Brief Trip Report on ICER 2012: Answering the global needs for computing education research

September 18, 2012 at 11:43 am 12 comments

ICER 2012 in Auckland, New Zealand, was notable for having the highest number of submitted papers to any ICER (8th year) and almost as many attendees as last year, despite being a long way for all the US and European delegates.  In the end, there were 13 research papers accepted, 8 discussion papers (shorter papers, with shorter presentations and longer discussion periods), 16 attendees at the Doctoral Consortium, and 19 Lightning Talks accepted.  Despite all the successes, I’m worried whether ICER can meet the global needs for computing education research.

The first talk of the conference ended up winning the People’s Choice award, voted on by the delegates (used to be called the “Fool’s Award,” but now renamed the “John Henry Award” for a paper with great “potential to be transformative”) from Ian Utting and the BlueJ crew.  BlueJ, probably the most successful and popular pedagogical Java IDE, is going to be outfitted in the Spring with event logging.  We’ll know what the students are doing in BlueJ, at a large scale (probably about 1Tb/year).  All of that data is going to get stored (anonymously) for use by researchers.  The interesting discussion point is: What are web-scale questions in CS Education?

The Chair’s Award (new to ICER, kind of a best-paper award) was won by Colleen Lewis for her detailed explanation of how a middle schooler at a summer camp in Scratch did his debugging.  In a sense, Colleen (just graduated from Berkeley, and just started at Harvey Mudd College) was answering a comment that Ray Lister made which was often quoted during the conference: that students sometimes demonstrate “bizarro programming behaviors.”  Colleen carefully reconstructed the activity of the student and pieced together a story of how the student thought through the problem, and how his behavior did make sense.

I tweeted some of my favorite one-liners from the conference.  I’ll mention just a couple highlights here.

  • Quintin Cutts presented an intriguing paper suggesting a new way of looking at questions that spur learning, with data drawn from Beth Simon’s CS:Principles course for non-majors.  The idea is called the Abstraction Transition Taxonomy, and it’s about how we talk about problems (natural language), we talk about CS (“arrays”), and we talk in code (e.g., “a[i]”).  They hypothesize that questions that lead to transitions between levels may be the most successful scaffolding for novice learning.  So, how do we test that hypothesis?
  • My former students, Drs. Brian Dorn and Allison Elliott Tew, are working on a new validated measure of attitudes towards computing, based on similar instruments developed for physics and biology.  They presented their validation scheme at ICER.  I’ve already read a draft of a future paper where they’re actually using the instrument, and I think that this is going to be a big deal.
  • Lauren’s subgoal paper drew some oohs when I showed the results, a few shakes of heads (I don’t think everyone believed it), and some challenging questions.  “Why aren’t you using this in your intro classes?” asked one questioner.  “Or your advanced classes?” asked another.  Yup. Good questions.
  • One of the lightning talks had an interesting idea: Form pairs for pair-programming based on perception of efficacy.  Put non-confident students together!  The idea is that self-efficacy feeds off a vacuum, “I’m doing worse than everyone else. I just know.”  Having someone else with low-confidence provides evidence that you’re not alone in struggling.  No data were presented, but it’s an intriguing idea.

One of my mentors here at Georgia Tech is Jim Foley who recommends structuring research around BHAG’s — Big, Hairy Audacious Goals.  The BHAG for computing education is teaching computer science in all schools.  What’s particularly scary about this BHAG is it’s already happening.  The US has the CS10K effort. The Computing At School effort is going strong in the UK.  New Zealand and Denmark have both instituted new nationwide CS curricula in the last couple years.  There is an enormous need for research on how to help teachers learn to teach computer science, what the challenges are in teaching computer science to school children (e.g., who have not declared a major of computer science, who are not necessarily motivated to learn computing for a career), and evaluations of successful models for supporting learning by both teachers and school children.  Maybe we’re just going to do it, and figure out later what works.  But maybe there’s a better way.

How much of ICER 2012 research could possibly inform these efforts?  There’s Colleen’s interesting paper on a pre-teen debugging, and there’s Briana’s work on professional development efforts.  That’s pretty much it for directly computing-at-schools/CS10K relevant, from my read of the papers.  There were a few papers that addressed non-majors (like Quintin’s, and our statewide survey paper), but at the undergraduate level. The rest of ICER’s papers were seeking to understand and teach undergraduate CS majors.

It’s important to understand undergraduate CS majors and to improve their understanding.  My personal research agenda is more on the latter than the former — it’s more important to me to learn how to teach better, rather than to understand the effects of teaching that might be better if we built on everything that we know about teaching.  But I do get the value of understanding understanding (or lack of understanding, or even misconceptions).  There are far more high school teachers and schoolchildren than there are undergraduate majors, and they’re different.  The oncoming problems are much bigger than the ones we’re currently facing.

How do we inform the broader need for research on computing education?  Is ICER the place to look for that research?  Or will ICER (and SIGCSE) always be a mostly undergraduate-oriented conference (and organization)?  If not ICER and SIGCSE, where should we look?  I was a reviewer for AERA’s new engineering and computing education division, and while I was excited about those papers, they’re coming at the problems almost entirely from the education perspective.  There was little from ICER and the computing education research community.  The problems that we need solved will require work from both communities/disciplines/fields.  How do we get there?

