Push-button schools and zap hats – The future of education

Yesterday I spent most of the day as a judge in the local Opti-Minds Challenge. Opti-Minds is a problem solving event/competition. Groups of at least 4 have to develop a 10 minute presentation/play to present a solution to an open-ended question. I volunteered for the Social Sciences challenge which was to develop a new method of education because of changes in technology and the observation that no-one wants to be a teacher anymore.

This is a subject close to my heart and I was interested in seeing what solutions groups of engaged kids would come up with. The kids were the highlight. All of them were engaged and having a great deal of fun. It looked like they all got a lot out of the challenge. It was highly enjoyable from that perspective. There was a buzz in the room as the presentations were given. The ideas they presented were also imaginative.

I wasn’t going to go any further than this but then came across this post from PaleoFuture about “The Push-Button School of Tomorrow (1958)”.

Push-button schools

Almost all of the “solutions” presented by the students were similar examples of the horseless carriage approach to technology. i.e. use technology to do exactly what we’ve always done but with technology. In the case of the students solutions some examples included:

  • Zap-hats.
    Reworking of kitchen microwaves to directly transmit thoughts from one mind to another. A little sad was the design feature where the teacher’s zap hat acted as a circuit breaker to prevent the students from engaging in peer-to-peer though transmission.
  • Drugs.
    A special drug when injected into specific foods would automatically make kids smarter. Inject the drug into an apple and the student would be intellectual. Inject it into Powerade and the student would be an uber-jock.
  • Sunglasses, teaching androids and the Schoolamatic 3000.
    Technology that would enable students to study what they needed to know. The androids were perhaps the most obvious horseless carriage application of technology.

Underpinning all of these presentations was the assumption that the current fixed curriculum was okay. There seemed to be no questioning of the existing structure of school. Just do what we’re doing with technology.

Except for one school. Which took the brave challenge to ignore the heavy prompt within the Opti-Minds challenge problem statement to consider technology. Instead they focused on the principles they thought were important in education.

It was a little sad that only one team picked up on this. Even though all teams represented the disengagement of many students and subsequent behavioural problems as one of the reasons why no-one wants to be a teacher anymore. None of the teams seemed to step back and question why.

To be fair, some of these teams were primary school age and all the teams did amazing work. It’s just a bit sad to see them not questioning the basics of the system of education more.

The future of education

It’s especially sad when the students were given free range to come up with anything. They didn’t have to work within the everyday, pragmatic constraints of the current education system. No-one expected these to be implementable

Over the last few weeks – especially around the question of the value of gamification – I’ve been increasingly thinking about the relative value of the two broad approaches to the future of education, which are:

  1. The evolutionary.
    Implement some minor changes that hopefully the current status quo of the formal education system.
  2. The revolutionary.
    Give up the current system as a bad joke and either throw it out or ignore it.

Increasingly I’ve been seeing strong signs of two camps forming about these two approaches. The two camps can get quite derogatory about the other.

Perhaps it is the pessimist in me, but I think both approaches have significant problems. The revolutionary approach is acting against the inertia of an established system, which is difficult to overcome. It also assumes that a group of people can identify the solution to the wicked problem that is education and then successfully implement it in a way that doesn’t introduce its own problems. The evolutionary approach if just as bad as it most often produces horseless-carriage innovations. Innovations that have been corrupted by the grammar of school and transformed into something that just continues doing what has always been done.

How do you move forward then? Perhaps a mixture of both. Seeking to mix the ideas of the revolutionary but by continually embedding them via evolutionary means. After all, if you see education as a complex system then the introduction of small changes can have significant repercussions. Of course, this relies upon the revolutionary ideas still being out there. You need to question the assumptions of the current approaches, without the revolutionary ideas you just get horseless carriages.

It appears I’m starting to think that the future of education will be informed by the revolutionaries, but it will be formed by evolution. Mmm, is that what I want?

Some trends with enrolments in IPT

The following graphs are based on statistical information provided by the Queensland Studies Authority. The intent was to explore what was happening in terms of enrolments in the Senior High School course Information and Processing Technology (IPT).

The picture doesn’t appear to be that rosy (if you assume doing IPT is good).

