Computing Education Research vs Real Education Research

November 23, 2010 at 8:16 am 17 comments

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.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , .

In Toronto, Talking About CS Ed and CS4All CSTA resources for CSed Week

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cameron Fadjo  |  November 23, 2010 at 8:57 am

    As a cognitive psychologist studying the learning of abstractions (in particular, conditional logic and synchronization) using Scratch in a formal learning environment (i.e., a classroom), I had a similar comment yesterday from several primarily CS researchers. My initial thought was closely related to your earlier post about the comments made by SIGCSE reviewers. The comments I received were also from SIGCSE reviewers on my accepted poster and all I could think is ‘why isn’t there a way to comment on their comments!’ Regardless of my initial thoughts on the feedback I received (mostly good, but some of it just seemed opinionated), I, along with other educators (we are a small bunch), believe that combining CS research and ED research is of the utmost importance. That is why I felt is was crucial to make it out to SIGCSE for the first time and showcase my work on grounded embodied cognition using Scratch.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  November 24, 2010 at 11:52 am

      Cameron, really interesting topic — can you point us to papers that you’ve done on the learning of abstractions in Scratch? Do think about publishing in ICER — the reviews are better at evaluating empirical research (both qualitative and quantitative) and you get more pages, so you can tell your story more naturally.

  • 3. Bijan Parsia  |  November 23, 2010 at 10:34 am

    A related issue is the endless desire for revolution, novelty, and (over)relevance. This is, of course, not to say that revolutionary, novel work of great general applicability isn’t wonderful. It is! But it is, by its nature, rather scare. By putting that out as a minimal bar, we end up with a lot of pointless novelty, a lot of *claimed* revolution, and a ton of irrelevant crap.

    I think this is particularly burdensome on PhD students, where I think doing some replication, or data curation, or even software maintenance can be really very helpful to their development (and, heck, these are things scientists *do*) but is often discouraged because it’s not “research”.

    Writing textbooks, designing courses, doing public education, etc. none of them are research per se, but all of them are scholarly (in their best form). It’d be nice to encourage that more.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  November 24, 2010 at 11:51 am

      Bijan (nice to see you here!), how do you distinguish between “research” and “scholarship”? Boyer argues that we often see only “Scholarship of Discovery” as “research,” but the other forms of scholarship are just as valid forms of “research.”

      • 5. Bijan Parsia  |  November 24, 2010 at 12:47 pm

        [I’ve been very much enjoying your blog, btw!] I don’t, really. Or not so much. But I’m *willing* to if it makes people who get uptight about “research” and “research contributions” more comfortable according respect (and degrees, tenure, etc.) to more general scholarship.

        So, for example, how to encourage replication? Replication is not generally according very high value, if value at all (at least in CS) unless you find something wrong (and then explain it).

        How to judge when “taking a technique and applying it in a novel circumstances” is “research” or just “applied engineering”?

        • 6. Bijan Parsia  |  November 24, 2010 at 12:48 pm

          All that being said, it sure sounds to me like you do research, whatever these other people say. So maybe it’s just you 🙂

  • 7. Bijan Parsia  |  November 23, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Going the other way, it’d be nice to have *more* crap filters. Bad reviewing keeps out good stuff but also often lets in good stuff

  • 8. Darrin Thompson  |  November 23, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Could there be some kind of prize for a novel and practical result brought about by bringing together disciplines?

  • 9. andyjko  |  November 23, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    I hear many similar stories from folks at other disciplinary boundaries, especially those involving computation. I have friends in bioinformatics who’ve been told by biologists that a new instrument isn’t a call for a new science. Another friend is in particle physics, but specializes in data analytics and writes Fortran and visualization toolkits for Fermilab; she’s been told any physicist who gets too lost in instrumentation has no future as a physicist. I’ve been told by software engineering researchers that my work isn’t real software engineering because I can’t prove anything; just in the past week, I was told by several CHI reviewers that my work isn’t really HCI research because it’s too technical!

    Maybe it’s that some scholars are sensitive about the sanctity of their (ironically ever-fragmenting) disciplinary boundaries. Or maybe it’s just that they believe the shortest path to truth is abstraction and they see applied or trans-disciplinary research getting mired in the details of specific domains, rather than focusing on (supposed) underlying general truths.

    Either way, I think you’re points are spot on: (1) There’s a great need for translational research; (2) getting lost in the details can sometimes unveil new general truths in ways that more general scholars would never discover.

  • 10. Katrin Becker  |  November 23, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Welcome to the club Mark!!! It’s a small club but we have very nice jackets.

    While I have no doubt that these tensions exist between education and most disciplines, I think it is especially acute between CS and Ed. Almost everyone I’ve come across whose formal training was in Ed seems to have a special animosity towards CS. The strongest reactions have come from people in EdTech.

    It does of course go both ways. When I was working on my PhD in EdTech while still tenured faculty in CS, my Dean (in Science) actually told me to my face that my PhD would be of no value to him or anyone else in Science.

