La plus ca change: It’s the goals not the data
College semesters are starting all over the country, and I’m starting to hear from teachers with whom I have worked in the past on Media Computation. I’m learning how many of them are backing down or giving up on Media Computation. (By “Media Computation” here, I meant the general notion of using media to motivate and engage the learner, not necessarily our tools or our books.)
- At one school, a CS1 faculty member has gone back to an introduction to algorithms and the language, before using Media Computation. Manipulation of media will appear in only some of the assignments, with no sharing of student products. He doesn’t like that he has to use special libraries and tools to access the media. Top goals for him: Students should know the release as it comes out of the box, and should know all of the language.
- At another school, the CS1 teacher has decided not to do any media at all. He’s using the beta of his language of choice in his classroom, and the media supports haven’t been ported to the new version yet. Top goal for him: Students should know the latest, cutting edge version.
- Another teacher is reducing the amount of media in the data structures class. There’s no question that the majority of the class is motivated and engaged by the media context. It’s that the top students don’t want it, and they complain to him. The undergraduate teaching assistants for the class all took the class in the past and did really well — and they don’t like the media either. They want the data structures, pure and unadulterated. Top goal for him: Make the best students as good as they can possibly be, giving them more challenging content and keeping them happy.
- At one institution, they are stopping using media computation entirely. The CS1 teacher is simply uncomfortable talking about media — he doesn’t know the content, and he doesn’t personally like it or find it engaging. At that school, they had withdrawal-or-failure rates around 50%, which dropped to around 25% with media computation, and now are rising again. Women are leaving the class or failing more than the men. He’s okay with that, because he trusts that the students he graduates are ready to go on. Top goal for him: Do the things that he can get excited about, and produce the best possible students.
None of the teachers I have heard from are saying that our studies are wrong. Media Computation, across multiple schools, does lead to improved success rates and broader participation in computing — women and members of under-represented groups succeed as well as white or Asian males. These teachers are simply deciding that success rates and broadening participation is not their most important priority. They are concerned about training the best students, about teaching the latest technology, about preparing students to use the industry standard languages, and about maintaining their own interest in the classroom. It’s not about the data. It’s about the goals.
Let’s assume for the moment that these teachers are representative of most higher-education computing teachers. They’re not of course — these are the teachers who have been willing to try something new. They are more innovative and engaged than most. If these are the issues that higher-education computing teachers are struggling with, the real battle for NCWIT and BPC (Broadening Participation in Computing), then, is not to create more best practices or to generate evidence about these best practices. The real battle is for the hearts and minds of these teachers, to convince them that getting a broad range of students engaged with computing is important. It’s not about media computation — it’s about deciding priorities.
Of course, in a perfect world, we would achieve all these goals: Top students would be challenged, the majority of the students would be supported, the latest technology would be taught, students would learn how to use the languages in common practice, and a broad range of students would work in contexts that they find engaging and motivating. And in a perfect world, all students have personal tutors. Unfortunately, we have to make trade-offs because of economic realities. For example, there are more developers creating new features in new tools, than there are developers making sure that contexts like media work in the new tools. The top students want something different than the less-engaged students, and we can’t afford two classes. Choices have to be made.
La plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more things change, the more things stay the same. That’s a statement about inertia, but what’s interesting to me is why there is inertia. Why do people go back to what they used to do? Because it worked. Because it met the goals and needs that had been priorities in the past. Getting people to have new priorities — now that’s a challenge. New priorities will lead to new practices. Media computation is a new practice, but adopting the new practice doesn’t change the priorities.