Tuesday, April 19, 2016

May I read your mind?

(Originally published: 30 July 2012 on YOURblog [Your Official University of Regina blog] at http://www2.uregina.ca/yourblog/?p=6334)

This summer, I’ve taken the lead on some activities that have put me in front of  students who want to learn about computer science. The activities are based on a magic trick. I ask students to pick a number between 0 and 15. I tell them that I will guess their number after asking them only four questions. I show four cards and ask them if their number is on each card ‐ and they only answer “yes” or “no”. I ask if they think that I can do it and they generally say “yes” – but they are still impressed when I succeed! I did this activity on Tuesday with groups from the Science Camp, part of the Summer Sports School. One memorable response from a young camper: “You’re reading our minds!”

Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The advanced technology behind the trick is the binary number system that computers use for their computations. A binary digit (bit) can only store “0″ or “1″. Each “yes” becomes a “1″ and each no is “0″. Unknowingly, they tell me their number in binary – I just have to convert it to decimal.

After going over the trick and explaining it we give everyone a set of cards to try at home (cards designed by Alex Clarke). Then we do an implementation of it in either Scratch ( http://scratch.mit.edu/) [a visual programming environment from the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT] or App Inventor (http://www.appinventor.mit.edu/) [also from MIT and related to Scratch, but for programming Android cell phones]. These sessions have gone really well.

Guessing numbers inside the Scratch implementation.
In the image you see me in the Scratch version of the guessing game. Within Scratch it is really easy to include images and edit them. It is also possible to record and play sounds within Scratch. The kids have really enjoyed these features. It should also be noted that Scratch is good for building other kinds of games. I encourage parents and teachers to make Scratch available to their kids. There are educator resources available for Scratch at scratch.mit.edu and scratched.gse.harvard.edu. Teachers, if you would like to bring your students to campus so that I can read their minds, please let us know. We may also be able to come to your school. Please send a message to info@cs.uregina.ca to inquire about this.

Computer Science is much more than computer literacy and it is important that our kids not only know how to use computer software but how to build computer software. I’ve been talking about Computer Science outreach since December of 2010. We’ve been building momentum since then. Last December, we organized a professional development day. The idea for the card game came from there, suggested by Pat Vigneron from Notre Dame. Although it is my face in the picture, I am writing on behalf of many people in the Department of Computer Science and in the CSTA who are passionate about bringing CS education to you and your kids. Let us know how we can help you.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Father of fractal geometry remembered

(Originally published: 19 October 2010 on YOURblog [Your Official University of Regina blog] at http://www2.uregina.ca/yourblog/?p=503)

This past weekend I learned the sad news that  Benoit B. Mandelbrot , the father of fractal geometry, had passed away at age 85. I was fortunate enough to have spent 14 months working for him in 1991 and 1992. I had just completed my  M.Sc. under the supervision of Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz, who had spent some time on sabbatical with Mandelbrot. This paved the way for fellow student Dave Fracchia (Ph.D.) and me to join Mandelbrot’s Fractals Project. What an opportunity! Brien Maguire, now Dean of Science, said to me then that I might be one of those people who puts his first job at the top of his resume.

Since I’ve heard the news, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my experiences with Dr. Mandelbrot and that period of my life. I have many happy memories of working with him and his group. I was happy to see and hear him in a recording of his TED talk from February of this year:



In 1998, I wrote a piece for “Textshop” (which you will find further along in this post) in which I reflected on the fractal nature of my life’s journey. Now, the impact of my time with Benoit Mandelbrot is even more clear.

"My Life” (1997) by Daryl Hepting. This fractal was created by repeatedly transforming ever smaller copies of the letters L, I, F, and E. The transformations of LIFE represent the directions in which one is pulled through one’s life choices. Complexity and beauty arise from the collection of many simple choices. This image first appeared in Textshop.
The Fractal Nature of Life’s Journey
by Daryl Hepting
Originally published in Textshop, Winter 1998

University and education have been central to most of my life. As I continue my journey, my formal education becomes informal: I learn about my own life and get a glimpse of my big picture. No doubt, my picture is influenced by my past. I am from Saskatchewan, I have worked for Benoit Mandelbrot, and many other things. Saskatchewan has given me an appreciation for the sky and the infinite horizon. Mandelbrot has given me a means to embrace that infinity.

