New ACM Classification System doesn’t get Computing Education

September 26, 2012 at 9:16 am 11 comments

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.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Thad Crews  |  September 26, 2012 at 9:56 am

    I totally agree that computing education should be classified under “Human-Centered Computing”. I hope the new ACM classification system can be tweaked in this way.

  • 2. lenandlar  |  September 26, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I wonder if it also speaks to the level of respect for the work of Computing Education researchers and Computer Science Education Research. I certainly hope not.

  • 3. Barbara Boucher Owens  |  September 26, 2012 at 11:28 am

    I don’t recall any discussion on the ACM Council asking for input. Did the Ed Board talk about where CS Education should be?

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  September 26, 2012 at 12:05 pm

      Not that I’m aware of, Barbara.

  • 5. Rob St. Amant  |  September 26, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    Great observations, Mark, especially this: “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 list of contributors to the CCS project is here. There are some stellar people from the areas that I’m familiar with (mainly human-centered computing). I don’t know computing education well enough to judge who would have spoken up for it, though.

  • 6. Jim Eng  |  September 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    You used Physics and Biology as examples of disciplines with active research into education about the discipline for non-practitioners. You know a lot more about this than I do, Mark, but I looked to wikipedia for a little current information, and you may find it interesting.

    Wikipedia’s main article on Physics includes a section on research fields [1], and Physics Education is mentioned there. Indeed, wikipedia has a separate article about Physics Education [2], which mentions a few journals that commonly report research in Physics Education.

    Biology is another story. The main article about Biology [3] makes no mention of Biology Education as “branch of biology” or a research area or a pursuit in which biologists engage. When I searched for “Biology education”, wikipedia took directly to the article on “Science education” [4].

    The article on “science education” contains this interesting nugget:

    “According to a bibliography on constructivist-oriented research on teaching and learning science in 2005, about 64 percent of studies documented are carried out in the domain of physics, 21 percent in the domain of biology, and 15 percent in chemistry.” [citation omitted here]

    So it seems that Physics Education gets more attention from researchers?

    From these articles, it seems as if physicists recognize Physics Education as a subdiscipline worthy of research by physicists, while maybe biologists see Biology Education as a focus of “Science Education”, which is a subdiscipline of Education. Is that true, or is this just a misconception because these conjectures are based on wikipedia articles?

    BTW, there’s another interesting sentence in the “Science Education” article:

    “Research in science education relies on a wide variety of methodologies, borrowed from many branches of science and engineering such as computer science, …”



  • 7. Jim Eng  |  September 27, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    I left out a sentence that I should have included about possible reasons for Physics Education getting more attention:

    “The major reason for this dominance of physics in the research on teaching and learning appears to be that physics learning includes difficulties due to the particular nature of physics.” [citation omitted here].

    It goes on to expand that a little. One wonders though if another factor might be that physicists consider Physics Education a worthwhile pursuit to a greater extent than some other disciplines.

  • 8. Jim Eng  |  September 27, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    And finally, a search of wikipedia for “computer science education” redirects to the “Education” header in the main “Computer Science” article [1], which first discusses two approaches to undergraduate education of practitioners and then goes on to discuss some of the issues you have been raising about pre-college teaching and learning.


    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  September 27, 2012 at 6:09 pm

      I wouldn’t trust Wikipedia as the final arbiter of discipline boundaries. Probably the recent National Academies report on discipline-based education research is a better guide.

      Yes, I would agree that physics education research is the oldest and most established of the science-specific education research fields, the mathematics education is the oldest. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) whose focus is mathematics education (and research on that) was founded in 1920. In contrast, the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) was founded in 2005. They have a bit of a headstart. There are many other domain-specific education research areas, including engineering education, chemistry education, and even chemical engineering education.

      I’m not sure what your point is about computer science education research. Are you suggesting that it doesn’t really exist, since it’s a mere footnote in Wikipedia? I do recommend the book with that title by Sally Fincher and Marion Petre, the Computer Science Education Journal, the ACM Transactions on Computing Education, and the ACM International Computing Education Research conference.

      • 10. Jim Eng  |  September 28, 2012 at 9:19 am

        I wasn’t making a point about computer science education research, other than to point out that the discussion of that in the wikipedia article made many of the same points you have made. Actually, I was reporting a few impressions based on a quick read of a few wikipedia articles and asking if they are consistent with what you know about this.

        Related to CS education research, my impression from the wikipedia articles would be that it has less support among computer scientists than physics education research seems to have among physicists, but it may have more support within the discipline than biology education research has among biologists, strictly based on a few brief wikipedia articles. I didn’t get the impression from these articles that computer scientists think of teaching and learning about computers as belonging to some other discipline. Maybe in part that’s due to your efforts.

        It also seems that the wikipedia articles support your view that physicists see physics education research as relating to general literacy about physics rather than focusing on education of new practitioners. That can also be said of science education, but it’s not clear from these articles that biologists hold similar views for biology.

        The CS article gives the impression that computer scientists have a little confusion about the nature of research into teaching and learning about computer scientists — is it to focus on producing more theorists, more programmers, a more literate public? I think that is part of what you are saying, isn’t it?

        • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  September 28, 2012 at 10:58 am

          My apologies for my confusion, Jim! Yes, I’d agree that (in general, but not in every department’s case) physics education research seems to get more support among physicists than in other domain-specific education research, and yes, I think that physicists get that physics classes serve a broader audience than just physics majors. Carl Wieman has said that he’d like to see more physics majors who think about physics far differently than current physics teachers do, to have a broad, diverse set of perspectives on problems. But students who see the field differently than their teachers tend to get lower grades and drop-out more (not anecdotal — the physics ed folks have a test for attitudes-about-physics and can measure these effects).

          I don’t think that CS as a field quite knows what to make of computing education research, but it’s also a fair statement that CS doesn’t quite know what to make of itself. The range of definitions of our field still vary pretty dramatically.


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