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January 17th, 2018

Interview: Chip Pickering on Net Neutrality

Chip Pickering is the CEO of INCOMPAS, a trade association, formerly known as COMPTEL, that represents internet, streaming, communications and technology companies and advocates for laws and policies that promote competition, innovation and economic development across all networks. Pickering is a six-term Congressman representing Mississippi’s Third District from 1997 to 2009, where he served on the Energy & Commerce Committee as vice chairman and a member of the Telecommunications Subcommittee. While serving as a legislative aid for Senator Trent Lott and a staff member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Pickering helped shape the Telecommunications Act of 1996. We spoke to Chip at our office in early 2018, following the FCC’s vote to repeal net neutrality rules.

Chip Pickering

Why should people care about the FCC’s decision to reverse course on net neutrality?

PICKERING: Every small business today‚ every Realtor, every restaurant, every business imaginable‚ uses the internet as a platform of entry to a much larger market, one where there’s equal access, no matter whether you’re small, midsize or large, and the best idea, the best innovation, the best app wins. Even before we had the “commercial internet,” the internet’s founding principles were interconnection, interoperability and neutrality, or equality of content. Undoing those principles allows certain companies to have, in many cases, a gatekeeper function where they can block a competitor like a Netflix, Hulu or a new streaming service or disadvantage them so that the traditional cable bundle has an advantage. They can also now charge a small company differently than a large company, violating the principle of a level playing field and equal access to the market. The reciprocal access to a market is a cornerstone of free market economic theory.

If you allow incumbents a gatekeeper role, the incentive changes from one of building networks of great capacity to accommodate an abundance of commerce to an incentive to not upgrade networks so that you can monetize scarcity. The investments will be throttled, the innovations will be delayed, the competition will be denied, prices will go up, and the content that we have begun to love on our streaming services may be slowed. You have gatekeeper control of a handful of companies versus a broad-based competitive free market, not only for video content, but also for the platforms small to midsize businesses need and equal access so that they’re not disadvantaged in comparison with their rivals in a market.

A large national Realtor shouldn’t have an advantage over a local Realtor. A local hardware store shouldn’t have a disadvantage for getting their website to the consumer versus a national hardware store. So this [FCC decision] is a true disruption of one of the great American economic free market innovation success stories of our lifetime. We hope that the ISPs will not change the current business practices that have been enforced and guided by the principles, policies and rules of the last 12 years, but it’s too early to tell. Politically, I think, and possibly legally, the new version of the rules is not going to be sustainable, and we’ll see another reversal back to some form of the original policy within the next three to four years. The market really needs certainty and predictability. For investments in the infrastructure, content, apps and software and the entire ecosystem, really, we would do much better with the predictable and enforceable set of rules and principles that have worked over the last two decades.

I think a lot of people are confused about exactly what net neutrality is and isn’t. How do you explain the concept in a way that people can more easily understand?

PICKERING: Net neutrality is simply the equal access to internet content from the end user, and if you have a website, the equal access to every end user to your site. So it’s this idea of equal reciprocal process.

It’s the same as free market trade principles. If you look at networks of telecom, trade, transportation, electricity or pipelines, equal access and reciprocal access to networks and markets create the most efficient and largest market and the greatest wealth, as well as the greatest consumer benefit. So it really is a Republican/Democrat combination of ideas. This is why it’s such an American bipartisan value. It takes the Republican principles of free markets and it takes Democrats usual emphasis on the consumer benefit, and it marries the two into something that’s supported by between 70 and 80 percent of the country according to every poll that’s been taken. Net neutrality is one of the few policies that has united the country. Even if there’s some confusion as to what exactly it means, people know they don’t want a gatekeeper to be able to block or slow down or throttle their internet access. They don’t want to have to pay priority [rates] to have the same access that they have today or be put in a slow lane.

The language can be a little confusing. The “open internet” is usually something that Republicans say. “Net neutrality” is the term preferred by Democrats. It’s one in the same. At its core, it’s just the equality of access to content and the equality of an entrepreneur to have access to every individual with his website, expression or content. So net neutrality has both civic and political benefits, but it also benefits charities, nonprofits and religious organizations for everybody to have an equal voice on the internet. No one has to pay more to have their voice heard or their product sold, and that’s why this idea has been such a great success.

What impact do you think this new ruling will have on businesses and individuals in Mississippi?

PICKERING: What a lot of people may not realize is that Mississippi has really been a laboratory of telecom innovation and competition. Comcast started in Tupelo, Mississippi, [as American Cable Systems] then expanded to Meridian and Laurel. Now they’re the largest cable company in the world, but they started right here. My father was their first attorney. In the early to mid 1960s, they were the new entrant and disrupter to the three broadcast networks. Then we had WorldCom, which was a challenger and rival in the long-distance market. They acquired UUNET, the leading internet backbone company and, after that, MCI to become MCI/Worldcom. So they were one of the world’s leading long-distance and internet backbone companies, and that infrastructure still exists today, under different ownership.

SkyTel introduced two-way paging, the first form of texting. So we can claim to be both the birthplace of the blues and the birthplace of texting. And we had a number of wireless entrepreneurs from Billy Mounger, Wirt Yerger and Stacy Davidson and, of course, C Spire. Jim Barksdale, was not only with FedEx but also McCaw Cellular, in the early days of the cellular/wireless industry, before he joined Netscape to introduce what was really the first mainstream web browser. Net neutrality will only cause that rich history – I just described to grow and to give opportunity to anybody in Mississippi with a great idea. Look at the show, My Hometown, on HGTV. It’s based in my hometown of Laurel, Mississippi but was discovered on Facebook.

It’s not only the quality of getting access to a market of an idea or any app or business, but it’s the ability to build new networks without having the high cost of capital creating a new Hollywood studio to support your business. So net neutrality removes all barriers to entry. That’s why it’s really behind the greatest expansion of free market capitalism and the best, most pure form of a free market that there is. So for Republicans not to support net neutrality really is due to a misunderstanding, it all started with Republicans, it is based on free trade and free market principles, and it is the purest form of free market capitalism with no barriers to entry that you could create. That’s what we’ve had with the internet, and it’s why companies like Google and Amazon, within a period of 19 years, have created more wealth and connected more people and created the largest markets in the history of the world.

I think the big fear is that the internet is about to become more like cable TV. I know a lot of people were frustrated, for example, when AT&T blocked Fox during the World Series due to a contract dispute. Should we expect those kind of things to now happen on the internet?

PICKERING: That is our fear, too. We don’t want the internet to become more like cable. Before the repeal, you could not force people to pay AT&T, Comcast or Verizon in order to get “over-the-top” [standalone streaming media] content through the internet. The new rules would allow that. The conflicts between broadcasters like Fox, NBC and CBS and cable providers now is common now. You haven’t had these disputes with internet service in the past because of the rules of net neutrality. By repealing those rules, we could begin to have certain sites blocked, or you’d have to pay preferential or priority [costs], resulting in these types of negotiations for access. For example Comcast could charge Netflix access fees or tolls to have access to their subscribers. Even though the end user already pays $70 or $75 a month to access everything they want, if Netflix is having to pay to get access, it raises the price of streaming services and puts them at a competitive disadvantage to the cable TV package.

If you look at the Justice Department today opposing a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, it’s on the basis that AT&T now has the means and the motive to disadvantage competitive content that would come over the AT&T network, both wired and wireless, because it would be in direct conflict with Time Warner and CNN. So if you want to protect CNN and disadvantage FOX, disadvantage MSNBC, disadvantage Breitbart, a network can now do that. Under the old rules, they couldn’t.

Does this FCC’s new ruling make it harder for new ISPs, networks or streaming services to emerge?

PICKERING: Over the last two years, after the previous FCC rules were adopted and then affirmed by the courts, it really led to an explosion of streaming services, Amazon Prime, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Netflix and Hulu. Even the traditional broadcast networks and studios are now going over-the-top in streaming. It’s more efficient, it’s consumer driven, and that does create the economic incentives to build new networks, it enables new entrants without having to have a studio for your own content.

So we hope that this market is so entrenched that, even if the rules are repealed, the law of the market will prevail and ISPs will not be able to undo what consumers are demanding. From a business model, it’s just a more efficient way to be profitable. If you look at C Spire Fiber, Google Fiber, Rocket Fiber in Detroit, or Sonic Fiber in San Francisco, these companies are all new entrants in fiber that are competing as the third entrant into a market. Their margins for streaming over-the-top services are very high. They may lose money if they have to package the cable programming of ESPN and all the other channels in one bundle. So, for a new entrant building a fiber network, the more they can just offer streaming and attract subscribers, the more new networks will be built.

You’re arguing for a level playing field. The counter argument I’ve heard from some, particularly among conservatives, is that deregulation leads to economic growth and competition.

PICKERING: The economic history and evidence is extremely clear. The government intervened to break up AT&T, and we got the long distance and internet backbone, taking us from copper to fiber, analog to digital. It took us from very high prices, where the incentive was to monetize scarcity, to abundant, unimaginable new applications. Congress intervened to end the cable monopoly and the same thing happened. We went from coaxial analog to fiber digital transmission. We went from a duopoly in wireless to full competition, where we had been stuck for 15 years with analog, first generation and now, within 20 years, we’ve gone through four generations of technology and we’re on the edge of 5G. We now have the capacity for networks to be able to put an iPhone or other smart phone over the wireless networks. So, wherever we have intervened in a market around core principles of competition, it has always worked. You go to what is a functioning free market versus a failed market, a concentrated market of one or two, where you get less investment, innovation or choices.

Is it reasonable to expect market forces to correct potential problems, such as ISPs blocking websites or throttling streaming services?

PICKERING: Historically, if you don’t have four to a market, we consider that a non-competitive or non-functioning market. If you look at anti-trust or competition policy, you need four to a market before the invisible hand of the market functions.

One of the other counter-arguments I’ve seen is that the internet was highly successful prior to 2015 when the Obama-era FCC net neutrality rules were adopted.

PICKERING: That’s really a big distortion. We’ve always had the same rules. There’s been a fight over which statutory authority applies, not over the rules or the principles, but under what part of the Telecommunications Act can you govern the internet.

