The Economics of Computing Education

July 21, 2009 at 5:41 pm 4 comments

Economics is a fascinating field.  It’s psychology-of-masses, a form of psychological engineering, and the closest thing we have to Hari Selden’s psychohistory (from Asimov’s Foundation series).  It’s a study of how people make choices in order to maximize their benefit, their utility.  It is not only about money–money is just a way of measuring value, about some common sense of the potential of some consumable for providing utility.  I’ve been reading more economics this summer, and that’s got me thinking about what economic theory might have to say about computing education.

Students, especially in undergraduate education, are clearly economic decision makers.  They choose their classes.  That isn’t to say that they are our customers whose wants we must meet.  It means that we provide consumables (classes) under various rule sets, and the students seek to maximize their benefit.

What students want from higher education (that is, what utility the classes are meant to provide) these days isn’t in much doubt.  Most studies of higher education that I’ve read suggest that a big change occurred in the 1970’s, and that since then, over 90% of incoming students in higher education are attending higher education in order to get a better job and improve their socioeconomic class. There is some evidence that suggests that students, by the time they are in their fourth year, they value education for its own sake more.  Students in their first years, on the whole, make choices based on their job prospects.

We’ve talked in this blog about why a student should study computer science.  One argument is because of the value of computing as a field and the insights that it provides.  Smart students will probably recognize that learning computing for those reasons will result in greater utility over the long run.  How do we get students to see value, to receive benefit from what we know will help them more in the long run?  Is it possible to teach students new and better utility functions?  Can we help students to realize the greater utility of valuing knowledge, even from their first years in higher education?  That’s an interesting question that I have not seen any data on.

What if we simply say, “This is the way it is.  I’m teaching you this because it will be the best for you in the long run”?  Paul Romer’s work on rule sets has been describing how the rules in effect in a country or a company can encourage or discourage innovation, and encourage or discourage immigration and recruitment. He would point out that higher education is now a competitive market, and deciding to teach for what the students should value is creating a set of rules.  Students who don’t value those rules will go elsewhere.  Those students who say will probably succeed more, but the feedback loop that informs us in higher education that we’re doing the right thing doesn’t currently exist.  Instead, we simply have lower enrollments and less tuition–not the right feedback.

It’s that last part, about the feedback on teaching, that I have been specifically thinking about in economic terms.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating New Yorker piece last December about the enormous value of having a good teacher.  What makes for a good teacher?  Maybe those who create effective rule sets, who create incentives for student success?  What provides utility for teachers?  How do we make sure that teachers receive utility for good teaching?

How do we recognize and reward success in teaching?  I listened to a podcast of a lecture by William Wulf who points out how badly we teach in engineering education.  In economic terms, that’s not surprising. I don’t know of research into what university teachers value in terms of teaching. What is the utility function for a higher-education teacher, a faculty member?  Job prospects and tenure are based on publication, not teaching, at least in research universities.  When we do evaluate teaching, how do we do it?

  • By measuring learning?  We’ve already pointed out in this blog how very hard it is to do that right.  Teachers use examinations and other forms of assessment.  Are they measuring the right things?  The research that I’ve seen suggests that grades are only rough measures of learning.  If we were going to measure learning as a way of rewarding faculty to incentivize better teaching, we need some external measure of learning apart from grades, and we need that measurement to be meaningful — that it reflects what we really value in student learning.
  • By measuring student pass rates?  Wulf might say, “If only!”  He points out that correcting our 50% dropout rate in engineering (and computing!) education would alone dramatically improve our enrollment numbers.  Would we be dumbing down our education offerings?  Honestly, how would we know (see previous bullet)?
  • Instead, we most often just ask the students.  “Was this a good class? Was this teacher a good teacher?”  This gets back to student as consumer, which is a step beyond decision maker.  Are they the right ones to make this determination?  Is the end of the class the right time for a student to be able to evaluate if the class was worthwhile?

Higher education teaching will probably improve once we figure out how to give reasonable feedback on teaching quality which could then impact teachers’ perception of benefit or utility.  As Gladwell and Wulf point out, getting it right would have a dramatic improvement on student quality and enrollment.

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Correction and Update on APCS enrollment Trust me! I’m a Computer Science Teacher!

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Hewner  |  July 22, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    > How do we get students to see value, to receive benefit
    > from what we know will help them more in the long run? Is it
    > possible to teach students new and better utility functions?

    This is a subtle question. Many teachers think that they know what will help students more on the long run, but any student who’s willing to abdicate this responsibility to a teacher is a sucker. Luckily, I think we see fewer of these students in college than you might expect because they’ve all been convinced it’s in their best interest to get on the management track at their local burger king.

    This is not to say that a smart person does not sometimes go against their own intuitions in deference to someone who knows more – Alan’s recent discussions about music camp come to mind for example.

    II suspect the key is credibility, which is surely difficult to establish. It’s all well and good if you can hear someone play and know they are better than you…but what if you don’t know enough music to be able to tell? You have to rely on external information – is this person a famous musician? What’s his score in guitar hero? People use stupid stuff. But hardly any less informative than simply knowing that this person is a university professor.

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  July 23, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Good questions and fruitful perspectives.

    I think the tension is much more between the *really* dubious notion that students know what is best for them before they learn anything, and the *somewhat* dubious notion that a teacher might have a better slant on this.

    That the latter often fails badly is one measure of the failure of education in general.

    One thing a student can do about a subject whose content they don’t understand very well is to learn the metaskill of how to find the credible sources for such questions, and then use them to help home in on a strategy.

    The worst tactic is still for the unknowledgeable to try to make their own decisions based on essentially no foundation.



  • 3. Jeff Graham  |  July 28, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    When you figure out that bit on how to determine what constitutes good teaching, will you let me know?

    I think I need to copy that post and paste it on my office door!

  • 4. Beat the book, not the teacher « Computing Education Blog  |  December 14, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    […] and offers opportunities for practice — and at a low cost for producing the material?  The economics do matter.  ITS really do work, but we don’t use them more, most probably because of the cost of […]


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