Gas station without pumps

2014 September 10

edX finally finds the right market

Filed under: freshman design seminar,home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:02
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I have long been of the opinion that MOOCs are pretty useless for college students but are good for home-schooled students and high school students who don’t have access to higher-level courses in their local schools.  It seems that edX has finally realized that this is an important market with their High School Initiative:

Colleges and universities find that many students could benefit from taking a few extra courses to help close the readiness gap between high school and college. To address this need, edX has launched a high school initiative–an initial collection of 26 new online courses, including Advanced Placement* (AP*) courses and high school level courses in a wide variety of subject areas.

Completion rates will still be low, as a lot of people will sign up on a whim and then not follow through, or will sign up for more than they can handle and be forced to drop some.

AP courses will probably be the most attractive courses, as students can validate their learning with the AP exam, which is widely accepted by colleges as proof of higher-level course work (unlike the “Verified Certificate of Achievement” that edX sells).

The hardest courses to do well on line will be the lab science courses.  Simulated labs are no substitute for real-world labs, as no simulation captures all the phenomena of the real world and few come close to developing lab skills.

There are on-line science courses with real lab components. For example, my son took AP chem through ChemAdvantage.com, which had some rather cleverly designed labs that could be done at home with minimal equipment. Despite the cleverness of the lab design, the lab skills practiced were not exactly the same as would have been practiced in a more traditional lab setting.  And the lab kit was not cheap, costing as much as a community college chem lab course would have (if my son had been able to get into the over-subscribed chem lab course).

I don’t know whether edX has gotten their AP science courses audited by College Board (if not, they’ll probably be forced to remove the AP designation), but the AP audit requires lab time for the AP science courses, and I don’t know which of many mechanism edX is using to provide the required lab content.  Other online AP courses either devise home labs (requiring the purchase of a lab kit) or do weekend or week-long lab intensives in various parts of the country.  These lab intensives can be quite good (if done in college labs with real equipment) or ludicrously overpriced time wasters (if done in hotel ballrooms with crummier equipment and less time than the home lab kits).

The edX AP Physics course, created by Boston University, says “The course covers all of the material for the test, supported by videos, simulations, and online labs.”  So it seems that they have no real labs in AP Physics, but only simulations.  While simulation is a wonderful thing, it does not develop much in the way of real-world lab skills.  I note that in the freshman design course I taught last year, often the only experience that students had had in building anything had been in their high school’s AP Physics courses.  That hands-on experience is very important for developing engineers.

So the edX courses will be valuable for students who have no other access to AP-level material (which is a lot—fewer than 5% of US high schools offer AP Computer Science, for example), but students will still usually be better off finding a community college course or other way to real lab experience for the AP science lab courses.

I wish edX great success on this endeavor, since I have seen first-hand the need for reasonable quality, affordable courses for advanced high school students, which many local high schools cannot provide, because they do not have enough students ready for the course in one place to justify creating and offering the courses.  It is a much more worthy market than trying to compete with brick-and-mortar colleges, which was the initial goal of Coursera, Udacity, and edX.  Udacity has already abandoned that goal in favor of corporate training (again, a reasonable market).  It is good to see the edX is moving in a reasonable direction also.  When will Coursera realize that their original “disruptive” dream was a pipe dream (probably as soon as they’ve burned all the venture capital)?

2014 April 26

SIR!

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:33
Tags: , , , ,

Some readers of my blog and e-mail posts have been asking where my son will be going to college.

He filed his “Statement of Intent to Register” (SIR in UC jargon) and paid the deposit for University of California, Santa Barbara.

This post is a partial explanation of why he chose UCSB. I’m somewhat constrained, as I’ve been asked not to detail precisely where he did and did not get accepted. Suffice it to say that the number of acceptances was not different enough from the expected number to reject the null hypothesis that acceptances are random based on the probabilities inferred from the Common Data Set.  (Of course, with a sample size of one, that is not a very strong statement.)

