already knocked Finland off the top spot of PISA, mind, so they were in quite a good shape.

Zhang told us about copying with pride, they had for example adapted the categorization and governance structures of Californian state universities to local settings in Shanghai area.

I don’t know if Zhang has been involved with creating the list mentioned in Joe’s blog post. In any case, you can put two and two together. The Chinese have taken several characteristics very prominently present (at least) in Finnish education and are now going to adapt them to fit their needs. And good for them!

Examples include:

  • Equality. Everyone starts at the same level.
  • Less standardized testing. Learning for skills/knowledge rather than passing an exam.
  • Less differentiation. Avoid putting children into different tracks too early.
  • Shift from numerical to categorical assessment.