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Computer Science was always supposed to be taught to everyone, and it wasn’t about getting a job: A historical perspective

Computing Education Research Blog

I gave four keynote talks in the last two months, at SIGITE, Models 2021 Educators’ Symposium, VL/HCC, and CSERC. I’m honored to be invited to them, but I do suspect that four keynotes in six weeks suggest some “personal issues” in planning and saying “No.” Some of these were recorded, but I don’t believe than any of them are publicly available

The keynotes had a similar structure and themes. (A lot easier than four completely different keynotes!) My activities in computing education these days are organized around two main projects:

My goal was to put both of these efforts in a historical context. My argument is that computer science…

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Posted by on November 29, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Talking to William Lau

We talk about Computer Science education generally and pedagogy in particular.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2021 in Interviews

 

Talking To Colin Webster

eSports is perhaps the fstaest growing sport in the world. Computer gaming has entered the mainstream and draws huge audiences and a great deal of money. And yet it has not gained wide traction in schools. Colin and I discuss the reasons for this.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2021 in Interviews

 

Talking with Marj Brown

In this episode I talk to Marj Brown who is Head of the History Department at Roedean School in Johannesburg, South Africa. Marj is a UNESCO Sustainable Development Goals ambassador, has run literacy projects and has a finger in just about every pie. We talk about the place of History in the curriculum and about the many projects she is involved in.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2021 in Interviews

 

The Pedagogical Workload of Online Teaching

During a recent staff meeting, there was widespread agreement amongst our staff that teaching online is harder than teaching face-to-face, but that teaching when some students are present in the classroom, and some are at home and joining the lesson online is the hardest of all. Online lessons are different to face-to-face: they are differently paced and organized. I believe most teachers have adjusted to this over time, and come to understand these differences and become effective in different modalities of instruction. Trying to do the two simultaneously is well-nigh impossible. You have to pitch it for the majority and try to accommodate the rest. The hardest of all I found to be those lessons where you, the teacher, are online at home teaching a class that is largely at school. You are trapped in an online modality trying to teach a class you cannot even see.

Let me be clear that I am not suggesting in any way that one medium is essentially better or worse than another. Both online and traditional classroom based teaching have advantages and weaknesses. I believe both are here to stay – not in competition with each other, but as part of a wider approach to life-long learning. Over the last year or so teachers have increasingly come to understand some of the affordances of online education and have learned how to leverage them.

What is clear is that in many ways teaching online takes a great deal of pedagogical effort, which takes a huge toll on teachers. Teaching simply takes longer meaning less can be covered. While one-on-one lessons may show little difference, whole class lessons show marked dispariries in how lessons can be organised and how long it takes to complete a lesson. My wife teaches Italian on Skype. She teaches one-on-one or in very small groups of two or three people, which allows for constant dialogue between teacher and pupil. Video cameras and microphones are constantly turned on. On the other hand I teach classes of between twenty and thirty students. We have to keep video switched off to preserve bandwidth and there is far less scope for interaction between teacher and pupil, and between students.

My normal routine is to record the lesson content and save it to a Youtube channel so students can view the lesson at any time if they lose connectivity or cannot be online for whatever reason. I then open a Teams meeting during the scheduled lesson and use screen-sharing or whiteboard to teach any content or skills, organise breakout rooms for group discussions and link to any other platforms students may need to complete tasks.

Whereas with face-to-face teaching it is easier to see where students are having difficulties, need help or are letting their attention wander, it is very hard to read where students are at online. Teenagers tend to be silent online, are probably on their phones, and few ask questions or seek help. Even breakout rooms can be silent places and as a teacher you can only check on one at a time. Getting feedback from students often feels like pulling teeth. At the end of a lesson one is exhausted. Endless zoom meetings are exhausting in any case, but the effort of trying to pull a lesson together makes it more so. It is harder to see who is working and who is not. It is harder to judge what students are thinking and nigh-impossible to slip in helpful comments and timely help when required.

If it is harder for teachers, I think it is the same for students. Some cope well with online lessons. But I would guess that many who cope with face-to-face lessons struggle with the self-discipline and exhaustion of learning online, and those who need a great deal of individual help really struggle.

But why is teaching some face-to-face and some online simultaneously so difficult?

