Archive for February, 2010

Equity and Opportunity Threatened by Growing National “Excellence Gap”

The report described in this article is doing something slightly different than measure the gap between majority and minority group students.  This report compares the top whites to the top Hispanics to the top blacks.  They come up with some quantifiable and scary claims.

The report estimates it could take 72 years to close the gap between whites and Hispanics in grade four mathematics; 31 years to close the gap between whites and blacks; and 128 years to close the gap between grade four English Language Learners (ELL) and non-ELL students.

via Equity and Opportunity Threatened by Growing National “Excellence Gap”.

This report is particularly relevant for computing education.  We generally get good students in our classes (e.g., students who make it into our undergraduate CS1 are litely literate).  This report says that, even between good students, the differences between ethnicities, immigrant status, and other majority/minority group affiliations are enormous.

February 16, 2010 at 10:04 am Leave a comment

Cleaving Computer Science: A Time for New Degrees

The former Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, Rich DeMillo, established three schools within the College.  I’m not really sure how he came to decide these three groupings. I am finding them useful for understanding the tensions in defining computer science today (perhaps the “malaise” in Beki’s blog post).

  • The School of Computer Science (SCS) is focused on the traditional definition of computer science.  It looks inward, into improving the computer and how it functions.  Systems, networking, programming languages, theory, and compilers go here. Software engineering goes here, though flavors of it could go elsewhere.
  • The School of Interactive Computing (IC) looks at the boundary between the computer and everything else.  It includes human-computer interaction, learning sciences & technologies, computational journalism, and computing education research (where humans are the “everything else”), and also includes robotics, computational photography, and vision (where “everything else” is literally the world).  Intelligent systems and graphics go here, for using humans as the model for intelligence and form, but versios of each could go elsewhere.
  • The Division (soon to be School) of Computational Science and Engineering (CSE) focuses on the application of computing for advancing science and engineering.  This was the most innovative of the three.  Rich once told me that he wanted this School to provide an academic home for an important field that wasn’t finding one elsewhere.  Computer science departments often don’t tenure computational science researchers because their work may not necessarily invent new computer science, and science departments don’t tenure scientists just for being code monkeys.  This area is too important to leave adrift.

I admit that I’m a man with a hammer.  I see these three groupings at the various colleges and universities I visit, as the three competing images for what is computer science.  SCS faculty have history on their side — their view of computing is roughly what was defined in the computing curricula reports from 1968 onward.  (I do wonder if those early curricular reports may have defined CS for education too soon, before we really knew what would be important as computing evolved.)  IC faculty have modern day relevance on their side — much of the exciting new computing work that gets picked up in the press from this group.  Here in the College of Computing, these sides tussle over the shared ownership of our MS and PhD degrees in computer science.  (We don’t argue so much about the BS in CS because Threads provides enough flexibility to cover a wide range of definitions.)  Do graduate students have to take a course in Systems? In Theory?  Aren’t these “core” to what is Computer Science?  And what is “Computer Science” anyway?  Does (or should) the School of “Computer Science” have a particularly strong say in the matter?

In the latest issue of Communications of the ACM, Dennis Groth and Jeffrey Mackie-Mason argue that we need “informatics” degrees as something separate than a computer science degree.  When they list informatics academic units, they include my IC School.  They define “informatics is a discipline that solves problems through the application of computing or computation, in he context of the domain of the problem.”  That’s close enough to my “computing at the boundary with everything else.”  They are arguing that we can make greater advances in informatics by splitting those degrees off from computer science.

As we tussle over the name and identity of “Computer Science,” I increasingly value Dennis and Jeffrey’s point.  I can see that IC and CS may be different bodies of knowledge.  Computer science students ought to know about RISC processors and assembly language.  Students in IC must understand and be able to use empirical methods, especially social science methods like interviews and surveys (e.g., how to put them together well, how to avoid bias in creating them and evaluating the results).  These methods are necessary to listen to someone else, figure out their problem, and then later, figure out how the technology solves (or at least, impacts) the problem.  When I look at IC-related professionals and researchers, I see few that use knowledge of RISC processors and assembly language in their work.  The empirical, social science methods don’t fit well into CS.  I was on the committee that wrote the ACM/IEEE Computing Curriculum 2008 Update, and in particular, I was in charge of the HCI section.  We had to gut much of what SIGCHI felt was absolutely critical for students to know about working with humans (and which I agreed with) because we simply couldn’t cram more into a CS student’s four years.  IC and CS have a significant overlap, but there is a lot in each that is not in the intersection.

