CE21 Advice: Go beyond your classroom

March 29, 2011 at 9:16 am 5 comments

At the CE21 Community Meeting, I heard people talking about the great things that they’re doing in their classroom, and how they are looking for education researchers with whom they could collaborate for a CE21 proposal.  That’s a great idea, and making that happen was the point of holding the community meeting.  But I offer a piece of advice: Go beyond your classroom.  Work in multiple classrooms. Don’t collect data for your study in the classroom where you’re teaching.

My colleague Amy Bruckman told me that, at MIT, the Human Subjects Review Board will not allow a researcher to gather data on his or her own classroom.  There is an inherent conflict-of-interest, if you are studying your class and teaching your class.  As a teacher, you want to do everything you can to support your students’ success.  As a researcher, you have to do certain things and not do certain things, so that you can conduct your study.

The SIGCSE Symposium is mostly faculty studying their own classroom.  That works fine if the goals are to develop better teaching practices, to do a fair assessment of what you are doing, and to share it with others. That’s called action research and has a lot of benefits for teaching practice.  But that’s not what I read NSF as wanting from CE21.

CE21 is supposed to be rigorous education research, in a computing education context.  It’s serious research with serious funding.  If you’re a serious researcher, then one of your first questions is where you should best do the research you want to do.  Your classroom is a great place to get ideas.  It’s never a great place to test your ideas. You should test your ideas so as to convince others — testing in your class is akin to saying, “See! It worked for me!”  That’s not convincing.

If you have a great idea that you want to develop and test with a CE21 grant, then find some collaborators.  Convince a colleague to work with you, to test your ideas in someone else’s classroom.  If you can’t convince someone else to work with you, you’ll never convince a review panel to give you money to develop and test your ideas.

When I’ve made statements like this in the past, I sometimes get push back: “I’m at a small place.  I can’t go off to do research in somebody else’s classroom!  Sometimes, there isn’t another classroom!”  If that’s the case, in my opinion, the NSF CE21 program is not for you.  (I’m not an NSF program officer, but I do get funding from and review for the Education side of NSF, so I have some insights into what NSF considers serious education research.)  CE21 is trying to bring significant resources to do high-quality, critiquable research to advance the state of our understanding about computing education.  In particular, CE21 is about trying to advance the CS10K agenda, which means your best bet is to be working with high school teachers and students.  Whatever you propose, go beyond your own classroom.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cameron Fadjo  |  March 29, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Great post! Serious education research is needed in computing and bringing this conversation to the fore is of the utmost importance for Computer Scientists conducting educational research.

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  March 29, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Hi Mark

    Don’t you mean something more like: use your classroom to have and test ideas, but don’t claim anything unless the ideas can be shown to work without you?

    This is pretty much what one is supposed to do in science. Use your lab, report what happened, report your conclusions, and do it so that others can test the process and reasoning.



    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  March 29, 2011 at 10:36 am

      Hi Alan,

      I agree with the first paragraph completely, and the second paragraph, too, with a caveat. “Report your conclusions” but in a forum like the SIGCSE Symposium, where it’s teachers telling their great ideas to other teachers. A study done in your own classroom is unlikely to get published in a venue like the International Computing Education Research workshop or the ACM Transactions on Computing Education, because of the inherent conflicts of interest and the difficulties of controlling pertinent variables when it’s your own classroom. Work done in your own classroom is a great place to try out ideas to develop into serious research studies. That’s exactly why I’m trying the peer instruction and out-of-class video quizzes in my class this semester. This is me exploring new ideas in my classroom, to convince myself that it could work or not, for possible use in later research studies.

      That last part you describe, the replication studies, rarely happen in CS education. I wish they did. They happen in Education generally, but we don’t have enough people doing CS Ed yet to do careful replications.


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  • 5. Leigh Ann Sudol-DeLyser  |  March 30, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Another important factor here is ensuring that there is an underlying principle behind the intervention that you chose. There are many principles of education that researchers have explored in other domains that may be useful to CS educators.

    I highly recommend looking at the Theory Wiki of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center (http://www.learnlab.org). They do a great job of summarizing a lot of the existing work and can be a good place for a person to start if they are looking for some theoretical foundations for their work.


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