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Sunday, December 23, 2012

How does online learn by doing actually work? See the video we made 10 years ago at CMU

This is a movie we shot 10 years ago to describe what a learn by doing projects only mentored, team based curriculum looked like. There are interviews with the mentors, the students, and the faculty (Lynn Carter video referred to in my post yesterday starts at about 3.22).

We learned how to do it and worked well until CMU administrators decided they didn't want to have thousands of online students and didn't want have brand new empty buildings.

XTOL has re-thought and re-built these online learn by doing curriculum taking advantage of ten years of change in computer science. (See my post here from yesterday.)

We are now ready to offer real learn by doing education to everyone, taught be the people who invented it the first place (unless you count Plato or Dewey, which, of course I do.. but they didn't have) computers.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Best and Brightest Teaching Computer Science Online

In the 1990’s I was running the Institute for the Learning Sciences, trying to re-envision education in the age of computers. My former PhD student (at Stanford) and colleague at Northwestern, Chris Riesbeck, was not only designing the technical side of what we were building at ILS, he was also putting our ideas into practice on a daily basis. He stopped showing up to teach his programming classes. Instead he posted assignments on line and responded to questions and problems that students were having with the assignments. He evaluated the work they did and, as they improved, gave them more difficult assignments. He saw no reason for lectures or classes.

Of course, the authorities at Northwestern objected. His students simply stopped coming to class. It was easier to communicate by email. Many people have learned to program from Chris and most will tell you that he is the best programming teacher they ever had. They were learning to do something and that is not done by listening, but by constant practice with help from a mentor.

Some years later, I was asked to design the educational offerings for master’s degree programs at Carnegie Mellon’s new Silicon Valley campus. Ray Bareiss who had been the associate director of ILS moved to California, and the team at Socratic Arts and I designed some radical new ways of teaching on line. Of course, what we did was built upon what Chris had done and what we had done in a previous venture with Columbia University. We added a story line to the projects students did so it would look and feel like they were on a real job. They were not taking courses nor were they attending classes. We were working with the faculty at CMU in Pittsburgh, many of whom objected to this new style of teaching by mentoring projects rather than by lecturing. One who did not object was a former PhD student of mine (at Yale) Jaime Carbonell, who together with Michael Shamos had enough weight to convince his colleagues in the eCommerce program to go along.

One who initially objected was the Software Engineering professor assigned to CMU-SV, Lynn Carter. But after a few months of teaching our way he said (and I have this on video) that he couldn’t see teaching any other way now that he had understood what good teaching in computer science was all about.

We built a great many computer science master’s degree programs for CMU. All learning by doing, all on line, no lectures, no tests, just mentors available as needed and students working in teams to get things done.

This was before online suddenly became fashionable in the university world, before putting lectures online became the must do trend, an idea that is absurd it is hard to contemplate. Who remembers lectures they heard in college? CMU actually was decidedly uninterested in the fact that our learn by doing offerings available online or even a way to improve face to face teaching, and with the exception of eCommerce did not bring our new teaching model back to the main campus.

My friends and I are still trying to get good practical computer science education to the world in a way that would allow many people to become effective programmers, software engineers, mobile app developers, ecommerce specialists, big data analytics experts and so on.

So, we started XTOL.

You’ll notice, if you look at that site, that the old gang is back together again. We are committed to getting on line education right and to changing the concept of school from a passive experience to an active one, solving challenging problems in realistic settings.

The first two schools (there will be others) to offer what we have built are:


The latter is offering an MBA we built for them and will be offering some of what we are doing in computer science as well.

In particular we will be launching much of the computer science masters degree programs as short courses, in addition to the full degree programs.

The short courses can be taken by anyone who can complete them. They teach real world skills that a high school or college student would not learn in their school and would give them useful knowledge for employment. (As an example, how to optimize a website for search engine ranking is a short course we will soon offer.)

As a computer science professor for over 35 years, I was always astonished at the extent to which computer science is taught as a series of subspecialties that in the end do not produce skilled professions who can be readily employed the real world.

Why is this the case? In my recent book “Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools” I quoted a very well known computer science professor who did not want his name mentioned:

Every faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at my University thinks that their small insignificant area is important enough that all undergraduates must take a course in it. When you add all those courses up there is simply no time for a student to do anything other than take crazy courses in sub-disciplines represented by the faculty in the department. Everybody’s course is a sacred cow. If you tried to put something new in, something would have to come out, and no faculty member wants his course to be eliminated.

At a big state university, which one would think has an obligation to supply training to the students of that state in a major field in which students can readily find employment, the faculty could care less about that and they only want to do graduate teaching. We teach courses that are modeled after courses in the professor training schools like Harvard and MIT. But how many professors do we need?

There are roughly 60 faculty members in Computer Science. They cover all the traditional areas of Computer Science. Ironically, Software Engineering, which is what 90% of the undergraduates do when they graduate, is not covered.  It is not considered an intellectual or academic discipline. It is considered too practical. There is only one software engineering course and it is taught by an adjunct because no one really cares about it.

There are hundreds of computer science majors here.   The faculty doesn’t feel it needs to change because there are students clamoring for what is now offered. 98% of them want to be programmers. Almost none of them want PhDs.

I cannot go to a faculty meeting any more. I get into a fight at every faculty meeting. I argue about teaching and education and they think they know because they are professors. I cannot subject myself anymore to their abuse.

We are trying to remedy all that. Not just in computer science, but that is where we have started because we are experts in that field. We are ready to work with experts in other fields to start making on line education something worthwhile, useful, practical, and enjoyable. And, we want to start a revolution in teaching and learning. Students deserve better.

Check with Socratic Arts and Engines for Education (our not for profit for high schools) for updates:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ban guns? Maybe we should also ban school!

In the wake of the recent school shooting, I can add my voice to the millions who think that easy ownership of hand guns and assault weapons is absurd, but there is another point to be made. Can’t we at least start to debate whether having schools is such a good idea? 

Below are some of the questions typed into google in the last week that landed the searcher on one of my outrage columns. They paint a picture in the aggregate of students who are very unhappy in school.  Were these searches made by just some odd kids? Or is it possible that most children find school difficult, threatening, and uncomfortable?

children should learn more useful subjects at school

public school teach you to conform

why should i go to school

math curriculum completely useless stupid

i hate high school what can i do

why school is bad for children

why i hate year eleven secondary school

students don't need certain subjects

hate high school will college be better

useless classes in high school

hating history class

If the school forced students to learn they are not interested in the course

why does a high schooler start thinking they are not that smart

hating a subject

high school is pointless

textbooks suck

commonly hated high school rules

how to get high school students to like you

Maybe you were one of the ones who loved school. I wasn’t. My kids weren’t. And I am pretty sure that any kid who is made to feel different, lonely, stupid, or miserable in school will come out angry. They may not all decide to shoot other kids or teachers, of course. But, some will. 

We need to re-think the very idea of school and we need to do it soon. They are other ways to teach kids the skills they need in life besides shutting them up with 30 or 100 other kids all day, many of whom also hate being there. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Education on Demand

I thought by now there would be no movie theaters. I have nice TVs and sound systems at home, subscriptions to various movie services and if I want it, video on demand that I can pay for. I never have to leave the house or put up with annoying people sitting next to me.

Still people (even I) go to the movies. They do it to get out of the house, to see an even bigger screen with better sounds and to keep current with the latest offerings that are being talked about in their circle of friends.

You get the feeling that movie theaters still won’t be around much longer anyway. But people who run the movie business are fighting this in every way they can.

61% of adults said that they rarely or never go out to the movies.  Of those who do go to the movies,  55%  said that they go see films less often now than they did before. 73% prefer watching movies at home. Many in the industry are scared to death of DVDS being released at the same time as the movie itself.  “The theater industry is facing something of a crisis. Theater owners don’t quite get that going to the movies is a social experience, and that they need to make that social experience a lot more enjoyable.”

Well, of course, I am not worried about the movie industry. I am just an observer who takes note that when something is available on demand at home or in your favorite place for social experience with others, its appeal in the standard bricks and mortar public format will go away.

Of course I am talking about education. Why would anyone go to school or put up with the annoyance of school regulations, certifications, classroom situations, and being told what you must learn when, if they didn’t have to? Schools were designed for poor people. The rich had private tutors who came to them, or failing that an elite upper class venue where they were treated respectfully. (Do Oxford students still have personal butlers?)

Today school is a miserable mass experience for everyone. Yes, it fun to go to Yale, but there are plenty of lost, bored, and angry kids at Yale too. (They all seemed to find their way to me when I was there.)

If we had education on demand, wouldn’t this be as threatening as movies on demand to the existing system?

So, in that spirit, I am announcing “Education on Demand.” We will offer, and by "we" I mean my team of respected computer science professors (XTOL, on line short courses that can be taken on demand (more or less, they will have start dates so students can work in small teams with mentors.)

Below is a list of short courses we will offer starting in January 2013. These courses run about two week full time and four weeks part time. More are coming. They are open to anyone who wants to take them. They are meant to teach people to do things that might need to do. We will issue a certificate to hang on your wall if you like signed by the relevant faculty. Students succeed by actually doing things. No lectures. No tests. Just producing. Open to anyone, anyone at all. Just do the work.

Introduction to Website Development
Web Application Development    
Mobile Web Application Development  
Native Mobile Application Development for Web Programmers
Sensor-based Mobile Applications Introduction to ecommerce
Search Engine Optimization
eCommerce Data Analytics 
Big Data Software and System Requirements
Managing Software Professionals 
Setting Software Projects Up for Success 
Team-Based Agile Software Development 
We are building more of these every day. There will be short courses in other areas than computer science soon (starting with learning sciences.) We are in discussions with industry on building other short courses that industry feels it needs. Feel free to contact us about courses we should build.
In summary:

Learning by doing
Deliverables that prove you can do something you couldn’t do before
Working in teams
Enhancing your employable skills
On line, no need to go anywhere
Education when you want it
The beginning of the end of brick and mortar education
The beginning of the end of rules about what you must do before you do what you want to do
If you can do the work, then sign up