Archive for October 14, 2009

Is CS or Computing a discipline?

Andy Bernat writes:  “A recurring theme at this meeting was the concern that the European scientific research community still does not fully appreciate computing as an intellectually vibrant research discipline in its own right; instead the field is often viewed as an enabler of research in other disciplines.”

via Computing Community Consortium, “A View from the 2009 European Computer Science Summit

October 14, 2009 at 4:05 pm 2 comments

What’s worse: Boredom or failure?

I’m continuing to dig into the literature on design of instruction, informed by cognitive load theory and worked examples research.  One of the analyses that these researchers often perform is to split the subject pool by performance on a pre-test, then look at how the high-scoring (sometimes called “high-ability” and sometimes just called “more knowledge” group) students compared to the low-scoring students.  A good example is Mimi Recker and Pete Pirolli’s paper teaching recursion using a worked example approach.

The results are fairly predictable.  High-ability students tend to prefer more bells-and-whistles, more flexibility, more learner control.  Low-ability students don’t do as well with all the bells-and-whistles, and sometimes just downright fail.  We just read a paper in educational technology this last week about how highly-flexible simulations simply frustrate low-ability students, and another paper about how interesting dynamic visualizations actually impeded learning in the low-ability students. On the other hand, in the less sophisticated, more directed instruction, high-ability students are bored — but importantly, everyone learns.  High-ability students do learn when bored.

As an instructional designer, how do you choose?  Lots of people say, “Don’t choose! Give students a choice!”  I tried that in Emile — low-ability students often choose the environment that they are worse at.  Metacognition is hard.  And it’s really hard for the designer to build in such flexibility.  Thus, designers typically have to choose: Do you bore your best students?  Or do you fail more students?  What’s particularly hard is that this burden is falling on different students — you’re comparing boredom of one group with failure of another.

Of course, squelching student creativity is an awful thing.  It’s also an awful thing to live out life as a high-school or college drop-out.  I think it’s particularly hard because we as teachers (at high-school or college) tend to empathize more with the best students.  We were good students, or we wouldn’t be here now.  We remember what it was like to be bored, to feel like your imagination was being leached away by mindless activity.  We may not have had that experience of flunking out of activities that the smart kids did well at, while we were frustrated and deciding to give up.

What’s better for society, if we were to choose all-discovery (for high-ability) or all-structured (for low-ability)? Choose highly structured instruction, and you bore some students (but still teach them), and decrease your number of drop-outs.  Choose open-ended, exploratory instruction, and you increase the number of drop-outs, but perhaps (it’s a gamble) dramatically inspire your high-ability students and they become great scientists and inventors.  Both are tough choices, somewhat like Pascal’s argument for the belief in God.  What helps society more, to be pretty sure that you’ll have fewer people on the dole, or to have a chance at more great discoveries and inventions?

October 14, 2009 at 10:43 am 13 comments

Computer Science is not Engineering (and it is, too)

Beki Grinter has just written a couple of nice blog posts on a theme that we’ve touched on here, too: What is computer science?  Lots of people are asking this question in various forms. Peter Denning has been answering this question in his CACM column, in December’s Computing’s Paradigm and in September’s Computing: The Fourth Great Domain of Science. I just finished doing my meta-reviewing (50 papers!) for SIGCSE 2010, and I can’t tell you how many people are devising definitions of “computer science” or “computational thinking” these days.

Beki’s posts are particularly striking because it’s very personal for her.  If I described her to you as, “a PhD in CS, who worked at Xerox PARC and Bell Labs,” you’d most likely see her as a “computer scientist.”  Yet, when some people see her publications about things like how mega-churches use technology and about how people use iTunes’ publicly shared playlists to influence others’ perception of them, they have their doubts.

Why?  Does computing have to be about building things?  Can’t it be about analysis and understanding — even of humans in their interactions with computing, not computers?  Of course, there are computer scientists who are engineers!  There are also computer scientists who use their knowledge of computing to learn about something more.

If what Beki does is not “computer science,” then could someone please pull up a new wagon with a new name on it?  I’ll also be ready to get off this one and find a new one.  Because if computer science is just engineering, just inward looking at the machine, and the careful, rigorous, interesting study of everything else associated with computing informed by deep knowledge of computing is “some other field,” then please sign me up for that new field.  Because that’s where the important, world-changing insights are going to come from, and that’s where I want to work.

October 14, 2009 at 10:22 am 1 comment


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