Mandelbrot is the father of fractal geometry and a wonderful man. His dedication, his precision, and his stories have all been inspirational to me. And they have been the opposite too, whenever I thought myself incapable of his challenges or unwilling to play at life. Fractals are his life’s noble work: he has spent many years learning to see the world through a strange new pair of glasses. And now he shares those glasses with others. The image that accompanies this text is an expression of what I have learned to see through these glasses: a simplicity that calls out from beneath worldly complexity.

What do fractals say about life? It may not be such a difficult leap to think that they might contribute something profound: history is full of examples where mathematics has been used to describe essential parts of our lives. Biologists define life by a list of properties that most living things have, most of the time. That fractals require the same style of definition only lends to their organic appeal. Fractal properties include detail at all scales, some form of self-similarity and a simple definition. Fractals were discovered in the richness of life and they describe our natural world with startling clarity. They can be seen in the record of the Nile river, the price of commodities, the trees outside my window, and the structures in my body. They bring into focus the details and repeated themes of musical scores and the structure of the universe. Before the word “fractal,” objects found to possess fractal properties were definitely considered the exception rather than the rule. My life exhibits detail, as the patterns of my life are repeated in various ways throughout it. Could the complexities of life’s patterns, like fractals, result from a very simple foundation? At some level, I know that life is simple and straightforward. I see the character of Forrest Gump as an unwitting role model: his life remained free of the complexities that others created for themselves.

When I wonder what I should do with my life, the answer I find is simply: live it! There are some days when I am not up to that imperative, some days when I would rather lie in bed and rationalize my life away. I prefer to create shades of gray, rather than to devote my life to the discipline of black and white: there are some decisions that some days I dare not make.

Escher is an artist whose work is recognized by Mandelbrot as “pre-fractal.” He employed symmetries to intricately fill planes. One of my favourite pictures, called “Angels and Devils,” is by Escher. Angels and devils are interlocked throughout and for me this expresses both positive and negative views. The angelic interpretation is that no matter how bad things look, if I live my life as an expression of my principles, my simple rules, then I can successfully navigate amidst the devils. The devilish view is that life is really as complex as it seems: sometimes a necklace of pearls and sometimes something more sinister. And perhaps this is the view I more commonly take: I see intricate structures unfolding, as my life collides with others. Yet it is easy for me to mistake these artifacts for my life, and gather further evidence of life’s complexity. Whenever I view my life in terms of my past, I mask the simplicity of life. Each day I stand at the precipice and each day might be my last. What must I do? If I defer to my past, I trace out the same pattern in every increasing detail. If I choose to act rather than react, I create a new pattern. Like the butterfly flapping its wings, somewhere, I cannot fathom the ramifications of my simple acts.

As I discern my path in life, I realize that it is truly my own path and it is here to be explored, and lived. I sometimes hold myself back by thinking about what might have been: if I hadn’t taken Chris Fisher’s geometry course or any number of other chances. Then with clarity, I focus on the present and the future: though I cannot see it clearly now, I know that it lies ahead along the intricate path I am creating by living each moment.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Book Launch on July 22, 2015: Free Knowledge and A Penny for Your Thoughts


Two recent books with significant involvement from the University of Regina (Free Knowledge: Confronting Commodification of Human Discovery,  published by University of Regina Press and A Penny For Your Thoughtspublished by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) were launched as part of the welcome reception for the Public Engagement and the Politics of Evidence Symposium (#PEPE2015), that was held at the University of Regina on July 23-25, 2015.

What follows are the remarks made by Trish Elliott (co-editor of Free Knowledge), Daryl Hepting (co-editor of Free Knowledge), and Claire Polster (co-author of A Penny For Your Thoughts)

Trish Elliott (School of Journalism, University of Regina):


First, I would like to acknowledge the wonderful job the University of Regina Press has done publishing and promoting our book, including this happy event. Many publishers would laugh at the idea of simultaneously publishing a book Open Access ‐ but University of Regina Press took this as a chance to explore new paths. If you are looking for a publisher that will boldy go, look no further.

I would also like to thank our 14 contributors, who so generously gave their time and intellect to this collective project. Among the contributors here tonight are:
  • Joel Westheimer, who wrote about reclaiming the academy
  • Leonzo Barreno, who wrote about reclaiming and revaluing Indigenous knowledge
  • and of course Claire Polster, who literally wrote the book on the corporatization of universities
Please talk to them tonight and congratulate them on a job well done.

