Searching for a new driver for CS Education

September 20, 2009 at 7:35 pm 5 comments

The last couple of posts in this blog have generated some wonderful response posts.

  • Alfred Thompson wrote a post about what leads to change in computing education. He makes some intriguing predictions about the future of computing education at the end of his post. (The tie to databases got me thinking.)  He agrees with me that, historically, the innovations which have taken root have grown from well-known institutions.  What I found most interesting was the back-and-forth Alfred sees (from his current post at Microsoft) between industry and academic influences on the tools of choice.
  • Leigh Ann Sudol wrote a response to Alfred which reflected her frustration with the where the influences are coming from. I strongly agree with her greater goal: “We need to stop arguing about language, tools, etc. and decide what it means for the AVERAGE American to be literate in computing.” She concludes with the economic concerns she sees which limit computer science in secondary education.
  • Ian Bogost’s post is in line with Leigh Ann’s, in that he decries the influences on computing education, but he goes further to see it as indicative of an illness within computer science overall. “[O]verall, computing simply doesn’t care about the development of its ideas. It fantasizes itself as a scientific or an engineering discipline, but throws the baby out with the bathwater (even the purest of sciences acknowledges that its ideas arise from the complex flows of history).”  Ian wants computing educators to engage in learning methods that recognize computing as a liberal art (an argument I agree with, and have also made, though not nearly as eloquently).

All three of these posts are, in a sense, complaining about what is driving computing education.  I wrote my original post as a reflection on what has driven change in the past — purely an historical analysis.  The response we’re reading here is, “But that’s not what should drive change in how and what we teach.” Are these influences unique to computer science?  Leigh Ann and Ian call on Biology and Mathematics, respectively, as offering alternative models.  Computing may be more driven by industry than some other fields, but I suspect that these drivers are broader than just computer science.

How do we change what influences our practice?  I’m a fan of Larry Cuban’s work, particularly, “How Scholars Trumped Teachers.”  Cuban analyzes the last 100 years of American Universities and concludes that research wins over teaching.  American universities are set-up so that research and all that goes with it (e.g., focus on funding, publication, and creation of intellectual property) will always dominate attention to education.  Change is possible, but we may have to change our underlying assumptions about what the American University is and what it means, and then change the structure to match the new beliefs.

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What changes CS Education? Critical thinking? You need knowledge – The Boston Globe

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian Bogost  |  September 20, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Thanks for linking to the PPT, Mark. That Perlis piece is a classic.

    One comment: the Paul Lockhart piece on mathematics education that I link seems to suggest that the situation is just as broken there, not necessarily that it offers an alternative model (although Lockhart does offer a set of suggestions, which I did appreciate). Also, we might do well to remind ourselves that secondary school liberal arts education *itself* is near broken in the US too, so there is a greater soup of problems in which we find the particular hair of computing.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 20, 2009 at 9:12 pm

      Agreed, Ian — you only mention mathematics, you don’t say that it offers any answers. I shouldn’t have implied otherwise.

      I have a bunch of mathematics education history books sitting on my shelves, taunting me. Mathematics education is probably the oldest of the domain-specific education sub-disciplines, and as such, is the first to take the history of itself seriously. I’m really curious as to how mathematics has dealt with the problems we’re facing in CS. For example, how did we end up teaching calculus, when discrete mathematics is so much more relevant for most people’s daily lives?

      • 3. Ian Bogost  |  September 20, 2009 at 9:53 pm

        I’d love to know these answers too. If the Lockhart piece is any indication, there’s plenty of gnashing of teeth there too. As someone mentioned in a Facebook comment to my post, CS and math have always been closely related, so there may be some strong corollaries.

  • 4. Alfred Thompson  |  September 21, 2009 at 1:26 am

    Thanks for linking to me. And if something I wrote made you think that’s great since so much of what you write keeps me up at night deep in thought. Like right now actually. 🙂

    It seems to me that two of the biggest issues in computer science are concurrency and dealing with massive data sets. Concurrency is critical if we are going to keep up with hardware developments of course. But this over whelming problem of an explosion of data is going to bury us in different ways. We have made it easier for experts to deal with data by creating tools that are all but impossible for beginners to wrap their heads around. We can introduce very simple concurrency using Alice and a “Do Together” command but how do we introduce dealing with data? That has gotten harder and we seem to have dropped it from most early CS courses. Not only does this mean we are teaching data late but our intro projects are boring and do not expose students to the power of computers. Processing 10 items doesn’t drive home as many concepts as processing 10,000.

  • […] need understand the history of what they’re learning.  We need to figure out what students really need to know, and not just include everything that we once studied.  Thus, that list of stuff to learn does […]


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