As a family, we’re all pretty happy with UCSB as a choice, despite its reputation as a party school, the conservative community, and the difficulty of reaching it by air from northern California. What sold him on UCSB was the College of Creative Studies (CCS), which seems to be the best honors program in the UC system.

His major will be computer science, but it will be computer science in CCS, rather than computer science in engineering. What this means is that he basically crafts his own degree together with a faculty adviser. In his first quarter, he’ll take a special CCS freshman seminar with the other 10 or so CCS computer science freshmen, during which the instructor will try to assess the current level of expertise of each student and fill any holes they have in their prior learning, to place them in the right CS courses in future quarters.  The class is tiny (usually around 10 students) so the instructor doesn’t have to do one-size-fits-all teaching or advising. Because my son has already had UC-level applied discrete math (through concurrent enrollment at UCSC), he’ll be able to take upper-division courses like formal languages and automata theory right away. In fact, I suspect that he’ll end up skipping almost all the lower-division courses in CS.  He may end up opting to take some of them for review, or so that he’ll have an easy course on his schedule so that he has more time for research or acting, but he won’t be forced into huge lecture classes that have nothing new for him in them.

I looked over the lower-division (first two years) of CS at UCSB and it looks like my son has covered almost all of it already. He’s had several different programming languages (Scratch, C, Scheme, Python, Java, with bits of C++, JavaScript, Logo, assembly language), though he is most proficient now with object-oriented code in Python. One course (CMPSC 56) may have a little new material on exception handling and threading, and he might choose to take something like that to formalize his knowledge—when one learns a subject by reading reference manuals to do particular programming tasks there are sometimes unexpected holes in what you learn.  He’s done a fair amount with threading in Python, but not a lot with exception handling. CMPSC 64, on computer architecture and digital logic also has some new material for him.  The computer architecture will seem fairly simple to him after how deeply he’s been diving into the KL25 ARM Cortex M0+ architecture for programming both PteroDAQ and the light gloves, but some of the combinational and sequential hardware design will new.

One strong plus is that he’ll be able to join a research team his first year—CCS makes a concerted effort to get their students into research groups (in fact, one faculty member he met with when visiting UCSB has already tried to recruit him to a project). The UCSB computer science department is pretty good (their website claims top 10 for grad programs, but even allowing for hype they are probably in the top 20), and the department is fairly large with 32 tenure-track faculty, so there are a lot of different research projects he could join.  Computer engineering is lumped with EE in Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCSB, so there are more faculty and more research projects he could join there.

Another plus of the CCS program is a relaxing of the often bureaucratic nit-picking of general-education requirements. The CCS general-ed requirements are

  1. two courses in fields related to the student’s major, as determined in consultation with a CCS advisor;
  2. eight courses broadly distributed in fields unrelated to the student’s major, as determined in consultation with the advisor. These may be selected from courses offered by the College of Creative Studies, the College of Letters and Science, and the College of Engineering.

One of these courses must fulfill the Ethnicity Requirement: a course that concentrates on the intellectual, social and cultural experience, and history of one of the following groups: Native-Americans, African-Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, Asian-Americans. This course may be selected from a list of courses that fulfill the Ethnicity Requirement offered through the College of Letters and Science, or it may be a College of Creative Studies course that is classified as such.

Students also have to satisfy UC-wide requirements:

The reduction in bureaucratic bean counting means that he can probably satisfy all his general-ed requirements with fun courses in theater, linguistics, physics, math, and so forth.  The only rather arbitrary course is the Ethnicity Requirement, and he can satisfy that with any of several courses, including some theater ones.

One minor problem (shared by almost every college he applied to) is that he gets little relevant credit for his Advanced Placement exams. He’ll probably get 18 credits toward graduation (out of the 180 needed to graduate), but not all the units count towards his major requirements. He gets full credit for the calculus BC, but physics gives only useless non-STEM physics credit for the Physics C exams, the AP CS exam credit is pretty useless, and I’m not sure about chemistry (the page says “Natural Science 1B”, but there does not seem to be such a course—if they mean “CHEM 1B”, then it is useful credit towards his science requirements, assuming he does well enough on the exam in 2 weeks).  Because he is interested in taking some modern physics (quantum mechanics), he’ll probably end up either retaking calculus-based physics or talking his way into the more advanced courses and bypassing the huge lecture courses.

