Posts tagged ‘image of computer science’
Doug Engelbart, visionary whose inventions led to the modern mouse, hypertext, computer-supported collaborative work, died on July 2 at age 88. Bret Victor wrote a wonderful piece about how statements about Doug’s inventions (like I just made) miss the point about what he was really trying to do. Recommended, and linked below.
If you truly want to understand NLS, you have to forget today. Forget everything you think you know about computers. Forget that you think you know what a computer is. Go back to 1962. And then read his intent.
The least important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What did he build?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to admire him, to stand in awe of his achievements, to worship him as a hero. But worship isn’t useful to anyone. Not you, not him.
The most important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What world was he trying to create?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to create that world yourself.
Would love to be in London on 12 June to hear this debate! The blurb describing the debate does a balanced job of laying out the questions.
“This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT Profession”
‘Universities are failing to educate graduates with the skills we need’ – this is the oft heard complaint by employers of IT graduates. Does the problem start in school with the dire state of ICT teaching and assessment at GCSE and A Level? Should academia be trying to produce graduates with only ‘employable skills’ that have a shelf life of at best a couple of years? Are employers really expecting universities to produce a mature, rounded professional with 20 years experience straight out of university? Is it reasonable to expect Academia to bridge the skills gap when employers are not prepared to provide a robust career path for IT professionals?
Audrey Watters’ excellent post on Learning to Code in 2012 pointed me to Jeff Atwood’s piece (linked at the bottom). I want everyone to learn code, so I am in direct contradiction to his position, “Please don’t learn to Code.” Jeff and I disagree primarily on two points, both of which are issues of definition:
- Most people who write code are not trying to create code solutions. Most people who write code are trying to find solutions or create non-code solutions. By “most people,” I do mean quantitatively and I do mean all people, not just professional programmers. We know that there are many more people who write code to accomplish some task, as compared to professional programmers. When I visited the NASA Goddard Visualization Lab last month, I met the director Horace Mitchell, who told me that everyone there writes code, whether they are computer scientists or not. They write code in order to explore their data and create effects that they couldn’t given existing visualization systems. They are trying to create great visualizations, not great code. They simply throw the code away afterward. This is a critical difference between what Jeff is describing and what I hope to see. We agree that the goal is a solution. I want everyone to have the possibility of using code to create their solution, not to create code as the solution.
- Most people who program are not and don’t want to be software developers. Most of the people that I teach (non-CS majors, high school teachers) have zero interest in becoming programmers. They don’t want to be “addicted to code.” They don’t want a career that requires them to code. They want to use coding for their own ends. Brian Dorn’s graphic designers are a great case in point. Over 80% of those who answered his surveys said “No, I am not a programmer,” but everyone who answered his surveys wrote programs of 100 lines or more. Not everyone who “programs” wants to be known as a “programmer.”
The problem is that we in computer science often have blinders on when it comes to computing — we only see people who relate to code and programming as we do, as people in our peer group and community do. There are many people who code because of what it lets them do, not because they want the resulting code.
“You should be learning to write as little code as possible. Ideally none.” And people who want to do interesting, novel things with computers should just wait until a software developer gets around to understanding what they want and coding it for them? I could not disagree more. That’s like saying that the problem with translating the Bible is that it made all that knowledge accessible to lay people, when they should have just waited for the Church to explain it to them. “Please don’t learn to code” can be interpreted as “Please leave the power of computing to us, and we’ll let you know when we’ll make some available to you.”
It assumes that more code in the world is an inherently desirable thing. In my thirty year career as a programmer, I have found this … not to be the case. Should you learn to write code? No, I can’t get behind that. You should be learning to write as little code as possible. Ideally none.
It assumes that coding is the goal. Software developers tend to be software addicts who think their job is to write code. But it’s not. Their job is to solve problems. Don’t celebrate the creation of code, celebrate the creation of solutions. We have way too many coders addicted to doing just one more line of code already.
Following the announced restructuring of the University of Florida CS program and this classic quote about how Yale shouldn’t be in the business of teaching “trade skills” (meaning, applied software engineering), I’m going to argue that more (not all, but more) academic computer science programs should be shut down or reorganized.
That’s an interesting claim. Unfortunately, the argument isn’t very convincing..
1. Most undergraduates and professionals actually want to learn applied software engineering, not “computer science.” So? That’s not all that industry most wants to hire. That’s not what society most needs.
2. University undergraduates are not discriminating consumers of education. Agreed, which again gets back to why we would care (in Step #1) that that’s what undergraduates think that they want.
