English on the Internet, Game-based Learning, Kids’ Coding


English is losing its status as the universal language of the Internet by Leanna Garfield at Tech Insider 1/3/16

Leanna Garfield makes the point that the presence of the English language on the Internet is dropping from about 80% in the mid-1990s to about 45% today. She proposes that translation tools and a greater web presence by other languages “could create a more democratic web in the future.”

Other interesting stats: “Chinese, the most widely spoken language, makes up just 2.1% of the internet. The world’s second most widely spoken language, Spanish, encompasses 4.8% of the web. Hindi, spoken by 260 million people, makes up less than 0.1% of the internet.”

Game-Based Learning Has Practical Applications for Nontraditional Students by Marguerite McNeal at EdSurge 1/20/16

McNeal reports on a study, “The Potential for Game-based Learning to Improve Outcomes for Nontraditional Students,” which focused on whether game-based learning helped nontraditional students improve outcomes. One finding of the study is that game-based learning is more effective when it is part of an integrated curriculum, not just as a stand-alone strategy.

A Kids’ Coding Expert Says We’re Making Computer Class Way Too Boring by Anya Kamenetz at nprED 12/11/15

Schools in the UK and Australia want to expand kids’ use of computers to go beyond fun and games in the classroom. Michael Resnick, head of Lifelong Kindergarten Group, associated with MIT’s Media Lab, says that “Coding is not just a set of technical skills. It’s a new way of expressing yourself. It’s similar to learning to write — a way for kids to organize, express and share ideas. But instead of putting words into sentences, now they can create animated stories.” He cautions, however, that what schools are doing is too simplistic to the point of being boring. “Many popular apps for teaching programming are structured more like games, with a simple set of instructions to reach a predefined outcome.”

What Sort of Intelligence?

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

You may have noticed recent news about Stephen Hawking predicting the demise of the human race due to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI)1. Others of genius rank, such as Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil2, have also made this prediction. With “The Theory of Everything” (biopic about Prof. Hawking) in theaters right now, this prediction is resonating across the English-speaking world.

Before digging your shelters or heading for the hills, you should ask, “What is artificial intelligence?” A bit of history may help put this entire subject into perspective. The term was coined in 1955 by John McCarthy, who called it “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.”3 “When?” you ask. “That’s nearly 60 years ago! Before I was born!” (I actually was born well before then, but statistically you probably weren’t.)

Funny how AI has not taken over the world in the 60 years it’s had so far. Why the sudden worry? Computers are becoming more powerful and less expensive. Computer memory is dirt cheap, speaking historically. This trend of more computer power and more memory shows no signs of abating soon. Could it eventually reach the tipping point where machines are sentient and self-reproducing? Would they then remove the “scourge” of humans from the Earth’s surface? Might the end be less dramatic in that they would render people superfluous? Imagine a world in which all work, including creative work, is done by machines. Who needs Beethoven when you have the Ultra-Composer Mark IV?

This entire discussion circles around to defining machine intelligence and estimating exactly how smart machines might become. Right off the bat, understand that intelligence, as we commonly understand it, has not been seen in machines yet. No one truly knows if it ever will be. To comprehend why, you must have a feeling for the nature of computers and computing.  Continue reading

The Future of Tablets — and More

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Recent news of a drop in iPad sales1 by Apple triggered some thoughts. Reporting that educational sales of iPads are still on the rise prompted more thinking. Then, I found that some of our customers had a very interesting response to our queries about this area.

We deliver our software as HTML5, making updates unnecessary and allowing for the software to run on any platform: iPad, iPhone, Android device, Chromebook, MacBook, MS Surface, Linux desktop, etc. We can readily convert the software to an iOS app and to an Android app. The question we asked is, “Should we?” The answer, at least from schools, was as resounding “No!”

ipad oct2014

Making predictions is a very risky business, if you care about your credibility. I am going out on a very long limb by making two predictions for the future. Any number of new developments can make these predictions wildly inaccurate or could cement their certainty.

The first prediction is that iPads will continue the decline in sales and eventually level off. There will be some bumps in this path, of course, but the overall process is one of stagnation at best. The article gives some reasons. For example, people are not upgrading their old iPads as quickly as Apple had anticipated. An iPad is not an iPhone and does not engender the mass hysteria with respect to new versions that you see with such a constantly visible status symbol as your cell phone.

Those tablets also don’t have as many preferred uses as many had predicted. Most who can afford an iPad also have a “real” computer that they use for power applications such as word processing. The tablet is mostly used for videos, music, email, texting (when not using the cell phone for that), and so on. In brief, tablets are not supplanting computers in large numbers. Given a computer and a cell phone, with screen size growing apace, the tablet is the “middle child” and is unnecessary to everyday functioning. It’s too large to carry in your pocket and too small for many serious uses.

