The Millenials are like the adults, only more so

April 22, 2010 at 8:41 am 5 comments

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.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thinkingwiththings  |  April 22, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I see an analogy to the “education” vs. “training” debate, or to getting a bachelor’s degree vs. getting, say, Microsoft certification. In both these pairs, the latter doesn’t teach you how to think as much as the former does.

  • 2. Raymond Lister  |  April 22, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    Mark wrote, “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.”

    Our working group focussed on the ability of novices to read code, whereas Soloway’s studies of the rainfall problem focussed on the ability of novices to write code. Prior to the working group, people liked to think that students were missing some magical ability to create code. The working group showed that, for at least some students, the problem was more mundane than magical.

    • 3. Raymond Lister  |  April 22, 2010 at 8:14 pm

      Lister, R., Adams, E. S., Fitzgerald, S., Fone, W., Hamer, J., Lindholm, M., McCartney, R., Moström, J. E., Sanders, K., Seppälä, O., Simon, B., and Thomas, L. 2004. A multi-national study of reading and tracing skills in novice programmers. In Working Group Reports From ITiCSE on innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education (Leeds, United Kingdom, June 28 – 30, 2004). ITiCSE-WGR ’04. ACM, New York, NY, 119-150.


  • […] 23, 2010 In response to my piece on Millenials, Raymond Lister pointed out that his ITICSE working group report was about reading code while the work by Jim Spohrer and Elliot […]

  • 5. Mark Miller  |  April 25, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Interesting article. Honestly I find it difficult to relate to the Millennial viewpoint of advanced app. use being “computer science”. I didn’t have that view at all when I entered undergrad CS in 1988, though I still had pretty limited notions of computing at the time. I understand that this was before some of these people were born. It sounds like I grew up in an entirely different computing culture, one where every computer came with a programming language, and there was almost an expectation that computer users would at least try programming.

    I’m wondering what approaches have been tried. A classic one is control: By programming you get to control the app. or computer more than you can by just using it. That used to be appealing to students.

    I wonder if going down to computing ideas at the fundamental level is too big a leap for them, to the point that the connection between these ideas and what they experience with a computer is unrecognizable. I recall you’ve explored scripting within an application. Do students have an easier time relating to that?

    As to the practical aspects, kind of interesting. Maybe one answer would be to show them programming want ads early on. Some of them ask for Photoshop experience, along with HTML and the rest, but they also ask for Java, PHP, etc., just to show there’s more to computing than the apps. they’re familiar with, and there’s money to be made doing it.

    I hesitate to suggest the above, since I didn’t get into computing for the money, though I am familiar with the perspective of those who did.

    I don’t know if they know this, but it seems to me that CS has become less important than it used to be in IT. Not that it’s irrelevant, but it used to be more valuable, because the technological tools we had at our disposal were more primitive, and so you had to work at it to make a collection of technologies do something significant. Now there are component systems that just require an administrator to configure, which used to require a knowledge of programming. There are frameworks that take care of the things that programmers used to have to “roll on their own”, where CS knowledge gave one team a discernible advantage over one that didn’t have it. Now they’re equalized because the CS knowledge is “baked in”. As IT matures, this is going to happen more and more. So I’m wondering if the reason students give you the “Yeah, yeah” response is because they already have a sense that this is happening. This would lead me to ask, “Why are they in CS then?” Maybe it’s as you said, they were mistaken about what it was when they got into it. And maybe they’re wondering the same thing.


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