Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hackerspace and Formal education discussion at Dublin GTUG

After some great responses to the hackerspace and formal education discussion at the monthly Dublin GTUG meet up I would like to make a few comments on the topic.

I don't want to be controversial but I do have to be a bit critical of the event for the very reason Seán mentions: A panel in which 4 out of 5 participants (plus the host) are clearly on one side, and the reamining participant doesn't take sides, can not generate much discussion. On top of that, if you frame it within a local group meetup, where at least a 90% of the people are also going to be on the hackerspace side... well, what can I say?

And don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed the session and I think some very good points were brought up but it would be very interesting to hear some arguments from the other side. Not only from an academic point of view, but running a hackerspace within a college (as it seems to be one of the suggestions) carries a lot of administrative issues such as access to the space, who pays for stuff and how that affects group dynamics (seems like at least the Dublin hackerspace guys prefer to stay away from external funding), who is responsible and liable in the case of anything bad happening, and so on. There are a bunch of issues that we missed out on because there was no one there to expose them.

A point that was fairly commented on was assessment, which is (in my opinion) the hardest topic in education, and (again in my opinion) the one that should be the focus of all potential integration of hackerspaces and formal education.
I am all for innovative and creative educational experiences but SADLY students are still evaluated in isolation and in an environment where collaboration is considered cheating.
This needs changing but hackerspaces only provide for the first part of the equation and assessment is not even an issue. Or is it?
I'd say that there is always assessment in all kind of social interactions. You are obviously not going to be awarded a degree in your hackerspace but there are other kinds of peer review and recognition patterns going on. More active members will become part of the organisation, running courses and leading events, or getting praise and recognition for the pieces they hack together. That peer recognition is obviously enough to motivate involvement with the community so could we use that as a basis for more formal assessment? I would like to hear the thoughts of academics on this (although I might not like what I hear back!).

The panel mentioned ditching standardised tests in favour of a viva after 4 years undergrad, bringing the post-graduate model into undergrad. I'd be happy with that too.

I would also like to comment on a couple of points about formal education that I felt (personal opinion) that were not all that fair. We've all seen Sir Ken Robinson's TED talks and RSA video many times and know that education is rotten but universities can also be places for innovation and fun stuff; you can see it around any postgrad lab where people are given the freedom to work on what they are more interested in. It was mentioned that students coming from a hackerspace background can do really creative projects so it is unfair to say that that does not happen.

Another comment from the host I would like to point out is that he mentioned his disappointment after entering a university classroom not long ago and seeing a waterfall model in a whiteboard (or a similar situation).
I'd say there is nothing wrong with studying waterfall this day and age. The real problem would be if the topic ended there and no other alternatives were discussed. I bring up this because I think in our field (talking about software development) we don't pay enough attention to the past and we are therefore bound to repeat the same mistakes. This is why classic books such as The Mythical Man-Month or The Psychology of Computer Programming remain very much current, even though they were written many years before about half of the audience at the discussion where even born!

Another fair point made by the panel was the big gap between education and the workplace, which funnily enough is my research topic. I still don't have a solution for that, but as soon as I get it sorted you'll be the first ones to know... yeah, that's supposed to be a joke. A bad one. I know.

So as Seán mentions there are a lot of unaswered questions and I would like to bring up another one here: If we are all in the hackerspace side... why are we all still getting degrees?

All panellist have degrees, are working towards one (or more), or expecting to get enough points to get into one.
John Looney mentioned that Google hires people with no degrees (about a 10% of current staff if I heard correctly?) so why are we still going through the pain of getting one?
(Lecturer) Mark described the process as something like yearly semaphores that are used to sort people into groups and keep them entertained for a while. Is the social pressure worth all that pain?

It was very funny to hear one of the guys from 091 Labs in Galway commenting on the Irish mums effect, that can affect how courses can be considered good or bad.
And talking about mums, wouldn't it be nice that instead of being proud of their kid's degrees they'd be proud of their kids spending all evenings at the local hackerspace? Can we make that happen?

As a personal note, I would like to add that I completely disagree with the comments about free education filling up lecture theatres with people that somehow do not deserve being there.
I would hope we could focus on challenging those fake social needs that equate having a degree with being 'someone'. In that case only people with a real interest would go to college, regardless of their parents (or themselves) having the money (or not) to pay for fees.

Utopian? yes, and almost as unachievable as  teaching kids IT skills (Coder Dojocomputer club house, Camara), getting people to build stuff (TOG091labs NexusMilklabs), or creating great software and communities through volunteer work (Apache Foundation, GNU OS, P2PUOpen Wonderland).


