Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An online class session

We held an online class meeting as an illustration of synchronous collaboration.

During a typical classroom session, I present a topic while projecting class notes and doing live demonstrations. Students are free to ask questions and make comments at any time.

For our online meeting, the students and I remained at home, and I conducted the class much as I would have in the classroom. They viewed the notes and demonstrations using screen sharing software (YuuGuu.com) and we all talked using Skype.

There were only ten students in the class, and seven completed a survey afterward. Such a small survey is not conclusive, but the students reported that they were relaxed and less shy when online than in class. They also tended to focus more closely on the presentation, and were less likely to look at unrelated material than in the classroom. (We normally meet in a computer-equipped classroom). The students ranged from neutral to preferring the online meeting.

Click here for the survey questions and answers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Academically entitled" students expect good grades for little effort

A recent study by University of California, Irvine professor Ellen Greenberger shows that some "academically entitled" students expect good grades for modest effort and have demanding attitudes toward teachers.

The study asked approximately 400 undergraduates aged 18 to 25 whether they agreed with these statements:

  • If I have explained to my professor that I am trying hard, I think he/she should give me some consideration with respect to my course grade -- 66.2% agree
  • If I have completed most of the reading for a class, I deserve a B in that course -- 40.7%
  • If I have attended most of the classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B -- 34.1%
  • Teachers often give me lower grades than I deserve on paper assignments -- 31.5%
  • Professors who won't let me take my exams at another time because of my personal plans (e.g. a vacation) are too strict - 29.9%
  • A professor should be willing to lend me his/her course notes if I ask for them - 24.8%
  • I would think poorly of a professor who didn't respond the same day to an e-mail I sent - 23.5%
  • Professors have no right to be annoyed with me if I tend to come late to class or tend to leave early - 16.8%
  • A professor should not be annoyed with me if I receive an important call during class - 16.5%
  • A professor should be willing to meet with me at a time that works best for me, even if inconvenient for the professor - 11.2%
She found that students holding these beliefs are more likely to engage in academic cheating, exploit others, shirk hard work and display "narcissistic orientation."

The study found that students who say their parents often compare their achievements to siblings, cousins or friends are more likely to engage in these behaviors, but found no connection between self-entitled attitudes and grades.

If you are a student, do you agree with the above statements? Would other students you know agree with them?

Monday, November 3, 2008

A culture of cooperation or competition?

The Internet applications and skills we teach as part of Computer Literacy 3 often center on collaboration and common interests, but we will fail without a compatible culture and reward system.

Our traditional students may be accustomed to a culture of competition. This point was made in a New York Times article Combat to College, which describes the experience of GI Bill veterans returning to school after serving in Iraq.

These students are different from mainstream students in many ways, but one that caught my eye had to do with their culture of cooperation, which was summed up by John Schupp, a chemistry professor at Cleveland State University, who sees camaraderie in the classroom as crucial to getting the veterans to show up, to stay and to thrive.

“They tell me over and over they wouldn’t have come to college otherwise,” he says. “In the military world it’s the team. The squadron must survive. When you come to school it’s all personal — my books, my grade, my stuff, my notes. They’re isolated, because other students haven’t seen what they’ve seen.”

We discuss willingness to cooperate in my classes, but instilling a cooperative culture among today's students can be difficult.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Collaborative writing by small and very large groups

Wikis are perhaps the simplest collaborative writing tool, but they are best suited to compiled and simple co-authored documents.

For more complex co-authored documents we use network-based word processors. While they are limited and slow today, they will improve as technology like JavaScript interpreters, development tools and network speed improve.

For massively co-authored documents, documents with many authors, we need to add structure and social networking features. This class note discusses two sites for creating massively co-authored documents, PublicMarkup and WePC.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Writing for Internet readers

Writing must be tailored to the medium. You would not publish an essay on a billboard or a short slogan as a newspaper article. Writing for the Internet must be compatible with Internet reading style, and, if we are writing for students, their characteristics.

Jakob Nielsen asks the question How Little do Users Read? in a recent column. Nielsen describes a study by Harald Weinreich and his colleagues. They instrumented the Web browsers of 25 users and collected data on their browsing habits, as shown here:

Even for first time visits to a site, half of the page-stay times were 12 seconds or less.