3. It should not be necessary for two universities located within commuting distance of each other to have the same academic department. I guess it depends on how large you can make the classrooms and how effective the teachers are at motivating large groups of students to reach completion. Part of the growth of universities has been spurred on by increased demand. I’m not sure how this statement fits into the overall argument.
4. Applied software engineering is a discipline that lends itself to being effectively taught online. Definitely an intriguing claim, but I’m not sure that I agree. Really good software engineering is a design activity, which is best learned in a reflective apprenticeship setting — the kind of high-bandwidth communication that we can’t do yet well on-line. Further, online learning is still hard to do with multiple modalities (yes, you can watch a video, but you can’t read the screen well; and the tools to provide audio narration for clearly-readable code are still developing), and there’s evidence to believe that multiple modalities are key to learning to read code well.
5. Most university computer courses simply aren’t that good if your goal is to get a job doing applied software engineering. I might be willing to agree here, but it’s not clear (a) that we should be teaching only applied software engineering in universities, (b) that students most need applied software engineering, and (c) that it’s not better for everyone (industry, society, students) to aim to teach CS better.
6. University academic departments in general should have limited charters and should be reorganized frequently. That’s another interesting claim, and one I might support, but still doesn’t seem connected to the argument that University CS departments should be shut down.
Mike Hewner may be the most technically adept student with whom I’ve worked — he’s a former Senior Software Engineer from Amazon. He’s written probably the most intensely qualitative dissertation of any student with whom I’ve worked. Mike used a grounded theory approach with 37 interviews. The amount of analysis and coding he did is staggering.
His question is one that impacts all computer science teachers. We know (from lots of sources) that students don’t really understand computer science. Mike set out to document how students’ misunderstandings lead them astray in their CS undergraduate degree program, e.g., avoiding some classes because they misunderstood what they were about, or pursuing some specialization because they thought it was something that it really wasn’t. The surprising result was that he didn’t really find evidence of that. Instead, students simply trusted the curriculum — they didn’t know what was coming, but they didn’t worry about it.
As I learned from Mike’s process, grounded theory results in a “theory,” i.e. a description of a mechanism. Mike’s theory describes how students make educational decisions. His theory tells us that factors that shouldn’t really matter (like whether the intro course is at 8 am) do impact decisions like whether to pursue CS as a major. I’ll give away Mike’s punchline: Students use “enjoyment” to decide if they have an affinity for a subject. They turn the question “Should I be a CS major? Am I good at it?” into “Did I enjoy my CS class? Did I enjoy another class more?” They don’t really distinguish between “I have a hard time understanding functions” and “The class was at 8 am” or “That was a lousy teacher.” Not enjoyment means no affinity, which means look for something else. Once students decide that they have an affinity for something, they do develop a more goal-based decision making process — they’ll stick through the hard classes, because it helps them achieve the goal of the degree that they’ve decided that they have an affinity for.
Mike is defending on Friday — I’m really looking forward to it. I heard the practice talk Tuesday and was impressed. Assuming all goes well, Mike will be joining Rose-Hulman in the Spring.
Title: Student Conceptions About the Field of Computer ScienceMichael HewnerHuman-Centered ComputingSchool of Interactive ComputingCollege of ComputingGeorgia Institute of TechnologyDate: Friday, November 2, 2012Time: 1:00-4:00pmLocation: TSRB 132Committee:————-Prof. Mark Guzdial (Advisor, College of Computing, Georgia Instituteof Technology)Prof. Amy Bruckman (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology)Prof. Keith Edwards (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology)Prof. Ellen Zegura (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology)Prof. Yasmin Kafai (School of Graduate Education, University of Pennsylvania)Abstract:————-Computer Science is a complex field, and even experts do not alwaysagree how the field should be defined. Though a moderate amount isknown about how precollege students think about the field of CS, lessis known about how CS majors’ conceptions of the field develop duringthe undergraduate curriculum. Given the difficulty of understandingCS, how do students make educational decisions like what electives orspecializations to pursue?This work presents a theory of student conceptions of CS, based on 37interviews with students and student advisers and analyzed with agrounded theory approach. Students tend to have one of three mainviews about CS: CS as an academic discipline focused on themathematical study of algorithms, CS as mostly about programming butalso incorporating supporting subfields, and CS as a broad disciplinewith many different (programming and non-programming) subfields. Ihave also developed and piloted a survey instrument to determine howprevalent each kind of conception in the undergraduate population.I also present a theory of student educational decisions in CS.Students do not usually have specific educational goals in CS andinstead take an exploratory approach to their classes. Particularlyenjoyable or unenjoyable classes cause them to narrow theireducational focus. As a result, students do not reason very deeplyabout the CS content of their classes when they make educationaldecisions.This work makes three main contributions: the theory of studentconceptions, the theory of student educational decisions, and thepreliminary survey instrument for evaluating student conceptions.This work has applications in CS curriculum design as well as forfuture research in the CS education community.
