Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Strategic IT Plans for Educational Improvement

A couple of months ago my wife shared with me a draft of the strategic Information Technology plan for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC). A week or two later Cable Green, eLearning Director for the SBCTC, posted a link to the draft on his WA Open Education Resources blog. It's an interesting read and, at 21 pages, it doesn't take that long. In particular, I would hope my fellow board members and other citizens will read and consider the implications for the recommended changes. The impact is far greater than simply buying more servers.

As you read this, remember it is an information technology (IT) strategic plan, so it is going to be IT-heavy. Nevertheless, it ties back to real educational problems and to state-wide educational objectives. The opening sections clearly identify shortcomings in the current use of IT supporting education, but it also lays out a vision for the role of IT in helping to address these issues now and into the future:

To reach out to today’s young people and adults, we must dismantle the barriers of geographic isolation, cost, competing demands of work and family life, and past educational failure and frustration. We must create a system for learning that is welcoming to all, easy to enter and use, and tailored to the needs of each learner. Most important, we must create a system that fosters the personal relationships and support all human beings need to learn and thrive.
Seem a little lofty? Good, it should. A strategic plan needs to give us something to aim for, something just a little out of our reach. A few other things that I particularly like:
  • although this plan is for community and technical colleges, it identifies its role as part of a coordinated pre-school through university (P-20) educational system. It would be nice if everyone saw this as a whole system instead of purposely putting these entities in competition with one another (General Motors did that, but I'd like my education system modeled after Toyota)
  • It introduces and explains some interesting new topics. In particular the opportunity offered by open educational resources, like open source textbooks, gets discussed.
  • It also explains some less visible aspects of the educational and IT system. I'm thinking here about the introduction of CIS and WAOL.
  • It ties back to a "business" plan. Sometimes the effort to align an IT strategy with a non-existing business strategy leads IT to invent the business strategy. Sometimes it works and other times the IT strategy is much loftier than anyone else wants. Although it is buried in the document, it does eventually state that this plan supports the Washington Learns committee report.
In fact I only have one real issue: the assertion that purchased and/or host software is inherently a good solution. I have way too much experience with this. I have been universally disappointed with vendor software in the mid-market government space and suspect that similar problems exist in the academic environment too. Further, the assertion has to be based upon the belief that software development was the primary problem, when my experience is that the problems usually start in the defining of business requirements. Oracle ERP or SAP isn't going to make it any easier to get 34 community college presidents to agree on a common student registration process.

Anyway, take a read through and consider post a comment at Cable Green's blog.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Image Problems

The Association of Computing Machinery's (ACM) flagship journal Communications of the ACM gets a new look in July and has a couple of interesting articles related to technology education. (If you don't have an ACM membership, you can get the magazine online through the Sno-Isle library's ProQuest service. Go to http://www.sno-isle.org, select the research menu and follow the links to magazine and journal articles.)

On page 33, Rick Rashid, Microsoft's Sr. Vice President for Research, weighs in on the lack of students in computer science, computer engineering, software engineering, et al. You should read the article, but let me summarize the problem:
  1. Not enough students are going into this area of study in spite of evidence that the job opportunity remains high
  2. The situation is worse than it seems because significant numbers of students, particularly at the post-graduate level, are foreign-born and may not want to or be able to stay and contribute to our economy
  3. This lowers are ability to innovate and remain competitive in the global marketplace
Rashid goes on to say that computer science and engineering has an image problem. All too often it is the stereotypical view of the lone programmer (male), sitting for hours coding and debugging, that turns students off. Students with a view of computer science as a means to solve important problems are more likely to enter and finish computer science programs.

As I read the article, however, I begin to think less about the image problem and more about what an incredible opportunity is available to interested students by having one of Microsoft Research's sites located right here in the Puget Sound area. Not everyone is going to be interested in this type of work, but for those that are, they can do cutting-edge, world-class research right here.

I am reminded of the incredible work done at other research labs like the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) or the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) by the likes of Alan Kay and Douglas Englebart. I will digitally dope slap anyone who says "who are Alan Kay and Doug Englebart". If you use a mouse, a laptop, a graphical user interface, hypertext or program in an object oriented programming you can, in large part, thank these two gentlemen. Just for fun, check out this video of the famous 1968 mother of all demos in which Engelbart demonstrates how to use a mouse to cut and paste text while on a video conference (contrast it with this 2007 TED Talks presentation by Kay on using computers to help children learn through modeling concepts).