In 1963, forward thinkers such as Jack Boan, Dallas Smythe, Al Berland and Fred Anderson gathered in freezing cold cabins at Regina Beach to shape the foundations of the University of Regina. By linking the academic mission to “essential human values” and public service in the Regina Beach Manifesto, they gave us a strong set of ideals to defend today. While these values may be deeply threatened, at least we have them. We can thank our predecessors for laying out a clear path for us to follow through difficult times.

The introduction to our book ends on the hopeful statement that, in the long view, the knowledge commons is on the rise and the knowledge privateers are in retreat. It is important to note that this is not a natural occurrence. It will only come about by people coming together and taking action. The Politics of Evidence Symposium is a historic step in this direction. We thank Marc Spooner and James McNinch for allowing this book launch to kick off what promises to be three very exciting and energizing days.

Finally, I would like to thank Daryl Hepting for inviting me on board with his vision to start a conversation about the Knowledge Commons in Regina, a conversation open to people from all walks of life. Ten years later, that conversation is still growing and picking up steam. I will leave it to Daryl explain how it got started.


Daryl Hepting (Department of Computer Science, University of Regina):


Thank you Trish.Thank you to family, friends, symposium attendees, and members of the public who are here tonight in body or in spirit.

 I, too, acknowledge the University of Regina Press and echo everything else that Trish has said.

To explain the start of this endeavour that we celebrate in hardcopy tonight, I will go back to 2004, when I was asked to organize a Council of Canadians meeting at the University of Regina. I was lucky enough to find Terry Boehm and Terry Pugh from the National Farmers’ Union willing to speak. The night in question was miserable and my guests had driven from near Saskatoon in treacherous conditions, to make an impassioned presentation about seed saving to a small, but supportive crowd. That remains to me as an embodiment of “essential human values” and public service.

I remember seeing the contrast between patented seeds with their positive view of private intellectual property and free/open source software with the negative connotations attached to it by many. Wanting to do something to offer my support, I began a discussion with Trish and colleagues from Philosophy, Sociology, and Computer Science: we made a successful application to the “transdisciplinary project fund” at the University of Regina that permitted us to organize the “Free Knowledge” event in November 2005.

The idea for the book really came to life during the fall of 2007: something needed to be done and I thought “why not?”. Perhaps this way not so much youthful enthusiasm as much what I now know as ADD. However, I am glad that I took on this project and I am glad that Trish agreed to join me on this journey. I told Trish that I thought we made a good team on this project. If not for Trish’s contributions, there may not be a book to celebrate this evening. Although we began with a local focus, our net was spread far and wide. Our working subtitle was “Global Stories of Knowledge Enslaved, Devalued, and Emancipated” We are honoured to have contributors from Saskatchewan, Canada, the United States, and the Phillippines.

I came across a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace that included the following:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
For me, it seems that I continue to be surprised by discoveries of “water". 

A closing thought from the beginning of Computer Power and Human Reason, a  1976 book by  eminent computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum.  “We can count, but we are rapidly forgetting how to say what is worth counting and why.”  Happily, not all is yet forgotten.

Claire Polster (Department of Sociology and Social Studies, University of Regina):


Because I had another book launch in Ottawa with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and my co-author, I'm going to start with some quick thanks only to some people who are here tonight. I want to thank Simon from the CCPA for selling the book, Trish and Daryl for being willing to do a joint launch, Marc for incorporating the launch into his conference, the awesome band, and Nickita for doing all the organizing of the launch.

My co-author Janice Newson and I had two main goals in writing this book. First, rather than describing or lamenting the current state of Canada's universities, we wanted to show HOW we got here, or HOW corporatization has unfolded in our universities. To put it in terms that relate to the title of this conference, we wanted to show not politics of evidence but evidence of politics. And we wanted to do this tracking of the development of corporatization to show that this process is neither inevitable nor a fait accompli, but open to intervention and transformation, and thereby to offer evidence of the possibility of change and to stimulate politics for change.