Nielsen analyzed the same data further. He removed very short pages (probably error messages) and very long views (probably unattended browsers) and found the following correlation between the number of words on a page and the time spent reading it:

Next he asked what percent of the words on a page could have been read by someone reading at 250 words per minute:

As we see, a user might be able to read most of a very short page, but will not typically take the time to read more than a portion of a longer page.

Of course, different users have different reading habits. The posts on this blog may seem long, but they are written for a somewhat scholarly reader. But, as educators, we should probably keep things short and teach our students to write concisely for the Internet.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Beloit College list of the characteristics of incoming freshmen

The latest version of the Beloit College Mindset list of characteristics of freshman students just came out. The class of 2012

has grown up in an era where computers and rapid communication are the norm, and colleges no longer trumpet the fact that residence halls are “wired” and equipped with the latest hardware. These students will hardly recognize the availability of telephones in their rooms since they have seldom utilized landlines during their adolescence. They will continue to live on their cell phones and communicate via texting. Roommates, few of whom have ever shared a bedroom, have already checked out each other on Facebook where they have shared their most personal thoughts with the whole world.

It is a multicultural, politically correct and “green” generation that has hardly noticed the threats to their privacy and has never feared the Russians and the Warsaw Pact.

A few of my favorites -- regarding technology, US society, and the cold war -- from the list of 60 characteristics are:
  • Windows 3.0 operating system made IBM PCs user-friendly the year they were born.
  • GPS satellite navigation systems have always been available.
  • Personal privacy has always been threatened.
  • Employers have always been able to do credit checks on employees.
  • Michael Millken has always been a philanthropist promoting prostate cancer research.
  • There have always been gay rabbis.
  • Schools have always been concerned about multiculturalism.
  • Muscovites have always been able to buy Big Macs.
  • The Warsaw Pact is as hazy for them as the League of Nations was for their parents.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Does Internet style reading change our brains?

We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.
Marshall McLuhan

Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Nicholas Carr published an article entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? in which he discusses his and other's inability to patiently read long, complex articles and books. Web documents are typically short and linked to other documents, and we often jump away from an article after skimming or partially reading it.

Carr feels that reading this way has altered his brain structure, which explains his impatience when reading long documents. If Carr's hypothesis is true, today's students, who have grown up using the Internet and Web, will not learn well from conventional books and journal articles.

Carr's article spurred quite a bit of online debate and commentary. For example, this Salon article with several pages of comments.

Are our students reading habits really different than their parent's generation? Is this due to the Web or to other media like fast-cutting, MTV-style video? If we are becoming hard-wired skimmers instead of careful readers, what is gained and what is lost?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Role-based collaborative writing using a wiki

The following is an excerpt from an interview of Stewart Mader, who describes his use of a wiki for chemistry lab reports at Brown University. The role-based collaborative writing exercises benefited both students and teachers.

When I taught a chemistry lab years ago, I used a wiki to have students write collaborative lab reports. [Before the wiki, I had] 30 students in a lab where each student does an experiment and writes a report. You get 30 reports and 30 introductions and 30 methods and materials and 30 conclusions and so forth. Grading and evaluating that work becomes more about just getting through the pile on your desk than about really providing students in-depth feedback.

And for the students, I don't think they learn as much that way because they're focused on getting the thing done and turned in on time, and they're just repeating the same process over and over.

So one of the ways I used the wiki was to take a group of 30 students, split them up into six groups of five, and as they did an experiment, have each of those groups work much more like they would in the professional world. Teams would work on research projects, and when they wrote their report, each student was responsible for a different section. Student A would write the Abstract, Student B would write the Materials and Methods, and so on. For Experiment 2, roles changed, and Student B wrote the Abstract, and Student A wrote Materials and Methods.

The outcome for me was instead of getting 30 reports, I was now getting six reports, so I was able to spend much more time on those reports, reading what the students had written and giving them a lot more constructive, substantive feedback. For the students, they weren't slogging through with these repetitions every week. They were now trying out writing different parts of the report. Obviously, you're going to be stronger with some sections than another, so that means one week it might be a little easier you and that's fine because next week, you're going to work on the section that's a little more difficult and you are going to be able to really focus and refine your technique on that.

That's just one example, but that's the kind of thing a wiki can do in teaching. It can really allow instructors to focus on fewer, more in-depth assignments or products that are results of highly collaborative work by students.

The other benefit that comes out of that, especially with group work, is you can see what students are doing as they are doing it.... You can help students to keep a project on course towards success, versus derailing because there are problems in the group that you don't know about until the end of the project, when they come to you with a substandard result and start complaining about how members didn't pull their own weights.

Instead, you know what is going on, and you can see from the interaction they are having and the contribution of material in the wiki. If you see one person is noticeably absent from any contribution, you can talk to that person and say "Hey, are you having trouble with the tool, or are you having trouble with the assignment?" You can fix something like that in the first or second week, versus the twelfth week of the semester, when hope is lost.
This excerpt is from the The Power of Wikis in Higher Ed by Linda L Briggs.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Web skills are necessary for work

Since Kemeny and Kurtz introduced the notion of computer literacy, there has been a dual emphasis on job skills and concepts. The following two quotes suggest that Internet skills are needed in the workplace.

Patty Morrison, Executive VP and CIO, Motorola:

The next big thing for my business will be ... the explosion of Web 2.0 and the consumerization of IT. Organizations will need to completely rethink how they will provide end-user services to an incoming workforce that has more technical capability at home/school than the enterprise can offer.
Ray Ozzie, Chief Software Architect, Microsoft:
Over the past ten years, the PC era has given way to an era in which the web is at the center of our experiences – experiences delivered not just through the browser but also through many different devices including PCs, phones, media players, game consoles, set-top boxes and televisions, cars, and more.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

How much programming?

Slashdot has a discussion of whether programming should be part of a science education. I cannot imagine the answer being anything but "yes" for science or engineering students, but what about majors in the arts and humanities or other professions? What IT skills does, say, an art history or literature major, need for work? What concepts do they need to be at home in the modern world?

Monday, June 2, 2008

A table of skills and concepts for various students

Computer literacy is comprised of many skills and concepts, but they are not all appropriate for every student. This table lists some skills and concepts that might be appropriate for three groups of student. It could be extended and used as a checklist and an index to notes and exercises on each topic.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Finding the community of faculty interested in new literacy

I recently met Carol Holder, a specialist in teaching writing, who wrote an an article on New Media and New Literacies. I'd recommend reading the article, and following the links in it.

Holder worries that faculty, courses and academic programs are stuck in the past while new media and new modes of communication are rapidly evolving. She wonders what it will take to see new media, multi modal literacies, and curriculum and instructional change at colleges and universities, and goes on to give examples of people using and talking about new media and literacies.

She begins with the use of tools like email, wikis and shared documents in traditional writing classes. Next she describes Calibrated Peer Review, a highly structured writing service developed by the UCLA chemistry faculty. (I think it is too complex and structured, but you should check it out).

The second half of the article describes journals, Web sites and blogs, which serve the community of faculty in composition, rhetoric, and communication who are exploring new literacies in their scholarship and teaching. I will cover them in future posts, but if I were you, I would check them out now -- don't wait for me.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

More data on student IT experience and expectations

We've discussed our student's preparation -- what they do and do not know when they start school. The Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR) conducts an annual study of students and information technology.

They have published the following on the 2007 study:

The highlights include many observations, including these:

What do students do with IT?

How much IT do students want in their classes?

(Unfortunately, the full study requires a paid ECAR membership)

Would you like to include your students in future surveys? If so, contact Judy Caruso, judy.caruso@cio.wisc.edu.

Digital visual literacy -- creating and interpreting images

Educause conducts hour long webcasts of topics of interest to University IT faculty and staff. Some of them have been relevant to computer literacy. For example, the program this week was Digital Visual Literacy: Interdisciplinary Skills for the 21st-Century Learner.

The webcast presents an NSF-sponsored project that began at the Brown University Computer Science Department, which is known for computer graphics. The project is based on the premise that digital literacy -- the ability to create and critically interpret visual images like graphs, photos and drawings -- is critical in the 21st century.

You might like to incorporate one of their teaching modules as part of a course you teach. The modules are:

  • Introduction to Digital Visual Literacy
  • Practical Visual Copyright Skills
  • Visual Rhetoric for Blogs
  • Visual Dialog in ECommerce
  • Graphics Literacy
  • 3D Graphics
  • Visual Display of Information using Word 2003
  • Visual Display of Information using Power Point 2003
  • Influencing Decisions with Charts using Excel 2003
  • Visual Display of Information in Word 2007
  • Effective Visual Display of Information using Power Point 2007
  • Influencing Decisions with Charts using Excel 2007
All of the teaching material is free, and they encourage us to use it, develop related material, and give them feedback -- to form a community of visual literacy teachers. You can get the modules and learn more here. (Before you can download modules, you must request a password by sending an email to co-principal investigator Oris Friesen, oris@cox.net).

Click here for archives of previous Educause Live webcasts.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Gathering data on what our students know and don't know

We've talked about what typical students know and don't know about IT. The accepted wisdom is that new students are "digital natives," who know more than we do. However, the knowledge of some digital natives is shallow and brittle -- an inch deep and a mile wide.

Sociologist Eszter Hargittai has studied the content creation and sharing behavior and the digital literacy of undergraduate students at the ethnically diverse University of Illinois, Chicago. Her findings are summarized in an interview entitled A Sociologist Says Students Aren't So Web-Wise After All.

The interview draws upon research reported by Hargittai and Gina Walejko in The Participation Divide: Content Creation and Sharing in the Digital Age. You might also be interested in this article, which defines Hargittai's measure of digital literacy.

It would be interesting to put a version of Hargittai's digital literacy survey on the Net. It could be used to gather data on the general public, employees of organizations, students at other universities, etc. If such a survey caught on, it would be a way to gather data and track trends over time.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Check out Campus Technology magazine

I find something interesting in every issue of Campus Technology Magazine. For example, the current issue has an article on Wikis, Blogs, and More, by Matt Villano.

Villano describes the teaching applications of Jerry Kane at Boston College and Mark Frydenberg at Bentley College. He also describes several administrative applications. I am not particularly interested in administrative applications, but demonstrating them on campus might ease the way for the funding of services that can be also used by faculty in the classroom.

Campus Technology offers a number of newsletters, including one on Web 2.0. They also organize a conference, and this year the topic is Welcome to Next Gen .Edu!.

Mark Frydenberg -- using a wiki and Popfly

The business school at Bentley College offers a mandatory Introduction to Technology from a Business Perspective course for incoming freshmen. For students who do not need the standard introduction to IT concepts and Microsoft Office, they offer special sections. One of those, the "technology intensive" section, is taught by Mark Frydenberg. The course varies from term to term, but Frydenberg is trying to present basic IT concepts through the lens of Web 2.0.

You can review the syllabus, class wiki, and student blogs and contributions at the course Web site, but let me highlight a couple of items.

Freydenberg encourages the students to take control of the course via the class wiki. For example, students are assigned to post and revise class notes on the wiki each week. They are also encouraged to suggest exam questions, with answers and discussion. You can hear Frydenberg discuss their use of the wiki in this two-minute audio excerpt from a longer video interview.

Frydenberg also includes a taste of programming in his class. The emphasis is on algorithmic thinking and programming concepts like input-process-output, object, method, property, parameter, data type, and repetition, selection and sequential execution.

In past semesters, he has used simple VB.NET assignments to illustrate these concepts, but, with his focus on Web 2.0, has switched to Microsoft Popfly. He has developed two simple applications -- a coin toss program and a mashup between Microsoft Virtual Earth and an RSS feed of real estate listings. These not only illustrate the programming concepts he teaches, they illustrate aspects of Web 2.0 -- RSS, a mapping mashup, and easily incorporating an application into a Web page or blog post.

They also illustrate the power of building an application on top of network resources -- the students are surprised by how easy it is to create a complex application -- these Popfly programs are surely more impressive than the temperature conversion programs Freydenberg used when teaching with VB.NET. (This is similar to our contrasting an application developed using an Internet database service with the equivalent ASP.NET application).

Freydenberg demonstrates these applications and discusses his use of them in teaching programming concepts in this video.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Teaching Internet writing in a recreation and tourism managment course

One of the skills we might consider as part of computer literacy 3.0 is writing for the Internet.

We have also asked whether computer literacy should be spread throughout the curriculum or taught in one or more dedicated core courses

Larry Beck's course Wilderness and the Leisure Experience provides a good example of teaching Internet writing skills as part of a non-dedicated course. Beck provides small groups of students with the rough outline of a report, and they research and write it using a wiki. In doing so, they practice organizing themselves for collaborative writing and learn the mechanics of wiki and image processing software. Beck describes his course here, and you can see examples of student work here.

Beck spends a little time on a simple overview of the mechanics of using the wiki, and the students figure out the rest on their own. Someone in the group can usually help the others with the technology if need be. He gives them general instructions on the report outline and writing process, and requires periodic progress-check meetings with them.

See this presentation for an assessment Beck's experiments. (The writing portion begins with slide 23).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Writing for the Internet: conversations, short documents, and collaborative writing

I will write 42 pages for class this semester ... and over 500 pages of email. Student quote, 2008.

Probably the most important thing and probably one of the surprises is you have to work with people who are good writers, Jason Fried, 2005.

Being able to write clearly, to write English clearly is more important to developing useful software than almost anything else and that's something you’re more likely to learn in the English department than in the computer science department
, Joel Spolsky, 2009.

I would not have made this so long except that I do not have the leisure to make it shorter, Pascal, letter, 1656.

Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written, Thoreau, Walden, 1854.

Students often wonder what potential employers are looking for. Jason Fried of 37Signals lists his five hiring criteria in this short audio. He singles out good writing as the most important criteria:
And finally, and probably the most important thing and probably one of the surprises is you have to work with people who are good writers. Everybody has to be a good writer. The programmer has to be a good writer. The designer has to be a good writer. The business guy has to be a good writer That's how people communicate now. People don't talk as much as they used to. They IM all the time. They email all the time. They're hopefully posting messages to Basecamp all the time. And you have to find people who can communicate by writing. Its very very important. If there is any miscommunication going on, its just a chink in the armor and you're going to have a real problem with that. You have to make sure that people can write.
Fried is not referring to people who can write excellent essays or term papers with properly formatted bibliographies, but to people who can read and write in the concise, unambiguous, focused, conversational style used on the Internet. Much Internet writing takes the form of a conversation, for example, a blog post with comments, a response to an email or listserve post with quoted snippets, or posts to a threaded discussion.

Over twenty years ago, Terry Winograd defined a four-category taxonomy for conversations that seems to cover much of today's Internet writing:
  • Conversations for action: a request or offer which is subsequently confirmed or dropped
  • Conversations for clarification: obtaining more information about something said earlier or in a prior conversation
  • Conversations for possibilities: creating ideas and selecting one or more for future discussion
  • Conversations for orientation: exchanging information about themselves or a situation (bilateral or unilateral)
The possibilities for the unfolding of a conversation for action are illustrated in the following figure from Winograd and Flores (page 65).

Party A makes a request Party B. B can accept, decline, or make a counter offer. Each of these in turn has follow-on possibilities until the conversation ends in one of the bold face end points. If, for example, the conversation reaches node 5, B has asserted that their agreed upon action is complete and A confirms that.

Winograd and his colleagues developed a software product called The Coordinator which imposed the formal structure illustrated above on top of email. With The Coordinator, one did not merely send an unstructured email message, one initiated a formal conversation with a request, and the recipient either accepted, rejected or negotiated a commitment with a date. Once a commitment was made, the system generated messages to keep the action on track.

The Coordinator failed commercially because it was overly complex and rigid, and users could do much the same thing using email with to-do lists and milestones as found today in a program like 37Signal's Basecamp. However, The Coordinator foreshadowed the sort of writing we do today on the Internet -- the sort of writing our students need to practice.

Our students should also learn to write (and read) short documents like Web pages and blog posts. Students often ask how long a term paper or other written assignment must be, hoping it will not be too long. But Google, large fonts and wide margins make it easy to pad and lengthen a paper. Given the short attention span of people reading from a screen, today's students should learn to write short, focused documents. User interface consultant and researcher Jakob Nielsen offers guidelines for writing for blogs and the Web on his usability blog.

Nielsen's guidelines are based on research showing that people scan Web pages, taking time to read about 20 percent of the words. The problem is exacerbated by the ease with which students can "multi-task" while online. But, careful reading, not scanning, is required for online conversation and concise, link-filled documents. Our students must learn to read carefully, in the manner of Thoreau.

Today's student will also be expected to write collaboratively on the Internet, typically using a wiki or shared document. The simplest form of collaborative writing is creating a compiled document, where each author's contribution is independent of the others. A good way to introduce compiled writing is to have students build a list of something -- a class roster, recommended restaurants near campus, recommended Web sites, etc.

With a co-authored document, the division of labor is less clear. A lead author may begin with an outline and invite others to flesh the content out. Another possibility is that the lead author writes a first draft, then invites others to modify it. Perhaps the authors can meet face-to-face to plan their work before writing, perhaps not. Regardless, all authors are free to edit any portion of the evolving document. The Wikipedia includes a page on writing better articles.

There is a gray area between compiling and co-authoring -- one person may revise another person's contribution to a compilation. One thing all collaborative writing has in common -- when one edits a common document, their goal should be to improve it.

Computer literacy 3.0 presentation

I am giving a talk on computer literacy 3.0 at the eleventh California State University Regional Symposium on University Teaching, at Cal Poly Pomona on April 12, 2008. You can download the annotated PowerPoint presentation here. (There are about 40 slides, including some cool pictures).

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Toward computer literacy 3.0

We have seen two major shifts in computer literacy courses as technology changed. The first generation was made possible by the advent of time sharing and the second by the personal computer.

Today's shift to the Internet as a platform for developing and delivering applications seems as important to me as the shifts from batch processing to time sharing or from time sharing to the personal computer were, so I think it is time for another change. In moving to computer literacy 3, we must also consider the characteristics of our students who have had Internet access all their lives -- what they know and what they do not know.

Most of today's students are familiar with email, SMS, Web search, digital cameras, MP3 players, word processing, etc., but they typically use these tools without a mental model of the underlying technology and without considering their implications for individuals, organizations and society. As such, I would stick with the format of combining concepts and skills, but the concepts should now include network and communication topics like:

  • Accelerating improvement in communication, storage and electronic technology
  • Data types -- numbers, text, images, audio, and video
  • Data encoding and compression
  • Analog versus digital data
  • Circuit versus packet switching and the rudiments of layered protocols (at least application versus the rest)
  • Internet connectivity from fixed (home and organization) and mobile and portable locations
  • Rudiments of wireless technology -- transmission frequency, attenuation, modulation
  • Client-server and mashup architecture
  • Software as a service (for users and developers)
  • Telecommunication policy, environmental and economic impact
  • The global diffusion of the Internet
What about the skills portion of the course?

When Kemeny and Kurtz invented BASIC, they were interested in algorithmic thinking -- most application development remained the responsibility of professional programmers. With the advent of the PC and spreadsheet, many non-professionals became application developers. With the Internet as a platform, users can develop complex applications without programming or with a bit of scripting. (Professional developers can quickly do things that were previously impossible). Internet services are the “new spreadsheet,” and relevant skills include network-based application development and content creation, things like:
  • Using RSS
  • Using social bookmarking with tags
  • Creating online questionnaires
  • Creating online databases
  • Concise, often collaborative writing using wikis and shared documents
  • Synchronous collaboration using voice and video conferencing, chat and screen sharing
  • Creating and using blogs
  • Creating and using threaded discussions
  • Image, audio and video editing
  • Creating and using social networks
  • Data and service mashups
Note that many of these involve learning expressive skills as well as technical skills. Writing a blog post, a focused reply to an email or writing collaboratively on a wiki are not the same as writing a term paper.

A skill can also be taught as content creation or application development. For example, we might be satisfied if students use a minimal blog to track progress on an internship or project or we might ask them to create a more fully featured blog with various subscription options, mashups, usage measurement, etc.

In shaping a course, we should also ask whether to introduce a topic conceptually or teach it as a skill. For example, one can illustrate data compression and discuss quality trade offs with a simple class demonstration (like this, this, or this) in which you talk about perceived quality, file sizes and transmission times. Is that sufficient, or should the students be required to compress their own images or audio? For some majors, the answer is clearly "yes," but is it for all liberally educated people?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Today's computer literacy 3.0 courses

The following people teach courses that set the stage for computer literacy 3.0. Note that some are upper division or somewhat technical courses, but the material in those courses will be refined and winnowed for presentation in general computer literacy classes. (The first time I taught a computer literacy 2.0 class, it included such things as how to use DOS, 123, and Wordstar, but it was a graduate course -- such topics quickly moved to the undergraduate curriculum).

I include links to the courses and blogs of each professor.

Mark Frydenberg, Bentley College

Chris Lott, University of Alaska, FairbanksLarry Press, California State University, Dominguez HillsHoward Rheingold, Stanford and UC BerkeleyDavid Parry, University of Texas, DallasSteve Sloan, San Jose State University
Michael Wesch, Kansas State UniversityThis list is doubtless incomplete. Please send updates.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Computer literacy 2.0

First generation computer literacy courses began with the work of Kemeny and Kurtz at Dartmouth College. The computer literacy course generally consisted of a skill portion -- BASIC programming -- and a conceptual portion covering topics like hardware and software, encoding of numeric and text data, applications, and the history and social implications of computers.

These first generation classes were geared to time sharing systems. With the advent of the mass market personal computer, the computer literacy course was revised.

Second generation courses generally dropped the BASIC programming component, substituting skill training with a personal computer operating system and file system and productivity applications -- word processing and spreadsheets, and, to the extent time allowed, database management and making presentations. When we shifted from command line to graphical user interfaces and Microsoft became dominant, this became training with Windows, its file system and Microsoft Office applications. With the Internet we added email and perhaps USENET news and with the Web we added browsing and search.

The proliferation of skill topics has extended that portion of the course, putting pressure on the conceptual portion. It remains, but less time is devoted to it.

For example, on my campus there are two computer literacy courses, one offered by the Business School the other by Computer Science.

CIS 270 Information Systems and Technology Fundamentals.
Provides an introduction to information technology, systems concepts, and application software. Covers system components and relationships, cost/value and quality of information, and package software solutions. Includes basic skills related to operating systems, word processing, spreadsheet software, and the Internet.
CSC 101 Introduction to Computer Education.
A computer literacy course designed to familiarize the learner with a variety of computer tools and computer concepts with emphasis on utilizing packaged programs. This course provides an introduction to the use of computers, common software programs and peripherals. Students are instructed in the use of a word processor, drawing programs, spreadsheet, database, presentation tools, internet applications and statistical package in scientific applications.
Both of these courses have two textbooks, one for Office applications, the other for computer concepts. Today's student often has skills with Windows, word processing, and various Internet applications, and the Internet has clearly emerged as a platform for developing and delivering applications. Courses like these are no longer appropriate.

Computer literacy 1.0

Early computers were expensive and complex, so it took special vision to see they would one day be widely used. John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz of Dartmouth College held the conviction that understanding computers and their applications and limitations was an essential part of a liberal education.

During 1962, they and their students implemented several simple programming languages on the LGP-30, an early, expensive, desk sized, personal computer, and, by 1963, they had made the decision that all Dartmouth students would be taught computing.

Following a design policy that "In all cases where there is a choice between simplicity and efficiency, simplicity is chosen," they built the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS) and invented BASIC as a language for teaching programming. (The quote is from Kurtz' chapter in The History of Programming Languages). They also opened the first campus computer lab, shown above.

The project was sponsored by the US National Science Foundation, and in their 1967 final report to the sponsor they wrote:

Four years ago Dartmouth College reached the conclusion that learning to use a high-speed computer should be an essential part of liberal education. Four years ago this was merely a dream, and considered impractical by many experts. Today it is a reality...The average college graduate of today is almost sure to need a computer in his work twenty years from now. Therefore, we must prepare him today to use this most powerful of tools ... Even more significant is the need for changing the attitude of the typical intelligent person towards computers. ...It is vitally important that the leaders of government, industry and education should know both the potential and limitations of the use of computers, and to be aware of the respective roles of Man and machine in the partnership.
Dartmouth did not offer an independent computer literacy course at first, but integrated it into existing courses throughout the curriculum. Textbooks and full computer literacy courses followed. (Jeremy Bernstein, a prominent physicist and New Yorker author, published an excellent introduction to computers for the layperson at the same time -- it holds up 40 years later).

