Archive for April 22, 2010

The Millenials are like the adults, only more so

I’ve been thinking about the Pew study of Millenials since it came out in February.  Are Millenials really different in some significant way from previous generations?  From the perspective of computing education, I see the same cognitive issues today as in years past.  The problems with loops that Lister’s ITICSE working group study found look pretty similar to the problems that Elliot Soloway and Jim Spohrer identified among Yale undergraduates working on the Rainfall problem in the early 1980’s.  I look at my 1995 SIGCSE paper on the challenges that students face in learning object-oriented programming, and I see those exact same problems among the seniors in my Capstone Design class this semester.

The most detailed study to date of the 18- to 29-year-old Millennial generation finds this group probably will be the most educated in American history. But the 50 million Millennials also have the highest share who are unemployed or out of the workforce in almost four decades, according to the study, released today by the Pew Research Center.

via Study: Millennial generation more educated, less employed: USA Today.

There is one place where I see a problem with Millenials–not unique to them, but even stronger with them than among the adults.  My students and I have been working on papers for ICER 2010 over the last couple weeks.  A common theme that we’re seeing in several different studies is a perception of our participants that Computer Science is about advanced use of applications.  If you really know how to use Photoshop, then that’s Computer Science.  It’s a hard misconception to deal with because an expert on Photoshop probably has picked up a lot of what we would recognize as Computer Science knowledge — about digital representation of data, about processing, about efficiency.  It’s not that the perception is wrong, it’s just missing an important perspective.

What’s striking about this misperception is that it shows up in several studies, from high school students to adults.  The Millenials might have it a bit stronger, a bit more persistently than the adults, because they have used computer applications for so long.  The Millenials hear us talk about real computer science, and they give us the “Yeah, yeah — I’ll tell that back to you on the test, but I know what really matters.”  They listen to us, but don’t think it’s all that important.  If they don’t think it’s important, they make little effort to really learn it. We find that this perception is strong among the adults, too.  The adults care about employment.  If you finally understand the difference between arrays and linked lists, you have made an important intellectual step, but you haven’t generated a new line in your resume.  If you take a class on “Advanced Photoshop,” you do have a new claim that can lead to a new job.  The adults in our studies, too, see advanced application use as being “Computer Science,” and far more valuable than a degree in Computer Science. The adults don’t give us the “Yeah, yeah” bit — they just ignore “Computer Science” entirely.

Both Millenials and adults are practical.  What gives me the most benefit for the least cost?  Learning computer science is hard, and its value is indeterminate, especially to someone who doesn’t understand the IT industry.  Learning to use applications better is an obvious job skill.  The fact that the advanced levels of the latter overlap with some levels of the former makes it even harder for we educators to make our case.

April 22, 2010 at 8:41 am 5 comments


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