  1. No harm being controversial! We should have perhaps had a bit more during the discussion - this is our fault for choosing a panel which was too one-sided.

    Regarding some of the issues you mention above - I think we just did not have enough time to get through all the issues - we should probably revisit the debate.

    Universities can be places which are innovative for sure; however, I'd guess that there is more innovation going on in hackerspaces and certainly the cost of innovation in hackerspaces is much lower than that of universities.

    Regarding the q of why we're all getting degrees? I guess there are a few reasons for this - this is the most normal course of events for many students, parental pressure to do this is probably strong, it is perceived as a place to have fun for some time and there is typically the issue of students not knowing so much about what they want to do and many courses give people the opportunity to defer this decision somewhat. Of course, some people are making strong conscious decisions and benefit from the years of study, but not everyone (check out some of Anya Kamenatz's stuff on this if you're interested in the education problem in the US).

    I think this is a fascinating discussion and am happy to discuss further.

  2. Hey Seán, thanks for your comment!

    No doubt that there was not enough time.
    I had to leave right after the talk so I probably missed some good bits in the pub too.

    Agree with all your points about pressure and fun, generally at an age when most people are not sure about what they want in/from life.

    Thanks for the pointer to Anya K. The US problem is plainly nuts and that is exactly why I oppose strongly any propositions where money marks the difference between getting an education or not.
    I realise is not as simple as 'free for all' and it can affect quality, but there has to be other ways around it... or at least I hope there are!

  3. I've been thinking a little about the assessment problem that you highlight. I guess it is probably possible to imagine a way that peers can assess someone's work remotely, based on a reputation system.

    For example, if we think of stack overflow as a reputation system, perhaps with some kind of additional dimension in which reputation is (somehow) divided into scope/categories, so that any individual can have different scores for different areas, indicating different levels of knowledge/expertise in different areas.

    Then, if a certain amount of people with sufficient reputation rate a project and give it a good score, then the work is considered good; have enough good work and you can get some badge which says that you are qualified in some way.

    Of course, the devil is in the detail, but this is the basis of one way that a peer based assessment/accreditation mechanism might work in a less structured educational system.

    (I've often said that stack overflow should hand out degrees, for fun...)

  4. That sounds great to me but as you mention the devil in in the detail and I can see a lot of academics on the edge of a nervous breakdown reading this! :D

    A system like that is based on trust and loss of control by teachers. Any lecturer out there would say that it's madness, people will exchange reputation points and all that... as if people were not cheating in the current system!

    I like your ideas, but I don't see it happening in the current educational environment (yet!).

    I was checking out some Anya K. videos and she mentions P2PU with which I've been involved as a volunteer since the end of last year.
    There is a lot of discussion in the P2PU community about assessment, reputation, badges, and so on, but the main problem here is shifted by the fact that courses are really study groups, and all interaction is among peers.
    I've organised a couple of groups with them but I would never call myself a teacher. I prefer the term 'lead learner' which involves not only learning but also organising. In a peer setting like this a reputation system could be very effective. And yes, people can still cheat and exchange points but it will be very clear through interaction in the community who got those points 'for real' and who hasn't. I don't care if you have 1000 points if I cannot see you 'in action' or go back and check your online material/portfolio and so on, which would be the same idea as following a user in stack overflow.

    I agree with you that it would be a great way to go but integration within the current establishment would be (in my opinion) really challenging. And well, also it wouldn't really be applicable to all stages of education (not sure 5 year olds peer assessing themselves would be the best idea, but you never know!).

  5. Wow - this is a fun discussion...

    Academics having nervous breakdown? I don't think the good ones will be too worried - also, it's not so different from the way the research community works, so they should be able to get their heads around it.

    Tit-for-tat behaviour should be quite easy to spot in a computerized system - certainly much easier than in non-computerized systems where it is rife. Also, if it's penalized and the rules are sufficiently clear, few people should use it.

    I did a course on P2PU last year - it still needs quite a bit of work, imo.

    Integration with the current system would be very difficult, agreed. However, I think that the cost of new technology solutions is modest which means new modes will be able to appear without requiring integration with the establishment. Also agreed that it does not lend itself to all parts of the education system.

  6. One more thing - you might be interested in this:

  7. Funny that you mention the "good ones" and totally agree with you; it is not different from research or imo from any other field. you can see it in software development very clearly; some people are all up for new methodologies and techniques (say TDD, pair programming, and so on), and learning new languages, but others oppose and avoid change as the plague. Same with educators.

    I think it all boils down to individuals really, it's all about how you feel and how motivated you are to adapt to the changing environment.

    Thanks for the link to the podcast. Tenure is probably one of those things that affect the context because change is a lot slower, especially if you compare it to the open market.