In 2005, a policy was adopted around equal access to all content. Net neutrality was adopted by a Republican chair, Michael Powell, the son of Colin Powell. Everybody lived by those rules and then, in 2008, the second Republican chair under President Bush enforced those rules. So everybody did not break those rules and they knew, if they did, they would be subject to FCC enforcement action. Comcast challenged those rules in court. They won in court, and so the next chairman adopted rules that he thought would be upheld in court. Everybody still lived by those rules until the court, again, struck it down, not because the policy of net neutrality was wrong, but it was an issue of statutory authority.

The next chairman adopted the same rules, in essence, that started with and continued under Republican leadership, but now under something called Title II. That authority was upheld by the court. Even though you’ve had major fights over the last dozen years, everybody always lived under those basic rules and, as soon as rules were struck down by the court, the same rules were put in place under a new authority. This is the first time those rules and principles have been repealed.

Equal access, in principle, is similar to the way you can pick a phone and call anybody, and they can call you. And nobody can block that or throttle that or stop you from doing it. Your voice can travel over any network. So net neutrality is the same thing, except now it’s email, websites, over-the-top video and streaming, Pandora and Spotify, and business applications. So you have now this unlimited abundance of applications, but it’s the same principle. It’s a historic, enduring principle. But the question is, under which part of the Telecom Act do you maintain and preserve that principle. And what this chairman just did, for the first time in internet history, is to end the ability to enforce those principles and the policy of net neutrality.

When you talk about the internet operating in a similar way to telephone lines, that’s what’s meant by the Title II classification, right?

PICKERING: Right. Now, the other side would question using a 1934 law [the Communications Act of 1934] in 2017. But what people forget is that 1996 changed everything. When the Telecom Act of 1996 occurred, it amended the 1934 Act and replaced a monopoly law. The 1996 Act outlawed the monopoly by saying that there’s no state, no community, no person that can prevent competition. Before 1996, it was actually against the law for somebody to offer another telecommunications service. Nobody could compete against anybody else. But 1996 changed it dramatically, by saying that everybody competes against everybody. And if there’s anyone who tries to stop competition, that is now against the law. So equal access, in 1996, has a pro-competition objective. In 1934, equal access simply applied to the functioning of a voice network. But the principles can be enduring just like our First Amendment is enduring from one age to the next. Net neutrality is, in essence, the first amendment of communications law.

Is there anything wrong with an ISP charging a company extra if they’re using a lot of bandwidth?

PICKERING: That’s where it gets very tricky. Do you have different categories that you sell on a non-discriminatory basis? You can have the possibility of dedicated services, for example, in the cases of telemedicine or connected cars. The past FCC rules made that exception for certain specialized services that need dedicated, secure and higher capacity, allowing for agreements where you pay for those features. That was the exception. But in the broad sense, everyone had equal access under equal terms.

So what are the next steps? Where does this debate go from here?

PICKERING: There is a desire for Congress to step in, and it is on a bipartisan basis. The Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate leaders – and Roger Wicker is one of the Senate Commerce Committee leaders – have all said that they would prefer to have a legislative solution. This approach would offer a permanent solutions because, once a law is passed, it codifies these principles. It would be permanent, predictable and enforceable and, for everyone on all sides of this, that would be a better outcome.

For some of the ISPs, they don’t fear where the current rules were, so much as they were fearful that if you had a very liberal administration, say a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, that instead of just guaranteeing equal access, the government would come in and price-regulate their services. But there’s still a willingness, I think, from AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, as well as Republicans and Democrats to codify the equal, nondiscriminatory access principles of net neutrality under a new title.

Comcast and other ISPs have been running campaigns to promote their commitment to net neutrality following the FCC’s repeal.

PICKERING: That’s right. One of the reasons why there’s skepticism around their commitment to net neutrality is this idea that if you support it, why did you not live by it? Why have you been in violation of it? Why have you litigated it for ten years? And why have you spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying to reverse the rules if you support it? So there’s definitely skepticism. At the same time, my sense is that, if you could take away their fear of future price regulation and codify an equal access policy, that we could find common ground between the incumbent networks and the over-the-top services, new entrants and new networks around a new title that codifies these principles. And there is an effort to do so. I don’t know if it’s going to be done this year or in 2019 or later, but the current action by the FCC is politically not sustainable. The policy was too popular for too long for it not to be restored in some form.

Does the FCC’s new ruling apply to mobile broadband or just fixed?

PICKERING: Both. I do think, as we move to 5G, we’ll see a much more competitive market than exists for wired broadband. And, with 5G, you’ll have a 1 Gig capacity and the speeds that really will allow whatever streaming content video service of any type to be competitive in a mobile platform. We’re not there today and it’s probably three to five years away.

President Trump has already given a speech about leadership in 5G, saying it’s a national security and an economic competitiveness imperative. It’s critical infrastructure, and it’s a national security issue. If you can have greater competition, then that takes care of many potential problems. If AT&T says you have to pay more or they won’t stream the content you want, you could then go to Comcast or C Spire or T Mobile. The market would then function and work when you get capacities in wireless that are equivalent of what we have in wired broadband today. But that’s still three to five years from today.

I think there are many out there who were frustrated by the FCC decision because they feel like their voices are being ignored. What can people who support net neutrality do at this point?

PICKERING: I would encourage everyone to communicate with their members of Congress that this is something that needs to be done by Congress, on a bipartisan basis, not by the FCC, and that we do need a permanent, predictable policy in place for the good of the country. The economy and consumer interests are best served by the policies that have worked over the last decade.

There will also be litigation in the courts, this time from those of us that are on the competitive internet and public interest side, challenging the new rules. There’s a good possibility that the current FCC decision could be overturned. And state attorneys general are challenging the FCC’s policy that preempts states from acting on their own to reinstate net neutrality or create their own net neutrality policy. Now historically since the 1996 Act, we’ve had a federal internet and telecom policy. But we’ve also never had these principles reversed by the FCC. So there are a lot of court challenges. We’ll probably see a year to two years of court challenges and litigation.

I do think there’s significant common ground between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress over the policy and what needs to be restored and how to do it. Congress could pass, over the next year to two years, a permanent solution. It’s just a case of political will for getting it over the finish line.

Any last thoughts?

PICKERING: I just hope for Mississippi that, given our history of being a pioneer in long distance, cable and wireless and texting and new technologies, that we’ll continue that tradition in new ways. I hope that our young entrepreneurs will see that our state can be a great launching pad for ideas and businesses. You don’t have to go to the east or west coast or outside of the state to really be able to do something that has far-reaching impact.

Related post
Interview: Roberto Gallardo on Net Neutrality

December 14th, 2017

Interview: Roberto Gallardo on Net Neutrality

Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., is a community and regional economics specialist at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, specializing in the use and application of broadband and other information technologies in rural communities. He is the former director of the Intelligent Community Institute at Mississippi State University Extension Service where he and his team conducted research and provided outreach services to help rural Mississippi communities transition into and benefit from the digital age.

We interviewed Dr. Gallardo via email about the impact of the Federal Communications Commission’s December 14, 2017 decision to end its policy of net neutrality. The policy formerly required internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all internet content equally without blocking, slowing or giving priority treatment to particular websites or online services.

Dr. Gallardo at TEDxJackson 2015. Photo by Tate Nations.

There’s been a lot of debate about net neutrality this year, leading up to today’s FCC decision. What’s at stake, and why should people care?

GALLARDO: Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, regardless of source or destination. In other words, enforceable net neutrality restricts the power of internet service providers to influence loading speeds for specific websites or apps. While the internet thrived under a minimum regulation scheme prior to 2015, the Obama FCC in that year reclassified the internet from being considered information services under Title I to common carriers under Title II (along with electricity and the telephone). One of the reasons for this change was due to some carriers not counting certain websites or applications towards data caps. Keep in mind, many broadband providers now own or want to own content producing companies. For example, Comcast owns NBC and both merged into NBCUniversal. Verizon purchased Yahoo and, although AT&T failed in its attempt to purchase Time Warner, it doesn’t charge its mobile customers for the data they use watching shows from DirecTV, which it owns.

The internet under Title II allows the FCC to enforce neutrality regulations, as is the case with electricity and telephone. Today, the Trump FCC is voting to reclassify the internet back to Title I. Proponents of this “repeal” or reclassification argue that the problem simply does not exist and that the lack of net neutrality is an imaginary threat. Moreover, Title II common carriers are heavily regulated and repeal proponents argue it is negatively impacting innovation and investment in broadband networks, widening the digital divide. The proposed repeal does require the providers to disclose to their users what exactly they do to web traffic. Opponents argue repealing net neutrality will allow broadband providers to favor their own content, demanding other content to pay a fee to be delivered faster, and/or outright block or throttle (slow down) lawful websites and apps. Net neutrality proponents argue that, as a result, broadband companies could become gatekeepers of the internet.

At this point, it is unknown what the broadband providers will actually do once the internet is moved back to Title I. However, as FCC commissioner Rosenworcel argued: “For the first time, broadband providers will have the technical capability, the business incentive, and legal authority to discriminate in the provision of internet access.”

Obviously, giant companies like Google, Netflix and Facebook will be affected. But what’s the potential impact for small and medium-sized businesses and startups here in Mississippi? Do you expect the end of net neutrality to stifle innovation, as some have suggested?

GALLARDO: All we can do at this point is assume things since we don’t know for a fact how a lack of net neutrality will manifest itself. While the internet did thrive without formal net neutrality rules, we do not know how providers will behave this time around. However, a couple of scenarios are worth entertaining.

One of the largest potentials of the internet is that it levels the playing field. It can “democratize entrepreneurship.” Virtually anybody launching a venture can do so from anywhere and almost immediately have access to national and global markets as well as unprecedented online resources, relationships, and services ‚Ä쬆including raising funds through crowdfunding. What if providers demand a fee to make sure this startup’s is delivered at speeds comparable to their larger, more established competitors? Well, that startup will be at a disadvantage. Would Facebook be here if net neutrality would not have been in place when MySpace was king?

Companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Netflix can surely afford paying fees, if they are indeed implemented. But what about the startups, the new kid on the block? Entrepreneurs are concerned that large companies will spend heavily to dominate fast-lane access. After all, milliseconds of difference are sufficient to cause bad reviews for a product or service. Ultimately, the cost could be passed on to the customers making access to internet content more expensive.

Many rural areas in Mississippi have no access to fixed broadband internet. How do you think the repeal of net neutrality will affect these communities?

