I am a big believer that technology can be used to significantly improve how we teach and learn in all of our educational institutions. As a computer science instructor at a technical college, my vision as a digital education leader is to use technology in unique and creative ways to greatly improve how we teach and learn computer science. My ultimate goal is to share my passion for computer science, and computer programming in particular, with all of my students. My passion for computer programming came from one of my undergraduate instructors. He valued teaching his students more than doing his own research, which was an exception at the time. It is one of my personal values to always put my students education first.
In fulfilling my vision, I intend to follow the the digital citizenship guidelines for coaches defined by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) to model, promote, and facilitate the safe, healthy, legal, and ethical use of digital information and technology. Moreover, I intend to use the following three principles to guide me in this vision:
- Stay Focused and Grounded
- Never stop learning
- Push the envelope
1. Stay Focused and Grounded
As a technologist, I am often tempted and eager to spend considerable effort figuring out ways to use the latest and greatest technology to solve the current set of problems or challenges facing me. Often, this leads me down a path that gets me overly focused on solving a problem that has less value than others or – worse still – solving problems that do not really exist in the first place. This guiding principle is all about making sure that I do not wander off the path of what is important and what is possible.
The decision on what is important is driven directly from my student feedback on what technology significantly improves the learning process. At the end of my course in which I have introduced a new teaching method or technology, I ask my students that if they had to sign up for a course next quarter, one that offered the new teaching method and/or technology and one that did not, which course would they pick. If a majority of the students pick the course with the new teaching method or technology, I have discovered something important.
I ran into this very issue in the first computer science course I taught. It was a course on the C# computer programming language. I picked up much of the material for the course from the previous instructor who taught the course. Unfortunately, the text book covered an older version of the programming language and all of the course material was very tied to the structure and flow of the text book. This led me on a journey to reinvent the course. I explored using a set of online material that would eventually allow me to teach the course as a fully-online course. I became very anxious about three weeks prior to the start of the quarter when I had less than a third of the course developed.
At this point, I took a step back from what I have developed, and reflected on what students wanted and needed from such a course. I had received feedback from many students on the high-cost of text books. I had also received feedback from students that they prefer physical books over online material. In short, I had to provide an equitable solution that met my needs as an instructor and the needs of my students. I soon realized that the biggest problem I had to solve was how to give students a low-cost alternative on a text book that came in multiple formats – both online and a physical book.
A librarian at my school suggested that I look at the online Primo book selection to see if there was an online text book that covered my subject area and whether the book was still in print. As luck would have it, I not only found a book on my programming language, the book was still in print, and had an excellent set of online, sample exercises that were incredibly close to what I had already started to develop for course. The final benefit is that the text book met my diversity and inclusion goals (Chapman) to address my style of teaching and the different learning styles of my students. By taking a step back, re-focusing my efforts on what was important, and staying grounded from a technology perspective, I was able to come up with a better solution for teaching my C# course.
2. Never Stop Learning
Another of my guiding principles is to be a life-long learner. This is not only with respect to learning new developments in my subject area of computer science, but also with respect to learning new and creative teaching and learning methods. This learning can happen simply by interacting with other faculty at my school as well as peers in other schools.
The motivation for being a life-long learner comes with multiple places. First, there is so much changing at such a rapid pace in software development, that packages and techniques used only a few years ago may be irrelevant to how software is developed today. Second, no matter how much I try to teach my students the best practices and techniques in software development, they are very likely to run into new best practices and techniques in their careers. It is my duty as an educator to cultivate in my students the desire to become a life-long learner.
A great example of this came up last quarter. At the beginning of each class, I ask students for their background and goals for the course. I typically get blank stares at this question and have to throw out some ideas. Some students raise their hands at my suggestions, most do not respond at all. Before the last quarter started, one of my fellow faculty sent out mail about a Canvas module they had developed to help connect with students at the first class. The module includes a fact sheet of where to get additional help or information as well as a quiz that asks the students for the best way to contact them, background in the subject area, and goals/concerns for the class.
This module turned out to be an incredibly valuable tool for me. I have a diverse set of students in all of my classes. I can have teenagers that are in the Early Start high school program as well as elder people that are re-entering the work force after a career in another discipline. The Canvas connect module allows me to recognize what communication tool – be it digital or not – works best for each of my students. I also found that students are more open about their personal concerns for this course than by asking them the same questions in front of their other classmates.
The Canvas connect module allowed me to model and promote empathy and a disposition to care for my students. In the text ‘Disconnected: Youth, new media, and the ethics gap’, James points out that moral behavior requires ‘the disposition to care, to show empathy, or to engage a principle in one’s interactions with a known individual or a small group’. James goes on to point out that ethical behavior is a ‘more abstract consideration of the effects of one’s actions on a wider, often distant, community or public’. I have struggled with ways to demonstrate moral and ethical behavior with my students, and through this Canvas module provided by a fellow faculty, I learned a way to model and promote moral behavior with my students. I am confident that there are other best practices used by my peers that I have yet to learn, and that I can leverage to improve my teaching performance and model/promote both moral and ethical behavior to my students (ISTE, Standards for Coaches, 5b).
