Professor for one year (week 35): Should everybody know how to program?

This post is the report, I wrote for the GPP 2013.


Being a computational linguist, I was trained in programming as well as in linguistics.  After school in the mid-nineties, I couldn't decide whether to focus on linguistics (or nowadays "humanities") or computer science/math (or nowadays "STEM").  So I was quite happy to be able to focus on both when studying computational linguistics.  I always loved algorithms, abstraction -- and yes, I also loved Latin.  Maybe that's a rare combination, but in today's world it turns out to be quite handy.

One aspect of the 2013 GPP motto "University and Society -- Meeting Expectations?" is the aspect of university as the institution to prepare students to be successfull in today's society.  In the last decade, we saw the emergence of more and more electronic devices, "digital" is one of the buzzwords in several scientific fields, technology becomes pervasive.  We speak of the "Generation Y" as being "digital natives."  However, if we look how today's students use technology, they are only users, they are not creators.  They often even don't know how to configure programs.

Douglas Rushkoff in his book Program or be Programmed argues that everybody should know how to program to understand today's technology and to be able to control it instead of becoming a slave of the electronic devices surrounding us.  So my personal focus in the GPP 2013 was to explore how universities support or enable learning to program.  Of course students in computer science (CS) and related fields (like computational linguistics) are trained in programming, but I was interested in courses for non-CS students.

Answers from US professors

During our visit in the US, I asked my question at two places explicitely and I got two different answers. 

At North Eastern University, Dr. Neenah Estrella-Luna, an assistant academic specialist,  as she described herself, argued that indeed, computer literacy would be a valuable topic to teach considering that university should empower students to deal with current challenges.  However, she admitted that there are no courses offered to all students, not to mention being required.  My question was understood as asking about "teaching students how to program." 

At swissnex in Boston, we met Dr. James Honan, senior lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  He understood my question differently and answered that students would keep faculty busy and push them to use more technology.  He talked about MOOCs before and probably this influenced his answer.  However, his statement made clear that there is a view of "computer literacy" as "being able to use devices", including the expectation that instructors offer digital content and e-learning material.

At this moment, I was a bit disappointed.  Either the necessity of teaching and learning how to program is not recognized, or, when it is recognized, it is impossible to offer such courses for all students.

While at the MIT, we visited the Media Lab and the "Lifelong Kindergarten" headed by Professor Mitchel Resnick.  We got an introduction into scratch, the programming language and online community intended to teach kids how to program using a game concept.  They learn abstraction, algorithmics, and data structures while they play with code snippets, interact with other kids around the world, and program their own games and worlds.  It's an advanced model of learning the concept of recursion while playing "Towers of Hanoi."  I was aware of scratch before and I really enjoyed seeing some demos and talking to the researchers involved in designing and implementing scratch.  I think using games as a vehicle for teaching important concepts is a good strategy -- the users aren't probably not even aware that they acquire valuable knowledge they will use later in school, in university, and in their jobs.

Situation in Switzerland

On the morning of the day I took my flight to Boston, I took part in a meeting of an experts panel on CS competencies of the Hasler Foundation in Berne.  The foundation is working towards a proposal for a general subject "Computer Science" at Swiss schools.  Currently, some schools in some cantons offer CS as supplementary subject (in German: Ergänzungsfach).  However, this subject is often taught as it was in the 1990s: students learn how to use certain software, they don't learn to program, they don't learn about abstraction, algorithms, and data structures.  In the publication "informatik@gymnasium", published by the Hasler foundation through NZZ Libro (note that the German version of this book is already sold out!), the authors argue that CS and using software are two differnt things and that school should teach students the basics of CS to prepare future citizens to cope with everyday life.  It is probably a long way to achieve this goal, but it's a goal worth all the effort.

However, here we talk about serious teaching, not about fun instruction as in the case of scratch.

Answers from the Web

After coming home, I searched the web for comments about computer literacy and opinions or activities on teaching programming.  Bill Gates, in a questions session at Microsoft's Faculty Summit, confirmed that there is indeed a "gap between how computer scientists use computers to automate their lives and how most people don't really know how to use them effectively."