Percentage enrolments

The following graph shows how the percentage of all OP students (OP students are essentially those thinking of trying to get into University. I’ve used this figure, rather than all students, because recent changes in Queensland schooling has resulted in significantly greater number of overall students) enrolled in IPT. (Click on the graph to see a bigger version).

Percentage of gender enrolments

Not surprisingly the % of boys enrolled in IPT peaks in 2002 at just over 35% of all OP boys at high schools. It’s declined since then to under 20% last year.

The % of females enrolled in IPT has never reached 10%. It peaked in the lead up to the dot-com boom and is currently sitting at 2.9%

Students per school

A similar story can be seen in the following graph, which shows the average number of total students, boys and girls studying IPT at each school that is offering the course IPT.

# of IPT students per school

Dot-com boom increase, followed by fall. Girls have always been falling.

On average, there are less than 10 students in every IPT class in Queensland. That doesn’t look very sustainable.


The following fairly messy graph compares the % of students enrolled in IPT who received the top 3 results (in descending order VHA, HA and SA). The students are divided by gender.

Gender-based comparison of results

The story is that for the top 2 results (VHA and HA) there is a greater percentage of female students than male. The females are out-performing the males in IPT.

Is IT a service industry, or is it "eating the world"?

In an earlier post I wondered if how high school classes in Information Technology(IT)/Computer Science(CS) are being taught is turning students off and, if so, is this why enrolment numbers are dropping. In the comments on that post Tony suggests some other reasons for this decline. Including the observation that IT courses in local schools (both Tony and I live in Queensland, Australia) are primarily seen to serve the needs of students who want to be IT professionals. The further suggestion is that since

IT is a service-based industry, there only needs to be 5%-10% of the population focused on it as a profession

Now I can agree somewhat with this perspective. It matches some of what I observe. It also reminds me of Nicholas Carr’s 2003 Harvard Business Review article titled IT doesn’t matter which included the following

The point is, however, that the technology’s potential for differentiating one company from the pack – its strategic potential – inexorably diminishes as it becomes accessible and affordable to all

Instead of being strategic, Carr sees IT becoming infrastructure somewhat like electricity etc.

The rise of the cloud seems to reinforce this perspective. Increasingly there is no strategic advantage for an institution having its own guru Systems Administrators running servers and managing networks. Instead they can outsource this to “the cloud” or more often service providers. For example, a number of Australian Universities have outsourced the hosting of their Learning Management Systems.

Combine this with the nerd image of IT, and you can see why more high school students aren’t taking classes in IT.

But what if software ate the world?

And then comes the recent article from Marc Andreessen on “Why software is eating the world”. In his own words

My own theory is that we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy

If true, this sort of shift suggests that having some IT, especially software, knowledge and capability could be a useful thing. The prediction is that industries with a significant physical component (e.g. oil and gas) the opportunity is there for existing companies. But in other industries, start-ups will have opportunities.

Andreessen argues that this shift is starting to happen now for much the same reason that Carr argued that IT didn’t matter anymore. i.e. the technology needed to fully harness software has become infrastructure, it’s become invisible. Huge numbers of people have smartphones and Internet access. The IT services industry and the cloud make it simple to develop a global software application.

Of course, one of the problems with this argument is confirmation bias, as put in this comment from the Slashdot post on the Andreessen article

An expert of [field of study] believes [field of study] will change the world. Also emphasizes that other people are not taking [field of study] seriously.

What does this mean for high school IT classes

One of the problems that Andreessen identifies is that

many people in the U.S. and around the world lack the education and skills required to participate in the great new companies coming out of the software revolution.

Give the dearth of enrolments in high school IPT in local schools and universities, I imagine that the same problem exists here in Australia. I believe this is also a major point that Rushkoff makes in his book “Program or be programmed”

So, obviously more people should enrol in the IT classes in high school.

No, I don’t think so. At least not as most stand at the moment.

This connects back to a point from my initial post. I believe that the current curriculum and teaching methods for these courses are generally not appropriate for the purpose of preparing people – beyond just the future IT professionals – for this world that software is eating.