However, after analyzing FCC form 477 data for December 2016 v1, investments in fixed broadband of at least advertised 25/3 in Mississippi increased between 2015 and 2016, after net neutrality regulations were enabled. (Editor’s note: 25/3 is the current benchmark for high-speed internet ‚Ä쬆download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mpbs.) The number of records submitted by providers serving Mississippi at the block level (only for consumers ‚Äì does not include services to businesses) increased from 684,759 in 2015 to 690,500 in 2016. Of these, records that met the 25/3 criteria went from 45,929 in 2015 to 171,278 in 2016, an increase of more than 270%. The majority of this increase was due to satellite technology advertising 25/3 services. So, either providers got better at reporting their own data or, indeed, 25/3 investments were made even with net neutrality regulations in place.

Now, remember that the FCC will require providers to disclose exactly what they are doing regarding internet traffic. This rule allows the consumer to monitor the provider’s behavior and switch providers, if needed. The problem is, many areas in the nation, including Mississippi, have only one 25/3 fixed broadband provider. Analyzing the FCC Form 477 December 2016 v1 dataset, almost 400,000 Mississippians or 13.3 percent of the state’s 2.98 million residents in 2016 lived in census tracts with only one 25/3 provider. If satellite technology is removed, the number increases to about 621,000 Mississippians or 20.8 percent of the state’s 2016 population lived in tracts with only one 25/3 provider.

What about education? A lot of schools and students rely on free web video services to supplement classroom instruction. Do you think the repeal of net neutrality rules will have a positive or negative effect on the digital divide in our schools?

GALLARDO: Again, I’m not sure what providers will do once net neutrality regulations are removed. I doubt providers would block education-related content or demand fees for faster delivery. The same thought would apply to healthcare. However, both healthcare and education content require live feeds and videos, which require larger bandwidth ‚Ä쬆just ask Netflix! This idea is one of the arguments made by repeal proponents for enabling fast lanes, which would ensure “heavy” content producers like Netflix also pitch in their share of maintaining and improving ever more data-hungry networks. But we shall see how it all unfolds.

Do you see any other possible benefits that could come from the FCC’s net neutrality decision?

GALLARDO: If what proponents say will happen indeed does, then repealing net neutrality could unleash broadband network investments. It remains to be seen if these investments will occur in rural communities. These investments are, of course, sorely needed to reduce the access and availability divide that’s leaving rural communities behind. Time will tell if proponents or opponents were right. Or if it’s a mix of both.

Any final thoughts?

GALLARDO: Internet applications continue to evolve and are now an integral part of the quality of life of individuals and communities. If repealing net neutrality results in the worst-case scenarios discussed here, the potential of internet technology will be seriously undermined. I’m afraid rural areas will be affected the most. On the other hand, perhaps a “fractured” internet will indeed unleash innovation and competition, resulting in a vastly better internet. Only time will tell.

Related post
Interview: Chip Pickering – Net Neutrality – Part II

June 14th, 2017

Interview: Matt Richardson, Executive Director, North America, Raspberry Pi Foundation

Matt Richardson is a creative technologist, maker, author and the Executive Director for North America of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The Foundation provides outreach and education to help people access computing and digital making using low-cost, yet powerful, Raspberry Pi computers. Since the release of their first computer in 2012, more than 11 million Raspberry Pi units have been sold. Products include the Raspberry Pi 3, a small single-board computer with a quad-core CPU that retails for $35; the Pi Zero single-core computer, which is available for $5; and the Pi Zero W, which adds built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality for $10.

 

Matt Richardson. Used with permission.
Tell me about your path to becoming the Executive Director of North American for the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

RICHARDSON: I used to work in the television industry in New York City, but I grew up exposed to technology and computers and have had a passion for technology for a long time. As I was working in television, I noticed that people were creating and making things with computers and technology, and it really captured my attention. I thought it was something I wanted to try to do, so I started off as a hobbyist maker. I was creating things and putting them out there, making projects ‚Äì you know, all the fun and interesting things that I wanted to do for a long time. Because of the maker movement, I was able to do these things that I wasn’t able to do before.

I was involved in the maker community for a long time before the Raspberry Pi came out, and I immediately liked how we could now use computers as a material for making things. And I loved the price of Raspberry Pi. So I quickly became an unofficial evangelist for the platform – I wrote a book called Getting Started with the Raspberry Pi with a good friend of mine, Shawn Wallace. And I would talk a lot about what Raspberry Pi is all about just because I was passionate about what the community was about, what the product was about, and what the Raspberry Pi Foundation was doing.

In late 2014, Eben Upton, one of the founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation asked me if I wanted to be a part of the team in the United States, and I jumped at the opportunity. I started at the Foundation at the beginning of 2015 as Raspberry Pi’s first U.S. employee.

Raspberry Pi has both a commercial business and a foundation. Can you outline for me how those two organizations work together?

RICHARDSON: We are unique from other charities that are associated with technology in that other major charities are often a technology company first and have a charity, sort of, on the side. We’re different in that we are first and foremost a foundation that happens to own a technology company, and that’s the Raspberry Pi Trading Company.¬† Raspberry Pi Trading handles the engineering and¬† product¬† and all the stuff that goes around that, and that’s owned by Raspberry Pi Foundation, which does all the charitable outreach. All the “mission” work is done by the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

The Foundation got its start in the U.K. What kind of activities does the Foundation support here in the U.S.?

RICHARDSON: The Raspberry Pi Foundation has global ambitions. We started off in the U.K. but we expanded into all of Europe. We want to be making a difference all over the world. We want to be achieving our mission all over the world, and we are doing that in several ways.

One thing we’re doing in the United States is training educators. We piloted Picademy, our professional development program for educators,last year in 2016, and it’s now an ongoing program in the U.S. We also do a lot of work involving direct-to-youth outreach in the United States. For instance, we look at events like Maker Faires and science festivals as opportunities to get young people to try out coding and technology ‚Äì many of them have never had exposure to it before. So we want to find opportunities where we can get the Raspberry Pi out there and get people we normally wouldn’t reach, getting families and children to sit down at a Raspberry Pi and try to write a line of code and try playing with electronics.

I saw that the Foundation recently joined forces with Code Club and Coder Dojo. How do these mergers fit into the Foundation’s U.S. ambitions?

RICHARDSON: Our mission is to put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world. When we talk about digital making, we talk about using technology to create and make things. It’s not just about coding. It’s electronics. It’s design thinking. There are a lot of things that encompass digital making. Code Club and Coder Dojo are great examples of organizations that go out there and provide resources for people to do outreach to youth. Code Club and CoderDojo have a positive impact on hundreds of thousands of youth worldwide, and it’s something that they’ve really figured out. So they‚Äôre a natural fit for our organization, and we expect that working together, we can expand this impact even further.

It seems like there’s a technology product for everything these days. Why is it important for people to learn how to make their own things?

RICHARDSON: What’s really important to us is the idea that anyone can be empowered to create things with technology, and we’re not all relegated to being consumers. Technology has never been more accessible and affordable for all people. We need to do the work to push that as far as we possibly can. That’s why we make Raspberry Pis as affordable as possible, and it’s why we create resources for anyone to be able to use the technology to do the things that they want to see happen in the world, whether they’re making a project for themselves for fun, learning something new, prototyping a product, solving a problem that matters to them.

We want people to understand that digital making isn’t just for people who are interested in technology itself. It’s for anyone who is interested in anything. If you are an artist, you can use technology to create art work. If you’re interested in biology ‚Äì for example, you want to know what’s going on in a particular stream or river ‚Äì you can use the technology to your advantage. You don’t need to be a technology enthusiast, a hobbyist or expert, and you certainly don’t need to be an engineer. That’s a big part of what we’re all about, making sure that everybody knows that they can use technology for what they see fit.

What caught my eye, initially, about the Raspberry Pi was that it was a very low price computer. I think $35. How has the affordability factor influenced the Raspberry Pis place in the greater world of technology?

RICHARDSON:¬†Affordability is absolutely critical for us. It goes hand-in-hand with accessibility. When we talk about accessibility of technology, we’re talking about making it easier for people to get started. A common barrier is price. So we have worked really hard to overcome that barrier by making Raspberry Pi as affordable as we possibly can. The affordability factor changes this idea that you shouldn’t touch, hack, play or tinker with technology because you’re afraid you might break something. Driving down the price of this technology means that more people will be able to hack or tinker with impunity, without being worried about breaking anything. It means that more people are going to give it a go. If the computers and the technology are more affordable that means more people can take a chance on it. And then it’s just a numbers game ‚Äì the more people you have taking a chance on a technology, the more people you have running with it and staying with it.

To answer your question a little more directly, it means that other companies see the success we’ve had and, I think, it has put some downward pressure on the price of technology items, making them more affordable. That’s good for everybody. If we’re influencing other companies to make technology more affordable, we’re achieving our mission.

You lowered the price barrier even more with the Pi Zero. How does that product fit into the Foundation’s mission and, in particular, an idea I heard you mention at the InfoSys Crossroads conference ‚Äì that a computer can be a material, not just a tool?

RICHARDSON:¬†In the 1980s, there were young kids coding with computers, but the context of computing was a keyboard, monitor and mouse sitting in someone’s room. It was a sort of fixed concept of computing. But some visionaries like Seymour Papert saw a future where technologies were treated more like a material, as opposed to a tool, to create and make things with. So he created the Logo programming language so that young people could use the computer to draw and also guide “turtle robots” that would roll on the ground and draw designs according to your instructions. You could even add sensors and actuators. He was really a visionary. I think that things like the Raspberry Pi Zero have really helped spread the idea that if you create something with a computer that’s affordable enough, that computer can be a material, too.

Even just ten years ago, when the maker movement was just getting rolling, you might have one Arduino [single-board microcontroller] in a project. Then when you were done with your project, you didn’t want to rip the Arduino out of your project to start a new one because you might not be able to afford multiple Arduinos. I would love to see more and more people, with more and more affordable computers, say “I can dedicate a computer to this project. I can dedicate another computer to this project and that project over there, too.” So the computer becomes a material in the project and people can think of it just like, say, they think of a canvas if they’re making art.

Tell me a little more about Picademy and how teachers can take advantage of that professional development opportunity.

RICHARDSON: All over the world, there a lot of really passionate and engaged educators who already “get” what we do and what we’re all about. They were already doing this before us. They understand concepts like project-based learning and computer as a material. For educators like them, we provide a professional development program called Picademy.