In her talk at our Ottawa launch, my co-author invoked Rosa Luxembourg to make the case for why it is so important to resist and reverse corporatization. It's not simply so that education and knowledge can be more widely accessible or that the uses and benefits of university resources can be redirected back toward public needs and interests and away from private needs and interests, but so that we can preserve freedom, which Luxembourg defined as the freedom to think otherwise. Although there are other places in society where the freedom to think otherwise can exist, our universities are both an important site for this kind of thinking and also a symbol of our society's commitment to this vital practice. We need to resist corporatization to enable our universities to fulfil their potential as critically-edged and creative social spaces and also to allow them to authentically affirm and defend the broader principle and value of thinking against the grain rather than succumbing to the intense and ubiquitous social pressures simply to go with the flow.

Of course, thinking otherwise is not only the end but also a means of resisting corporatization. That's why I'm so pleased to be a part of Trish and Daryl's book which is not only about making knowledge free, but about freeing up knowledge, and it is why I am so hopeful about the conference many of us are attending. That's also why Jan and I conceived of our book as, and hope that it will promote, a dialogue - not a monologue. In fact, whether or not you read our book, we would like very much to hear about and talk with you about your ideas and efforts to think about and be in your universities otherwise. We hope in turn to find ways to share people's ideas and experiences with other like-minded citizens to strengthen and advance efforts to preserve free thinking and public serving universities in Canada and beyond.

Let me close by thanking you all for coming out tonight, for taking the time to read our book if you choose to do so, and for initiating, supporting, and informing us of actions of your own or of others aimed at resisting corporatization. I also want to wish us all a lot of impossible conversation tonight and in the coming days, for as utopian educators remind us, if we talk and act only within the bounds of the possible, we will never get anywhere else.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

It's the year 2013, but where are the smart meters?

My first title for this post was "What to Do When the Power Goes Out", but I changed it in homage to the IBM commercial done by Avery Brooks where he asks "It's the year 2000, but where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars!"

On Saturday afternoon, during the CFL game between Montr√©al and Edmonton, the power went out at my home.  After a few moments without power, I decided to report the incident.  The power outage meant that I could not use my wi-fi connection at home, but I could access the internet via my smartphone and its 3G network.   I used the phrase "saskpower outages" for my search and found the page titled "Outages -- SaskPower" that provided an option to "Report an Outage".   Either one can begin a 4 step process to report a power outage (after asking me to verify that there this no power, and I am not trying to report streetlight trouble or an electrical emergency) or call in.  The province-wide toll-free number is also provided, however, it has not been updated on the website to include the area code for 10 digit dialing (which has been mandatory since May 11, 2013) [It is possible to make a telephone number clickable (or dialable on a mobile phone), which is done on in certain places on the saskpower website, but it is not very useful without the area code included.]

I didn't get through the form to do the online report of an outage, since I used the phone.  That I didn't get a busy signal was a sign to me that the outage was not large -- not many customers calling to complain.  I was pleased to speak with someone.  I was intrigued to learn that calls like mine were important for SaskPower to identify (and repair) outages.

Over an hour later, the power was still not restored.  The website prominently features its use of twitter to communicate unplanned outages.  On the "Report an Outage" page, the first line reads "Follow our Twitter feed for real-time alerts and updates on unplanned power outages in your area."  I went to twitter and found nothing.  So I called again.  I spoke to a different person who assured me that my outage was being handled.  When I asked why nothing was posted on twitter, he said that was used mainly for large outages affecting a lot of people.  For small ones, they communicate about it by talking to people on the phone.  I pointed out to him that such a message should be communicated on the website, at the very least.  I then went out for a walk and saw a SaskPower repair person who told me that restoration of power was imminent (which it was).

I find this approach from SaskPower to be very troubling.  If twitter is advertised as the source for information about unplanned outages, to not post details about all of the outages that are reported gives a false impression about the number (and severity) of outages that occur within the province.

Elsewhere on the website, I see the following breakdown of outages by cause:
  • Aging infrastructure / unknown: 38.2%
  • Environment / weather: 35%
  • Domino effect: 17.1%
  • Human error: 5.9%
  • Accidental contact: 3.8%
SaskPower tells me that it is working to renew and improve our system and it has devoted another page to explaining these efforts in more detail.

Yet missing from any of these pages that I have visited is any mention of smart grid technology being part of the infrastructure renewal.  I know that searching for "saskpower smart grid" will bring me to some pages about plans for upgrading the grid.  500,000 smart meters are planned to be deployed,  the web page says.  Conspicuously missing is a date.  Also strangely absent is any connection to the update of our aging infrastructure that is the leading cause of power outages in Saskatchewan.  Are these 2 web pages the product of different divisions that never speak to one another?