The current curriculum appears aimed at providing the service providers. The folk who will keep the infrastructure going. What is needed is curriculum and teaching methods that will prepare the folk who are going to identify opportunities and transform industries. Or on a smaller scale, identify opportunities for how the IT infrastructure can be harnessed to improve their lives.

Khan academy, gamification, the flipped classroom and mathematics

As part of my study to become a high school teacher (Information Technology and Mathematics) I have to develop a unit of work for a senior class (defined here as being in Grades 10-12). As part of this process I’m meant to

  • Describe myself as a teacher and learner (500 words max.).
  • Describe the learner cohort (1000 words max.).
  • Bring it all together (500 words max.).

The idea, I believe, is to show how I can develop some insight into the students I’m teaching and come up with a plan for how to successful engage them in learning.

As the title of this post suggests, the unit of work I do will be based on a Grade 10 Mathematics class. (In this context there are three levels of Grade 10 mathematics courses, the class I’m focusing on is the middle group).

As the title also suggests, I’m seriously considering writing a unit of work based on the assumption of using the Khan Academy videos, its recent “gamification” features, and the notion of the flipped classroom (plus some additional features as necessary).

Anyone got “bingo” on their buzzword bingo cards yet?

The purpose of this post is to encourage me to reflect and share upon why I’m thinking of taking this approach and to act as a rough working diary. If some nice folk provide useful feedback and pointers, so much the better.

It should be noted, that there is no requirement for me to actual implement this unit of work.


First, I want to push myself a bit. I could do a fairly standard unit of work and get a pass mark or a bit better. Adopt all the standard practices and assumptions but stick fairly tightly with the “grammar of school”.

Second, I don’t have the time to push myself too much. This assignment has to be finished in about a week (I’ve submitted two assignments in the preceding two weeks) and I have prac teaching and a family to consider. I’m aware of the some/many of the limitations of Khan Academy, the idea of “gamification” (e.g. gamification is bullshit), and the problems faced by flipped classrooms where students just don’t do “the homework”. And yes there is the idea that this type of use of Khan Academy is de-valuing the role of the teacher. i.e. turning them into “facilitators”. There’s always a chance of this, but in my mind there is still a need to connect this stuff to the real world and engage the learners. This is where I come in. Not delivering the same content and not just providing one-on-one assistance. But engaging the learners in the authentic, exciting stuff that provides the context for the Khan Academy stuff.

Third, I fear that moving beyond these buzzwords toward something like project/problem-based learning would be a step too far outside the “grammar of school”. Not to mention the Unit of Work template I have to use. I’m pretty sure it would be a step too far for my naive and limited knowledge of mathematics and high school.

Lastly, while recognising the limits of the “grammar of school”, I’m increasingly frustrated by the constraints and limitations I see from this grammar in operation at local high schools. What it is doing to students and teachers is incredibly saddening. Something has to change and while Khan/gamification/flipped classroom are all buzzwords with their detractors I’ve convinced myself that an appropriate combination might just have some promise.

So, the process of developing this unit of work should give a reality check to this half-baked perception of promise.

Current problems

The following list of problems is not specific to the class I’m thinking of, but instead is a general list of problems with high school mathematics classes that I’ve observed and read about in the literature. This will need to be revised for the final assignment, but this is an initial list, in no particular order.

  1. The teacher is the bottleneck/kids can’t work at their own pace
    The only source of instruction is the teacher. It is done via the board/worksheet and the teacher waits for all students to be ready/have written down the work. In the current class, the vast majority of the students don’t have the textbook. In a previous class I observed, while the students had taken possession of the text, it rarely made it to class.
  2. The teacher is only available during class time.
    Once the lesson on “topic X” is complete, it generally won’t be completed. The student can’t revise it. They might have a textbook, but that’s not really going to help.
  3. Students are disempowered.
    They can’t work at their own pace, can’t make decisions about what suits them. Have to do the homework tonight, even though they have to go to their part-time job. Having to sit quietly while waiting for the rest of the class catchs up bores the students and then they get in trouble because the process isn’t engaging them. Talk about frustrating. Not to mention how the students who are a bit slower than everyone else feels about being continually visible as the one holding up the rest of the class.
  4. Collaboration is frowned upon.
    Talking with your mate is out. You can even get in trouble when trying to help.
  5. Student/teacher interaction is heavily weighted toward information distribution of content, with almost no time for providing one-on-one assistance.
  6. The lack of connection between the students’ world and mathematics.
  7. There are some kids that are missing out.
    There are some students who are obviously rebelling and not learning and that’s sad enough. What I really fear (and tend to believe) is that there are many more students who are putting a good face on it, but really aren’t getting it.

