Archive for May 2, 2010

Is Media Computation “bait and switch”?

The question that Jennifer Kay raised in her AAAI Spring Symposium paper is about robotics, but her question on the SIGCSE Members list is more general: “Do we have any empirical evidence that cool stuff genuinely does attract more students?”  Bruce Barton changed the question slightly in his message on the list:

Are we doing a disservice to our students by teaching them robotics, animation, game development, etc. when most of the industry is performing fairly mundane computer programming tasks?  I understand that we are trying to increase enrollment and also retention.  But are we perpetrating a bait and switch scam on our students?  Back when I first started out (late 60’s), data processing was where it was at and we enjoyed what we were doing.  Has the video generation had their attention span so decreased that they can only learn if we make the learning experience play-time?  I have heard the reports about video gaming drawing in the students and that video gaming is the new big thing in the industry.  But each year we put out many thousands of graduates who want to become game developers and there are certainly not that many jobs available in that specialty.  Where do the graduates who don’t make it into game development go?  Should we be the voice of reality for them?  Would we really lose that many students if we approached the subject in a less fanciful way?

There is evidence that more engaging approaches in the first semester do lead to improved retention in later classes, even in more traditional classes.  Charlie McDowell found that with pair programming. Beth Simon’s ITICSE 2010 paper shows Media Computation CS1 students succeeding more in a (traditional) CS2, than students in a traditional CS1.

Why does this happen?  Why is it that students stick with computer science, after an engaging start, even if those latter courses are no different than they have ever been?

  • One theory is that we simply have to get students engaged, and then they see the value of computing in a broader sense. Once they see computing in the form of a concrete and engaging application area, then maybe they see the value of computer science in its general form.
  • Alternatively, maybe the first course sets up the carrot, and students are willing to bear with the rest in order to achieve that carrot.  Students in our Computational Media degree program want to go off to Electronic Arts or Pixar, and they are willing to go through courses that they find less engaging, and even (in their opinion) less valuable, in order to achieve their degree in order to improve their access to the careers they want.  Maybe the first course (in robotics, in media computation, with pair programming) shows them the best that they might find in computer science, and that makes it all worthwhile.

The implication in these statements is that the rest of the curriculum is boring and unengaging, and that most jobs in computing are similar.  Is it true that most computing jobs are boring and unengaging?  That’s counter to what we’ve been telling students the last few years.  Does the curriculum have to be boring and unengaging?  Maybe some students want the pure computing.  In Lana Yarosh’s paper on our Media Computation Data Structures course, we found that about 10% of the students didn’t want the engaging media context — they wanted pure data structures.  In the paper by Allison Tew and others on the use of a Nintendo Gameboy context for a computer organization course, they found that students were much more excited about the “boring” topic of computer organization with the engaging context — and they still learned the computer organization pretty well.

Do we really believe that computer science is inherently boring and unengaging?  Why is that?  Why would we believe that about ourselves and our field?

May 2, 2010 at 5:14 am 5 comments

A conference on emerging languages

Alan kindly forwarded this to me (thanks, Alan!) — it looks amazing!  Here’s the challenge for the readers of this blog.  Imagine attending this conference as a computing education expert (instead of a language geek, as I imagine many of us are anyways).  What would you look for?  What metric would you use for comparing these languages if your first criterion was value to the student? Would you define that criterion as ease of learning, power of expression, aid to later development, or all of the above?

The first ever conference on emerging programming languages. For language designers, implementors, users, and enthusiasts.

via Speakers « Emerging Languages Camp.

May 2, 2010 at 3:14 am 2 comments

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