Clearly what works online and what works in person is not quite the same. The pacing, the sequencing of a lesson are different. The technical aspects are pretty challenging too. You need to open up a Teams meeting in class and treat those online as an entity in the corner, so to speak, turning to the screen every now and then while teaching, or when circulating in the class to oversee a task being done. Sometimes you need to block out the classroom for a few minutes to pay undivided attention to those online, and vice versa. You need to constantly try to keep in mind what is happening in the classroom and online. I like to keep the Teams meeting on my interactive whiteboard and in the best case you can get students online to talk to the class and toggle between a view of the meeting and screen sharing.

All of this takes extra time to set up, organize and administer. As does trying to keep track of who is working and on track, and who is slipping behind. When you are etaching entirely online you can build in checks and moments in teh lesson for doing this, but when you are also teaching face-to-face, different routines take over and a different rhythm of work. Trying to do both starts to become the straw that broke the camel’s back. It came home to me the other day: after starting my Teams meeting for those online, making sure those in the class had santized, taken the register for those present and online, done a seating plan, made sure everyone knew what was expected for the module of work (with slightly different deliverables for face-to-face and online students) and that I had introduced the key skills for the task, and got everyone working on the task. The bell rang and I realised that we were way behind where I had planned. I then had to adjust my syllabus to make sure that I could cover work effectively rather than trying to rush and covering nothing properly.

I do not believe that teachers can keep going at this pace indefinitely without something giving. I sincerely hope that what breaks will not be either teachers or students.

 

Talking with Sean Creamer

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2021 in Interviews

 

The DigiTeacher Digest – Talking with Matthew Hains

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2021 in Interviews

 

Spectrum10K – Infantalizing the Autistic Gaze

Whose voice is heard on any issue is a crucial indicator of power. Who gets to speak on behalf of any community and whose views are legitimized are crucial questions which are often heavily contested. A large study called Spectrum 10K, aiming at collecting genetic material from 10 000 autistic people was recently put on pause after opposition from autistic people. A bitter war erupted on twitter around the role of the autism ambassadors of the study, and much flaming and trolling later a prominent autistic activist, Pete Wharmby was so bullied that he briefly quit the platform, causing massive shock waves amongst the #ActuallyAutistic community.

Opposition to the study was fuelled by fears that the collection of genetic samples would lead to pre-natal screening and autistic abortion, similar to down syndrome screening. It was also rooted in a deep distrust of non-autistic researchers and their motives. Simon Baron-Cohen, the lead reseracher, whose contribitions to autism research have previously angered autistic people, drew particular ire from a community already traumatized by the recent legal rulings over shock therapy and the promotion of behaviour modification generally. But perhaps most importantly opposition was focused around the need for a study of this type and how it would lead to the well-being of autistic people. Could the money not be better spent trying to improve the lives of autistic people, rather than researching contested notions of autism as a disease that ought to be eradicated?

The furore around the Spectrum10K study on twitter throws into sharp relief the struggles over legitimacy within the Autistic community. Of particular note was the way Spectrum 10K infantilized autistic voices by declaring that they were prepared to listen to the voices of autistic people and parents. Imagine a genetic study of any other minority group saying they would be swayed by what parents had to say? Autism is commonly diagnosed in childhood and the eyes of the world are mainly focused on autism as a childhood disorder. Yet autistic children grow up. What happens to them after they become 18? They do not stop being autistic and yet very little attention is paid to the struggles and lived experience of autistic adults. The voices of non-autistic researchers and professionals, of care-givers and parents tend to drown out the voices of autistic adults.

This situation is exacerbated by the large number of undiagnosed and late diagnosed adults. Diagnostic criteria have changed over the years and the diagnostic prevalence of autism is much higher now than it was a few decades ago. Additionally many more women and people of colour are now diagnosed. The stereotypical view of a socially awkward mathematically gifted white boy only interested in railway timetables has given way to a much more nuanced understanding of what an autistic identity looks like. A growing number of autistic researchers have started to change how autism is viewed. Damian Milton’s (2012) formulation of the double empathy problem, for example has largely come to replace the conception that autistic people lack adequate theory of mind. Since empahy is so central to notions of what it is to be human, this is a crucial intervention. Milton claims that autistic people do not experience communication deficits when communicating with each other: the deficits are perceived in communications between autistic and neurotypical people. This is a two-way street.