Now, not all classes have all of these problems. But I’m pretty sure most of the math classes have some of these problems at some stage.

So what’s the vague plan?

I have this vague idea based on on ad hoc observations of bits and pieces that when supplemented with a few additional activities/resources, the Khan Academy functionality might provide some answers to some of these problems.

The basic plan goes something like, after careful preparation the students are given the responsibility of working through the Khan Academy videos and quizzes that match the required curriculum for this unit of work. This is done at times when the students choose and at a pace that suits them. It’s their responsibility to complete the work within the allotted time.

It’s also their responsibility to figure out how best to access the computing resources necessary to do this. To support those with limited computing resources at home, there would have to be 1-1 school computers available during classes and perhaps for at least 1 or 2 sessions outside class. Preferably the school would have 1-1 computers for students all the time. I wonder what the Khan Academy position is on downloading the videos and placing them on DVD/CD for students without Internet access? They support it and several projects are providing it in various ways.

Encouragement/pressure (a fine line to tread) to complete the work is achieved through use of the Khan Academy self-assessment system to allow the teacher to observe progress and also work this into some sort of group-based collaboration. i.e. (very vague here) the students aren’t working entirely alone. They are members of small groups – which should probably be self-selected in keeping with the empowerment angle, or perhaps some dating agency software along the lines of social network stimulation – which are competing towards some sort of goal that depends on the success of all (yea, I do realise this is a bit tenuous and questionable).

Actually, perhaps rather than being too explicit with deadlines, it might be more appropriate to schedule “Project days” at regular intervals. i.e. a day where the lesson is focused on some sort of “fun/interesting” activity that requires application – at least in part – of what the students are meant to have covered by now. The timetable for these days is established well in advance and its up to the students/groups to be prepared or to decide that they don’t wish to.

I could bump up my buzzword bingo quota by basing these “Project days” on Dan Meyer’s anyqs/WCWYDT approach. Even better would be having the space for the students to develop their own…but I think I may be getting way ahead of myself there.

What is missing from the Khan Academy approach (at least based on what I’ve seen of the videos) is that real world connection. The KA videos are essentially the same sort of “lecture” approach that I would use. There needs to be something that encourages students to make connections with what the math they are doing and the world around them.

This is where some sort of idea of “Real World Maths” enters the picture. Have a requirement that each student provide some example of a real life connection with math (perhaps not necessarily connected with the current curriculum) in order to “level up” etc. Perhaps tie this to a class blog and require posting to it.

Downloading the video

Khan Academy have a offline version for Windows computers that includes a server. That might work okay for kids, but I don’t have a Windows box and have an aversion to doing anything with it.

The Khan Academy on a Stick project looks interesting. All the maths and science videos as of OCt 2010. A 16Gb download on what appears to be a very slow network connection. Mmm, there’s not a lot of progress there yet.

It’s also on iTunes.

Some questions

The following is a list of questions I need to answer before this becomes a reality

  1. Does KA have the videos to cover the content this unit of work is meant to cover?
    The UoW has to cover at least half a term, and no more than a full term. Which for the current term is 10 weeks. Going by the work plan I’ve copied, the first two topics we’ve covered would make about 6-7 weeks. Sounds good. The topics are:
    • Ratios and rates to solve practical problems.
    • Direct proportion.
    • Inverse proportion.
    • Percentage.
    • Percentage up/down.
    • Business percentage.
    • Simple interest.

    I’ve found a long list of videos. Will need to look at each of these in more detail and connect them to the curriculum, identify any holes and see just how long simply watching the videos would take.

