Archive for November 23, 2010

Computing Education Research vs Real Education Research

Occasionally, I have been told that I made a mistake in my career, by focusing on computing education research rather than “real” computer science research.  My first CS advisor at Michigan (before Elliot Soloway got there) told me that I shouldn’t do a joint CS-Education degree, because no CS department would hire me.  (Maybe he was right — I was hired into the College of Computing.)  Yesterday was the first time I was hit from the other side.

An Education school professor asked me why I was bothering with this computer science education stuff rather than doing “real” education research.  The things I’m working on have already been done in education research. His point was well-taken.  My contextualized computing education is a variation of situated learning, which is well-known among education researchers.  Much of the work we’re doing (e.g., in developing assessments, in investigating teacher identity or student misperceptions) is work that has already happened in other fields, so doing this work doesn’t advance our understanding of education.  Frankly, he thought I was wasting my time.

I had two answers for him.  First, pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) differs from domain-to-domain, by definition.  PCK is the knowledge that a teacher has on how to teach for a given domain.  It’s more than knowing the domain — it’s knowing what problems students encounter and what approaches have worked best to explain concepts and skills in that domain.  Developing PCK is a domain-by-domain activity, and it’s necessary for creating methods courses to teach new teachers.  Second, I suggested that I had a practical lever in computer science.  I am a computer science teacher, and I know how to talk to computer science teachers.  I don’t have any particular insight into how to express education ideas to humanities or social studies teachers, for example. So, I have greater opportunity to create change in computer science education.

As always happens, I thought of my best answer after we parted ways.  Somebody has to interpret general findings for a given domain.  I don’t read medical journals to figure out how best to feed my family.  I don’t read satellite imagery to figure out what tomorrow’s weather is going to be.  Some computer scientist had to read the general education literature to explain (and explore — since it’s not always obvious) how a particular insight or finding applies to CS teaching, and then try it so that others could be convinced.  That’s part of what I do.  I’m not inventing as much as I’m interpreting and applying.  That, too, is scholarship.

I should point out that I don’t completely agree with his point.  Yes, most of what I do is neither education research (in general) or computer science research (in general), but it does happen from time-to-time.  Our paper on developing an educational Wiki in the 2000 CSCW is (I believe) the first report on the Wikis in the ACM digital library.  Sometimes work at the edge of disciplines can advance or influence the work within the discipline.

Work in domain-specific educational research is typically disliked by many practitioners’ of the domain.  That’s been true in physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering.  It’s also the case that domain-specific educational research is sometimes rejected by those in education.  This was just my first time experiencing it.


November 23, 2010 at 8:16 am 17 comments

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