We tussle over these degrees and names because, in part, we fear creating a new name. We worry that students won’t be interested in a degree from computing that’s not named “computer science.”  IC co-owns our BS in Computational Media (about 300 students, ~25% female, placing students at places like Electronic Arts and Pixar) and a PhD in Human-Centered Computing (one of the few PhD programs in a computing school that is over 50% female).  Students are willing to take a gamble, and we’ll draw on a different demographic of students.

I’ve not said much here about CSE yet, but that’s because it’s not big enough to tussle yet.  Recently, I got to interview students and teachers in interdisciplinary computational science classes.  These classes don’t really work for CS (or IC) students.  The computer science being used is too simple for them (so they’re bored while the science students come up to speed), but the science is way harder than they can just jump into.  For CS students to succeed in CSE classes, they need to take a bunch of science classes to understand how real scientists are using scientific computing.  We run into the same problem as squeezing the important parts of HCI into CS — we run out of room.  As CSE grows in numbers and importance, we will eventually find that it doesn’t fit into IC or CS, either.  By separating the fields, we encourage greater research advances through tighter focus, and we create better, clearer opportunities for student learning by removing the unnecessary and spending more time on the necessary.

February 14, 2010 at 4:06 pm 13 comments

AP: More takers and more fails

At the annual College Board news conference, statistics were presented on who is taking AP exams (all types, not just CS) and how the percentage of passing scores is decreasing.

AP Program, 2001-2009

2001 vs. 2009

Percentage of public high school graduating class who took at least one AP course 17% vs. 26%

Number who earned a 1 or 2 (non-passing) 421,013 vs. 1,004,715

Number who earned a 3, 4 or 5 (passing) 653,376 vs. 1,307,287

Passing rate 60.8% vs. 56.5%

via News: AP: More Pass and More Fail – Inside Higher Ed.

February 13, 2010 at 11:51 am 1 comment

Measuring the longterm impact of a teacher

When I was in 5th grade (early 1970’s), growing up in Detroit, my gym teacher taught us to play soccer, which was then a weird foreigner’s game.  It wasn’t commonly taught in the Midwest — my friends at other schools weren’t learning it at the same time.  I loved playing soccer, though. I was never any good, but I looked for opportunities to play.

When my kids were old enough, we’d play little games of soccer.  All three of my kids played local club soccer.  I coached the girls’ teams when they were really young — I said I was willing to coach until they reached the age where they’d keep score, because I knew nothing about being good at soccer.  When we took the family on summer study abroad in England, we played soccer every night on the nice College fields, for hours.  This week, I went to my ninth grader’s first varsity soccer team meeting.  She’s only a freshman, but she’s good enough to play on her high school’s varsity team. My kids like soccer and are pretty good at it.  (Admittedly, I’m biased, and proud. 🙂

I don’t remember much of my fifth grade gym teacher.  I don’t remember her name, and vaguely remember what she looked like.  However, she had an impact on me.  Almost 40 years later, has she had an impact on my children?  If so, it’s an indirect impact. Maybe my kids would have played just as much soccer had that teacher not got me interested in soccer.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that my kids playing soccer was due to my interest in playing soccer, which was due to my 5th grade teacher introducing me to soccer and inculcating a lifelong interest in it.  We would say that that gym teacher was successful.  That is the kind of outcome we hope for elementary school education, to teach children the basics of an area and give them a lifelong interest in that area.

How do you measure that?  How do you reward a teacher now for something that might happen decades down the road?  Could I have been tested in 5th grade for whether or not I had that kind of interest?  Can we really measure the intensity of an interest to last for nearly 40 years?  Let me make clear — I’m not a soccer fanatic.  I enjoy playing it, and I like to watch it when I get the chance.  I have never been passionate about it (e.g., I never watch soccer at home).  Could we have measured my gym teacher’s success 40 years later with an instrument 40 years ago?

When I was an education graduate student, one of the professors said that being a teacher is like being a CEO.  Your best and most important decisions could only be evaluated 20 years down the road.  How do we evaluate teacher merit now for longterm impact?