  2. Is there an easy way to create a Khan Academy playlist?
    Having identified a possible list of related videos, can I create a playlist of these videos for the students and for me to download? Could do the YouTube playlist thing, but how does that play with Khan Academy’s tracking stuff?
  3. Would these videos be appropriate for the cohort?
  4. What are the KA exercises available for each of these areas?
  5. How different is the content from what is expected in the Queensland curriculum and way of doing things?
  6. How much video would students theoretically have to watch to complete the required curriculum?
  7. How does that time match with the available class time?
    The class has 4 * 55 minute lessons each week. If I’m aiming for a 7 week unit, that’s a total of 25.6 hours.
  8. Is it possible to programatically extract student progress information from KA so I can merge it with other data (e.g. real world maths)?
  9. Who else has done something like this?
  10. Can I meet the requirements of the assignment with this approach?
  11. How do students get access to Khan Academy as a recognised individual?
    As a teacher I can create an account on KA and then the students need Google accounts to register and then they need to identify me as their coach.

What else should I be asking?

What does a user see

Well, I’ve just logged in with my Google account and here’s what I see (click on the image to see a larger version).

My Khan Academy page

The energy is coming about since I’ve been exploring videos and preparing for a return home and the slow download speeds. i.e. I’ve opened up all the relevant sounding videos and pressed play and left them downloading in the background. KA thinks I’ve watched them and has awarded me badges accordingly.

i.e. this is open to corruption, at least in terms of watching videos. Doing the exercises is a little more difficult. Some of the badges available.

Some of the Khan Academy badges

They’ve obviously put some work into this, how well it motivates the students to learn is another question.

Another question/problem is that I’m assuming the badges thing gets broken if you’re not using the videos from the KA website. i.e. it assumes your online. Not an assumption you could make in a class setting given current technology limitations.

Gamification by camouflage – fads and higher ed

So, gamification is one of the flavours of the month in the ed tech community. The Khan Academy are doing it and there’s a growing list of people writing about it: various gaming folk are talking about how it might work, an EDUCAUSE article, some smart folk are doing interesting stuff around Moodle course design and professional development, and some high school teachers are actually doing it.

And then this morning via twitter I seen an announcement of the Open Badge Infrastructure from the Mozilla Foundation. There’s more information on the project wiki (which is also a nice example of a MediaWiki site that doesn’t look like a MediaWiki site).


This all looks very interesting. Given the space and time I’d like to think and explore this area a bit more. There’s a lot of interesting possibilities here. But the cynic in me sees this as becoming yet another revolution that disappears leaving little changed.

Over the next couple of years the ed tech conferences and journals are going to be full of publications about gamification. These publications will fall into the standard categories

  1. Various experts offering theoretical insights into why it is a good thing and will change education.
  2. The Edupunk doing some really interesting things, but struggling against the inertia of the institution and its IT department.
  3. Vendor, or early adopter of a tool, arguing why it will be great based on experiment with a class of 10 students doing a game design course (i.e. low lying fruit).
  4. The small scale project with a keen academic/teacher with some support from an IT department or L&T support centre.
  5. Luddite arguing why it will never work and should never be tried. Especially for legal reasons.
  6. some time will pass here before getting onto the next outputs…
  7. The important educational researcher doing “real” research without really understanding what is they are researching. (Must be objective). Usually funded by funding bodies such as ALTC/ARC.
  8. Central IT reporting on plans to implement Mozilla’s Open Badge Infrastructure – or similar enterprise infrastructure – all for the very small price of a gazillion dollars and 10 more staff for the IT department.
  9. …a bit more time…
  10. Reflections about why gamification failed, what we did wrong and what should be done better next time. Perhaps outlining the small box within education for which gamification offers some value.
  11. References to the prior gamification literature explaining why it was wrong, why it didn’t work and how gamification 2.0 promises to revolutionise education by avoiding those problems.

Currently, it looks like we’re around about step 1 or 2. The vendors and luddites can’t be too far away.

I hope it doesn’t go this way, but I’m not confident. It strike me as yet another fad cycle in the making. Simply because the grammar of school/university will be to strong for the innovation. It will be mutated into something that makes sense within the current grammar, thereby robbing it of its innovative capacity.

Some literature on perceptions of IPT and IT/CS courses

Following up on my previous suggestion that High-school classes in information technology may be turning students off IT, I decided to do a quick literature search to see what was out there. Ain’t procrastination grand. Here’s what I found. I haven’t had a chance to read them, back to the assignment.

What I find interesting is that almost all of them are initially focused on the perceptions of girls. My feel is that there’s a significant percentage of boys that fit into a similar category.

Downes and Looker (2011) start their introduction with this

For the past decade, participation rates in computing and information technology (CIT) courses at schools and universities have been declining in countries such as Australia and the United States (Downes & Kleydish, 2007).

Koppi, T., Sheard, J., Naghdy, F., Edwards, S. L., & Brookes, W. (2010). Towards a gender inclusive information and communications technology curriculum: a perspective from graduates in the workforce. Computer Science Education, 20(4), 265-282. doi:10.1080/08993408.2010.527686

Abstract: …..Amongst the significant findings are that females are more concerned than males with interpersonal communication, the development of people-skills and the people side of ICT. Implications for the ICT curriculum are that it should have more than a narrow male-centred technological focus and include the involvement of people and the effects of ICT on society in general. This broad inclusive pedagogical approach would satisfy the needs expressed by all respondents and contribute to increasing the enrolments of both female and male students in ICT

Lasen, M. (2010). Education and career pathways in Information Communication Technology: What are schoolgirls saying? Computers & Education, 54(4), 1117-1126. Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.10.018

Abstract: ….Focus group data reveal that one barrier to selection of advanced ICT options was girls’ experience of junior secondary school ICT subjects which had been typically delivered by teachers with limited expertise and constituted by mundane, repetitive tasks. Further, while Non Takers of senior ICT subjects acknowledged the pervasiveness of ICTs in the workplace, they were disinterested in a specialized ICT career path. Hence, rather than undertake advanced offerings of little relevance to career aspirations, Non Takers perceived that they could continue to hone their skills on a needs basis and, indeed, were routinely and purposefully using computers in their home settings. A lack of understanding of the different foci of IPT (i.e. programming and databases) and ITS (i.e. multimedia and web design) was evident among Non Takers, with many singularly associating senior ICT subjects with programming and other highly technical skills. Both Non Takers and Takers (who in the context of the focus groups were largely Takers of ITS) expressed an aversion to programming….

There’s that old hatred of programming again. I find that disappointing. What is more creative with computers than using a programming language to take full control of the protean nature of the computer?

Anderson, N., Lankshear, C., Timms, C., & Courtney, L. (2008). ‘Because it’€s boring, irrelevant and I don’t like computers’€™: Why high school girls avoid professionally-oriented ICT subjects. Computers & Education, 50(4), 1304-1318. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2006.12.003

Courtney, L., Anderson, N., Lankshear, C., & Timms, C. (2007). Negotiating the twisted, broken and sometimes hidden pathways to lCT careers: Girls and lCT Research Findings. Redress, 16(3), 14-20.

Timms, C., Courtney, L., & Anderson, N. (2006). Secondary girls;€™ perceptions of advanced ICT subjects: Are they boring and irrelevant? Australian Educational Computing, 21(2), 3-8.

Abstract: ….The current paper examines responses to ‘The subjects are interesting’ and ‘I am interested in computers’ with particular attention to how attitudes of Non Takers of IPT fiTS diverge from those of Takers. Mann-Whitney U test comparisons found significant difference in attitudes between these groups. These data were reinforced with rich qualitative responses indicating these subjects were generally perceived by girls in high school, as boring, dull and uninteresting.

Downes, T., & Looker, D. (2011). Factors that influence students’ plans to take computing and information technology subjects in senior secondary school. Computer Science Education, 21(2), 175-199. doi:10.1080/08993408.2011.579811

Abstract:….The model indicates that, in addition to gender and the student’s beliefs about the value of the subjects, plans to take CIT subjects are also affected by the amount of use of IT at school. These school-related factors are inter-connected either directly or indirectly with students’ beliefs about their IT abilities at both school and home, as well as the amount of use at home. For educators who seek to improve participation rates, particularly for females, the identification of school-related variables is encouraging, as the school – unlike the home – is a relatively accessible site of intervention.

What is important when testing students?

The following is a quote from Steffy and English (1997, p. 6) cited in Ramirez (1999, p. 206) about schools from a standardised test in the USA.

Eighty-nine percent of the variance of the scores was explained by four variables: the number of parents living in the home, the parents’ education, community type, and state poverty rate…Test reflect wealthy disparity…as opposed to the actual taught school curriculum. On unaligned tests, no school-related variable predicts statistically significant scores.

Recent experience within schools suggests to me that this problem isn’t just with standardised testing, but also plays a significant influence on a student’s general school experience and chances of success.

I’m guessing this perception also explains a large part of my current frustration with my experience with prac teaching. I’m teaching a Grade 10 mathematics class. I’ll be with them for 3 days a week for the next 6 weeks (during which time I have to complete University assignments), and then another 6 weeks full-time (ending 2 or 3 weeks before they leave school for the year). I’m finding it frustrating that I don’t think, given my relative inexperience with these kids and the context, that there’s much I can do to overcome some of these problems. Especially when I’m battling a set of student mindsets built up over 10 years in the school system.

Will see what happens. Time to try some more things. Have to finish this assignment first.


Ramirez, A. (1999). Assessment-driven reform: The emperor still has no clothes. The Phi Delta Kappan, 81(3), 204-208. JSTOR. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20439621

Steffy, B. E., & English, F. W. (1997). Curriculum and assessment for world-class schools. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Pub. Co. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=e9tRHgAACAAJ

Is the teaching of IT/CS in high school turning people off?

This post from Mark Guzdial is the last of three looking at a PhD thesis examining the influence of using computational/programming approaches to teaching physics. This post talks about the finding in the thesis that students attitudes towards computational modelling became more unfavourable after instruction.

That’s right, the course in computational modelling made the more negative about computational modelling. It turned them off and made them focus more on rote memorisation.

Is IPT doing the same?

My interest in this idea comes from recent observations at schools. This year I’m training to become a high school teacher in Information Technology and Mathematics. As part of this I’m spending time in schools doing some prac teaching and observing how IT is being taught. The main academic version of IT being taught in local schools is called Information Processing and Technology (IPT) (PDF syllabus link). As part of my prac teaching, I’ve been lucky enough to observe two experienced and knowledgable teachers teach classes in IPT. But, even with their experience and efforts, I’ve not formed a great opinion of IPT.

I’m currently wondering whether the content and pedagogy of IPT in high schools is turning people off?

My anecdotal observations seem to suggest yes.

The number of students doing IPT at the schools I’ve been on is shrinking. Though this reduction could also be contributed to by the observation that IPT requires students to think and do work. There’s a belief that many students don’t want to do this and thus avoid IPT.

There are almost certainly other factors at play as well.

Is anyone aware of research into this? Particularly research based within Queensland or Australia? Are the number of students enrolled in IPT type courses shrinking? What are the factors? Does the content play a part? What about the pedagogy?

Between prac teaching and university study, I don’t have the time to look further at the moment. Which is one of the reasons for this post and the hope that others may point me in the right direction.

Some of the problems

The following is my first attempt to listing what I see as some of the problems with IPT teaching. It needs more work, but you get the idea. I recognise that there are all sorts of limitations in schools that explain why some or all of the following limitations are there. Increasingly I am becoming unsure whether the grammar of school that currently exists would allow any sustainable and meaningful change.

  • Continued reliance on Visual Basic and Access.
    This seems to be the predominant development environment, and I can understand why. Relatively simple to produce something that works. Works on the computers most schools and students have. Is free to very cheap to provide to students and there is a body of textbooks written around the IPT syllabus using these tools.

    But the major problem I see with these tools is that they aren’t networked. i.e. there’s no environment for students to contribute their code to so that others can see it. The types of applications that are produced aren’t something that the friends and parents of students are going to be able to use and get excited about. I need to develop this more.