As the above quote shows, Kemeny and Kurtz realized computing skills were needed for work and computing concepts were needed to be an effective citizen. Early computer literacy courses recognized this, combining a skill portion -- an introduction to procedural or algorithmic problem solving using BASIC programming -- with computing concepts. In first generation computer literacy courses, those concepts included topics like hardware and software, encoding of numeric and text data, applications, and the history and social implications of computers.

John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz:

What today's students know (and don't know) about information technology

Most of today's students are familiar with email, SMS, Web search, digital cameras, MP3 players, word processing, etc. Four reminders of their familiarity with information technology are:

However, like drivers of cars with automatic transmissions, our students may use these tools without having mental model of the underlying technology -- their skills typically outstrip their conceptual knowledge.

Nearly all of today's students can surf the Web, but many do so without understanding that there are multiple Web servers on the Internet and that "Internet" and "Web" are not synonyms. They can email photos, but have no idea why they are so big when they arrive and why it takes so long to download them. They are both inefficient users and poorly prepared for making business and application decisions.

Few have thought about the implications of information technology for individuals, organizations and society, leaving them poorly prepared to make political judgements.

Finally, as Ivan Illich has pointed out, working with poorly understood technology can lead to a feeling of intimidation and alienation.

(For further thoughts on this topic see this post).

About this blog

The idea of IT literacy began with John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz. In 1964, they developed the Dartmouth time-sharing system and the BASIC programming language in order to teach IT literacy at Dartmouth College. They were motivated by their conviction that

knowledge about computers and computing must become an essential part of a liberal education. Science and engineering students obviously need to know about computing in order to carry out their work. But, we felt exposure to computing and its practice, its powers and limitations must also be extended to non science students, many of whom will later be in decision-making roles in business, industry and government. (reference →).
Kemeny and Kurtz emphasized the skills and concepts needed to be successful as a student and after graduation as a professional and citizen. Those skills and concepts, and hence the IT literacy course, change when new application development and delivery platforms are invented.

IT literacy could not be taught well using a batch processing system, but time sharing made it feasible. The skill component of the first generation course (called "computer literacy" at the time) stressed algorithmic thinking and programming using BASIC and the concepts focused on hardware, software, applications, and social implications of computers.

The emergence of the personal computer as a platform led to the second generation IT literacy course. We revised the curriculum, substituting skill with productivity applications, and later, email and Web surfing, for programming. We retained, the old concepts, but had less time to cover them.

Today the Internet has become an important platform for developing and delivering applications and our students have been using it since they were children. We need a new definition of IT literacy, IT literacy 3.0.

This table summarize the evolution of IT literacy:

GenerationPlatformCourse content
Batch processingNo IT literacy courses
1Time sharingBASIC programming (algorithmic thinking), IT concepts
2PC with a command-line user interfaceProductivity applications, DOS, fewer concepts
2.5PC with a graphical user interfaceMicrosoft Office applications, Windows, email and Web search, fewer concepts
3The InternetCreate content, develop applications, different concepts
3.5?The mobile Internet and the Internet of things???

I offer the following as a starting topical outline for an IT Literacy 3 course:
  1. Internet concepts
    1. Applications
    2. Technology
    3. Implications for
      1. Individuals
      2. Organizations
      3. Society
  2. Internet skills
    1. Application development
    2. Content creation
      1. Text
      2. Images
      3. Audio
      4. Video

This blog is concerned with questions like:

  • What skills should be included in IT literacy 3.0?
  • What concepts should be included in IT literacy 3.0?
  • Who is developing courses that teach these skills and concepts?
  • How are our student's backgrounds and expectations changing?
  • Should we teach IT literacy as a stand alone course or disperse it throughout the curriculum?
  • Does IT literacy require two full courses?
  • Should all students take the same IT literacy course or should there be different versions?