Larry Hardesty talks about the "programmable world" that surrounds us and that will change the world as we know it by making the distinctions between virtual and physical objects obsolete.  To make good use of the new world, we should be able to understand opportunities and challenges (and issues) and how to manage them.

In England, efforts are on their way to teach algortithms to primary school kids.  The government acknowledges the need to "catch up with the world's best education systems."  However, this new curriculum is still under development and the teacher's union isn't sure about when would be a good starting point to introduce it -- they object to only react to governmental decisions.  According to Sean Coughlan it will include computing defined as:

Computing will teach pupils how to write code. Pupils aged five to seven will be expected to "understand what algorithms are" and to "create and debug simple programs". By the age of 11, pupils will have to "design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems".

It would be great if England could manage to design and actually implement this aspect.

And there are discussions going on in the emerging field of "Digital Humanities": In a twitter post, Jan Hecker-Stampehl (@heckerstampehl) asks "Should humanities scholars learn to program or trust that the programmers in DH projects will understand them?", obviously not aware of the more than 30-year old answer, Jacques Froger gave 1970 (Froger, J. (1970). La critique des textes et l'ordinateur. Vigiliae Christianae 24 (3), 210-217.), as Michael Piotrowski responds:

Il n'est pas indispensable que le philologue établisse lui-même le programme, encore que ce soit infiniment souhaitable ; il devrait au moins connaître assez le langage de programmation pour contrôler le travail du technicien ; en effet, l'expérience m'a appris qu'il ne faut pas s'en remettre les yeux fermés aux électroniciens, mal préparés par leur formation mathématique à se faire une idée juste de problèmes concrets qui se posent dans la domaine de la philologie.
(English: It is not absolutely necessary that the philologist writes the program himself, even though it would be extremely desirable; but he must at least know the programming language, so that he is able to check the work of the technician; in fact, experience has taught me that one should not blindly rely on the electronics people, whose mathematical training has hardly prepared them for fully understanding the concrete problems encountered in the domain of philology. (translation by Piotrowski))

However, even in fields where you would expect learning to program to be part of the curriculum, it is rather rare, as the blog post by Philip Guo shows.  He argues: "If you're a scientist or engineer, programming can enable you to work 10 to 100 times faster and to come up with more creative solutions than your colleagues who don't know how to program."  Students would need more concrete motivation than only arguing that programming helps them become an empowered citizen (the argument Estrella-Luna used at North Eastern).  Guo accepts that programming tools, i.e., text editors, should be improved to foster programming, but in the meantime we should focus on teaching students programming skills to support creative problem solving.

Selena Larson emphasizes the need to teach programming to students in schools already.  She supports the Hour of Code initiative during Computer Education Week 2013, following a similar strategy as scratch: Using games and fun figures, kids should understand basic principles and get an idea about what it means to program.


Studies by professional assocations like the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) regularly show an increasing number of jobs requiring programming knowledge.  They also show that there is a lack of people with appropriate skills meeting these requirements.  So there is an urgent need in society. 

As I agree that school would be an appropriate place to start teaching basic concepts of CS, university should be the place to empower students to actually program.  Maybe learning to program, acquiring knowledge about algorithms and data structures should be a required course in every curriculum.  I strongly support the statement made by Steve Jobs in an interview in 1995 saying "It teaches you how to think.  I view computer science as a liberal art.  It should be something that everybody learns."

However, we are still on the way to implementing those ideas into education, be it in school or at university.  If we have the chance to support initiatives like the Hour of Code or panels and experts groups designing curricula, those of us having the respective knowledge, should take part and see this as opportunity to serve society.

Professor for one year (week 34): GPP2013 aka higher education bootcamp

This year, I could take part in the Global Perspectives Programme (sorry for the British spelling) -- GPP2013 --, a joint program by the University of Basel and Virginia Tech.  In Basel, we were 8 participants (mostly PhD students) from Chemistry, Law, Sports Medicine, and Computational Linguistics (that's me).  We met in March for a kick-off and started our social-media journey: setting up blogs, joining Facebook and LinkedIn groups, creating a Twitter account, becoming familiar with document sharing applications (Adam, a Moodle clone in Basel, and Scholar, a Sakai clone at Virginia Tech). 