Autism starts to look much more like a diversity than a disorder or deficit. There thus appears to be a huge divide between the kinds of understandings developing amongst autistic people and autistic researchers on the one hand and non-autistic professionals, parents and researchers on the other. Those who are autistic tend to coalesce around many shared ideas and experiences, which, while diverse, share many common understandings. This autistic community finds a home on twitter around hashtags such as #ActuallyAutistic. Non-autistic people with a concern about autism (the autism community) seem to come together around a different set of understandings and experiences, however. Twitter is home to frequent skirmishes between the two communities over many issues. One such issue is the question of identity first versus person first language. The autistic community prefers talking about autistic people, while the autism community insists on referring to people with autism. On the one hand is the idea that autism is part of one’s identity, something that cannot be removed. It is not a disease or a disorder that can be cured. Rather it is a neurodivergence. Autistic people are differently wired. On the other is the view that autism is a condition which should be cured, but which ultimately stands outside the person in some way. While well-meaning, this view is taken by autistic people as an attack on their identity.

Unwavering support for ABA amongst members of the autism community is also deeply troubling to autistic people especially those who were subjected to it as children. Behaviour modification therapies are seen as tantamount to torture and pointless and damaging. For the #ActuallyAutistic community forcing autistic people to mask causes stress and life-long damage, depression, burnout and a much higher incidence of suicide than the population at large. Masking is the term used by autistic people to describe how they act in ways acceptable to non-autistic people in order to “pass” as “normal.” Masking over many years is deeply damaging to mental health. If autism is a neurodivergence, an effect of being differently wired, then it is clearly pointless and deeply harmful to continually behave in ways that are contrary to nature. But many non-autistic professionals, care-givers and parents are deeply invested in supporting ABA, in effect teaching autistic children to mask.

A third flash point is the continued use of the terms high functioning and low functioning. By definition most of the autistic community on twitter are considered high functioning, but the use of this term means very little and belittles the very real daily struggles faced by autistic people. A person who is functioning one moment may be falling apart the next. Labelling suggests that if a person is high functioning they are mildly autistic and need no accomodation, support or understanding. This is very far from the truth. The spectrum is not a continuum from mild to severe, but rather an admixture of different capacities in different spheres. In one person, sensory issues may be mild, but communication impairments severe. In another the reverse may be the case. Functioning labels are seen by the #ActuallyAutistic community as divisive and dismissive.

Autsistic people often face the charge that they are not really autistic; especially if they are self-diagnosed and considered high functioning. Many are told that they don’t look autistic, whatever that may mean. Diagnosis as an adult is not easy, especially for women and minority groups who do not fit the stereotypical image of what an autistic person looks like. Many professionals who act as gatekeepers to referral processes such as GPs, most of whom were trained decades ago, lack understanding of changes in the way autism is now viewed. The general public have even less understanding, their views largely being determind by the media, and films such as Rain Man or TV shows like The Good Doctor. Many autistic people thus struggle even to find affirmation of their identity. The #ActuallyAutistic community on twitter acts as a space for mutual affirmation and advocacy.

But it is a community that feels constantly under attack by a world at large that has little understanding or acceptance of autism as an identity. Twitter can be a toxic place and while many parents of autistic children are willing to listen and learn from adult autistic people, many are ready to bully and attack. These skirmishes between the two communities are often bitter and take their toll on advocacy activists.

To understand these struggles better I would like to draw on Karl Maton’s (2014) work on knower gazes. For Maton the key to understanding how people hold the views and opinions they hold is to see it as a product of their subjectivity and the interactions they have had. Succinctly put, one’s legitimacy as a knower depends either on who you are as a knower or the experiences and interactions you have had that allow you to know stuff. Being autistic brings a certain gaze based on being a particular type of knower. On the other hand being a parent of an autistic child brings experiences and interactions which lead to a very different gaze based on a particular type of knowing.

For Maton subjective and interactional relations are not binary, they fall on a (if you will pardon the pun) spectrum of strengths. People’s subjectivity is relative to the context at hand, as are one’s lived experiences and interactions. Maton visualizes these relations on a cartesian plane to reveal four different gazes.

A Social Gaze is formed when subjective relations are strong, being the right kind of knower is what is important. The interactional relations are weak. It does not matter what experiences you have had. By virtue of being the right kind of knower you have a legitimacy to speak. Being gay entitles you to speak out on gay rights issues. Being autistic legitimates your voice on questions around autism.

