Archive for September 26, 2012

New ACM Classification System doesn’t get Computing Education

The new ACM classification system was just released.  The goal is to create a taxonomy for all of computing research.  It’s a significant improvement on the old one.  Human-Centered Computing is one of the top-level branches now, which is terrific.

Unfortunately, computing education is classified as being a “Professional Topic” issue. What’s particularly odd about that is that “computing literacy” and “K-12 education” and even “computational thinking” appear (correctly, in my opinion) under “computing education,” but none of those are about creating professionals or even about conveying professional practice. Computing education research is a Human-Centered Computing research issue. It’s disappointing that it’s been moved into branch of the taxonomy that doesn’t reflect that.

Computing education is not about 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 grader learn about computing, how should we teach it, and what challenges will we face? None of those questions are about being, becoming, or communicating about computing professionals. Think about it from a perspective of STEM education more generally — students’ study biology not to become a biologist.

Does it really matter?  I think it does.  A research taxonomy as a reification of how the field thinks about itself. It’s supposed to be a reflection of how “Computing” thinks about our constituent elements, and how we describe ourselves to the world. That’s where the placement of computing education is important. Placing it under “Professional Topics” suggests that computing education is about “creating more professionals” or “making more of us.”

There’s certainly a time and place to make the argument that we need “more of us.” When the CCC argues for the value of computer science, they are arguing that what computing professionals and researchers do is important and requires more funding. This is definitely saying that we need more of us to do the work. In some sense, this is what Physics does when they are arguing for some super Ballistic Supercollider (some super BS) — “we are important, we need more of us, society needs what we do.”

But that’s not why physics is taught in most high schools. It’s not because we need thousands of physicists to find the Higgs Boson. Rather, we need citizens who understand why it’s important to find the Higgs Boson, and more importantly, how physics helps them to understand their own world (and maybe why the Higgs Boson is part of understanding our world.) The argument that ACM and NSF are making about computing education is in this latter category. See Cameron Wilson’s blog post on “All Hands on Deck! Scaling K-12 Computer Science Education“. The argument for computer science in K-12 (or “computing for everyone/all”) is not that we need to make lots of professionals. My argument is that computing education informs human-computer interaction — that we as humans can do more, do better, and understand our world more if we (everyone/all) understand something about computing.

That’s why putting “Computing Education” under “Professional Topics” (along with “History of Computing,” “Computing Industry,” and “Computing Profession”) is wrong. It implies that Computing Education is about “us” when really it’s about “everyone.”

Where Computing Education appears in the Classification isn’t important in any practical sense. It’s important for how we think about ourselves and how we explain ourselves to others.

September 26, 2012 at 9:16 am 11 comments


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