We bring educators together for two days, and they learn about digital making and creating with computers using Raspberry Pis. Then they work together and collaborate to create their own projects. The Picademy is meant to provide an introduction for using the Raspberry Pi as a material and thinking about digital making in the classroom. We piloted it last year in the Bay Area; Austin, Texas; and Baltimore, Maryland. This year, we are going to be in Providence, Rhode Island; Irvine, California; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Boise, Idaho. We’ll be training even more educators this year, and we will be giving them the tools to bring digital making into their classrooms.

It’s not just for teachers. We include classroom teachers, librarians, community educators, after-school educators, museum educators ‚Äì educators of all types. This kind of learning doesn’t just happen in classrooms. It happens in lots of different educational contexts, and we want to support that.

We know that not everyone can take two days out of their life to come see us where we are, although we try to bring Raspberry Pi as far and wide as we can. So we also host an online professional development opportunity through a platform called FutureLearn. We run courses online for educators that take about two hours per week for four weeks. It’s perfect for educators who know that this is the kind of thing for them, but don’t have the time or resources to come see us at Picademy.

I saw something about Raspberry Jams on your website. What are they, and how can people get involved?

RICHARDSON:¬†Raspberry Jams started with our community. This wasn’t something that we initiated. If you’re familiar with the early heyday of computing when homebrew computer groups were happening, these events started happening organically where members of the community gathered to see each other face-to-face, talk about what they’re doing, and show off their projects. Raspberry Jams started out like that. As more people began to organize these events, we as an organization supported Raspberry Jams by giving the organizers promotional tools and resources they could use. We put a Jam Map on our website where anyone running a Jam could add their event to the map with a link so that people could see it, come by and meet other people working with Raspberry Pis near them.

A month or two ago, we stepped up our game in terms of how we support Raspberry Jams by providing guide books for anyone who wants to start their own Jam. We see Jams that are just three or four people getting together every month, and we see jams that are huge events with a Maker Faire vibe and associated lectures and workshops. The guide book is meant to be, not only for people who want to get together and hold an event and find out what Raspberry Pi has to offer them, but also to communicate what other Jam organizers have to offer in terms of best practices. The guide book covers all the things you want to know, and it gives you tons of ideas and inspiration for activities you can offer. For people who organize Jams and commit to creating ongoing Jams, we support them with collateral materials – stickers, flyers and other graphical assets – so they can give their Jam a nice, professional look.

You started out as a product evangelist for the Raspberry Pi Foundation. What advice do you have for those who want to evangelize the product here in Mississippi? What do we need to do to build awareness and get people excited about computing and digital making with Raspberry Pis?

RICHARDSON:¬†We always like to start looking at where there’s some momentum already happening in a particular region. It could be that, in Mississippi, there’s a classroom educator community that has already tapped into project-based learning and technology. It could be that the librarians are the ones who are already on this path. It could be tech and science museums in the area. Or it could be nonprofits that do after-school work.

We provide free resources to support all those different audiences, no matter what they’re doing. We offer guides for classrooms and after-school clubs. Anyone can register a Code Club and get tons of resources for free and tap into our network of educators. I think the Code Club network is a great way for any type of educator in Mississippi to get involved.

I believe the Raspberry Pi platform has a lot of potential here in Mississippi, not just because of the affordability of the computers, but also our need to encourage greater homegrown innovation to inspire economic development. Are there any other things we could be doing?

RICHARDSON:¬†You’re absolutely right that the affordability of our products is the kind of thing that can help a lot. I’m not really that familiar with your area ‚Äì is there a good Maker Faire?

I know that Meridian, Mississippi has had some Mini Maker Faires. I think they have been the only one so far.

RICHARDSON: You know, the Maker Faire here in the Bay Area has been going on for about ten years, and it has grown quite large. There are a lot of Mini Maker Faires all over the world that have really come into their own as a big annual event for that whole community. But it really takes an institution to step up and take this Maker Faire idea, tap into their network and keep the conversation and momentum going. Having been involved in things like this, I know it takes a lot of effort to keep events going and to keep people interested.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

RICHARDSON: We’ve talked a lot about education ‚Äì classrooms, libraries, museums. But there’s a whole group of people who are just hobbyists, and supporting them is important. People pick up a Raspberry Pi and try a thing or two. And what often happens is that they learn and experiment on their own as a hobby, but then that becomes something more. It becomes a product, or the idea turns into a business. We’re big proponents of the hobbyist realm of the maker movement and not just the educational side of making. It can lead to intergenerational learning, with fathers and mothers working with their children and trying things out. It exposes kids to the idea of tinkering with things in the home ‚Äì that’s something we try to encourage. Our hobbyist community is enormous, and we love to see what these people are doing. It’s also just a huge source of inspiration for what can be done with the technology. Beyond all the wonderful formal education that’s happening, the informal at-home education is critical to us, as well, for getting the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world.

Related posts
Interview: Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group
Interview: Cameron Wilson of Code.org
Interview: Jon Mattingly of Kodable

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March 15th, 2016

Bytes & Bites… but Why?

Shot from Kids Code Event

 

Monday, 3/14 (yes, Pi Day), MWB partners Randy Lynn and myself hosted a session to brief lawmakers and leaders on the future of computer science education and related workforce opportunities in Mississippi. The event was held in partnership with the Fast Forward Mississippi and Kids Code Mississippi initiatives and co-sponsor, C Spire.

Speakers included Governor Phil Bryant, Deuce McAllister, Senator Brice Wiggins and representatives from Code.org, C Spire, the Mississippi Department of Education, and the Mississippi Children’s Museum.

You may be wondering why an ad agency is working pro bono to promote computer science education. There are three reasons:

First, we love Mississippi and want to see our state succeed in every way possible. Workforce development and, in particular, strong education outcomes are critical to a brighter future for our state and its residents.

Second, we believe that technology will only become more important to our state’s economy in the future. At a time when other states and many foreign countries are increasingly requiring that students learn coding, the language of technology, we can’t afford to look the other way. We can, however, take steps to jump ahead of the curve.

Finally, we recognize that children are, very literally, our state’s future. It is well documented that students who are never exposed to computer-science concepts are less likely to pursue and succeed in technology-based career paths. They’re less likely to qualify for higher-wage jobs in the future. They’re less likely to start up innovation-based companies. They’re less likely to become technology makers, not just technology users.

We don’t expect our support of computer science education to have an immediate payoff for our agency ‚Äì we’re taking the long view here. MWB has been in business in Mississippi for more than 45 years. We want to help make sure the next 45 years are even better for all Mississippians.

Click to see photos from the Bites and Bytes event on MWB’s Facebook.

March 10th, 2016

Bytes and Bites: Interactive Code Education Briefing for Legislators

We want to ensure that Mississippi kids become technology creators, not just technology consumers.

– Randy Lynn, MWB/Kids Code Mississippi

The US Department of Labor forecasts that there will be the need for an additional 1 million jobs in coding and computer science by the year 2020. We believe that Mississippi can play a pivotal role in leading the developing innovation economy.

To promote awareness of the opportunities that exist for Mississippians, MWB’s Fast Forward Mississippi¬†initiative is powering a special Kids Code Mississippi¬†event – an interactive briefing specifically for legislators. The event – powered by leading Mississippi technology company C Spire – will be held Monday 3/14 at 9 a.m. at the Mississippi Children’s Museum.

Deemed the Bytes & Bites event (we’ll explain in a bit), the event will pair logistics with Mississippi students to step through brief coding tutorials on various open source platforms. Following this exercise, participants will hear remarks on the opportunities in computer science from Governor Phil Bryant, C Spire senior Vice President Eric Graham, Mike Mulvihill from the Mississippi Department of Education, sports star/education advocate Deuce McAllister, Senator Brice Wiggins, Emily Hoff of the Mississippi Children’s Museum, and special guest¬†Alexandra Vlachakis from Code.org.

Since this event is happening on 3/14 (Pi Day), we’ll also be celebrating careers in STEM by serving ‚Äì you guessed it ‚Äì Mississippi-baked pies!

 

March 8th, 2016

An Interview with Alex Mullen, 2015 World Memory Champion

Alex MullenAlex Mullen at the MWB office. Photo by Tate Nations.

Alex Mullen is a medical student at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine who, in 2015, became the first American to win the World Memory Championships, ranking as the highest point scorer in the competition’s 24-year history.

Alex holds the Guinness World Record for most digits memorized in one hour (3,029), and he can memorize the order of a deck of cards in 17 seconds. In 2016, Alex launched Mullen Memory, an initiative he started with his wife, Cathy, to promote the use of memory techniques in school classrooms and universities.

What’s your background? How did you get interested in memory techniques?

MULLEN: I was born in New Jersey. But then I came down to Oxford when I was four. I went to Oxford High School and then Johns Hopkins for college.

The first time I ever found out about memory techniques was when I was a junior in college. Before that I had an average memory, and didn’t really know much about memory techniques. I dabbled with acrostics and stuff like that.

But I came across this TED talk by Joshua Foer [TED Video: Feats of Memory that Anyone Can Do], and I was just kinda blown away by the ingenuity of it. I learned about the “memory palace” technique, and just I couldn’t believe that this kind of thing existed and I hadn’t heard of it or that it wasn’t a bigger part of education.¬†I was a little frustrated with my own memory at the time, and I think that’s part of the reason why I latched onto it. I read Foer’s¬†book “Moonwalking with Einstein” and some other books.

So I was originally interested because I wanted to improve my memory for school. I felt like if I had a better memory, it would be helpful.¬†And, then, I thought¬†maybe I’ll do this competition type thing where you memorize numbers and cards and lists of random words, names and faces¬†‚Ä쬆I’ll do that and then try to get a¬†better¬†understanding of the techniques, so I can go back and use it in school.

I competed at the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2014, and I got 2nd place there, which was way better than I expected. I’d been training, but I didn’t think I’d do¬†as¬†well as I did. So it¬†was definitely exciting for me and motivating to continue practicing and doing bigger competitions.

I competed a few more times, I think five or six in total now. Then I had a lucky run and won the World Championship in China last December.

When I got to med school, I struggled at first a little bit, which was disheartening because I was having a hard time applying the techniques to what I was learning. So I struggled a little bit, but then I experimented. My wife also uses the techniques – so we sort of experimented together and worked some things out. Eventually, we got to a point where we were using them for pretty much everything we were learning and finding it very helpful since med school is obviously heavy on memorization.

We’ve been using the techniques for med school for about a year and a half now. I’m still competing. My next one is probably the U.S. Championship again in May.¬†

I saw you have a record for memorizing digits?