February 12, 2010 at 11:30 am 1 comment

Teachers cheating on student tests

The Atlanta Journal Constitution did a big analysis (ala Freakonomics) last year about possible cheating on the statewide high-stakes testing program.  This year, the state department of education is finding evidence that the cheating is widespread.

When the stakes get high enough (e.g., teacher merit pay linked to student performance on those tests), the incentive to cheat becomes enormous.  I wonder what role education research can play in this.  Can we create more opportunities to learn, more teaching methods, more options to improve learning (and bring up scores) of low-performing students?  How do we release the pressure on these teachers so that cheating doesn’t look like the only way out?

One in five Georgia public schools faces accusations of tampering with student answers on last spring’s state standardized tests, officials said Wednesday, throwing the state’s main academic measure into turmoil. The Atlanta district is home to 58 of the 191 schools statewide that are likely to undergo investigations into potential cheating. Another 178 schools will probably see new test security mandates, such as stepped-up monitoring during testing. The findings singled out 69 percent of Atlanta elementary and middle schools — far more than any other district — as needing formal probes into possible tampering.

via Suspicious test scores widespread in state  |

February 11, 2010 at 10:55 am 5 comments

The Role of Indian Films in Promoting Computing Careers

Thanks to Sarita Yardi for pointing out this fascinating paper from Joyojeet Pal now at University of Washington, Seattle.  The question is whether Indian films influence students’ interest in computing and technology there.  I find fascinating that the study goes on to interview the filmmakers — are they trying to promote technology?  My read of the paper suggests that the filmmakers are more trying to reflect the values they already see in the society, rather than trying to mold and shape those values.

“Our starting point in this research is the outcomes of 196 interviews
among rural Indians with no primary experience with technology, but a
great deal of enthusiasm about using or training their children to use
computers. We found that this enthusiasm about technology was
primarily based on secondary sources of information, a large part
of which was cinematic representation of computers and computer
users in local movies. Investigating this in popular Indian film, we
find a visible positive and highly aspirational discourse of
technology both in the representation of technology users and the
artifacts themselves, such as laptops or the internet, a trend
particularly evident on comparison with western cinema. To
discuss the issue of intentionality in this trend, we interview
leading filmmakers in India and find that unconscious absorption
of social aspiration into the scripting, and significant intent into
the use of computers and computer users as symbols of modernity
that filmmakers feel Indian audiences respond positively to.”

February 11, 2010 at 10:30 am Leave a comment

When did “Professor” become a bad thing?

I noticed this in the coverage of Sarah Palin’s rhetoric, too, and found it interesting — and disturbing.  When did being a “Professor” become a bad thing?  This piece does a nice job tracing the history of “Professor” as an insult.

Barack Obama has been called a lot of things since he hit the national stage: Celebrity, elitist and even one who “pals around with terrorists.” But as his poll numbers come back down to earth, and an emboldened conservative movement sharpens its attacks, the label that seems to be sticking to Obama as much as any lately is that of “professor.” Speaking to Tea Party activists in Nashville last week, Sarah Palin did her part to keep the “professor” dig in circulation. “They know we’re at war, and to win that war we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern,” the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee told a frenzied crowd.

via News: Professor in Chief – Inside Higher Ed.

February 10, 2010 at 2:05 pm 4 comments

A University President Advocates Tweaking Tenure: Getting the behavior we reward

Does tenure matter anymore?  Do faculty really need protection and job security to do what they think is right?  I’m not sure, but I definitely believe that tenure is a reward, an economic incentive. We need to think carefully about what we reward to get the behavior we want.  In that sense, this article is spot-on.

An Associated Press article published on the Web site states that “Mr. Gee says the traditional formula that rewards publishing in scholarly journals over excellence in teaching and other contributions is outdated and too often favors the quantity of a professor’s output over quality.”

via A University President Advocates Tweaking Tenure – The Choice Blog –

We definitely want excellence in teaching.  I don’t know how to measure it.  I know that how we do it now doesn’t work.  At Georgia Tech, having 10% of a class respond to an on-line survey guarantees that you are getting a non-random, self-selected sample giving self-reports on what they thought.  I am in favor of peer-review of teaching as being better than that.

We also want research with impact, with real meaning.  Counting numbers of papers doesn’t cut it, and I’m afraid that there’s too much of that.  The growth of open source journals may just create more demand (from editors and publishers, not from the reading public) for more papers with less content.  Exactly what impact do these papers have?  Just how many people are reading journals in any media, and how does that differ on-line vs. paper?

