[Edu-sig] Shuttleworth Summit

Winston Wolff winstonw at stratolab.com
Tue Apr 25 07:39:23 CEST 2006

What a fascinating thread this is.  So many great ideas being thrown  
out.  But I think that we are often focusing in on little pieces  
whereas we need to get a big picture first.  Furthermore, I know as  
computer scientist I naturally look at details and enjoy technical  
solutions, whereas the system we are discussing is a human system: a  
student, her environment, her peers, teachers, parents, principals.   
The distinction is important but I often miss it because I love  
concentrating on source code for long stretches at a time and lose my  
perspective of the people involved.  The critical thing is that any  
software solution will be a tool to help one of these people do their  
thing better.  I.e. a tool to help a student experiment more easily  
with logic or problem solving.  But just as valid is a tool that  
helps a student get peer-reviews which inspires him to pursue his  
interest and refine it to an art form.  Or a tool that helps a parent  
see where their child is thriving and stumbling so they can praise or  

Below is an overview of the educational system as I see it, and I  
have written it in the form of a software engineering type  
requirements analysis.  It's long, longer than the 20 lines Guido  
prefers, but it covers a big area.  I hope you find the length was  

I'll start what my understanding of the question.  From what I've  
gathered from the shuttleworth wiki:

The focus seems to be: What can we do as computer scientists to help  
education?  Specifically, Mr. Shuttleworth wants the next generation  
to be good at problem solving and analytical thinking.  Being South  
African, he is primarily concerned with developing technology that  
can be deployed in the poorer areas of Africa.

Below I list the different actors in this problem, what they do, and  
some idea for technical solutions in that area.  Again, the system is  
a human system and any technical solutions will be tools to help  
them, not tools they do something for them.  I.e. we want tools like  
Word Processors or Photoshop which help people do a job they can do  
without computers, but the computer makes it easier, faster, more  
fun, and with better results.  Thus it is critical to understand the  
full breadth of what people in the system do, so we can choose the  
best area to write tools.

     - Students learn something. -- Easier said than done.  But there  
is so much more than just this.

     - Students get excited about something and want to study it.  --  
This is a big part of what I use computers for: motivation.  You  
can't teach anything to a student who isn't interested.  And a  
student who is really interested learns so much so quickly.  Video  
games have a lot to teach about motivation and learning.  Not only do  
video games excite kids, but they often have "training missions"  
which teach the rules of the game from within.

     - Students use knowledge tools like books and websites to read  
about subjects they are interested in.  But the first knowledge tool  
were other people.  Children watch their parents and then copy that  
action.  That's a fast and effective method.  Can computers emulate  
this method?  Could we use video?

     - Students experiment with their subject to practice and learn  
about it.  This is what constructivists emphasize and was one of  
Piaget's epiphanies: That learning is the process of students  
constructing their knowledge of how things work by tying together  
bits of information they have heard, and trying them out in  
practice.  Because computers can simulate other systems, they provide  
a way to experiment in a subject with no physical limitations, and  
one tool (the computer) can be used over and over for many different  

     - Students get lazy and procrastinate.  Although stories of the  
enthusiastic student are inspirational, not everybody is enthusiastic  
and motivated all the time.  It's just as important to teach students  
that laziness and procrastination don't pay as much as enthusiastic  
effort does pay.  I have worked in well-to-do schools and not-very- 
well-off schools.  In both of them, students like to stall the  
teacher, bring up unrelated tangents, and crack jokes--it's a lot of  
fun.  The difference though, is that the well-to-do schools don't  
tolerate much of it, and the not-so-well-off schools let the students  
slip through 80% of the time without penalty.  Once things get to a  
certain point, then policing the students takes up all the teacher's  
time and they aren't thinking about learning anymore.  Can we create  
tools that lighten burden of policing and accounting of bad behavior?

     - Students get feedback on how well they are learning.   
Traditionally this has been through quizzes and tests.  A big problem  
with tests is students focus on their grade, when they should really  
be focusing on how the test can help them learn better.  I adapted an  
idea (originally called a Qtorial I think) where written instructions  
were combined with quizzes very tightly.  E.g. a web page that  
alternates between information, and a multiple choice quiz.  I  
combined this idea with XP automated tests to write a programming  
tutorial that tells students how to use a programming feature, and  
then asks the student to do an example.  But the student's work is  
then tested with an automated test and the student gets immediate  
feedback.  That makes for a lot of feedback even when you have many  
students and few teachers, or students working on completely  
different subjects.

     - Teachers tell students how things work.  I'm not sure if there  
are any technical solutions to be had here.

     - Teachers prepare a situation where students can learn  
something.  This could be something the teacher thinks should be  
learned, or something the student is curious about.  It might be a  
science experiment, or a trip outside to study bugs.  I like the  
Waldorf/Steiner school philosophy where students want to learn, and  
the teacher's role is to remove the obstacles in the student's way.   
This is a big area for computers.  One possibility is improving  
communication of teaching practices.  Right now many website share  
lesson plans, but it can take can take two hours to find a lesson  
plan for a one hour class.  Often I could have written my own in the  
same time.  But I think there are many other ways computers could  
help teachers find instructional material relevant to a subject.  And  
this sounds traditional, but it could just as easily be  
constructivist.  Maybe a particular student has gone very far in  
studying bugs, and the teacher/coach wants to find more tools for the  
student to pursue his interest more deeply.

     - Teachers learn to become better teachers.  Another big one,  
but one that is often missed.  Teaching or coaching is a skill and  
teachers are humans who have to learn that skill.  This also ties  
into teacher motivation.  If teachers are always learning their  
craft, they are excited and enjoying their job.  If the teacher gives  
the same lecture for 30 years, it's not going to be very exciting by  
the end.  I'm a big fan of eXtreme Programming and one big thing XP  
does in practice is make  programmers improve as engineers and  
communicators.  XP makes programmers think about their process, and  
also provides lots of feedback loops to guide them.  Could we make XP  
type tools and methodologies for teaching?

     - Parents instill their children with many if not most of their  
value scales.  Can we develop tools that help parents help their  

     - Parents make educational choices for their children.

     - Parents provide reinforcement for good work or, hopefully  
rarely, punishment for misguided deeds.

Principals and Boards of Education
This only applies if we are still talking about an educational  
system, as opposed to home-schooling or unschooling.

     - Management helps teachers become better teachers

     - Management has to do unhappy things like removing teachers who  
really shouldn't be teaching.

Many more things can be mentioned here, but I think they become very  
much up for debate.  But it's important to at least mention the role  
in this overview.

Who is Winston, what is this Stratolab thing?
For those of you interested in where I get these ideas, I have two  
decades of experience in software: finance, video game, and  
educational software.  I've been working on how to apply technology  
towards education for the past three years.  Towards that end, I must  
first know my audience so, I currently teach video game programming  
to middle school students in New York City.

winston wolff - (646) 827-2242 - http://www.stratolab.com
learning by creating - video game courses for kids in new york

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