Thursday, February 28, 2013

What We're Not Doing to Tackle the Women in Tech Issue

Venture Beat recently ran an article about tackling tech's gender problem the right way (according to them, by teaching women to code). Part of the article discusses how initiatives like Hackbright Academy (a 10 week all-female programming boot camp), while positive, are not a long term fix.

A little light reading about women in computing! / coleypauline

From the article:
So while we wait to tackle the root of the gendered-tech problem (education of girls beginning before they enter school), decades are passing and tech is becoming more gender biased, not less. In a sense, Hackbright and its ilk are letting motivated, smart women cut the line, perhaps helping to take a few years off the depressingly long curve of qualified women engineers over time.

But the quick fix isn’t the ultimate solution. As Fernandez himself pointed out in a recent blog post, the learn-to-code movement is meeting a very immediate need and fixing a sudden engineer shortage, but it’s not creating a stable, nurturing culture of thoughtful, experienced programmers.
What is the ultimate solution? I don't know, but I often find myself frustrated by the fact that, in many cases, we know something about what works, but don't implement it.
As just one example, the National Center for Women & Information Technology has a wonderful set of resources that both gives insight into the issue and offers solutions.  Two of my favourite techniques that can be used in undergraduate classes are pair programming and peer-led team learning.  These are proven to help retain women and also benefit men.  So why do I see these approaches used so seldomly in formal school settings?

I'm pretty sure that a major part of my life's work is going to be continuing to tackling this issue in high schools and universities.  Bonus if it's connected to a paying job!  If we're lucky, I and everyone else working on this won't have to be at it for too long before there is no longer an issue.  Here's hoping!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My So Called Secret Identity

Have you heard about the comic My So-Called Secret Identity? It's been making quite the buzz among many of my academic and women-in-tech friends.  I finally had a chance to read through the first (free!) issue the other day, and have to say that I love it, too!

The comic is about a girl whose super power is essentially being really smart.  This is no scantily clad girl with her clothes falling and her intelligence in question.  Cat has a great memory and sees the connections in things.  As About Cat says, "she's getting tired of pretending, of hiding, of acting dumb to save other people's feelings.  And if they won't take her seriously as Catherine Abigail Daniels, the [PhD] student and cop's kid, maybe they'll take her seriously in costume."  Even better, the illustrator Suze Shore is a fellow Ottawa resident!

Clearly a recipe for awesome. Go check it out!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Thoughts on Grading Schemes

I spent my entire reading week grading an assignment from the first year game development course I TA for.  The assignment was to design a board game with rules that did not exceed two pages, a board represented on one 8.5 x 11 page, and a one page design document / reflection.  The marking scheme is one of the reasons it took me so long to finish, which caused me to reflect on marking schemes in general.

Grade cutoffs
Grade cutoffs / ragesoss

In my own experience, it has been rare to be on either side of an assignment (doing it or grading it) that had a very specific marking scheme.  My very first professor in a programming class was one of the exceptions: every one of his assignments broke down exactly how each mark from the total could be obtained.  This was hugely beneficial to me as a student, because I knew exactly what was expected.  Perhaps it was even more beneficial to whoever had to grade it, since they essentially got a checklist to go through, allowing them to evaluate each assignment in the same way.

I often hear objections to this sort of scheme, the biggest being that with a checklist, students have too much spelled out for them.  I disagree — if the scheme is done correctly, it should not take away the need to think.  If students are able to use the marking scheme to get a perfect grade, then the work that results from that should be exactly what constitutes good work, demonstrating the student learned what they were supposed to.  Besides, some of the marks in the scheme can be reserved for more subjective assessments, such as how creative the assignment was.

Creating a really good scheme takes a lot of effort and time, but if the person who created the assignment, and thus knows it best, doesn't do it, the grader will.  Chances are, the grader isn't going to do it formally; it will likely happen subconsciously as they go through each assignment, noticing issues here and there.  And that will make it difficult to be consistent.  It also requires either writing out a lot of specific feedback that helps justify the grade given, or assigning a grade somewhat arbitrarily and hoping the student doesn't come back to ask where it came from.

I really believe that a good, specific marking scheme benefits everyone in the long run.  I used such schemes when I taught without realizing how important they were at the time, and I am vowing to myself now that I will continue to do so.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anita's Quilt is Going Strong, But We Need Your Help

Anita's Quilt is a collection of inspiring stories from real women in technology.  I wrote about its launch back in September, and wanted to draw your attention back to it now given the amazing content that has accumulated there.

Our publishing cycle is in its third themed story campaign right now.   The Systers collection that came first showcased stories from some of the very first Systers as well as more recent members.  The next campaign was all about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and includes stories about how the conference started and the impact it has had on attendees.  The current cycle is called Legends and Visionaries, and includes (and will include) stories from amazing women ranging from Anita Borg herself to Barbara Liskov to Wendy Hall.  You can track our campaigns here.