MULLEN: Yeah, I have¬†about six¬†or seven¬†U.S. records and one world record, which is the “hour digits” event. It sounds incredibly boring¬†‚Ä쬆and it is.¬†You sit for one hour and they give you a big long number to memorize, and I was able to memorize 3,029 digits.¬†Just the process of sitting down for an hour and then spending another two¬†hours to recall it, which is how the event works, was pretty tough for me ‚Äì someone who’s slightly ADD and can’t really focus and sit still for a long time.

Using the memory techniques¬†has helped me¬†develop my¬†concentration. I don’t think I would have otherwise been able to sit for three whole days in China just memorizing the entire time. So the numbers were¬†definitely a challenge, much harder, from a concentration standpoint, than memorizing one pack of cards.¬†

You did get there very fast, though. How were you able to go from reading a book to being a memory champion in such a short period of time?

MULLEN: I think I trained well. I trained consistently, which I think it an important thing – between 30 minutes to an hour a day, usually. You do that over three years and you get pretty good.

There are a lot of people who do that also, who haven’t done as well as I have. And I think that’s just a matter of training effectively. Trying to identify weaknesses and improve, just the same as with sports. But that’s really it. I don’t think I have a very special memory. I forget where I put things all the time.

What’s your technique for memorizing cards¬†and¬†numbers?

MULLEN: For a lot¬†of the events, you’re using basically the same technique, which is the memory palace technique. Most of the events are “sequential events” where you have to memorize the order of a deck of cards,¬†the order of a long number, or the order of a list of 300 words. It’s all the same technique, which is the memory palace. You imagine a physical place that you know ‚Äì you can¬†pick these places ahead of time and have pre-planned routes, like sort of stops on the way in the memory palace. Then you¬†visualize things in those places. Then you¬†go back and¬†see those images, as you¬†go through the palace and recall the information. [Editor’s note: This technique is demonstrated in Mullen’s video, “The 20 Word Challenge.”]

There are differences in the way that people do it ‚Ä쬆how they convert cards or numbers into those images. Because, obviously, it’s not enough to¬†just visualize the two¬†of spades. Some people will turn that card into, for example,¬†Michael Jackson. In my case,¬†I’ll take each pair of cards and combine them¬†into one image. So there are differences like that, but the general technique people use is the memory palace¬†for¬†most of the events. That’s basically how I do it for studying for school, too. There are a few others events that¬†aren’t sequential¬†‚Ä쬆there’s a names and faces event. What people do there is just look at the face¬†and¬†try to find some sort of distinctive features, and then they’ll visualize something that represents the name and attach it to that feature somehow. So like if I were to do you, for instance, I might look at¬†your hair and imagine Randy Johnson, the pitcher that played for the Diamondbacks for a while¬†‚Äì maybe he’s¬†throwing a baseball,¬†and it’s zooming right across your hair like that. It’s really just about trying to be imaginative and creative with your visuals.

Anything that gives some meaning to an otherwise abstract thing is useful. But, in general, pictures are especially helpful because our minds tend to think that way. Pretty much everything in terms of the mnemonics that I do is based on some kind of visualization. Occasionally, I still use acronyms. Occasionally, I still use acrostic type sentences of phrases that have some sort of mnemonic meaning. But at least for me, the bulk of it is memory palace or just visualizing something in an empty space.

I still use repetition. I don’t think any memory technique is perfect. Even if I encode something in a memory palace, I’ll still go back and review it. If I come back in three weeks, it’s pretty much gone. But if you revisit it a couple days after, maybe a week after that, a month after that, then you’ve pretty much got it in longterm memory. The¬†”spaced repetition” review process is helpful, regardless, even if you’re not using mnemonics. Using it in combination with mnemonic memory techniques really kinda kicks it up a notch.

A lot of people don’t really see the practical value of memorization. What real value does it offer?

MULLEN: At first glance, I think a lot of people would think, sure, it¬†would be nice to have a better memory. You could use it to remember people’s names, presentations, facts¬†‚Ä쬆you know, it¬†would be helpful. But at the same time, we live in an age of Wikipedia and smart phones, the Internet ‚Äì does that really matter anymore?

Keep in mind, it’s not about¬†trying to memorize everything. I don’t memorize the numbers in my phone. I don’t have any interest in doing that. I use memory techniques for specific things like remembering¬†people’s names, which is helpful. But the real benefit to me¬†is learning. When you encode, for instance, everything you’re¬†learning in¬†microbiology, for example, into images that you can recall easily, as you move forward, you recognize connections between the things you’re learning more easily.¬†

But then there are plenty of details that, at the time, seem out of context. You can’t really understand them intuitively, they’re just facts. So what I like to do is convert those things into these visual images and remember them that way, and then down the line when you’re able to recall that information and keep it at the front of your mind, you can give context to those things that didn’t have context before. It’s all about seeing connections between things.

How do you think memory techniques could be beneficial for students?

MULLEN: One thing that I think is really the cornerstone of memory techniques that I think is helpful just to understand is this idea that creativity matters. When I was in school, in high school, I would use acronyms and I would feel that’s it’s helpful. But in a sense, I was unsure as to whether or not is was “cheating.” Nobody told me “you should use this” or “you can do this” or “you can visualize things that are sort of weird and help you remember things. Nobody really tells you that’s okay.

Trying to associate things with seemingly disconnected things is an important skill¬†and students should know that it’s okay to do it. So just encouraging people to think creatively or try to associate connections between things, I think would be helpful and I’d like to see more of this type of thing in schools. Not even getting into the whole memory palace technique necessarily ‚Äì that’s obviously very helpful, but there are more¬†basic techniques than¬†that.

So what do you hope to do with Mullen Memory?

MULLEN: I’ve been at¬†this for about three years now,¬†and pretty much from the beginning I wanted to start putting materials¬†online¬†so that I could have¬†to have a platform to teach people how to use¬†the techniques. Even though the¬†book, Moonwalking with Einstein and Foer’s¬†TED talk¬†are¬†so successful, the idea¬†still is not out there enough¬†and¬†still not being used in schools.

Memory techniques are one of those things that are easy to understand but difficult to master. Take the “20¬†Word Challenge” video I did.¬†It’s something that pretty much everybody can do. But then ‚Äì and I’ve talked to some people who have done studies on this ‚Äì at some point, people¬†start to run into roadblocks trying to actually apply the techniques to learning. And they just give up.

That’s understandable. It¬†happened to me. I obviously had a little more motivation to keep pushing on it. But it’s nice for people to have somebody in front of them who can say, here are some things that I struggled with. Here’s how to fix it. When I was coming up, trying to learn this stuff, there were plenty of videos out there saying here’s how memorize a list of 20 words. They may show you¬†how to memorize somebody’s name, but¬†they don’t teach you how to¬†learn exam material. So¬†I wished that I would have had¬†some real examples of people doing that.¬†And that’s something that I struggled with. But¬†there¬†are¬†certain tricks that we use to make that process as easy as possible. So that’s what I’m trying to do with the website¬†‚Äì to give people real-life examples and tutorials¬†to solve some of those questions and¬†basic roadblocks that I ran into.

Is it going to be a business for you?

MULLEN: That¬†still remains to be seen. I really was motivated to get it going because of the world championship, and so it’s still getting off the ground. But, just in the first few weeks, the feedback has been really¬†good. People like the videos. I get a lot of messages ‚Äì every day.¬†We’re taking a year off of med school next year, and I’m hoping to do some presentations and workshop seminars. I’m doing one actually in two days. Just to start to get the word out there just as much as I can.

My main passion with this is trying to get it into education because I think it can be really helpful. It’s certainly changed my life academically.¬†I’m really focusing on schools and universities, rather than businesses, which is different from what a lot of other people do.¬†My big message is that people can do it. A lot of people see me and think, okay, you can do it ‚Äì you’re the world memory champion. And that’s really the reason why I made the 20 word challenge video. Just take 5 minutes, try it, and you can do it.

 

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February 9th, 2016

Improving College and Career Readiness: An Interview with Bud Kroll of Yonkers Partners in Education

Yonkers
Downtown Yonkers, New York. Photo by Flickr user samsebeskazal.

Public education in Mississippi has been and will continue to be a hot topic for discussion in our state. Clearly, improving the college and career readiness of Mississippi students is a critical factor for improving our state’s economy. But how exactly do we get there?

Bud KrollIn 2014, Bud Kroll, a retired Wall Street veteran and volunteer for Yonkers Partners in Education, released a paper which examined student outcomes at New York public schools and districts in such an elegant and logical way that I believe it deserves attention here in Mississippi, too. His paper, College and Career Readiness in the New York State Public Schools, used a statistical analysis technique called regression analysis to measure how schools and districts perform, while controlling for the impact of poverty on student outcomes.

Before turning his attention to public education, Bud spent 27 years in the financial services industry, focusing on the sales and trading of precious metals, energy, fixed income and equity derivatives. He was a member of the New York Mercantile Exchange and the American Stock Exchange and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Deutsche Bank Trust Corporation. He held several positions at JP Morgan Asset Management from 1996 to 2006, including Head of U.S. Equity Quantitative Research and Global Head of Structured Equity.

Tell me a little about Yonkers and how you got involved with Yonkers Partners in Education.

KROLL: Yonkers is right on the border of the Bronx. It’s the first suburb that you come to outside of New York City when you drive north. Yonkers, itself, has a long, checkered history of bankruptcies and poor educational outcomes. So, while Yonkers sits inside a very wealthy county, Westchester County, it is indistinguishable from the Bronx, which is one of the poorest boroughs of New York City. So Yonkers is a very large, complex, high-poverty, high-immigration melting pot. It’s also the fourth-largest school district in the state.

Yonkers Partners in Education is about six years old, and it was originally founded because the mayor and the head of the board of education came to some local civic folks wanting to put together a private/public partnership to help our schools. Our mission is to increase what we call post-secondary success. It’s our mantra that, in order to be a successful adult, you have to have some sort of post-secondary education to get a decent-paying job. That could be a two-year degree, it could be a four-year, it could be a certification¬†‚Ä쬆but just graduating from high school doesn’t cut it.

I spent years as a volunteer teaching assistant in math classrooms. My background is in quantitative things, and I viewed firsthand for many years, both in the city, as well as in Mt. Vernon and Yonkers, the challenges that are faced by inner city schools and, in my specific case, in math classrooms. And that’s what led me to get involved in Yonkers Partners in Education.