A Born Gaze is shaped when both subjective and interactional relations are important. Who you are matters, but so too does having the right interactions. For example, being born into a Christian family is not enough to legitimate your voice within a religious community, you also need to have had the right interactions to shape your gaze. You have to be raised as religious to have a legitimate gaze.

A Trained or a Blank Gaze is described where subjective and interactional relations are weak. You are neither the right kind of knower nor have you had the right kinds of interactions to shape a gaze. The gaze is dependent upon knowledge or skills (training) or is not present. Someone who is not autistic and has had no interactions with autistic people might have a trained gaze if they have learned about autism in a psychology course, for example, or a blank gaze if they simply have no basis for knowing anything about autism.

A Cultivated Gaze is described where you are not the right kind of knower, you are not autistic, but you have had interactions and experience with autism through being a professional or parent or care-giver. Members of the autism community may have a cultivated gaze.

It seems to me that using this understanding of different types of gaze helps to give a meta-language for understanding the struggles over who has a legitimate voice, which removes some of the sting. Karl Maton has stressed that his conceptual tools are descriptive rather than evaluative. No gaze is superior to another, they simply are what they are. It helps us to see that different actors within this space have a different basis for claiming to be able to speak on the issue.

Having a social gaze confers legitimacy in very obvious ways. It would seem obvious that Italians have a right to speak out on their national politics, for example, or that it is important to listen to what trans people have to say when discussing trans rights. Subjective relations confer legitimacy to actors who share an identity. Identity cannot be questioned, and where it is questioned it is clearly identifiable as bullying and gaslighting.

However, when your legitimacy is based on the interactions you have had, it is clear that the types of interactions and experiences are not immaterial. You cannot claim to be an expert on autism because you once met an autistic child. Raising an autistic child clearly counts for a great deal more. But the problem with a cultivated gaze is that if many of the interactions one has had are misinterpreted or framed in ways that are too idiosyncratic or at odds with the lived experiences of the subject, one’s views may lack legitimacy. In a world that is so hostile to the subjectivity of autistic people, interactions may be equally interpreted in ways which reflect the bias of the non-autistic gaze. The gaze reflects a skewed account.

Having a cultivated gaze is vital for anyone who wishes to be an ally of any marginalized or minority group, but the types of interactional relations that shape that gaze are crucial. Many of the spats on twitter reveal a cultivated gaze that is totally at odds with the subjective gaze of autistic people. To insist on person first language, for example, against the preferences of the community itself smacks of a total disregard for the views and perspectives of autistic people.

Remember Damian Milton’s double empathy problem? The social gaze of the autistic person, the autistic gaze, is often infantilized because autistic adults are not recognised, or are down-played as legitimate knowers. The autistic gaze is continually infantilized in this way. One cannot disregard the views of parents and care-givers either, of course, but members of the autism community are not bullied and marginalized in the same way. While the need to start hearing and heeding the views of autistic people is imperative if we are not only to be aware of autism, but also accept and respect neurodiversity.


Bibliography

Maton, K, Knowledge and Knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education, 2014, Routledge, London.

Milton, D, On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’, Disability & Society, vol 27 issue 6, pages 883-887, 2012.

Sanderson, K, High-profile autism genetics project paused amid backlash, Nature, 27 September 2021. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02602-7

Images from https://legitimationcodetheory.com/theory

 

New Podcast

I will be launching the DigiTeacher Digest Podcast on YouTube soon. The channel will be used to talk about all things educational technology, explore classroom pedagogies and how to teach with technology. I will also be interviewing teachers about their practice, and how they view the changes in education. The podcast is an extension of this blog, and I will post the podcast to this site as well. I am particularly excited about the prospect of talking to other teachers about their experiences. We tend to work alone in our silos. Conversations are often snatched between lessons, and we seldom get an opportunity to talk about some of the exciting things we are doing in our classrooms.

I hope to be able to strike a balance between discussing research and theoretical perspectives and the nitty gritty of classroom practice. What has always interested me is the way theory and practice meet in the classroom. When we use any technology in the classroom it is important to have some reasoning behind why we choose that tool to achieve what we want to achieve. It seems to me that we teachers don’t discuss this reasoning often enough amongst ourselves. We are so swept up in the day to day workload that we seldom get to be able to talk about why we do what we do.