We subscribed to three groups working on aspects of this years topic "University and Society -- Meeting expectations?"  Those groups were formed by participants from Basel and Virginia Tech.  However, we didn't invest much in this groupwork before meeting in person when the Virginia Tech participants visited Switzerland in early June.  They were based in Riva San Vitale (TI) and visited several universities in Switzerland, France (Strasbourg), and Italy (Milano).  We could join them for two days in Riva San Vitale, got to know each other, and started exploring the topic.  Similar to us, the US participants came from different scientific fields and were at different stages in their academic career -- there was no postdoc, though.

In the middle of June, we flew to Boston to start our visit of US institutions of Higher Education.  An two days in Boston, we visited Northeastern University, Boston College, swissnex (where we met James Hanson from Harvard), and the MIT.  On the evening of the second day, we were supposed to travel to Blacksburg.  However, due to bad weather conditions, our flight was delayed and we spent a few hours at a bar at the Boston airport before taking the last flight to Charlotte.  We slept a few hours in a motel and then took the first flight to Roanoke Regional Airport -- of course we couldn't access our luggage, so we had to come up with innovative solutions for cleaning contact lenses and brushing teeth.

Our colleagues from VT picked us up at the airport and gave us a ride to Blacksburg.  I guess nobody slept in the vans, we chatted a few hours and arrived at the campus quite exhausted and looking for a shower.  However, we started exploring the campus immediately, looking at student housing, meeting with faculty, and trying to make a good impression.  In the afternoon we visited the New River Community College and then we headed back to the VT campus to finally get a shower and dress up for the formal reception.

We started the next day with a working breakfast, discussing how to present group work outcomes at the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C. at the end of the day.  Then we took the vans again to go to Washington, D.C, and to visit two other universities on the way: George Mason University and Virginia University.  More and more, the journey turned into an academic bootcamp: We had less and less time to meet with faculty at each station -- and thus needed to shorten our introductions and ask short and precise questions -- and finally we dressed for the formal reception at the Air and Space Smithsonian (we could take part in welcoming the crew of the Solar Impuse who had almost finished their journey across America a few days before) within 15 minutes on the George Mason parking lot.  And I think we all looked great and behaved well!

The next morning, our colleagues from VT drove us to the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C., where we presented the outcomes of our group work and posed some answers and even more questions to the audience.  We had a lively discussion during this official session and then we had lunch at the embassy.  It was very nice to continue discussions we had to cut short during our trip -- people from George Mason University and from Virginia Tech attended the meeting.

After coffee, it was over.  We had to find our way back to the hotel on our own -- of course nobody was prepared which subway to take or even knew in what part of the city the embassy was located.  Later we met for a final dinner and a short debriefing and then we started our trips home (some of us with a stop over in New York, some stayed a bit longer in Washington, D.C.).

A few weeks ago, we had the final closure of GPP2013 at the Institute for European Global Studies in Basel.  We had met before during summer for attending doctoral defenses or birthday parties.  We have become friends, and this is probably due to those bonding experiences during the GPP bootcamp.  I really enjoyed this experience!  And yes, I would do it again.

Professor for one year (week 11): What does University contribute to Society?

Last week, I participated in the Global Perspectives Programme, a joint program from University of Basel and Virginia Tech to foster academic exchange about Higher Education.  This year, the topic of the program was "University and Society: Meeting Expectations?"  We explored various aspects of "Society," "University," and "Expectations."  There are so many definitions and views of these broad concepts, that one could discuss hours and hours.  One aspect, however, is what university is expected to contribute to society.  Is it about providing solutions to current or future problems?  Is it about foreseeing future problems?  Is it about developing resources to be used for society's needs?  Is university urged to serve society and provide what society explicitly wants or to provide what society unconsciously needs?  So far, we wondered, what kind of solution universities would produce.