He should also get transfer credit for the community college Spanish courses and the UCSC math courses he has, which could mean another 16–18 credits.  These extra credits will not significantly speed his graduation, but they may give him the flexibility to avoid taking a heavy load some quarter, or to take an internship or study-abroad opportunity without falling behind. One normal benefit to having more credits is getting registration priority, but he already gets that as a CCS student, so that is less of a benefit for him than for others.

One little bonus for us as parents—UCSB is substantially cheaper than the private schools he also applied to, and we have saved enough in his 529 plan that we won’t need to take out any loans and he won’t have to work a meaningless job—he can spend his spare time doing research projects at the University or working on engineering projects for the startup company he and his friends are forming.

2014 January 28

High school senior workload

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:00
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Shireen Dadmehr, in Math Teacher Mambo: Seniors, Workload, Responsibility, talks about high-school seniors dropping out of her CS course:

The flip side of this is that depending on what courses the students take their senior year, and how they approach their scholarship applications and college applications, and what sports they play, and how far their daily commute is, the amount of time they have for homework and sleep and life fluctuates. Needless to say, there are stressed out little bundles of walking sleepless zombies.

Her dilemma is whether to push the students to stick with what they signed up for or to let them drop courses that are either too ambitious for them or just lower priority in an over-loaded schedule. My advice to her is simple—talk to the students and make sure that they aren’t just scared of the material or not getting it due to things that could be changed in the teaching, but let them make their own decisions about whether the effort is bringing enough reward.

As a home-schooling parent of a high-school senior, I’ve also got to deal with helping my son balance his workload—I have high standards and high expectations for him, and I’d like to have him do everything he started this year, but some things are taking more time than anticipated, so it is time to re-evaluate the importance of different activities.

The second semester is starting now, so this is the ideal time to rebalance the workload.

His first semester was supposed to be econ, AP chem, writing (a mix of college essays and tech writing),  group theory, two computer science/computer engineering projects (the light gloves and upgrades to the Arduino data logger), and theater.  The mix of what was done was not quite what was envisioned—more of some things and less of others.

The AP chem and econ are pretty much where they should be (a few days behind in chem due to illness, about a week to go to finish econ) at the semester break.

The college essays turned out to take far more time and effort than originally anticipated (by me and him—his mother had a more realistic view), which pushed the tech writing out.  The college essays got done, but only at the expense of no winter break. Luckily this problem was seen early enough that the transcript was revised to describe his fall semester English class more accurately.

More acting got done than originally expected (and we originally expected a heavy acting load), as he ended up with 5 roles (rather than 1 or 2) in the school one-acts and he added a 3-day workshop during winter break.  This last month has been crazy, with performances almost every weekend, but things should wind down after the Dinosaur Prom Improv performance this Sunday, to just 2 theater classes a week (Dinosaur Prom and Much Ado About Nothing).  The two going away are the Page-to-Stage theater class (where he was the oldest student) to make room for younger kids on the waiting list for the spring production, and the school production which is once a year and had the performance last weekend.  With 2 theater groups instead of 4, he should have more time for other classes.

He’s been working diligently (often spending more time than he really has available) on the light gloves.  In addition to hours of programming or hardware design he’s been meeting weekly or more with the team and having Skype/Google Hangout meetings with investors and with new, remote engineers thinking of joining the team.  I think that they’re getting their second set of prototypes fabricated this month, and he’ll need to start intensive programming to get the Bluetooth LE chip working and communicating with a laptop or cell phone.  I believe that they are getting 10 prototype boards assembled commercially, rather than having to deal with the surface mount parts themselves—the price was low enough that the time savings (and probable quality) justified the extra price.  I think that they are still planning to have a Kickstarter campaign this spring and go into production over the summer, but that schedule may slip if the programming and debugging takes longer than they expect.  (Note: I’m not involved in this project, except once in a while as someone to bounce ideas off of, so all those “I think” and “I believe” statements are vague impressions not the result of detailed status reports.)