Interestingly, SaskPower solicits feedback from people about its webpages.  Under the heading "Express Yourself" is the phrase "This page makes me feel..." with the choices "Curious", "Unsure", "Frustrated", "Informed", "Inspired", and "Bored".  Because percentages are reported, the number of people actually expressing themselves is unclear.  I've noticed "Frustrated", "Informed", and "Bored" receiving clicks.

Back to the outage, how could smart meter technology have helped me (and SaskPower) during my power outage on Saturday?  I found an article from over 1 year ago that discussed the advantages of smart meters in dealing with power outages.  First and foremost, a smart meter can send a real-time outage alert back to SaskPower, possibly notifying SaskPower before a customer can call in.

The issues of smart meters (and the smart grid) involves more than better responses to outages and other benefits.  There are also issues around privacy that must be handled appropriately, in dialogue with an informed citizenry.  About half of all of SaskPower's generation capacity comes from coal ("clean coal" technologies notwithstanding), so any reductions that can be realized in consumption and demand through better information via "the smart grid" would be extremely valuable, for all citizens (and not just of Saskatchewan).

Are you curious about smart grid technology in Saskatchewan?  My adventure this weekend (and writing this post) has prompted me to contact my MLA (and other politicians).  I invite you to do the same and post a comment here (as will I with the responses I get).

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Questions about ENS beacons

Inspired by a recent post on cooper.com about the Amber Alert text capabilities in California and New York, I became interested in the Alertus ENS beacons that have now been installed on campus at the University of Regina.

All is well at 9:52 AM!

The display permits a message of 20 characters on each of 4 lines, so a total of 80 characters are visible at once.  It is not clear the maximum number of screens a single message can occupy.  There is a potential hazard of inopportune breaks between screens of a message (I recall having taken a picture of one such multi-screen messages, but the photo is nowhere to be found) and a lack of standard start and end characters for messages.

The beacons are intended to warn about life threatening emergencies such as Tornados, Chemical Spills or Armed Intruders. They will not activate/sound during a fire alarm.

Report a fire, receive information about (other) life-threatening emergency
There are 2 programmable (according to website) buttons on the beacon, the functions of which is unclear from examining the beacon.  It seems that the beacons are only meant to transmit information and not receive any reports of problems.  Riding on the Toronto Subway recently, I noticed a passenger assistance alarm (a thin yellow strip in each car). The penalty for improper activation is a $425 ticket.
Could an emergency reporting capability, with a similar deterrent for misuse, be workable at the University of Regina?

The beacons provide a visual notification capability that the fire alarm system does not have, but the ENS beacons are not used during fires.  Could the use of both systems add to the confusion in case of a fire?  If the fire alarm system was used for other emergencies as well,  could that create a different sort of confusion?   Could it be a problem that the beacons take people out of classrooms to find out the nature of the emergency?

Alertus  has desktop software that allows campus computers to receive emergency notifications.  I have installed it on my computer, but is this software installed on all (smart) classroom computers?  Getting back to the Amber Alert post  on cooper.com, should an emergency notifcation systems also include mobile devices (non-desktop)?  Should students register their cellphones to receive these messages on their phones?

It seems that these sorts of systems have come about recently in response to various tragedies in the States.  There seem to be a few different approaches to emergency notification.  Other alternatives I've found include e2campus and rave.

This discussion makes me wonder about the history of the development of current fire alarm systems.   They represent an important piece of infrastructure on campus.  Whereas I formerly only heard the alarm siren, I now hear crystal-clear announcements about what is going on and what to do.  I wonder what will happen to these systems as the need to address a wide array of potential emergencies becomes more pressing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

thermostats, mental models, and physics

Six degrees of separation is "the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away."  In Saskatchewan, one or two steps in usually all that are needed.  Why do I bring this up?   As I started to put together a post about Activity 3.5 in Rogers, Sharp, and Preece's book (pages 86-87), I found that their reference (Kempton, 1986) makes reference to McCloskey, whose work is also referenced by Halloun and Hestenes (1985), which is described by Bain in the book that I wrote about yesterday. McCloskey wrote about the persistent models, or explanations, of physics that may people hold.