Most of the time, faculty and administration talked just about the questions we were exploring.  During our one-week trip in the US, the Basel group also visited Virginia Tech and had a vivid conversation with faculty of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI).  Christopher Barrett, Scientific Director of the VBI, argued that universities would provide methods and tools to be used by society, i.e., policy-makers, to solve problems.  He emphasized that universities do not contribute solutions for current or future problems.

This statement made me wonder: At the one hand, with an attitude like this -- universities provide resources and tools to be used by others -- there is much room for basic research, i.e., research with no urgent application but that could be useful in the future.  Researchers are freed from the pressure to explicitly show usefulness in today's society.  And it makes clear that society is responsible for solving problems and for making use of the provided resources and tools.  A very comfortable statement for research, I think.

On the other hand, it reminded me a bit of the drama "Die Physiker" (The Physicists) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt from 1961 and the Manhattan Project (Einstein later regretted having signed the letter to Roosevelt in 1939 recommending that atom bombs be made).  And more so as Barrett told us that he had worked at Los Alamos before coming to VBI.  When universities -- or more precisely: researchers -- say that they only provide tools to be used by whomever, researchers implicitly say that they are not responsible for any outcome.  A researcher invents something, hands it over to the public and then doesn't care about how and by whom it is used. 

Although I appreciate the attitude to provide resources and tools rather than tailored solutions, I think universities should carefully state how to make use of their tools and emphasize the intended use.   Researchers should always take into account possible use of their findings -- the affordances -- and how to prevent criminal, inhuman, or warlike use.

Professor for one year (week 10): I’m substituting

My current job title in English is "Acting Professor", although I'm not sure if this is correct and what impression people have when they read it.  The German term is "Vertretungsprofessorin", showing my gender, confirming that Germans love compounds, and providing a precise job description, all at the same time.  One also finds this position translated as "Guest Professor" or "Visiting Professor".  However, these two are different as the guest or visiting professor can choose on their own what to teach, a "Vertretungsprofessor" teaches the courses the professor she substitutes for would have taught.  The term "Substituting Professor" seems to cover the duties, but reads rather odd.

I guess, "Vertretungsprofessor" is a rather European or even German concept.  When a professor cannot teach, someone else with equivalent qualifications is substituting for her.  This can be rather planned for professors on sabbatical or for the period after a professor retires and before a new one has been chosen.  Sometimes you can even apply to substitute, because there will be an official advertisement.  Most of the time, the person substituting for a professor will be contacted directly.  So one should have a good network, have an uptodate website, and be prepared to teach something new on short notice.  There are also rather unplanned occasions, when a professor get's seriously ill or even dies, when a professor applies for some kind of sabbatical that might or might not be accepted, or when a professor accepts a new position at another university on short notice.

Several concepts exists how substituting works: Other faculty members or staff members teach single courses as additional teaching load to their regular classes.  Sometimes a course is taught by an external or internal lecturer who is paid for this course as an adjunct lecturer. So the teaching load of the professor is split up between several lecturers.  It's not uncommon in Germany that adjunct lecturers get paid rather symbolically, the paiment is a few dozen Euros per hour taught, i.e., excluding time needed for preparation, grading assignments, or answering students' questions. 

The fact that another researcher -- who in principle would be eligible for professorship -- acts for the professor on sabbatical, is rather special.  The substitute does not only do the teaching, but also overtakes all duties and responsibilities like supervising masters' theses, grading final exams, and attending meetings.  However, most of the time the substitute gets paid according to the PostDoc scale -- i.e., according to the current status of the substituting person.  The University of Konstanz pays acting professors according to the salary scale of the professor who is substituted for.  This is rather unusual, I guess.

However, I'm still a PostDoc, I'm not a regular Professor and I'm not allowed to use this title.  In some occasions a researcher substituting for a professor might even be allowed to use the title during the time they substitute.


Boston Tastes Delicious 
We bought cupcakes (chocolate and coffee, cookies & cream) at Newbury Street. The pastries did not only look stunning but also tasted delicious. We hope that we are given the opportunity to eat more of them...
Boston Sounds Special
We saw a special musical instrument at Harvard Square Station. Not only cars are larger than in Switzerland but also tubas. We hope that we are given the opportunity to see more of them...

Boston Thinks Green
We threw our trash into a trash can that is powered by solar energy. A great idea to compact remains of all kinds. We hope that we will be inspired on our journey many more times...

On Struggling Students

While I have been amazed with some of my students’ work, occasionally I have a student who is completely unmotivated or does not apply him/herself to learn or even pass. From my discussions with other educators in the US system, this experience seems to be shared by most, regardless of institution.

However, one of our first impressions with Swiss university students was that they demonstrated a business-like approach to their studies. Before integration of the Bologna Process objectives, many schools delivered lessons in the “sage on the stage” format where an expert simply lectured and students were expected to self-regulate their studies so they could pass a final exam. While this approach doesn’t benefit from the advantages of learner-centered design, it places a clear responsibility on students to take their studies seriously because there would be no “hand-holding” to help them pass their exams.

In a previous post, I discussed my concerns about encouraging similar personal responsibility in a learn-centered design. I also recently finished reading Herbert Kohl’s “I Won’t Learn from You” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment which challenges my perspective on instructors’ responses to students who are not meeting expectations. He discusses (and gives examples) of students who are often labelled as “at-risk,” “underachiever,” “dropout-prone,” “remedial,” or similarly described. However, Kohl advocates cases where an instructor can practice creative maladjustment by strategically breaking school rules and challenging status quo to enable these individuals to engage in something that really motivates them, even at the sake of neglecting standard curriculum.

With this in mind, I think a lot of discussion needs to take place in regard to the responsibility of both instructors and students with particular attention to struggling students. As instructors, should it be our responsibility to find a way to engage even students who would not even show effort or desire to pass our classes? What becomes of these students and what is the eventual impact on society? We got some notion that while these types of students are more rare in Swiss universities, they may be more common in the universities of applied sciences.

Where should the line be drawn where instructors’ duties to encourage and enable students end and students’ personal responsibility to fit within the guidelines and expectations of the instructors begin?

Translingualism at the University of Strasbourg

I spoke with Monsieur Serge Potier from the University of Strasbourg yesterday following his presentation about the PhD process at the university. During the Q&A after his talk, he mentioned that some theses are written in a combination of both English and French.

I was wondering what language(s) classes were usually conducted in. From M. Potier’s description, many professors actually conduct classes somewhat bilingually, with instruction in French but slides and materials in English. He said this is because slides are often reused at international conferences, and English is a more commonly used language.

It was interesting to hear about this translingual integration of languages, especially since M. Potier seemed to feel it was both expected and necessary for both faculty and students to communicate multilingually in the classroom. While translingual approaches are starting to gain purchase in some classrooms in the US, I wouldn’t describe it as an expected norm.

It has been interesting to see the integration of multiple languages in an academic setting, and I look forward to seeing what we find in southern Switzerland and Italy!

Here is a picture of Larry, who has kept me company on this trip.


Hallo Zurich!

Raclette and fondue at Swiss Chuchi
was a great way to kick off our first official day of the Global Perspectives 2013 program.

I have had a wonderful time traveling around Switzerland this past week, visiting a cheese factory, chocolate factory, winery, Zurich, Fribourg, Lausanne, and the amazing Matterhorn in Zermatt. And we have had the wonderful opportunity to travel with a Swiss friend who was an exchange student at Virginia Tech a few years ago. She kept us on time, well fed, and exhausted but deliriously happy.

However, I am definitely ready for a change of pace, and I look forward to visiting some schools and learning more about global higher education beyond what we’ve already discussed with Dean DePauw and each other. I’m excited to talk to people and hear what they think about their educational systems, and I’m really looking forward to how all this multilingual stuff works in a higher ed context. It seems like the definition of what it means to be multilingual shifts depending on the national and cultural context you’re in. I can’t wait to learn more!

Tomorrow: University of Zurich and ETH, here we come!