“Who do I have to fight now?”: CS != Apps++

January 28, 2010 at 9:33 am 11 comments

Our high school daughter came home last night with her Sophomore year course elections form.  She’s considering taking Computing in the Modern World, Georgia’s version of the similar course in the ACM Model K-12 Curriculum.  She might take Beginning Programming at some point, but she’ll need the pre-requisite…which is listed on the form as the course in “Computer Applications.”  Which is WRONG! Barb, who helped write the state standards, knows that Beginning Programming should require Computing in the Modern World. Barb’s comment was, “Who do I have to fight now!?!

The notion that computer science is just beefed up applications (CS == Apss++) is prevalent in high schools.  Lijun Ni, my student studying high school CS teachers finds it all the time.  “Oh, I’m a computer science teacher!  It’s important for students to go beyond computer applications into real computer science!”  That’s a true sentiment, but there doesn’t have to be a connection between applications and CS.  You can be a great computer scientist and not be able to figure out Word or Excel.  Last time I spoke to Jane Margolis, she was facing it in in her new pre-AP course in the LA Unified School District.  She said that the teachers complain, “How can they learn computer science when they have weak keyboarding skills?  We’ll have to do two weeks of keyboarding first.”

Is the problem that computing has been too successful?  That you can do so much with applications, that it’s considered the fundamentals, the base of all of computing?  Or is that teachers do not understand computer science as a real, academic, rigorous subject?  Or is that high school leaders don’t understand computer science at all?  I suspect that we have a chicken-and-the-egg problem.  How do we get real computer science valued in schools when the people making the decisions don’t understand computer science?

With all the excitement over “apps” on the new iPad, maybe now is the time to push: CS != Apps++

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

How do we get more, without sacrificing good, while measuring it? School district adds CS as high school requirement

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian Bogost  |  January 28, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Mark, what does the Computer Applications course entail? I think in your eagerness to vent you forgot to tell us :)… is it really just “how to use Word?”

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 28, 2010 at 2:45 pm

      Sorry, Ian. Computer Applications is basically “how to use Microsoft Office.” One of the learning objectives is “Learn to build and present a PowerPoint slide show.” These are fine things to learn and know. They simply are not pre-requisite to knowledge of Computer Science.

      • 3. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 28, 2010 at 4:35 pm

        Please don’t teach our children PowerPoint. It has caused enough damage as it is.

  • 4. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 28, 2010 at 11:24 am

    This is, more or less, the same problem as CS being conflated with IT. To the average man-on-the-street, we’re “computer people,” and “computer people” are, for the most part, self identifying. The only extrinsic trait that “non-computer people” check is that the person seems very comfortable with computers.

    That being said, we already know that real, rigorous, academic computer scientists can’t really agree on what computer science is, either. So perhaps we should start at the root of the problem.

  • 5. Frank McCown  |  January 28, 2010 at 11:58 am

    You have to admit that having a basic knowledge of how various applications work is very helpful to someone learning how to write computer applications. And students that can’t type are seriously hindered when the keyboard is the primary instrument used to write programs.

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  January 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm

      Frank, “computer science” is not about writing applications or even using a keyboard. I can teach CS with Alice, Scratch, and Etoys, none of which involve writing applications and mostly involve drag-and-drop with the mouse. “Software development” is certainly helped by understanding applications and being able to type. But “computer science” isn’t about “software development.” Erik’s point is well-taken — not having a definition hurts us here.

      • 7. Frank McCown  |  January 28, 2010 at 4:41 pm

        I agree that fundamentally CS isn’t about apps or using a keyboard. I certainly don’t think being proficient in MS Word or another app is a prerequisite. What I’m suggesting is that familiarity with a computer’s interface (mouse, keyboard, etc) and the applications that it runs provide some context that could make understanding CS fundamentals a little easier.

        I have little experience with teaching CS to K-12 students, so take my comments with a grain of salt. But from my experience at the university level, students that have had little exposure to computers struggle much more than their computer literate peers in an intro to programming course. Of course this could be due to underlying assumptions I make about my students’ background.

  • 8. Garth  |  January 28, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Erik brings up a very good point, define CS. I am the computer guy at a small (200) high school. I maintain the network, I teach programming (VB, Small Basic, C#), I trouble shoot the school management software, I install new software and help people read the manual, I fix computers and I sometimes teach a computer tech course (sort of an A+ course). I consider myself a computer scientist because I can do a half way decent job at all of this. Is a hardware geek a computer scientist? Not really. Is a pure programmer a computer scientist? Maybe a weak one. Is an expert at Photoshop a computer scientist? Not even. But in my opinion a good computer scientist needs to have enough knowledge to be able to manage (or learn in a hurry) any situation that involves using a computer. They may have an area of emphasis but when someone asks for their computer’s IP address they should not go “Huh?” I often see Programming == CS. I have to strongly disagree. That would be like someone with a history degree only knowing 4th century Rome.

  • 9. Cameron Fadjo  |  February 2, 2010 at 12:34 am

    What appeals to me most about this discussion is not that there is a disparity between pre-requisite and course but that the pre-requisite exists at all. From my five years of teaching (two in a public middle school and three at a private graduate school), I have come to find that a traditional mathematics pre-requisite is not necessary to learn fundamental programming concepts. With regards to the post, the pre-requisite of an ‘applications’ course is more an indication of the chasm between curriculum planner and educator than anything else. What this really says is that “computer people” all possess the same skills and that, to become ‘better’ at computers, it is important to learn productivity apps before becoming creative and inventive with the inner workings of the ‘mysterious black box’.

    That being said, I firmly believe pre-requisites constrain more than embolden and programming should be taught to whomever wishes to learn how to program. As the teachers of Alice, eToys, and Scratch (myself included) will tell you there is no reason an elementary school student cannot learn programming basics without the necessary ‘requisite’ coursework. As a researcher, I have yet to find that a pre-requisite is necessary for learning programming. Frank brings up a good point when he states that less exposure results in a greater struggle. Rather than say the exposure can only come in the form of learning how to make a PowerPoint slideshow, the curriculum should encourage both creative and engaging forms of academic enrichment. Once there is a relatively universal definition for CS, we can expand points of entry beyond the traditional ‘pre-requisite’ route.

  • […] Ian and I have been exchanging email about this, and he reports that he is getting a lot of comments along the line: “I don’t have to know how my car works.  Why should I have to know how my computer works?“ […]

  • […] is missing. Many teachers whom Lijun has interviewed see Computer Science as “Apps++” or as “Applied Math.”  She uses her computing background to understand the […]


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