The Arduino Data Logger project was put on hold over the fall, but I really need him to get back to that very soon, as I’ll have to tell the staff whether to order Arduino boards or KL25Z (or KL26Z) boards for my circuits class soon.  The extra features that I requested are not critical, but we can’t use the KL25Z boards unless they are supported by the data logger software, and it would be nice to have the much higher resolution and sampling rate of the KL25Z boards.

Because group theory was always last on the priority list and had only Dad-imposed deadlines, it has lost out.  We’re still in Chapter 3, and I don’t see much hope of our catching up by the end of the year.  I see three choices:

  • Drop Group Theory from the transcript, treating as a nice idea that there just wasn’t time for.
  • Push real hard to try to complete the book anyway—I don’t see this happening, as the group theory is just fun math, not something he “needs”, so it I want it to be something we do together for fun, not under high stress.  It is the lowest priority of our courses in my mind, so I can’t see pushing him hard on it.
  • Reduce our ambition to only ½ or even ⅓ of the book, and reduce the credits for the course correspondingly.

He’s finished with econ (almost) and with college essays, but is picking up government/civics and dramatic literature.

The civics will probably be at about the same effort level as the econ, but it may be hard to find a good source at the right level—the MIT open courseware econ lectures made a nice, rather lightweight econ course, supplemented by a few popular-press econ books.  Government/civics doesn’t have the mathematical appeal of econ, and most high-school or freshman college books on the subject are rather dry and boring.  Oh, well, that course is my wife’s responsibility (as was the econ), and she can undoubtedly do a better job of finding materials for it that I could.

The dramatic literature course is preparation for the trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and should not be a problem for him—certainly nothing like the torture of college-application essays!  He’s done two previous dramatic literature courses with the same teacher (different plays each year, based of the OSF schedule), and knows what to expect.

So this spring semester should see

  • replacement of econ by civics
  • replacement of college-application essays by dramatic literature
  • continuation of AP Chem
  • switch from mostly hardware and app/web programming to embedded software for light gloves
  • two-fold reduction in acting (down to a sane level)
  • addition of data logger project
  • low-level continuation or elimination of  group theory

I think that the spring is likely to be less stressful than the fall, but still a full load.

We’ll have to make a decision on the group theory soon, for the updated report through the Common App.

2014 January 26

Mostly in the Timing

Last night, I watched my son perform in the high-school play for his home-school umbrella school (Alternative Family Education).  The parents’ club hires West Performing Arts to organize the school plays (they had three—elementary, middle, and high school) and provide the performance space (West End Studio Theatre).

The high school production this year consisted of 8 one-act plays, seven of which were from David Ives’ collection All in the Timing,hence the name “Mostly in the Timing”. The one exception was a sketch from the Carol Burnett Show (episode 10.6 in 1976, of two people in an elevator with one-word lines).

I had not seen any of the plays before—I’d not even run lines with my son for this production, so it was all new to me. I enjoyed all the plays, though “Degas, C’est Moi” needed some more rehearsal, particularly for the stage crew. I can see why these pieces by Ives are so popular for high schools and colleges—they are funny, well-written, and fairly easy to stage, relying on the lines and the acting, rather than on sets, costumes, or props for the entertainment.

"Variations on the Death of Trotsky"  Leon Trotsky with axe smashed into his skull.

“Variations on the Death of Trotsky” Leon Trotsky with axe smashed into his skull.

My son was in five of the eight one-acts, with one of them being a last-minute casting after another student dropped out of the production.  He had the role of Frank Mikula, a construction worker in “Mere Mortals”; Horace, the male mayfly in “Time Flies”; Leon Trotsky in “Variations on the Death of Trotsky”; Collin in “Elevator”, and Pedestrian and Unemployment Worker in “Degas, C’est Moi”.  This required some quick changes of costumes and some radically different body language for the different parts.