3. Push the envelope
I am often tempted to leverage the same material from past courses I’ve taught with little or no changes. When this temptation rises, I ask myself what is going to be different and unique about this course this time around. This can be risky, as it may involve trying something that I have with little to no experience using and that may fail. Whenever this fear rises in me, I remind myself of the story Ken Robinson gave during his TED 2006 talk (Robinson) about the little girl in drawing class. The little girl is typically not attentive in most classes except drawing class. In one class, the girl is very busy on a particular drawing. The teacher is fascinated and asks the girl what she is drawing. The little girl says she is drawing a picture of God. The teacher tells her that nobody knows what God looks like. With no hesitation, the little girl responds ‘well, they will in a minute’. Robinson goes on to describe another story about when his son was four years old and played the part of Joseph in a Christmas pageant where one of the kings, on presenting his gift, says ‘Frank sent this’. Robinson sums up the moral for both these stories by stating if you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.
Robinson’s message popped into my head at the beginning of this teaching quarter. An email was sent out to all faculty teaching in a particular class room. The school had decided to deploy new furniture and technology in the class room to introduce a new way to teach science courses. The class room had five, square tables with a large screen monitor next to each table and five HDMI cables to hook up to the monitor, one for each student at the table. The tables had a surface that allowed students to write on with a non-permanent marker. The class room also had a cabinet of 25 laptops that could be used by students to hook up to a monitor with the HDMI cable if they did not have a personal laptop with an HDMI port. None of the faculty had been trained in the new teaching method or the technology for this new class room. The email asked each instructor if they want to move their class to a traditional class room or try teaching their class in the new class room.
I was very disappointed with this result, as I had spent a considerable amount of time coming up with a set of class exercises. I did not give up. Per Robinson’s message, I knew there would be some bumps along the road in this journey. For the next class, I decided to split up each of the class exercises so that each table is assigned a different coding task. To my surprise, each table took up their exercise as a competition, wanting to finish their exercise before the other table. This not only got all the students at each table engaged in the exercise, but motivated the students to solve the problem as quickly as possible. If one table finished early, I asked that table to solve the class exercise assigned to the other table, which further motivated the table that had not finished yet. This made class exercise time much more productive than my original approach, and allowed me to observe where students struggled on each exercise, something I did not get from coding assignments that students did after class.
Although this was my biggest discovery, I did make other changes during the quarter. For example, I asked each table to rotate the person displaying their laptop on the monitor when solving a class exercise. After fine tuning this teaching method, I asked the students if they felt this teaching method was more effective than the teaching method used in their other programming classes at LWTech. The students responded that they preferred this teaching method, as they came away from class with a better understanding of the class topic than they did with other teaching methods. Furthermore, my teaching method turned out to be a great way to model and facilitate using the new class room layout and technology for other faculty at LWTech. I have now asked to be assigned to this class room in future quarters. All of this happened because I was prepared to be wrong and willing to keep trying until I found something that worked.
The motivation to accept new challenges comes from career in software development, particularly my founding role in a software startup. As any venture capitalist will tell you, 90% of software startups fail. Stagnation is the path to failure and the competition never stands still. A startup can only succeed if it accepts and seeks out new challenges. This drive has remained with me, and motivates me to apply the same aggressiveness to how I teach my students.
One of the underlying issues facing software developers in the current decade is how to be more responsible in designing applications. The Pew Research article on ‘The future of well-being in tech-saturated world’ presents a techno-optimism pushback. The articles points out how technology is destroying the current generation, through increased suicide, depression, and stress. Software exists that hijacks the minds of the current generation. As an instructor of software development, I feel responsible for instructing my students on ethical standards for developing new software. The best way for me to do this is to model moral and ethical standards in all of the software presented in class as well as assigned to students. This also includes a discussion on how software developers exhibit ethical behavior in design and implementation of software systems. This includes recognizing algorithms that are more about gamification and exploiting human psychology vulnerabilities, than about providing something useful to the end user. This is not a simple topic – and there are lots of examples of public software and social media sites that include such algorithms. The starting point is to have the next generation of software developers recognize these algorithms, and put morals and ethics before short-term profits.
- ISTE Standards for Coaches, https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
- Robbin Chapman, “Diversity and Inclusion in the Learning Enterprise: Implications for
Learning Technologies,” in The Wiley Handbook of Learning Technology, ed. Nicholas John Rushby and Daniel W. Surry (Malden, Mass.: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 287-300
- Carrie James, Disconnected: Youth, the New Media, and the Ethics Gap (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2014), chapter 1: “Morality, Ethics, and Digital Life,” 1-22
- Ken Robinson, “Do schools kill creativity”, TED Talk 2006, https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity#t-329865, 3:21 into video for passage on little girl.
- Mike Ribble and Teresa Northern Miller, “Educational Leadership in an Online World: Connecting Students to Technology Responsibly, Safely, and Ethically,” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17:1 (2013): 137-45
- “The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World,” Pew Research Center, April 17, 2018