This podcast aims to address this deficit. If you enjoy this blog, please consider visiting the YouTube channel and subscribing.

 

The Modified “Harvard” Marking System [a computer teacher’s perspective]

Marking is the bane of every teacher’s life. It occupies a great deal of time, and is often tossed aside by students after a cursory glance. I have never heard a teacher express any degree of enjoyment in grading student work. All students seem interested in is the mark, rather than the carefully considered advice. I would not say it is a complete waste of time, but all too often the only reason we as teachers do it is because it is expected of us by parents or administrators.

Approaches to arriving at that all important mark vary. In this post I want to look at one particular type of rubric that I use often. It is by no means appropriate for all contexts and tasks. Indeed it fills a rather narrow niche. I cannot find any reference to it online, but I have always known it as the “Harvard” marking system. I have no idea why, but this was how it was described to me by another teacher. Calling it this has a key benefit of warding off any criticism from students, parents or school administrators! If it is good enough for Harvard!

Whatever it is called, it consists of awarding full marks for work that meets the brief, half marks for work that is incomplete or flawed, and no marks for work that misses the brief entirely or is not submitted. It thus forms a flat 2, 1 or 0 mark system. This can be very useful for assessing short, practical in-class tasks, but is not very practical for larger projects or work that has a richer content or skills base.

I use it mostly for teaching ICTs and coding. When teaching PhotoShop, for example, my major concern is whether a student has been able to use layers and discrete tools successfully. I am not really worried about assessing their artistic or design skills. If the brief is to use these tools to create an image, then the mark is largely based on whether they have met this brief or not. The feedback comments can help them do this on subsequent drafts. My aim is that all students learn to use the tools accurately, and I am happy if everyone gets 100%. Similarly if they are writing a short program to roll a random die and return a pip value, this brief is met or not met. Comments can highlight student errors, and help them get their code working.

A big advantage to the system is that by being so clear-cut, and with so few marks on the line for each discrete task, students are encouraged to concentrate on the feedback designed to help them meet the brief, rather than on the mark itself. I allow students to re-submit any assignment at any stage to encourage this process.

If, however, students are working on a larger program, such as designing a game, or creating an e-book in InDesign, this simple marking rubric falls way short. I’m afraid this is where the devil in me takes over. Once having decided to use this marking system, I became determined to use it for all assessment. But clearly it needed more nuance. And so the modified Harvard system was born.

Levels Feedback
5 Meets the brief with flair and creativity.
4 Meets the brief.
3 Brief largely met or some errors in execution – see comments
2 Brief partially met or errors predominate – see comments
1 Brief misinterpreted or barely started
0 Nothing submitted

This allows one to differentiate between projects at the top end of the scale that meet the brief, but do so without any imagination or extra effort, and projects at the bottom end that are barely started or appropriate and those attempted, but riddled with errors. It is still a fairly crude instrument, but is quick and easy to use and focuses on the comments to guide improvement. You might be thinking that the difference between levels 2 and 3 in particular is tricky to apply. Is work incomplete or flawed, and how do you distinguish between the two? While this would be true for assignments such as writing an essay, for assessing computer code, or ICT projects, which is what I use it for, it works well even for larger projects. If work is largely or only partially incomplete by virtue of work done, or because errors render only part of the work practicable does not really matter. You are assessing that bit of the project that is there and working appropriately. The comments guide the student in what they need to do to meet the brief. Deciding between a level 3, 2 or 1 is usually pretty clear and not really subjective.

I particularly like the way in which it spurs students on to get 100% by going the extra mile to inject some flair or creativity. For example I set a task in which students had to add some JavaScript to the webpages they were working on to display a message addressing the reader by name in the reader’s favourite colour. Some students added extra variables to embellish the message, or used the favourite colour variable in different ways. They were exploring what they had learned about the prompt method and variables in JavaScript, and were playing with that knowledge to display their growing capacity. They were not simply meeting the brief, but doing it with some panache!

I believe that the system works well, but I would only recommend it when used to encourage students to keep trying to complete a task. It is not a one-off summative instrument. It works well hen you are expecting work to be re-submitted, often multiple times until it meets the brief. It is intended to help build skills and knowledge rather than to evaluate them. For this reason I think students like the system.

It makes marking less, well, punitive.

 
 
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