Kempton's discussion of folk theories of home heating gives me the chance to show my age and make a reference to Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber, a character played by Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, who once said "You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach."

Activity 3.5 deals with how we use mental models in everyday reasoning.  One part deals with increasing the temperature in order to cook food quicker. Not too surprisingly, I found some thoughtful discussion of this misconception. The other part of the activity deals with what happens when you turn up the heat on a thermostat: if a house in winter is too cold, do you turn up the thermostat as high as it will go, or do you set it at the desired temperature? Kempton describes the valve and feedback theories of thermostat operation. Neither is completely accurate, but the feedback theory is closer to the actual operation of the thermostat.  Interestingly, from the perspective of conservation and reducing consumption, the valve theory more readily explained the benefits of lowering the temperature setting at night.

Yet, 2011 is 25 years removed from 1986. Furthermore, the data upon which Kempton based his work is from 1976 (more than 35 years ago). In my house, I have a high-efficency furnace with a modulating gas valve: the value theory makes a comeback! Yet, these high-efficiency forced-air home heating systems are not installed everywhere. I found, through google scholar, a recent paper that cited Kempton. In the Applied Ergonomics journal, Revell and Stanton (2013, in press) look for examples of feedback, valve but also timer (set thermostat higher for longer operation) and switch (thermostat is merely an on/off switch) theories in the UK. Rogers et al. seem to promote the switch theory ("thermostats ... instead function based on the principle of an on-off switch").

Revell and Stanton talk about the importance of regarding the home heating system as a system instead of individual devices.  More transparency related to the operation of the home heating system could allow residents to relate their actions to their goals and to understand when those cannot be met by the home heating system.  This, in turn, could reduce consumption and enhance comfort.

There are plenty of opportunities for design here.   Solutions must also acknowledge the difficulties and expense of upgrading these home systems and provide support to people using the heating systems that they have in place.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

a "promising syllabus" for Computer Science

This semester, I am teaching a Human-Computer Interaction course (with topics outlined in the 2008 ACM/IEEE Computer Science Curriculum) and using "Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction" (3rd Edition, 2011) as the text. I use the local version of moodle to manage the course.

Last month, +Tim Maciag told me about Ken Bain's book entitled "What the Best College Teachers Do".   I eagerly read it in preparation for the current semester, and it has provided a lot of food for thought.  I learned that the best teachers try to create a "natural critical learning environment".  I am buoyed by Bain's comments that good teaching can be learned and I am ready to take on this "serious and important intellectual and creative work."

Many years ago, I did a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test and found that I was an INFP (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) - and the same still holds. This is not the dominant type amongst computer scientists. Looking at Capretz's report on "Personality types in software engineering" (published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies in 2002), ISTJ (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) is most prevalent. What this means is that I may often have a different perspective from that of my colleagues. As I get older, I am more apt to embrace this difference. In Bain's notion of the "promising syllabus", I see a new opportunity to express my vision of a computer science course that is learner-centered.

There are three parts to the "promising syllabus" (so-named because it makes promises to the students):
  1. promises or opportunities for students taking the class
  2. what students would do to realize those promises
  3. how instructor and students would "understand the nature and progress of learning"
I was most sure about the first part, the promises and opportunities, as I used a quote from J. C. R. Licklider's Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960) that had inspired me.  I wrote to students that "we are now living in those most creative and exciting years in the history of mankind and this class will help you to engage in them fully."  In the promises, I touched on all six categories of L. Dee Fink's categories of significant learning: foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn.

As I moved onto the second part, what students would do to realize those promises, I was less certain but still enthusiastic. I gave a tentative schedule of readings in the text and broadly how they related to the topics in the curriculum. I am using quizzes in moodle to give students some direction in their preparation and some automated feedback. Aside from preparing (by keeping up with the readings), I've also indicated participating (including involvement in design of assignment rubrics and exam questions), writing (blog posts), and designing (the focus of the course project).

Writing the third and final part, understanding the nature and progress of learning, was even more difficult. I wrote about formative and summative evaluation - of interfaces and of students' learning and thinking in the class. I included, from Bain, a submission at the end of the semester where students could reflect upon the nature and progress of their own learning and thinking and outline their areas of strength and weakness when it comes to the material. I am least certain about that element, but time will tell!

This syllabus feels right to me. I am hopeful that my students and I will use it as the foundation for a great semester.