There are other behaviors that we might want to consider rewarding.  We typically think about research, teaching, and service, but those may no longer be what we want for the roles of today’s faculty at today’s higher-education.  I really like Scholarship Reconsidered (cited in the article), but even that just focuses on scholarship.  How about rewarding success at working across the campus, to support the integration of computing literacy in other disciplines?  Mentoring students?  Exploring new media for teaching that can reach to underserved populations?

I agree with tweaking tenure — maybe even wholesale reform, instead of just a tweak.  Tenure, though, is a large granularity reward.  You only give it once.  We need to find more ways to provide incentives for the kinds of faculty activity that today’s world needs.  Higher education costs a lot.  Society should get value for that cost.

February 10, 2010 at 11:36 am 3 comments

Stanford finds cheating increasing, especially among CS students

Boy, do I know this story!  The increase in cheating cases at Georgia Tech directly led to our three approaches to CS1.

“My feeling is that the most important factor is the high frustration levels that typically go along with trying to get a program to run,” said computer science professor Eric Roberts, who has studied the problem of academic cheating. He noted that most violations involve homework assignments rather than exams.

“The computer is an unforgiving arbiter of correctness,” he said. “Imagine what would happen if every time you submitted a paper for an English course, it came back with a red circle around the first syntactic error, along with a notation saying: ‘No credit — resubmit.’ After a dozen attempts all meeting the same fate, the temptation to copy a paper you knew would pass might get pretty high. That situation is analogous to what happens in computing courses.”

via Stanford finds cheating — especially among computer science students — on the rise – San Jose Mercury News.

In 1999, Georgia Tech instituted the requirement that all students had to take an introductory computing course, and until 2003, only one course met that requirement.  Just as Eric describes, cheating was rampant in that course.  One semester, we turned in something like 140 cheating cases in the class.  That wasn’t a high for us, but it was the first time that we had a student who told his story to reporters, who got it on the AP wire.  Interesting observation: FERPA laws in this country don’t allow a University to defend itself when a student complains about how the university treated his academic misconduct case — we simply can’t say anything about the case.  The ensuing uproar led to a University committee about the ills of our one-size-fits-all model of computing-for-everyone.  That’s when we created our Computing for Engineers (in MATLAB), and our Media Computation course for liberal arts, architecture, and management majors.

So while I don’t wish rampant cheating on anyone — not the instructors or the students (there are no winners here) — we used the lemons of bad publicity to create the lemonade of a new approach to introducing computing, especially for non-majors.

February 8, 2010 at 10:43 pm 20 comments

Beginning to Rethink CS Education at NSF

Cameron Wilson just wrote a Blog@CACM post that helps to clarify how NSF CISE is re-thinking CS Education.  Yes, CPATH and BPC are going away, but they’re being combined into something new that goes across the whole pipeline (like BPC) and goes beyond just computing majors, which is an entirely new space for CISE:

The described intent is to evolve CPATH’s work into something broader. That is the new program would look at the entire pipeline but with special focus in two areas:

1) moving earlier into the pipeline with specific engagements in middle/high school to bring computational thinking/computer science concepts into this space

2) widening the program to be inclusive for all populations, built around a theme that “computing is for everyone”

via Beginning to Rethink CS Education at NSF | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM.

Cameron also mentions that Cyber-Learning to Transform Education (CTE) is a different program than the combo program that he’s describing.  I heard that CTE was described at last week’s Computational Thinking Workshop at the National Academies.   CTE has strands like “Personalized Instruction” and “Anytime Anywhere Education,” which is the direction of where I’m trying to take my own research. That means that there will be two new education-related programs in CISE, both of which are pretty exciting.

I’m most excited to see the message that “computing is for everyone.”  CPATH and BPC were about creating more computing majors.  The idea that computing is for everyone is the key motivator in our work at Georgia Tech. Our notion of “contextualized computing education” has a goal that every student in every major succeeds at a computing that makes sense to them.  The notion of “contexts” was a driving force in our “Threads” curriculum, and in how we help teachers across Georgia improve the retention and diversity of their courses in our  “Georgia Computes!” BPC alliance.

While the devil is still in the details, the signals about where things are going are promising.  We should get more information over the next couple months.

