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[school-discuss] Immersed in the Future: Randy Pausch on the Future of Education

Source: Ubiquity, Volume 6, Issue 20 (June 8 - 14, 2005)

> The longest-running research project I have is called 
> Alice, and it is using some of the underlying technology 
> from 3-D graphics (driven of course by video games) and 
> some of the inspiration of storytelling as a powerful human 
> motivator (everybody wants to tell stories) ? and using 
> that to devise a system that is able to provide a better, 
> first exposure to computer programming, in much the same 
> way that Logo used to. But this is much more advanced than 
> Logo was, to the point where it can be used for a full 
> semester course at the college level.

> UBIQUITY: A moment ago you mentioned that you were the only 
> game in town. What did you mean by that?
> PAUSCH: I was referring specifically to the Alice Project, 
> and what I was saying there was that if you ask, "Who here 
> has any kind of a potential solution to the fact that 
> enrollments are dropping like a stone?" you don't get many 
> answers from people. Do you know anybody in the computer 
> science community who says, "Oh, here is something that 
> could change the fact that young people are not going into 
> our discipline"? When I say I'm the only game in town, I'm 
> saying that we have an entirely novel way to introduce 
> people to programming, where we have huge amounts of 
> evidence that we have a teaching strategy that works even 
> at the middle school level. Typically, a kid's first 
> exposure to programming frankly sucks, right? It's not an 
> accident that the highest rates of academic dishonesty 
> occur in introductory programming courses, and that's not 
> just because it's mechanically easy to copy code; the 
> reason is that we put people into the most frustrating 
> situation in the world.


> UBIQUITY: You sound like you're just getting started.
> PAUSCH: I am. And by the way, why is it that programming is 
> the gateway to computer science? I mean, I realize that 
> it's a valuable skill, and computer scientists should be 
> able to program. But other disciplines have figured out 
> that the first course should be a survey of all the cool 
> things in the discipline, you know, mixed in with some 
> laboratory sessions about doing the stuff. To us, it's all 
> laboratory sessions. I used to teach in a lecture format, 
> which is kind of a stupid way to teach people a lot of this 
> stuff. But with the Alice system, you drag words around, 
> you can't make a syntax error. You're authoring an 
> interactive, 3-D ? you're authoring a 3-D movie or an 
> interactive 3-D game, and this is highly motivating for 
> students. But we had to wrap a textbook around it, because 
> one of the things I learned painfully is that you can have 
> the best software in the world, but if there isn't the 
> educational infrastructure called the textbook, no one will 
> start using the software. Once the textbook was in beta we 
> were in 25 schools.
> UBIQUITY: The story has a happy ending then?
> PAUSCH: Yes, but Alice is not a panacea. A lot of people 
> were saying, wow, this is different, I've got to teach 
> differently, because now the kids are all highly motivated. 
> What everyone wants to do is just go off and just write 
> programs and tell their stories ? everybody wants to 
> direct! And here I am trying to get them to sit here and 
> calm down and print out the twelfth Fibonacci number. Now, 
> we could have a long discussion about how perhaps we should 
> be excited about the fact that the kids are willing to 
> write multiple hundred-line programs in their first 
> semester, and that they will willingly do that and stay 
> into the night, because they're having fun. I might 
> actually as an instructor just run with that and let them 
> do that for the first semester and put off worrying about 
> Fibonacci numbers until the second semester: that might be 
> one strategy. Instead, the reaction we tend to get is more 
> one of, "This is really great and the kids seem to enjoy 
> it, which is kind of weird, but, by the way, what's your 
> transition path? Because what I really need to do is have 
> them learn how to type Java." And then I say, but aren't 
> you the one who was just telling me that it's all about the 
> concepts in computer science, and the language doesn't 
> matter? Their reply: "Absolutely. This course is all about 
> concepts. But if they can't type Java by the end of the 14 
> weeks, this is not an acceptable solution." And so now 
> there's a Java syntax mode in there and all that. But what 
> I find fascinating is that, if you were a company and 
> profits were down 23 percent, everybody in the company 
> would be talking about that to the exclusion of everything 
> else, wouldn't they?
> UBIQUITY: At least one would hope so.
> PAUSCH: Enrollments are down 23 percent in the computer 
> science discipline. And at the top echelon, people aren't 
> too bothered by it, because we will be the last to be 
> impacted, right? But this is a huge, huge problem. And it's 
> a huge problem for the country.

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