They had 11 actors and 3 directors (for a total of 13 students, as one director also acted) for a total of 38 roles. My son ended up with the most roles and the most lines, probably as a result of stepping in at the last minute for the role of Frank Mikula.

My wife made the ax-in-the-head costume piece for Leon Trotsky.  They debated for a while whether to shape it like the mountain-climbers’ ice axe that the script calls for, or a more iconic wood-chopping hatchet (which seems to be the more popular choice for staging the play, based on Google image searches).  They went with the hatchet.  It was constructed out of old padded envelopes, cardboard, and duct tape, sewn to a wig.  It ended up looking pretty good, and it did not flop over (which is what my wife was most concerned about).

Victoria and Collin in the elevator

Victoria and Collin in the elevator

Frank Mikula (left) and Charlie Petrossian (right) eating lunch 50 stories up.

Frank Mikula (left) and Charlie Petrossian (right) eating lunch 50 stories up.

Mayflies Horace and May, discovering that they're on television.

Mayflies Horace and May, discovering that they’re on television.

They have another run this afternoon, and I look forward to seeing it again.

2014 January 24

Theater month

This has been a busy month for theater in our household:

  • 21–22 December 2013. My son performed in “Inspecting Carol” as Sidney Carlton (hence, Jacob Marley and Fezziwig) with WEST Ensemble Players at West End Studio Theatre.
  • 30 Dec 2013–3 Jan 2014. My son had a 3-day workshop with West Performing Arts on “site-specific theater” which included street performances downtown.
  • 10 Jan 2014. We went to see “8 tens at 8″, a collection of new one-act plays performed by Actors’ Theatre at Center Stage.
  • 18–19 Jan 2014. My son performed in “Call of the Wild” at West End Studio Theatre as John Thornton, a husky, and a narrator.
  • 20–24 Jan 2014. Tech week for the AFE high school play with 3–6 hours of rehearsal a day.
  • 25–26 Jan 2104. Performance of the AFE high school play at West End Studio Theatre. They are doing 8 one-act plays, mostly from David Ives’ collection All in the Timing, so they’re calling the performance “Mostly in the Timing”. My son is in 5 of 8 one-acts, with one of them being a last-minute casting after another student dropped out of the production.
  • 1 Feb 2014. Going to see “Best of the Rest”, a staged reading of the 8 10-minute plays that did not quite make the “8 tens at 8″ by Actors’ Theatre at Center Stage.
  • 2 Feb 2014. My son will be performing with Dinosaur Prom Improv at Broadway Playhouse.

There was one serious conflict this week, with auditions for “Much Ado About Nothing” (the Spring play for the WEST Ensemble Players) at the same time last night as one of the “Mostly in the Timing” tech rehearsals.  My son really wants to play Benedict in “Much Ado” (he’s never gotten a romantic lead, and Benedict is probably the best-fitting romantic lead for him), so missing the auditions was painful.  Luckily the director for “Much Ado” was at the “Mostly in the Timing” rehearsal the day before, so was able to propose an alternative way for him to audition.

Today he has 6 hours of dress rehearsal for “Mostly in the Timing” plus an hour an half of practice with Dinosaur Prom—I don’t know when he’ll have time to do his AP chem homework. At least the college application essays are over with. One of the big advantages of home schooling is the ability to adjust schedules so that intense weeks mostly dedicated to one activity are possible.

Things should quiet down after next week, with just “Much Ado” rehearsals (3 hours a week) and Dinosaur Prom (1.5 hours a week), though there will be a workshop on doing auditions sometime this spring.

Community-wide the big theater news is that Shakespeare Play On has raised pledges of $697k in a month and only needs to raise another $188k (in the next week) to keep the summer Shakespeare tradition in Santa Cruz alive.  I really hope they make it, as Shakespeare performances have been one of the big highlights of the summers here for as long as I’ve lived here.

 

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