The NCWIT Aspirations Awards have highlighted the achievements of high school women aiming for computing careers. Last night, NCWIT started a new award, the Pioneer Award, given to women who paved the way for others in computing.
The awardees were Patricia Palumbo (left in picture) and Lucy Simon Rakov (right), who were both programmers on the Project Mercury Team. I loved their talks, not just for what they did on Project Mercury, but what they did the rest of their lives.
Patricia graduated with a mathematics degree from Barnard College, one of only two women. She was recruited by IBM and worked on the re-entry phase. I loved her story of what she did after that. She earned her Master’s degree in piano, and did work in computer music composition and image processing (Media Computation!). She has retired from computing, but still teaches piano and records in her home studio. She said that mathematics and music have always been her passions, and she saw the computer as “a general purpose tool” that could help any pursuit, any occupation, including music.
Lucy was on a team at IBM of 100 mathematicians, 10 of whom were women. They were among the programmers building the first real-time control system. She worked on the launch sequence, and in particular, worked on importing live radar data into the orbit computations. After IBM, she ran her own business, Lucy Systems Inc. (LSI) for 27 years. She encouraged the audience to follow their passions. She said that, when she’s doing mathematics and computing, she’s in “flow” and loses track of time. She told us to find those kinds of jobs.
We’ve talked here before about the issues of culture that drive women from computing. Here were two women who got into computing before the culture we know today was established, and they were driven by what the computer could do, and what they could do with a computer. That’s what we need to convey, in order to draw more diverse people into computing.
We’ve had Jesse Heines of U. Massachusetts at Lowell visiting with us for the last couple weeks. He gave a GVU Brown Bag talk on Thursday about his Performamatics project — which has an article in this month’s IEEE Computer! Jesse has been teaching a cross-disciplinary course on computational thinking, where he team teaches with a music teacher. Students work in Scratch to explore real music and real computing. For example, they start out inventing musical notations for “found” instruments (like zipping and unzipping a coat), and talk about the kinds of notations we invent in computer science. I particularly enjoyed this video of the music teacher, Alex Ruthmann, performing an etude through live coding.
Jesse and I talked afterward: Where does this go from here? Where could Performamatics have its greatest impact? We talked about how these music examples could be used in introductory computing courses (CS1 and CS2), but that’s not what’s most exciting. Is the greatest potential impact of computing education creating more CS majors, creating more developers? Developers do have a lot of impact, because they build the software that fuels our world (or maybe, that eats our world). But developers don’t have a monopoly on impact.
I argued that the greatest impact for computing educators is on the non-majors and their attitudes about computing. I showed him some quotes that Brian Dorn collected in his ICER 2010 paper about adult graphics designers (who have similar educational backgrounds and interests to Jesse’s non-majors) on their attitudes about computer scientists:
P2: I went to a meeting for some kind of programmers, something or other. And they were OLD, and they were nerdy, and they were boring! And I’m like, this is not my personality. Like I can’t work with people like that. And they worked at like IBM, or places like that. They’ve been doing, they were working with Pascal. And I didn’t…I couldn’t see myself in that lifestyle for that long.
P5: I don’t know a whole ton of programmers, but the ones I know, they enjoy seeing them type up all these numbers and stuff and what it makes things do. Um, whereas I just do it, to get it done and to get paid. To be honest. The design aspect is what really interests me a lot more.
These are adults, perhaps not much different than your state or federal legislators, your school administrators, or even your CEO. Brian’s participants are adults who don’t think much of computer scientists and what they do. There are a lot of adults in the world who don’t think much of computer scientists, despite all evidence of the value of computing and computing professionals in our world.
Will Jesse’s students think the same things about computer scientists 5 years after his course? 10 years later? Or will they have new, better-informed views about computer science and computer scientists? The 2005 paper by Scaffidi, Shaw, and Myers predicted 3 million professional software developers in the US by 2012, and 13 million professionals who program but aren’t software developers. That’s a lot of people programming without seeing themselves as computer scientists or developers. Would even more program if they weren’t predisposed to think that computer science is so uninteresting?
That’s where I think the greatest impact of work like Performamatics might be — in changing the attitudes of the everyday citizens, improving their technical literacy, giving them greater understanding of the computing that permeates their lives, and keeping them open to the possibility that they might be part of that 13 million that needs to use programming in their careers. There will only be so many people who get CS degrees. There will be lots of others who will have attitudes about computing that will influence everything from federal investments to school board policies. It’s a large and important impact to influence those attitudes.