Why did you decide to approach your paper the way that you did?

KROLL: I’ve got 25-plus years in financial services ‚Ä쬆a lot of it investment management ‚Ä쬆and I’ve been involved particularly in the types of investment management that rely on quantitative measures. I’m not a highly trained quant, but I‚Äôve had the great pleasure of working with a lot of highly trained quants, and I‚Äôve absorbed by osmosis. But what really led me to this paper was the idea that, having spent my entire career in the finance world, why wouldn’t I apply the same kind of thinking and discipline to the education world?

In my line of business, there are lots of different kinds of problems that you can solve. One approach to problem solving is something we call “right to left.” You start with what you want your outcome to be, and then you move to the left to figure out what you need to do in order to get that outcome.

For example, when you look at a mutual fund, you need to be able to figure out whether the manager of that mutual fund is doing a good job. But the problem with that is you don’t know what to compare that manager to. In the finance world, about 25 years ago, a technology emerged which allowed you to look at something called common factors: How large are the companies in your portfolio? How much are they related to finance versus insurance versus healthcare? How many of them are U.S. versus international? Those are all called common factor risks. If you can describe the portfolio to the nth degree and reduce all of the components of its common factors, you’re left with something which is specific. That’s the skill of the manager.

So you start with something called a multiple regression. You take a whole bunch of factors, and you have no idea whether or not they are going to end up affecting your outcome. In our case, the desired outcome is college and career readiness as measured by the New York State Aspirational Performance Measure or APM. Then you throw these potential explanatory variables into this sort of “washing machine,” right? The more observations you have ‚Äì in this case it’s data from school districts and school buildings ‚Äì the more robust that analysis is going to be.

We’re feeble as human beings in that we have a very difficult time imagining things in more than two dimensions. Which is why I reduced it from what’s called a multiple regression to a simple regression. In the worlds of science and finance, you don’t generally seek to find a single explanatory variable because usually the world isn’t that simple, right? Usually, it’s a bunch of stuff that, together, are highly predictive. It just so happened in this case, and lucky for me and my readers, that one variable was so much more predictive than the others that I was on solid ground to jump from a multiple regression to a simple regression. It allows us to look at things in just two dimensions ‚Äì x and y, instead of x, y, z, a, b, c.

You found poverty to be that strong predictor, right?

Yes. Poverty leads to low college readiness ‚Äì that’s not a stunning conclusion. It’s been shown by smarter people than me, much earlier and many, many, many times. Poverty is insidiously bad. That’s not what this paper is trying to say. What this paper is saying is this: If you now confirm that poverty is bad, and you have a quantitative measure that you can then apply to school buildings and districts, you can look at how well certain districts or buildings are doing net of this bad thing.

For someone who’s a golfer, you can think of it this way: How do you go out on a Sunday morning and play against someone who’s a much better golfer and figure out which one had a better day? The answer is your handicap. So if I go out there, and I’m a 21 handicap and the other guy’s a scratch golfer, as long as I do better versus my handicap, I had a better day. That’s what this whole paper is about. Simply coming up with a measure that can calculate net scores.

So, with that as context for the paper, there are a dozen or so ways that this type of framework can be used to identify people who are hitting above their handicap or hitting below their handicap, and we can learn lots of things from both the ones above and the ones below.

We have eight high schools in Yonkers. Now I can shine a bright light on a district, and I can go from high school to high school and say “You, principal #3, are doing a lousy job with the raw material that you’re getting.” I don’t care if your students have higher poverty levels or lower poverty levels, but net strokes, you’re having a bad day on the golf course.

You plotted college readiness against the percentage of students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program (free and reduced lunch). Can you explain what that chart shows?

Chart 

First, you see that, increasingly, as poverty gets “less bad,” your outcomes get better. That’s what correlation is. That relationship, the red line, can be represented as an equation. What does the .65 mean? Well, it means that, when you look all the way to the left at the richest districts, the ones with no poverty, your predictive line hits that Y axis between 60 and 70 percent. The .65 tells you is that, if you have no poverty, you would expect 65 percent of your students to be college ready. And the -0.64 in the equation tells you that the poorer you are, the worse you do. That red line is downward sloping ‚Ä쬆it’s a negative slope. Finally, the R2 (0.63) tells you what percentage of the variance can be explained by that factor.

How tightly clustered are the dots around my line? An R2 of “1” will tell you that every blue dot lies directly on that predictive line. In R2 of “0” would look as if someone just fired a shotgun from 100 yards and you’d have random blue dots, which is what you have with some of the other variables we looked at.

It was interesting that you found that the R2 was higher in districts with low percentages of free and reduced lunch students and lower in the higher poverty districts.

Take a look at the dashed black line that runs north/south. Now hold your hand over everything to the right of that line. The relationship between poverty and readiness to the left of that line is pretty tight. If you now cover everything to the left of that line and just look at the right side, what you see is that it’s not nearly as tight.

We often think about poverty being used to explain the poorest districts and the outcomes therein. If a district is really poor, they do really badly. But what’s so interesting about this finding is that poverty or lack of poverty as explained by this particular variable is more highly predictive in those not-so-poor districts as it is to the right in the poor districts.

So how rich you are or how poor you are is, of course, highly important. But in these super-poor districts, you have a lot of really big outliers. This gives me great hope because it tells me that their outcomes are less imprisoned by poverty level than students in low poverty districts. And my goal in life is to reproduce outcomes of those blue dots that are above the red line. What we find in New York City is that you get these outlier dots in communities that are poor but value education very highly.

So once you control for poverty, you can figure out what those outlier schools and districts are doing right or wrong?

Absolutely. If you just put your statistician’s hat on, you might say, “okay, if I’m only looking at the population to the right of 60% (free and reduced lunch), one of two things is going on: either there’s another systematic predictor variable that I’m missing, or maybe it’s a great candidate for a multiple regression ‚Ä쬆poverty plus something else. Or maybe it’s just the “special sauce” of a specific district ‚Ä쬆not a common factor, but some specific factors that just stir the pot ‚Äì a great principal, a very involved group of parents ‚Äì you know, specific things. But that would require more statistical work. You can do this stuff until your ears bleed.

So what’s the next step? Have you identified any of those special factors?

I have not done that work. I kind of put this paper in a drawer because once I had my vocabulary ‚Äì I needed to move on to services that we’re actually providing that I have some control over.

My goal in life is not to be a theoretical education researcher. I’m a volunteer, right? Our main focus is in the schools. We have a college adviser in six and a half Yonkers high schools. I collect data when a student comes in and meets with a college adviser, we check them in electronically using a cloud system. And then we can relate the services that we’re providing and how many times we provide a service to a student and what kinds of services those are, whether its SAT Prep or other things to their outcomes. Do they apply to college? Do they enroll in college? Do they persist in college? So once I had my vocabulary, I needed to move on to services that we’re actually providing that I have some control over. But that might be a very interesting area for someone to look into.

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February 14th, 2014

Interview: Jon Mattingly

Jon Mattingly is the co-founder of Kodable, an iOS app that teaches basic computer programming concepts to young children. We talked about the Kodable app, why kids should learn to code, and the potential computer science education offers for economic development in Mississippi.

Kodable Welcome Screen


Tell me about your background. How did you get interested in programming computers?

MATTINGLY: I actually learned BASIC, an old programming language, when I was about six or seven. I had this old Windows 3.1 computer my parents let me use. So I started playing around with that and I found BASIC. As I got older, I wanted to start a company and I realized how important programming was so I picked it back up and kept running with it.

Did you study programming in college?

MATTINGLY:¬†I went to the University of Louisville to play football as a walk-on there for a couple of years. I was in the business school and interested in entrepreneurship, and I just wanted to start my own company. I realized that if I wanted to start a tech company,¬†I shouldn’t outsource it‚ÄîI needed to know what I was doing. That was around my junior or senior year. It was already too late to change my major at that point, so I got an entrepreneurship minor and taught myself programming on the side.

How would you describe Kodable?

MATTINGLY:¬†It’s an iPad app that teaches kids the fundamentals of programming. We teach kids logical thinking. We teach them to think critically. We teach them to problem solve. We teach them to think like a programmer.¬†You need to know how to come up with solutions to problems‚Äîyou take a set of conditions, a certain situation, and then create a solution to that problem. Another thing that’s pretty simple to understand with Kodable is you just have a maze. You give your fuzz [game character] instructions to get through the maze.

How did you come up with the idea for your app?

MATTINGLY: I had¬†an initial idea for an online rewards program, called Surfscore,¬†for web apps, and it didn’t really work out too well.¬†Later, we were talking to some parents, and they kept mentioning how they wanted to teach their kids how to program. So, we decided it sounds like there’s something here. With my history of learning to program when I was so young, we decided to take it and run with it.

You have a co-founder, Grechen Huebner. How has it been to have a female co-founder in the male-dominated tech industry?

MATTINGLY: It’s been great for our company. She loves what she does. Her personality is evident in Kodable. I always tell her that there’s no way a programmer like me could make something that looks as good as Kodable because she doesn’t come from the “head down in a text editor, programming” mindset.

Grechen is really passionate about getting more girls involved and has really tried hard to make a product that looks attractive to both genders. We’ve actually got more girls using Kodable than guys. Over half of our users are girls right now, and I think a lot of that is because you can see her personality and her drive reflected in the app.

Kodable is designed to teach programming concepts to kids as young as kindergarten. How quickly do kids that young pick it up?

MATTINGLY: We’ve actually had kids as young as 18 months using Kodable, which is amazing to us. The best age range is from five to eight.

Some kids, especially ones who‚Äôve grown up on iPads with parents that are pretty tech savvy, ¬†just get it. Right away, they‚Äôll be zooming right through all the levels and they can finish it pretty quickly. But if they haven’t been exposed to the thought process and the thinking, then usually it takes a little longer. But kids tend to pick it up, either way, pretty quickly. It doesn’t take much longer than, say, five or ten minutes for a kid to figure it out.

Why do you think young kids should be learning these programming concepts that your app teaches?

MATTINGLY:¬†It’s like learning a language. If you start learning a language too late, it’s hard to pick it up because your brain does most of its development before you‚Äôre 12. With young kids, their minds as still open‚Äîthey can learn how to think critically¬†and problem solve. And the earlier you can start kids learning that, the better off they‚Äôll be with it later in life.