February 7, 2010 at 1:25 pm 2 comments

Failure rate for AP tests climbing

That the average AP score would decline while more students take the AP is really not surprising.  It’s a pretty common phenomenon: as more new, initially-underprepared students flood in, the average is drawn down.  We’re seeing this in Georgia with the schools that are just starting AP CS (many at minority-majority high schools).  It’s going to take some time for the teachers to get better, for the school to figure out how to best prepare the students.

What I found more interesting is that Physics scores are rising, while English Literature scores are declining.  Why would that be?

The newspaper’s analysis finds that more than two in five students (41.5%) earned a failing score of 1 or 2, up from 36.5% in 1999. In the South, a Census-defined region that spans from Texas to Delaware, nearly half of all tests — 48.4% — earned a 1 or 2, a failure rate up 7 percentage points from a decade prior and a statistically significant difference from the rest of the country.

College Board officials say it’s misleading to lump all scores together, because some tests have vastly different historical pass rates. Scores on AP Physics tests, for example, are consistently up; those for AP English Literature are dropping.

via Failure rate for AP tests climbing –

February 7, 2010 at 9:38 am 3 comments

Minority Male Plight Demands Broad U.S. Action, College Board Says

Speaks to the issue of how important education is as a tool for addressing inequality and of having good teachers:

A College Board report highlighting the “overwhelming barriers” U.S. minority males confront in becoming educated and productive citizens recommends national strategies aimed at erasing “the disparities in educational attainment” and demonstrating “new ways of reaching the increasingly diverse U.S. student population.”

via Minority Male Plight Demands Broad U.S. Action, College Board Says.

February 6, 2010 at 9:49 am Leave a comment

Role for Universities: Supporting training in down economic times

Last year’s economic downturn had a significant impact on the technology sector: not only did many long-time software engineers find themselves out of work, but they also found themselves out of the upskilling loop, while those still in employment found that funding for training courses had dried up in many organisations.

Following a successful series of courses teaching the foundations of the Java programming language last year, University College Dublin’s (UCD) School of Computer Science and Informatics is embarking on a second round, and this time the low-cost course is aimed both at job seekers and those finding themselves on short time.

“The idea is to offer training to companies that have no training budgets because of economic woes,” explains Prof John Murphy, a senior lecturer at the school.

via Brewing up Java skills for the knowledge economy – R&D.

I find this idea so interesting for several reasons.

  • Here’s a University teaching non-degree courses for the direct economic impact on its community.
  • Here’s the economy (industry, job-seekers) relying on the shared resource of the University to do things that they can’t do themselves under economic conditions.
  • Here’s a University-as-economic-entity offering a loss-leader.  The article goes on to say that several people who took the courses last year are in Masters programs this year.  Offering courses free or at a discount to gain market share is so Internet-age!

February 5, 2010 at 2:44 pm 3 comments

Letter from Harriet Taylor on NSF CPATH

Just sent to all CPATH Project Investigators:


By now many of you have seen the announcement on the CISE web site ( about the CPATH program. As it says, we are cancelling the competition for this year and developing a new program.

We am sure that this change impacts many of your plans. We hope that you can continue with the projects that you were planning to submit in April and tailor them to suit many of the other NSF programs.

We want to assure you that CPATH remains an important activity to CISE and NSF. We still have almost 70 active projects that will continue on into 2012.  We will continue to have meetings and develop communities as we make inroads into revitalizing undergraduate computing education.

It is more important than ever that we continue our evaluation efforts and document the impact of the projects and CPATH as a whole. SRI will continue to lead the programmatic efforts. They will be contacting you about submitting data to their data monitoring instrument and about site visits to some of your sites.

CPATH is clearly having an impact – there are many concrete indicators of this. We have been given an opportunity to evolve CPATH as it should have and create mechanisms that can sustain and advance computing education in the future. Please bear with us as we work on developing this new initiative. At this time, there are few details that we can share.

Continue your good work. Plan on an attending an exciting and energetic PI meeting in March.  Tell us about your successes and concerns as well as any ideas about what the needs of the community are for the future.  This is a big change – but there will be new and exciting opportunities on the horizon for which you are well prepared through your CPATH successes.

Thanks from all of us at NSF for your efforts.

Harriet Taylor

For the CPATH Team

Harriet Taylor, Sylvia Spengler, Joan Peckham, Tracy Kimbrel, Kera Johnson

February 3, 2010 at 10:07 pm Leave a comment

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