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. dlb  |  September 18, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Thanks for the report on ICER – very helpful (I’m about to run off and read a few of those papers!). But I’m curious about the last paragraph of your post, when you say ” I was a reviewer for AERA’s new engineering and computing education division, and while I was excited about those papers, they’re coming at the problems almost entirely from the education perspective.”

    I’m not surprised that you noticed a difference in perspective between the ICER and AERA submissions, but I’d like to understand that difference a bit more. What do you mean by ‘the education perspective’.


    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 18, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      Hi Debra — that’s hard to answer without giving details of the papers. The AERA papers were focused on issues like project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry, but did not question or explore content issues at all. For example, parallelism is listed as a learning objective in various documents, but what parts of parallelism? What’s hard about parallelism? Does the same level of “parallelism” make sense for both fourth graders and high school students?

      In contrast, the keynote for ICER 2012 was on “threshold concepts” (concepts that are particularly difficult to learn, but serve as a transformation and even identify-forming transition), and there was another paper on whether there are “threshold skills” (beyond concepts). Neither of those talks addressed how one should learn threshold concepts or threshold skills. The focus was on CS concepts and skills, but less so on the education processes that lead to learning those concepts and skills. One of the big questions for me was on assessment — how does one measure the attainment of threshold concepts or skills? That wasn’t a focus in those papers.

      Does that give a sense of shift of focus, between education issues (e.g., pedagogy, assessment) vs. CS content issues (e.g., classifying concepts and skills)?

      • 3. Debra Bernstein  |  September 18, 2012 at 5:05 pm

        Thanks, Mark. That does give me a good sense of the different points of focus in each community. (and also reinforces the need for interdisciplinary work to continue….)

  • 4. Elizabeth Patitsas  |  September 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    “The rest of ICER’s papers were seeking to understand and teach undergraduate CS majors.”

    Minor point, it wasn’t all of them — the paper I presented was really more on how to support teaching assistants rather than the undergraduate students directly. This is a different population in terms of professional development, but a lot of it does transfer to teaching other teachers.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  September 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm

      That’s an empirical question, Elizabeth. Is being a TA for CS undergraduate majors about the same or different as (a) being a TA for a class of high school teachers learning CS or (b) being a teacher of schoolchildren learning CS? My experience suggests that CS undergraduate majors, high school teachers, and schoolchildren are radically different audiences, and teaching them requires radically different approaches and skills.

      • 6. Elizabeth Patitsas  |  September 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm

        Having done both TA training and high school teacher development, I’d say there is a fair bit of common ground. Yes, the students are different, yes the institutions are different. But a lot has felt the same to me.

        Both groups need encouragement and aren’t particularly self-confident about their skills, and benefit a lot from social support and mentorship. Both tend to be coming into the classroom with a lack of expertise on CS. And both groups tend to be operating with curricula that are given to them rather than having the opportunity to make their own.

        From my personal experience, I’d say that working with TAs is a lot more like working with high school teachers than with university faculty, even though the students they teach are different.

        • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  September 18, 2012 at 1:36 pm

          You should do the study and write the paper, Elizabeth! Really — that would be a useful contribution. My experience differs from yours, but I don’t know if we’re both measuring the same outcomes. Let’s get some data!

  • 8. Natasa Grgurina  |  September 19, 2012 at 4:09 am

    Mark, thank you for this detailed report – I reserved the whole morning to read the papers!
    You mention high school CS education and wonder about the meeting place for researchers and educators concerned. Since 2005 there is this ISSEP conference in Europe focusing on CS in primary and secondary education. The next one will be held in February 2013 in Germany:

    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  September 19, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Natasa, where are ISSEP papers available? I haven’t been able to find them on-line.

      • 10. Natasa Grgurina  |  September 19, 2012 at 9:14 am

        Springer publishes selected papers in their LNCS series: volumes 3422, 4226, 5090, 5941 and 7013. The website of the last conference gives an impression of the nature of these conferences as well as links to all the previous ones.

  • 11. Peter Donaldson  |  September 19, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Hello Mark,
    it’s a good question but as a CS graduate and teacher of Computing Science in secondary schools I’ve found it quite difficult to access a lot of the really interesting research relating to Computer Science specific issues as they’re often behind a rather expensive pay wall.

    What I’d personally love to see is a well written book for educators similar to Geoff Petty’s evidence based teaching in the classroom but specifically for CS. I still find it hard to believe that even relatively new school subjects often have books that provide a good overview of their particular pedagogical issues but CS still doesn’t (apart from the work by Prof. Judith Gal-Ezer and her team but it’s not really a broad enough overview of the whole field).

    The work that researchers around the world are carrying out in CS education would be extremely helpful as we still lack a common vocabularly with which to discuss these issues.

  • […] being a computing professional, especially today when much of the world is trying to understand how computer science fits into schools.  Consider some of the relevant computing education research questions: What should (say) a fourth […]


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