It doesn’t mean they have to become a programmer. But it can help kids in so many different ways just by teaching them when they‚Äôre still young and their brains are more receptive. They‚Äôre like sponges. They just pick up everything.

I understand the app has been piloted in some schools?

MATTINGLY:¬†Yeah, we‚Äôre being used in quite a few schools. It’s numbering in the hundreds now, maybe even thousands. They end up finding out about us through word of mouth, and we try to maintain relationships with as many schools as possible. I email everyone that signs up for the Kodable learning guide. I email them personally and talk to them to see how they‚Äôre doing and make sure that everything’s going alright.

Our focus has been to help people teach with Kodable. Because a lot of these teachers, they want to teach programming because they realize how important it is. But they don’t actually know where to start. So our goal has been to demystify the process in a more adult-friendly way and relate actual programming to what we do in Kodable. So teachers can see how you‚Äôve got this concept in programming‚Äîmaybe it’s functions‚Äîand we explain how functions are used in actual programming. And it’s catered toward Kodable specifically. It’s not like a programming textbook. You know, famously, programming text books take you through one chapter of really guided stuff and then they just drop you off a cliff and then teach you all these crazy concepts and you just give up because it’s so frustrating. You want to make sure that adults can see it’s not as hard as some people might think it is.

How has the reception been from teachers? What kind of things are you hearing?

MATTINGLY: One of the best things that we’ve been hearing is that kids that use Kodable are farther along and have it easier when they move on to products like Scratch that are targeted to older age ranges.

I had one person who emailed me about the Hour of Code. One of the apps that their school was using was Light Bot. That person’s child was the only one in the entire class who understood some of the material that they were teaching. Because he‚Äôd been using Kodable already, he was actually able to go out and help the other kids, to teach them how to do it.

Can a state like Mississippi that has relatively few tech companies, and many challenges related to education and poverty, benefit from teaching people how to program computers? 

MATTINGLY:¬†I think it could be huge. One of the best things about computer science is it’s become so cheap to program and to make apps. You know, you don’t really need a whole lot of money anymore to start a company or become a programmer. The Raspberry Pi costs $35. You hook up a keyboard and a TV to it, and you can program and make apps.

There are so many resources right now for learning how to program.¬†Just the other day, there was an article about a homeless guy who learned to code and he put an app in the app store. So, if you want to learn, there’s really no excuse why you can’t.¬†You want to focus on finding something you love‚Äîa problem that you want to solve‚Äîand build on it, make it better, make that problem go away for you.

How important is it for schools in Mississippi to teach coding?

MATTINGLY: It’s a tidal wave that’s coming and you don’t want to be left out. The UK is actually mandating programming education for the entire country starting next year. Every child in China learns programming. And, you know, it’s happening in America, too.

Parents see how important this is. Over 18 million people participated in the Hour of Code. It shows that people want computer programming to be taught.

Related posts
Interview: Mitchel Resnick of MIT Media Lab
Interview: Cameron Wilson of Code.org

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February 8th, 2014

Interview: Mitchel Resnick

Mitchel Resnick, PhD, is a LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and¬†director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at¬†MIT Media Lab. His research group developed the “programmable brick” technology that inspired LEGO MindStorms robotics kits. More recently, the group developed Scratch, a popular programming environment for kids.¬†Dr. Resnick received the 2011 McGraw Prize in Education and was listed by Fast Company as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business.

We spoke about the importance of creative learning, effective strategies for digital literacy, and the impact of initiatives to introduce computer science into more classrooms.

mres-by-joi-high-res
Dr. Mitchel Resnick. Photo by Joi Ito.

What is the Lifelong Kindergarten Group?

RESNICK: My research group, the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, develops new technologies and new activities to engage people in creative learning experiences. So we help people learn through designing, creating and expressing themselves.

We call the group Lifelong Kindergarten because we’re inspired by the way children learn in kindergarten. In the classic kindergarten, children are constantly designing and creating things in collaboration with one another. They build towers with wooden blocks and make pictures with finger paints—and we think they learn a lot in the process.

What we want to do with our new technology and activities is extend that kindergarten approach to learning, to learners of all ages. So everybody can continue to learn in a kindergarten style, but to learn more advanced and sophisticated ideas over time.

I understand there’s a long history at MIT of using computers as a tool for education.

RESNICK: It goes all the way back to the 1960s with Seymour Papert, who started working on the Logo programming language. It was a way for kids to be able to write computer programs to control things. Now, at the time, most people thought it was crazy because computers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Seymour recognized that computers were going to become less expensive and would proliferate throughout the world. So he saw there was an opportunity to use computers as tools for young people and that young people would have access to that technology. He knew that the best experiences would result from not just using computers to deliver information, but letting kids take control of the technology so they could create things.

Seymour would say it’s important that you don’t want the computer programming the child; you want the child programming the computer. You want the child to be in control. So Seymour started these ideas all the way back in the 1960s. His ideas then started to get out into the world when personal computers became available in the late 1970s into the 1980s. The Logo programming language became one of the most popular ways children were using personal computers in schools in the 1980s.

I was deeply influenced by Seymour. He was my most important mentor, and I continue to be inspired by his ideas about children learning by designing and creating things. Our work on LEGO Mindstorms and Scratch were deeply inspired by the ideas from Seymour Papert.

Why is it important to provide kids with opportunities for creative learning?

RESNICK: The process of making things in the world‚Äîcreating things‚Äîit provides us with the opportunity to take the ideas that we have in our mind and to represent them out in the world. Once we do that, it sparks new ideas. So there’s this constant back and forth between having new ideas in your mind, creating things in the world, and that process sparking new ideas in the mind which lets you create new things. So it’s this constant spiral of creating and generating new ideas.

We live in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before. Things that you learn today could be obsolete tomorrow.¬†But one thing is for sure: People will confront unexpected situations and unexpected challenges in the future. So what’s going to be most important is for kids to be able to come up with new and innovative solutions to the new challenges that arise. That’s why it’s so important to develop as a creative thinker. Just knowing a fixed set of facts and skills is not enough. The ability to think and act creatively will be the most important ingredient for success in the future.

You‚Äôve spoken about “learning to code” versus “coding to learn.” What’s the difference?

RESNICK: Many people are starting to get interested in learning to code, or learning to program computers. One reason a lot of people are interested is because it provides opportunities for jobs and careers because there’s a growing need for professional programmers and computer scientists. So that’s one reason for learning to code‚Äîthere really is a need and there are economic opportunities.

But I think there’s a much bigger opportunity. I often make the analogy to learning to write: Some people who are learning to write will become professional journalists or novelists, however most people aren’t going to make a living just through their writing. But we still want everyone to learn to write, because once you learn to write, it lets you organize your thinking, and it helps you express your ideas in new ways. I see it as being the same with coding. Although coding does provide some economic opportunities for jobs and careers, I think the most important reason for learning to code is it lets you organize your ideas and express your ideas.

Coding lets you learn many other things. So that’s why I think what’s most important is not just learning to code, but coding to learn. As you‚Äôre learning to code, you‚Äôre learning many other things.

What kinds of skills does coding teach?

RESNICK: You learn how to organize your ideas. That is, you take complex ideas and break them down into simpler parts: How to identify problems and then “debug” the problems. How to take the ideas of others and reformulate those ideas to meet your needs. Those are all common things that people do when they‚Äôre coding. But those are also common things you do in all types of problem-solving activities and design activities.

Even if you’re doing something that has nothing to do with coding—if you’re organizing a birthday party for a friend or developing a new marketing plan for your company—you use some of those same ideas. So those approaches, which you can learn through coding, can then be applied to all different kinds of activities both in your personal life and your work life.

Should every child learn to code? Should coding be a school subject like algebra or chemistry?

RESNICK: I do think every child should learn to code, and I would approach it similarly to writing—the same way we teach children to write and then let them use their writing in all other courses. You learn to write and then use your writing in writing book reports and writing science reports—you use it in all other subjects. And I think similarly, it would be great for all kids to code and then use that knowledge in many other classes.

Events like Hour of Code have raised the visibility of coding and given people an opportunity to get some sense of what coding is all about. But it only will be meaningful if there’s a follow-up and follow-through. If people take that initial spark and turn an hour of code into a day of code or a week of code or a month of code where they continue to explore the possibilities of coding.

So it’s the same thing. If you just spend an hour learning to write, it wouldn’t be so useful. On the other hand, if that sparks your imagination and then you continue to do more things with it, then it becomes meaningful.

How is Scratch changing the way people think about computer programming?

RESNICK: We emphasize that Scratch is a way to express yourself creatively, to express your ideas. It’s also a social activity: You can share your projects with others and learn from what others are doing. Many other organizations that are trying to help people learn to code don’t focus on those ideas. They often are just focused on students learning the concepts of computer science or learning how to solve puzzles with programming.

We take a different approach with Scratch. We see Scratch as an opportunity to express yourself creatively and to work collaboratively. I think it’s really important to have that as a core underpinning for what coding is about. Our ultimate goals with Scratch are to help young people think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively. We think those skills are incredibly important in today’s society.¬†

In Mississippi, we have some big challenges relating to education and poverty. Can computer science be a game-changer for us?

RESNICK:¬†I think it’s always dangerous to assume that there’s any one thing that’s going to make a big cultural change. But it could be one element.

Before you can think about changing living standards, you need to change learning standards. I think computer science provides new opportunities to help people become better learners. I think the thing that’s going to guarantee success in the future is people¬†developing as creative thinkers and creative learners. Doing creative work with technology through learning to code is one pathway to that. It’s not the only pathway. But I think what’s probably the most important thing is having young people grow up with opportunities to think and act creatively. That’s the key.

Would you say that computer science can engage students that may otherwise be not that interested in school?

RESNICK:¬†I do think it’s incredibly important to build on young people’s interest. People are going to be most interested in learning when they‚Äôre working on things that they really care about. The computer, if it’s used the right way, has the opportunity to engage kids in doing things that they really care about. But I want to add that doesn’t happen automatically. The computer can also be used in a way that kids won’t be interested in.

So it’s not just about using the computer‚Äîit’s the way in which it’s used.

There aren’t very many credentialed computer science teachers out there. Are credentials necessary for teaching computer science to young people?

RESNICK:¬†I agree with you that there’s a challenge. Many teachers don’t have much background in this area. I think further into the future, we‚Äôll get more teachers over time with more expertise. But, for now, I think there are great resources for teachers to learn enough to help young people get started with coding and using computers in creative ways.

