Deciding that a department is for everyone

Why do so many Williams students major in mathematics? The Williams Alumni Review magazine gives this answer:

The mission of the math department had long been to identify and educate the most talented students, which meant the College graduated about a dozen math majors each year. But new department chair Frank Morgan and some of his colleagues contemplated a more inclusive view of the discipline…. “Everybody deserves a chance to do this,” Morgan says. “It’s like music—people should have a chance to enjoy math.”

Today the reconstituted math department graduates five times as many majors… a third of them women. More than half of all Williams undergraduates complete multivariable calculus [and introductory statistics]. Most impressive of all, 12 percent of the College’s graduates major in mathematics at a time when… the national average hovers around 1 percent.

Has [this] led to a dumbing down of the discipline? There’s much evidence to the contrary. [Professors from elsewhere call the department] “unquestionably the best teacher-scholar math department in the country.”

In other words, the department did not become popular by chance or by working harder at it than other departments. Rather, it made a decision to become a popular department rather than a selective department. The whole design of the curriculum and staffing is different when popularity rather than selectivity is your goal.

Is this related to Dweck’s growth mindset? Does the belief that all students can enjoy and pursue math make it more likely that they will?

The next question is: why have so many departments not made this decision, choosing instead to continue to prioritize selectivity? Shouldn’t everyone also have a chance to enjoy physics and anthropology and comparative literature?

Are academicians too focused on being “serious”? Do they take the fixed mindset, believing that only people with the right “talent” and “drive” can succeed in their field of study?

Ability is learned, not fixed

“After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.”

-Benjamin Bloom (via Mindset by Carol Dweck)

The pieces for educational software

Who do you need in order to make outstanding educational software?

  • Artistic and child psychology experts from children’s TV
  • Curriculum designers and subject experts from textbooks
  • Interaction designers and programmers from computer games and apps
  • Teachers who know the kids and can test prototypes with them

What pieces do you need to bring together?

  • Psychological: “flow”, storyline, context
  • Aesthetic: beautiful, interesting, simple
  • Emotional: for a purpose
  • Reliable: solid programming
  • Convenient: internet, app store
  • Low-cost: software product that runs on widely-available devices
  • Effective: learning goals are met

Once the disruption in education takes hold, software with all of these pieces will prove very popular.

Comfort zone

“If you don’t work at the edge of your comfort zone, your comfort zone will shrink.”

-Alan Oppenheim


One of the best talks at CHI this year was by Chris Harrison of Carnegie Mellon, who presented work on what he calls “kineticons” — applying motion to icons and GUI elements of all scales. This is not animated icons per se, but motion applied to static icons. He came up with 39 kineticon motions and then asked 200 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers what they thought the motions meant. Among the interesting results was that “blowing in the wind” was a better indicator of movability than the iPhone springboard’s “jiggle” motion.

Apple has been a pioneer in using this type of motion to convey meaning, but Chris neatly shows how many more possibilities there are.

Direct manipulation vs. intelligent agents

Ben Shneiderman wrote in 1997:

Direct manipulation depends on… rapid incremental reversible operations whose effect on the object of interest is immediately visible. This strategy can lead to user interfaces that are comprehensible, predictable and controllable. Direct manipulation interfaces are seen as more likely candidates to influence advanced user inter- faces than adaptive, autonomous, intelligent agents. User control and responsibility are highly desirable.

That’s worth reading carefully and thoughtfully.

[Shneiderman, B. Direct manipulation for comprehensible, predictable and controllable user interfaces. Proceedings of the 2nd international conference on Intelligent user interfaces, 1997.]

More specifically:

Agent promoters believe that the computer can automatically ascertain the users’ intentions or take action based on a vague statements of goals. This author is skeptical that user intentions are so easily determined or that vague statements are usually effective. However, if users can specify what they want with comprehensible actions selected from a visual display, then they can more often and more rapidly accomplish their goals while preserving their sense of control and accomplishment.

I completely agree with Shneiderman. I wonder if “agent promoters” today have progressed enough to offer solid counterarguments.

Random album cover fun

I saw Bill’s random album art and wanted to join in the fun. (See instructions below.) The result turned out to be kind of ironic, implying that cake is the root of all evil. It makes for an eye-catchingly contrarian album cover.

Åland Centre is actually a Finnish political party, the cake photo is here, and the full quote is, “Lack of money is the root of all evil.” -George Bernard Shaw

Create your own band and debut album cover randomly

To Do This:

1 – – The first random Wikipedia article that comes up is the name of your band.

2 – – The last four or five words of the very LAST quote on the page is the title of your first album.

3 – – The third picture in the top row, no matter what it is, is your album cover.

4 – Use Photoshop or similar to put it all together.

5 – Post it to your preferred online outlet with this text in the “caption” or “comment” and TAG the friends you want to join in.