  • Unrealistic assignments.
    How many video stores use an Access database to manage their DVD/video collect? Especially one that doesn’t support bar codes and cash registers. The staff teaching IPT try to make the projects authentic, but they just aren’t. The students can see that their programs would never be used in reality. Every time they make an unrealistic tradeoff/assumption in design, the authenticity of the assignment is further reduced.
  • Too much emphasis on creation over enhancement.
    All of the assignments I’ve seen so far – in class and online – assume that the students must start with a blank slate. i.e. they are creating the program/system from scratch. Sorry, but I don’t know of too many people these days who are starting systems from scratch. Most are modifying or adding plugins to existing systems. They are seeking to enhance existing systems.

    Creating from scratch is hard. Especially when you are new to programming or relational databases. I think it can be easier (and more realistic) to be set the task of enhancing an existing system. Having to start understanding the system and how it works, seeing examples of code/system design before trying to create your own.

  • Too much overhead.
    These assignments also place an emphasis on the design and documentation of the systems, over the working code. I’ve heard talented teachers talk about the systems development as only contributing a small/minor part of the project and final marks. Sorry, but if there’s a fun part in systems development it is getting it to work. Not writing elementary sentences or documentation for a mickey mouse system no-one is ever going to use. Especially when the teacher is the only person ever likely to see the documentation.

    This is not to reduce the importance of design and documentation in the production of systems. But when it comes to giving students a positive learning experience around systems development, the over emphasis on documentation etc is killing enjoyment.

    Not to mention, that if you ascribe to agile methodologies, the amount of documentation often required of these assignments is just plain bad. Not to mention the absence of any notion of test-driven development and other factors…

  • Too much solo work.
    Pair programming? Nope that would be open questions of plagiarism? Too much of what I see in IPT classes is each of the students working alone and trying to stay motivated while completing elementary sentences, conceptual schema diagrams etc. Occasionally providing each other help, but not having the peer collaboration built in.

    Then there’s the question of no-one else ever really seeing their work. Not to mention that the fact that some students would be hesitant to show off their IPT assignments because they are aware of the trade-offs

  • Systems that are not used.
    For me, the point of systems development is always to build systems that people use. If people aren’t going to use the systems/tools I build, why build them? Even if it’s a tool that I use, I don’t mind as long as it is useful for me.

    More importantly, trainee IT professionals who don’t get experience of supporting users using their systems, aren’t getting the full picture. Seeing how people understand, react, and use your tools is a huge learning curve. It can be incredibly frustrating to see how people don’t get your wonderful design. But it can also be incredibly revealing and fantastic fun.

What’s next?

Last term I design a unit of work for the first 12 or so lessons of an IPT course that captured some ideas about an alternative. It will be a while before I can put that into action, and frankly I have my reservations about how practical many of those ideas are.

In the shorter-term, I have to develop 3/4 lessons around decision trees, decision matrices and expert systems for two IPT classes for next week (Wed-Thur). So I’m going to try and implement some of my alternatives in those. Will probably try and post the ideas.

One analysis of the Digital Education Revolution

The presentation slides below are the basis for a talk I’ll be giving this Thursday as part of my study toward a Graduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching. The aim is to analyse the Digital Education Revolution (DER) and identify any shortcomings and strengths (hint: I found it heavy on the former and light on the latter). The talk is being done in Elluminate to other students. Don’t know the connection details, but if you wanted to participate I could chase that up. Let me know.

In summary, my conclusion (which is not likely to be all that novel) is that the DER is pleasing in that it represents a fairly significant engagement (in terms of money) by the Federal Government with the question of teaching, learning, schooling and technology. The trouble is, however, that because of various flaws I think it unlikely that the DER will achieve its goal. At best it will remove some of the first order barriers – mostly student access to computers – for the next few years. Though even that will be somewhat limited – depending on how schools implement 1:1 – and is likely to cease in the near future when the DER funding ceases and other factors (tightening budget constrains, potential change of government, likely limited outcomes from the DER) play out.

The biggest problem with the DER is that it is based on the assumption that the coming “digital world” requires new approaches to teaching and learning and it believes this can be done solely by adding technology for students. It seems to assume that the coming “digital world” can be served well by the current industrial model inherent in schools and being reinforced by other Government policies such as the National Curriculum.

Given the huge number of possible perspectives that could be brought to bare on the DER, the presentation is by no means complete. But it is also a bit more complicated than I would like. The trouble is that other assignments are calling and time has run out.


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