I would also encourage schools to support teachers in learning new things so that they can help support these young people‚Äîand also hiring new teachers who can bring new expertise into the schools.¬†This isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a long-term process.

How should K-12 schools approach the teaching of computer science?

RESNICK: We should make sure all subjects are taught in a way where kids get a chance to learn through creative expression. And not just computer programming. In a science class or physics class or biology class, teachers should allow students to have creative learning experiences. 

We should rethink all school subjects so there are opportunities for children to learn by designing, creating, experimenting and exploring. That’s also true when we use computers. We should use computers to design, create, experiment and explore. But we should apply those ideas to all classes and all media.

So you’re saying more hands-on learning?

RESNICK:¬†Well, it depends on what you mean by hands-on. I would emphasize learning by creating and experimenting. If you put your hands on something, and you‚Äôre just following the instructions to build a model, then that’s not a very good activity even though your hands are involved. What’s important is to give kids the opportunity to create things and experiment with things, to use their imaginations and to think creatively.

What are your thoughts about getting more women and minority students involved in computer science?

RESNICK:¬†I think that’s linked to what we talked about earlier with supporting people and building on their own interests. Often, in all school subjects, including particularly computer science, you‚Äôre taught in one way which might be appealing to some people but not others. We need to make sure we provide multiple pathways into activities.

For example, when we developed Scratch, we made sure that people can use Scratch to do all types of different things. You can make a game, you can make a story, you can make an animation, you can compose music. That’s because different kids have different interests. If we only had computer programming for making games, that would be appealing for some kids and not for others. We wanted to be sure to provide multiple pathways so that kids from all backgrounds and all interests are able to follow their interests and become creative learners.

Related posts
Interview: Cameron Wilson of Code.org
Interview: Jon Mattingly of Kodable

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January 28th, 2014

Interview: Cameron Wilson of Code.org

Cameron Wilson is the COO and VP of government affairs at Code.org.¬†We spoke about Code.org’s work to expand computer science education in the U.S., including their wildly successful Hour of Code initiative. Currently more than 24 million students have participated in the Hour of Code’s online tutorials.¬†We also talked about the prospects for expanding computer science education in Mississippi.

Interested in joining the movement? Be sure to visit Code.org’s website to get the facts about the current state of computer science education in Mississippi.

Code.org: “What Most Schools Don’t Teach”

 

You have celebrities, business leaders and politicians from both sides of the aisle speaking out for computer science education. How did you get such widespread support?

WILSON: I think everybody recognizes that, for our country to lead in the world, we have to lead technology-wise. All of the technology that surrounds us on an everyday basis has its roots in computer science, and everybody recognizes that. The political leadership of this country, I think they’re willing to use the bully pulpit to bring that message to schools and to students.

From a corporate perspective, the issue businesses face on an almost daily basis is hiring problems. They need more people that are software engineers, that have a background in computer science to create the applications that they need. And it’s not just the tech companies. Everybody sort of thinks that this is a Microsoft problem or a Google problem. Those companies hire a lot of technology workers, but 70% of the jobs are actually outside the IT field in jobs like manufacturing, the service industry, finance, banking. Computer science is at the core of a lot of services they offer, so that really brings together the corporate community in a huge way.

Were you surprised by how many people participated in Hour of Code?

WILSON: It was amazing. Our goal was to get 10 million students to take the Hour of Code, and we ended up with that within the first three days. We had 18 million by the end of the first week.

The unbelievable reach—teachers getting it into their schools, students participating and parents engaged—was more than we could have hoped for after basically coming up with this idea in July and trying to market it to schools. So it really did explode, and we were incredibly happy at the response.

About half of the participants were girls, another amazing statistic when you consider how many girls have participated in computer science in the past. So all of those things were really heartening.

The data is amazing. But, to me, the most gratifying piece is the outpouring of stories from teachers about how they had never experienced anything like this before. They had students working together. They had entire schools that were participating. They had kids coming back and asking for more.

I think, from our perspective, it really showed not only the capacity for our teachers to really take and run with something like the Hour of Code, but just the massive amount of demand that students have for learning about computer science and creating this kind of technology.

The schools that didn’t take part in the Hour of Code ‚Äì what do they need to know?

WILSON: Number one, they can do it any time of the year, and they can do it next year – we’re starting the planning for next year. Number two, they can immediately engage students with computer science education through the blended learning course for K-8 students that Code.org offers. 

We have about 500,000 students participating in the K-8 program and 10,000 teachers that registered these students, which makes it one of the largest computer science programs in the entire country. So there’s lots of things that schools can do starting now, whether it’s in school or after school. Parents can do it at home, too.

How much demand is there for computer programmers right now?

WILSON: The demand changes from state to state, but it’s usually like two to five times larger for computing than it is for the average of all other occupations. And then nationally, it’s about four times greater.

Computing is a Bureau of Labor Statistics category, so that encompasses a fair number of jobs that are all computing related. So software engineering, both on the applications and operations side, and programmers are the biggest elements of it. But there’s also networking engineers and database engineers that are part of it, as well.

One of the things we point out is, whether you’re going to go into any of those broader IT fields or software engineering – or really any field nowadays – a computer science component at the K-12 level helps provide a really strong foundation for the fundamental knowledge you need.

If you look at projected job growth in STEM-related fields, about 70% of the new jobs and about 50% of total jobs are in computing-related fields.

There’s been a shift in looking at computer science as a “vocational” skill to more of a “foundational” skill. Why is that?

WILSON: I think it’s a bit of both, really. We definitely view it as a foundational literacy for the 21st century. All of the things that you get from computer science, whether it’s understanding how the technology works or it’s actually understanding how to think about problem solving in creative ways ‚Äîhow to deal with data and information‚Äîall of those things are really critical for lots of different jobs.

So, for example, a lawyer nowadays might be faced with a privacy lawsuit where he needs to understand how encryption works or how data transfer across the Internet works. I’m not saying he needs to know the nuts and bolts of it, but he needs to have a basic understanding.

Additionally, computer science provides critical-thinking skills and data-analysis skills that are sort of unique in science. So that’s why we consider it to be foundational for lots and lots of different fields. It’s just something that every student should be exposed to.

If you continue on a pathway in your career by taking more computer science classes and get a computer science degree, there are lots of great jobs out there. There’s the knowledge component and the skills component.

How can Mississippians become advocates for computer science in our state?

WILSON: The first thing is to organize – build a community of people who understand the issue of computer science education and want to improve it in the schools.

Connect with educators. With the school districts that are offering great quality computer science programs, you can use them as models to scale up. And then engage with policymakers with the “make it count” agenda, which is trying to make computer science count for math or science credit. That can either be done at the state level or locally and often both. That’s the first step on the pathway toward expanding computer science education. But then they can work with school boards ‚Ä쬆either the state school board or their local school boards ‚Ä쬆to begin a conversation.¬†

One of the things Code.org is trying to do is to expand the number of teachers that understand the content knowledge. So we have announced partnerships with multiple districts in the country where we’re actually offering professional development for teachers around our Exploring Computer Science Curriculum and Computer Science Principles Curriculum, and our K-8 curriculum. 

So we expand the number of teachers that are out there and expand the number of schools that are offering it. All of those things can be pushed locally as well. I think that would be the major task to any community organizer to help build capacity and infrastructure around that issue and then going off and talk to local school boards, talk to legislators, allow the big issues and the need to understand computer science education in this way.

How do the school district partnerships work?

WILSON: Code.org will enter into a partnership with school districts around the country. We’re just finishing up districts where we’re going to be putting in courses for 2014. 

Basically, what we will do is offer to pay for all the teachers’ professional development for computer science courses. We pay stipends for teachers to go through the professional development program. We give all the curriculum away for free to the school districts. And then we handle all the workshop logistics for professional development, both for the online development and in-person.¬†

So that’s what we do on our side. The expectations for the district are that they will put these courses into place, the teachers who go through the professional development program will actually teach the course, and that they will continue to expand computer science offerings within their school district.

That’s the overall approach we take on the education side to help initialize the system to have more computer science education. And then, hopefully, it becomes part of what administrators value, what principals value and what superintendents value, so that it just becomes part of the everyday educational experience.

You’re working to get states to count computer science as a math or science credit, rather than an elective, for high school graduation. Have you run into any resistance to this idea?¬†

WILSON: For the most part, we‚Äôve taught education in this country for 150 years or so roughly in the same way. When new subjects like computer science come into the education mainstream, there’s often not a very good picture about how to treat that subject. I think there’s a growing recognition and general acceptance that computer science should be part of a student’s general experience or part of the core subjects that students should expect to be exposed to. We‚Äôve seen very little resistance to that idea. The question really comes down to how you implement those programs at the local level.

We‚Äôre up to 17 states plus the District of Columbia that allow computer science to satisfy a math or science credit. And that’s just largely been an awareness effort. Since we‚Äôve really focused attention on this in the latter half of 2013, we‚Äôve had five states change their policies, either from a legislative or a regulatory perspective. And that’s happened in red states, blue states, from a variety of actors. So you see wide support for it because it’s really just making people understand and be aware that computer science should be treated as part of the core.

Who ultimately makes the decision about graduation credits?

WILSON: Each state is different, and each state handles graduation requirements differently. Take the state of Washington, which took a legislative route that was passed by the house and senate and signed by the governor with huge bipartisan support. They legislated that local school boards would have to treat computer science as a mathematics or a science credit depending on how the local school board wanted to implement it. So that’s the legislative route.¬†

Maryland passed legislation earlier that called for the state board of ed to review their overall graduation requirements for mathematics. But in the process of going through that, the state board of education added computer science to the mix for allowing it to count toward a mathematics credit. So that’s a regulatory route.¬†

If you look at Tennessee, they were another one where the state board of education simply passed regulations to make the shift. So it depends on where the levers of power lie, and it depends on whether there are actually statewide graduation requirements. 

Take a state like Colorado. Colorado is a completely local-control state. They don’t have any statewide graduation requirements. So you actually have to go district by district to have this discussion.¬†

What are the next steps for expanding access to computer science in the states?

WILSON: Code.org’s goal is to expand access to computer science education for all students. So, from our perspective, that means making sure that states have good professional development programs for computer science, that school districts are actually putting in high-quality computer science education courses, that the state has standards that help define and frame what computer science education should look like at the local level, and then, additionally, that states have teacher certification programs that are connected to content knowledge.

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