The above is not to suggest that tablets will vanish, only that they will settle into a niche market until someone radically changes the interface. The touchscreen is magic for young children and some applications. My grandchildren took to them like kids to candy, even at ages 3 and 5. Still, a touchscreen interface can only take you so far. Adding three-finger gestures really doesn’t make it that exciting. The problems lie in two primary areas: screen size and computing power (CPU and memory). The apps for them have been designed to use what’s available.  Continue reading

Global Literacy XPRIZE Invites Comments

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

On Monday, September 22, the XPRIZE Foundation announced the Global Literacy XPRIZE in New York City. This newest XPRIZE may, in some ways, be more ambitious than the previously announced $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE. It seeks to bring literacy to more than 300 million children who cannot read, write, or do arithmetic.

The XPRIZE Foundation, in the last part of its proposed rules, says, “At XPRIZE, we don’t believe that we have all the answers, but we believe passionately in inspiring and incentivizing people to find solutions to our Grand Challenges… But we want to hear from you… You can email us your feedback at global.learning@xprize.org…” This article summarizes my comments and should stimulate readers to provide theirs. If you have comments for the XPRIZE Foundation, please leave a reply here, in the discussion at the end of this article, for all of our readers to see. Likewise, should you have remarks about my comments, I would love to hear from you. The following comments are my own opinions informed by my own experiences. A good argument may well persuade me to change them. In any event, I look forward to an excellent discussion.


Quickly summarizing the competition: Teams will compete to develop software solutions to learning literacy that can be applied worldwide using Android tablets with nearby servers. Literacy includes reading, writing, and numeracy. The language to be learned will be English. The software will be open source. The software and content, ready for trial in the real world, must be completed within 18 months of selection of the finalists. The overall time frame from announcement to final award is 4-1/2 years. Read the official guidelines for all details.

I’ll begin by praising the XPRIZE Foundation for this bold effort to eliminate illiteracy across the entire globe. Education may well be our most serious problem today because a well educated world (really educated and not just schooled) will address all of our other problems such as clean water, climate change, terrorism, poor nutrition, preventable disease, ocean health, renewable resources, and so on. The Foundation is approaching problems that others ignore or give up on but that must be solved. Their competitions to date have energized entrepreneurs and those with entrepreneurial spirit to attack serious, nearly intractable problems. The technologies being developed are likely to have an impact far removed from the competition in which they are created.

I think that the “Proposed Guidelines, V.1” for this Global Literacy XPRIZE competition, have a number of controversial parts and am highlighting the ones that I believe should be altered. While the comments below are intended to be constructive, they are also definite, blunt, and tough. I feel that they should be if they are to get any attention. The controversial parts I see are: open source, teaching English, writing, and the Android platform. I wrap up with two comments: a contrarian view and literacy as fire.


The rules require that the five finalists, each of whom receives $1 million dollars and a chance at the $10 million grand prize, place their software source code in open source. This requirement is unusual in XPRIZE competitions. I think that it creates problems. Here is what the guidelines say:

An essential component of the Competition design is a commitment not only to open source software solutions, but also to an open source development process. In order to maximize the potential for the growth of this solution beyond XPRIZE, the Finalist Entries will be released under permissive licenses allowing both commercial and non-commercial use.

Software must be released on the Apache License, 2.0. Content and assets must be licensed under the Creative Commons CC BY (4.0) license. In essence, all work must be made available to anyone anywhere for free. Anyone can use the sources to build a copy and load it onto tablets without paying any fee at all.  Continue reading

Seven Fallacies of Teaching Programming in K-12

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[See Harry’s related articles: Is Building Apps for Everyone?, Need More Software Engineers? Teach Thinking Skills Better, and  ‘Computer Science’ Contains Little or No Science. -Editor]

Many educators seem to be promoting the benefits and even the necessities of teaching computer science courses before high school graduation. I have not seen any of these people suggest which courses to eliminate to make room for this new course. Despite this, many suggest that computer science (mostly translates to computer programming) be a required subject.

I have seen some say that writing software should begin in kindergarten. Others decry its absence from middle schools. Finally, quite a few lobby for adding it to high school curricula. As you might expect, the origin of each is from practitioners in each. Exposure to the basic concepts of computers, what you might call the “nature of computing,” is a good idea, but the rising din of voices telling us to add computer programming classes throughout our public education system should be tempered by reality.

Much of the pressure comes from just a few arguments and assumptions. Most of these are fallacies. I list some below and explain them.

1. There is a huge job shortage and high demand for computer programmers.

This may be the most recurrent theme for those promoting computer programming in schools. There are two problems with this argument. Large businesses, the ones making the most noise, are inflating their numbers to further this bit of misinformation. Also, the numbers do not indicate the level of programming skill required for these jobs.

The reason for the inflation is simple: H1-B visas. By importing computer programmers from other countries, these huge companies can keep costs down in two ways. They pay those H1-B programmers very low wages. You’ll find the workers sharing small two-bedroom houses with as many as ten people in them. Secondly, low wages for the immigrants help to keep wages of our citizens low as well.  Continue reading