If you are a member of the women-in-tech community, or just care about it in any way, we need your help.  We need you to share the Anita's Quilt website with your communities both online and in real life.  But we also need you to share individual stories.  Read a few, pick your favourites, and tweet a line about why you liked it.  Help draw attention to the women you found most inspiring.  Hopefully, with your help, we can help the Quilt grow along with its impact!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Kid Friendly Newspapers Via Augmented Reality

Someone recently shared this Popular Science article about an augmented reality app that 'translates' newspapers for children.  The main idea is to simplify the language, add animations, and include character commentaries to make difficult topics easier and more enjoyable to read.

At first, this seems like a really cool use of augmented reality.  Maybe it could even help revitalize the newspaper industry.  Why not transform something that's designed for adults into something adults and kids can enjoy together?

The only problem is that the newspaper isn't really needed once you have the app.

I mean, it's needed in a literal sense, since that's what kicks off the augmentations in the app.  But once you have a digital version of the contents, why would you need a print version, too? Is the 'reality' part of this augmented reality app adding something - anything - to the experience?

To understand why AR apps should meaningfully include reality, have a look at my recent work on the subject.  If reality isn't an integral part of the AR equation, then we probably aren't using the best interface for the job.  This goes for learning apps, which I focused on in the above link, as well as many other types.

The article above seems to agree with this sentiment, asking these questions among others: "If you already have the content, why not just post it online, Tokyo Shimbun? Will any kids actually want to use this?"

Very good questions indeed.  I truly believe AR has huge potential, especially in education.  But it's never going to move past gimmick if we can't design apps that align with reality for a reason.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Are You Playing a Character, or Just Coaching Them?

Think of your favourite games that are about a particular character.  Do you actually play that character, or are you just the coach? That is, are you able to fully control that character and how he or she acts, or can you merely offer suggestions?  How does that change your game experience?

Coach Dayna

Coach Dayna / TheImageGroup

I hadn't really thought about games from this perspective before.  I recently learned about it on an older Brainy Gamer podcast on L.A. Noire.  Their discussion of the game lead to the idea that players weren't really controlling Cole Phelps in the traditional sense.  Often, Phelps would say something unexpected that was along the lines of what the player selected for Phelp's dialog, but not exactly the same.  Hence, the player was really coaching Phelps on what kinds of things to say, but couldn't know when and how well Phelps would take the advice.

At first, this concept of coaching sounds fairly frustrating.  Indeed, it seems that many players disliked the fact that they couldn't shape Phelps to their liking.  But in the case of L.A. Noire, it made some sense in the context of the story told and the futility of the noir genre.

I think the recent The Walking Dead game has a bit of a coaching feel as well.  When playing with my husband, I never felt like we had become one and the same as Lee.  Most of the time, the dialog seemed to match up well enough with what we chose, but sometimes even Lee, like Phelps, would surprise us as we played.  Once again I thought this approach worked well for this type of experience, which for me is closer to interactive cinema than traditional game.

What about games that allow you to indirectly control the characters? For instance, in Lemmings you don't control the creatures directly, but modify the world to shape how they act.  Although I think it would be possible to argue the player is coaching the Lemmings, I don't feel like this is quite in the same category as the above examples, where the player is closer to becoming the character they are coaching.

What games do you  know of that use the coaching style of character control? How well do you think they work?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My Secret to Surviving Grad School With a Baby

When I reflected on all that's happened in the last year or so, I didn't mention how I managed to do it.  My secret? An excellent support system!

I'm really lucky that both my and my husband's parents live near us.  I'm even luckier that three of them are at least semi-retired and willing to watch Molly a few hours a week.  So when I need to be on campus (just once a week last semester, but three times this semester), one of them is usually able to come over to be with Molly.  In addition to that, my dad is able to be there to distract Molly once in a while so I can work without interruption.

Sometimes people ask why we never moved away to California or Seattle to work somewhere like Microsoft or Google.  This is the biggest reason why - family is really important to us in many ways.  I love that they are willing to be babysitters, but I love even more that Molly gets to spend so much quality time with relatives, and not just strangers.  I figure we can move somewhere cool once our kids are older and perhaps even moved out on their own.

If you have or are considering having a baby in grad school, think about who your support system is.  It might be family, but it could also be a strong network of parent friends you can share childminding duties with.  It could even just be an excellent daycare you know you can trust (perhaps you'll even become part of a lovely community surrounding it).  Who else might you be able to count on?

Whoever it is, this to me is a big part of surviving grad school with kids.  Don't go at it alone.