Browse over to the site for the Redmond research campus and take a look at what they are working on. Sure there is work on compilers and operating systems, but there are also projects in speech technology, visualization and social computing. And while I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from going into Computer Science, you will note that not everyone needs a Ph.D. in Computer Science to work at Microsoft Research. Mary Czerwinski, for instance, is a Research Area Manager of the Visualization and Interaction (VIBE) Research Group and has her PH.D. in Cognitive Psychology. Marc Smith does research in computer mediated social interaction and his degrees are in, you guessed it, Sociology.

Rashid closes out his article by calling on professionals to reach out to students and to the people who influence students - teachers, parents, counselors. The message is that programming isn't an end in itself, but a means to an end. The programming and design skills and knowledge gained will help your students to tame information overload, help the disabled to communicate through voice commands, or just build a cool new cell phone interface. Who knows, maybe you've got a Turing Award winner in your class right now.

Okay, you've officially been reached out to (ouch, nice grammar). Now I'm going to re-watch the Engelbart video. How did they do that in 1968?

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

It all adds up

I spent most of last Friday afternoon performing feats of statistical wonder: median, mode, mean, min, max and standard deviation calculations. The mayor wants to make the building permit process more predictable (consistent) so the process improvement team needs data on how much variation there is in the various steps of the process. Fortunately we have the data. Most of it I could do with the built in aggregating functions in SQL, but I had to break out the VBA code to call Excel's median function from Access.

Since this blog is intended to, on occasions, provide advice about how educational programs can better prepare students for the exciting world of corporate information systems (I.S.), I thought I toss out a couple of thoughts regarding math and corporate I.S.

Personally, I didn't hate or love math in school. Generally I was indifferent to math. I knew I had to be decent at math because in college I was going to be studying Biology, Chemistry, Forestry, Economics, Business in preparation for a career in Epidemiology, Land Management, HR, Marketing, Computer Programming (how'd that happen?). Fortunately I have those math skills because as programmer I have been asked to do rigorous computational mathematics like calculating pi, calculating rocket trajectory, modeling weather patterns, rounding a 401(k) deduction to two decimal places.

Like so many other students my issue with math was relevancy - am I ever going to use this stuff. Earlier this year I was reading a book called Made to Stick, about how some ideas are memorable and other not, and came across this quote from a teacher who had grown weary of such questions:
My grade 9 students have difficulty appreciating the usefulness of the Standard Form of the equation of a line, prompting them to ask, "When are we ever going to need this?"

This question used to really bother me, and I would look, as a result, for justification for everything I taught. Now I say, "Never. You will never use this."

I then go on to remind them that people don't lift weights so that they will be prepared should, one day, [someone] knock them over on the street and lay a barbell across their chests. You lift weights so that you can knock over a defensive lineman, or carry your groceries or lift your grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises so that you can improve your ability to think logically, so that you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden or parent.

MATH IS MENTAL WEIGHT TRAINING. It is a means to an end (for most people), not an end in itself.

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to Stick. New York: Random House, 2007 (page 194).
If you're like me, and you should be thankful you're not, you are immediately struck by the creativity in comparing math exercises with weight training for football. It's certainly true that the mental weight training my math teachers had me doing in the 1960's and 1970's sure paid off last Friday. As I pondered this post, however, it occurred to me that the analogy works in the other direction too. People who never get to play the game eventually stop lifting weights. Yes it's a means to an end, but if the end is 31 years away your going to lose a lot of folks.

Mathematically I got "into the game" in high school biology class. My project was to see if there was a statistically significant relationship between annual rainfall and the amount of growth in trees. The key was that I wasn't merely required to do the math, I had to figure out what math to do. I spent more time researching correlation than cutting up the tree (we had to go out into the forested countryside, which is now known as Mill Creek). Do you know how truly valuable it is to know that correlation and causality aren't the same things?

Okay, fast forward to today and we are thinking that another math requirement in high school is going to help raise standards. Might I suggest a class that isn't mathematical weightlifting, but instead encourages students to put math into practice. With apologies to those of you who love advanced mathematics, here is my quick list of useful math for corporate I.S. types:
  • interest rates, compound interest, rates of return, percentages, present value
  • marginal rates, rates of change
  • central tendency (mean, mode, median, standard deviation)
  • variable replacement, constants
  • date/time arithmetic
  • data types, numbering systems (binary, hex)
  • set theory, predicate logic, relational algebra (the basis for relational databases)
  • logic, story problem (can't solve a problem if you can't describe the problem)
  • relational operators (equal, greater than, less than or equal to, etc)
I can make a case for hiring an entry level programmer or analyst candidate who can demonstrate the use of these math concepts. It's certainly nice to have the advance math, and essential for many types of programming, but I have never been asked to determine the area of a paycheck.

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