    On the other side, the faculty in EdTech had no interest in my perspective on Tech and said (more politely, mind you) that CS had nothing to offer them because they already knew all about tech. When it came to teaching CS (or other things like teaching huge enrollment classes, which they had also never done), my 25 years of teaching experience seemed of less value than a 4-month grad course.

    I think it is difficult for many in Ed to acknowledge the importance of PCK because many of them have none. Education is a highly applied discipline but it is not usually treated as such. To me it would be like studying to be a “Designer”. Whether we are designing clothes, buildings, machinery, software, or drugs is secondary – it’s all design, right? All I should need is a Design Degree.

    What does someone in discipline X need to know about discipline Y if they are going to do work that requires knowledge of both? It is one of the questions that really intrigues me: Suppose we were trying to teach people how to design educational videogames for example (a subject very close to me). I know that my 30 years in CS gives me a perspective that someone with degrees in Ed and EdTech can’t have. We can’t expect potential educational game designers to go away and spend 30 years doing what I did. So the question is, “Which of those things I know/learned are important for others to learn?”

    That’s a tough one, and worthy of research, but where do we pigeon-hole this kind of research?

    • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  November 24, 2010 at 11:50 am

      Love the “Design Degree” analogy, Katrin! I look forward to purchasing my club jacket. As long as it’s not strait.

  • 12. Brian Law  |  November 23, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Hi Mark,

    As someone who was actually in the room, I agree that that criticism was rather unwarranted. Math teachers go to conferences of math teachers; science teachers go to conferences of science teachers; they tend not to cross. This fact in itself would suggest that math teachers find value in learning from other math teachers how to teach math, and science teachers find value in learning from other science teachers how to teach science.

    The number of times even in my own teacher education experience that I was taught/exposed to “brilliant” or “successful” teaching techniques that were completely inapplicable to my areas of teaching is stupendous. To a certain extent, I and the other math/science teacher candidates bonded over the fact that the vast majority of our teaching instructors were experienced in subjects from the arts and humanities and the oft-experienced disconnect we had with them over “Wait, how exactly am I supposed to appeal to kinesthetic, musical, and existential intelligences in teaching them how to factor a quadratic equation, when I only have an hour and a half to do it in, I have no supporting materials, and my textbooks are basically the same textbooks from 20 years ago?”


    Additionally, I’d like to ask a question that I’d preferred to have asked in person, but I was unable to formulate properly in my mind in time.

    You stated that your goal in CS education was to teach people as much computation as required. You also described your Media Computation class, and its broad student base with majors in Economics, Architecture, Science, History, etc,. I assume then that means you believe that pretty much everybody, at least at the post-secondary level of education, could benefit from some level of computational knowledge.

    The first part of my question is this: If your Media Computation class has such broad appeal, achieves such high levels of success, and has such wide-ranging practical benefits… should it be taught in high school, at a more general level, as opposed to at university? If everybody could benefit from learning computation, doesn’t it stand to reason that we should teach everybody computation, or at least as many people as possible?

    The second part is related: Given that many high schools have computer science programs – perhaps more here in Ontario than in the United States – what should they be teaching, versus what should be taught in CS1&2 at university? If in CS1, we’re teaching the basics of computation… then what are we teaching in high school? You spoke of the difficulty in trying to change high school curricula in the United States, but hypothetically, if you had the power to, how would you structure the CS curriculum spanning both the secondary and post-secondary levels of education?

    • 13. Mark Guzdial  |  November 24, 2010 at 11:49 am

      Hi Brian! I’d love to see MediaComp (and similar approaches to teaching CS) taught in high schools, but most high schools in the US have no CS at all — 90% of all schools in Alabama, 50-60% of all schools in Georgia. I thought I heard Michelle say that only about 1/3 of Toronto high schools are teaching CS. The question of what we should do in undergrad, if students had a good background in high school, is a terrific one, but I don’t see us needing an answer for another decade at least.

  • 14. Garth  |  November 24, 2010 at 11:29 am

    I am very interested in Brian Law’s additional question/s. As a HS CS teacher I am always trying to comparewhat I should be doing to what I actually am doing. My programming knowledge will always be the primary factor in what I can teach but it is interesting to see what others think HS CS should consist of.

  • 15. Educational Research and the Design Degree | The Becker Blog  |  November 24, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    […] Computing Education Research vs Real Education Research « Computing Education Blog. […]

  • […] a comment on the ComputingEd blog, Brian Law asked Given that many high schools have computer science […]

  • 17. Jagadish  |  June 29, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Could you point to some exemplars of ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ you have mentioned? For example, if I am teaching a core CS topic like Theory of Computation which PCK would be enhance my teaching?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10,185 other subscribers


Recent Posts

Blog Stats

  • 2,039,878 hits
November 2010

CS Teaching Tips

%d bloggers like this: