Why MOOCs won’t improve diversity in computing

February 8, 2013 at 1:51 am 13 comments

Beki Grinter does a great job in her blog giving a personal account of why MOOCs won’t help address the lack of diversity in computing.  Beki’s account (linked below) is a personal one, but it is an instance of a larger story that Joanne Cohoon has been telling for years now, based on a large scale survey of students, faculty, and department chairs.  If you want women to persist in graduate computer science, encourage them.  The gender of the encourager is not important, but the one-to-one connection is important.  As Beki asks, how can you do that in a 50-100K MOOC?

Given the lack of women in academia, particularly in STEM, I wonder whether the pattern of male dominance repeats itself in who offers the MOOC and I wonder what in turn that does to the student population. Perhaps some would say, offer a MOOC, redress it. But, my route into the field was not about volume encounters, but about those that were very personal. Its only maybe four people who made enough of a difference that I got through, but how can any person be that when they have 50,000 students? Also, how can you achieve these intimacies at a distance, across the network as opposed to face-to-face.

via MOOC Diversity « Beki’s Blog.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , .

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amit Deutsch  |  February 8, 2013 at 2:11 am

    Have there been any MOOCs that actually address gender issues in computer science and other STEM fields? Even in a class of 50-100K students it might be effective for the teacher to actually talk about these things, especially if proactive efforts were taken to make sure that the forums were an equitable and supportive environment for women (and transgendered people and men who feel threatened in CS and everyone who tends to get excluded in the field!). The teacher can’t possibly reach out to that many students, but classmates and TAs and forum moderators may be able to provide support to each other if the environment were set up well.

    Reply
    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  February 8, 2013 at 8:53 am

      Great question, Amit! I don’t know of any that have tried. One question that I’d want to know is about demographics of those who sign up. Do women and URM not sign up at all, or do they just not complete? If the latter, addressing the issues might improve retention. If the former, the medium itself may not be engaging.

      Reply
      • 3. Amit Deutsch  |  February 9, 2013 at 12:43 am

        That’s true, I wonder what the real numbers are. As for the medium not being engaging, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case– computers could deliver content in so many engaging ways yet we choose to limit our CS MOOCs to predominantly male professors presenting dense lectures and powerpoint slides. It’s like using computers to deliver hyper-worksheets to kids, it’s easier to project what we’re already comfortable with instead of re-imagining content delivery in ways that are impossible without a computer. Meanwhile, people who already see the value in CS might look for the content and see past the delivery medium, while people who aren’t yet engaged in CS might remain unengaged. Tough to say without the data! Do MOOCs periodically survey their students?

        Reply
  • 4. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  February 8, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Beki brings up some very important points and Amit brings up some very important considerations. However, it seems that these discussions are assuming some business as usual, flat delivery of learning materials and assignments. This is certainly a danger to be wary of as some (prestigious, but certainly not all) attempts to increase diversity seem mired in the middle class white male perspectives and an educational system that favors such.

    Might MOOCs not serve as a platform to provide students with more accessible and diverse role models? The number of female professors from underrepresented backgrounds in CS is considerably small. It would be difficult for a typical university to provide all undergraduate students with such professors (who are important in boosting retention of a diverse student body). However, MOOCs could be structured to afford all students access to such role models.

    Similarly, all assignments could be developed so that students might be afforded tasks that supply personal and cultural relevance and provide meaningful connections with content area concepts to students’ lived experiences. MOOCs could present material in manner that bolsters students’ CS identity and concomitantly their CS academic trajectories.

    These are all hypotheticals. As it seems that many people (even educators) are willing to accept a “watch this video and then do these things approach” to pedagogy, one certainly can’t assume MOOCs will do differently. (Adding forums and wikis ‘just because’ does little to bolster learning either.)

    The point being – MOOCs could be used to attempt a move from business as usual, but will they?

    Reply
    • 5. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  February 8, 2013 at 9:27 am

      Despite the lengthy supposition above, the concern: “my route into the field was not about volume encounters, but about those that were very personal” remains unanswered.

      It’s an inherent weakness that many fail to acknowledge and that may be relatively insurmountable (as highlighted in the article and previously in this blog).

      Reply
  • 6. BenK  |  February 8, 2013 at 9:32 am

    I have several college-educated women (working with me) currently ‘getting educated’ in computing while getting paid for biology. MOOCs are a big part of their semi-formal education; but so are the weekend meet-ups for Python and R; and the discussion boards; and each other’s company. Without the MOOCs, they would not have the formal educational component which comes with lectures, homework, and so on. They would otherwise need to fall back on the old ‘Learn C++ in 21 Days’ books or something similar.
    I feel that MOOCs, with their moderate temporal structure and ready availability, their popularity (participation feels ‘popular’ and ‘communal’ and ‘au currant’), are nice core element in their semi-on the job-training.

    The women that I care about getting into computing are already in the workforce – and so, I think that MOOCs provide a useful element of a culture of continuing education which is actually quite friendly to gender diversity, relative to some of the older hobbyist cultures, for example.

    Reply
  • […] teachers learning CS, or in end-users who are learning programming to use in their work, or in making CS more diverse. It may be that universities will be replaced by online learning, but I don’t think that […]

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  • […] starting.  The faculty did vote on the proposal. I argued against it (based mostly on learning and diversity arguments), but lost (which led to my long winter […]

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  • […] Andy Kessler of the Wall Street Journal (linked below) misunderstands why we have a computing labor shortage. MOOCs definitely make “computing education” (in general) accessible to more people.  But that doesn’t mean that we’ll shrink the computing labor shortage, as described by Code.org.  Undergraduate computing education is “accessible” to everyone on campus, but rarely draws more than 15% women. We have to go from “accessible” to “engaging.”  Unless we draw in women and under-represented minorities, we can’t close the jobs-graduates gap.  We have to change how we teach to draw more women and under-represented minorities, and MOOCs don’t teach that way. […]

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  • […] excited too about a MOOC to teach AP CS.  AP CS is already overwhelmingly white and male.  The demographic data from existing CS MOOCs is even more white and male than our face-to-face classes.  I can’t see how an AP CS MOOC […]

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  • 11. MOOC roundup | Gas station without pumps  |  July 28, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    […] starting.  The faculty did vote on the proposal. I argued against it (based mostly on learning and diversity arguments), but lost (which led to my long winter post). Faculty in the College of Computing have […]

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  • […] Anne Balsamo’s design and do see that this approach has a greater chance of drawing in women (based on research like Joanne Cohoon’s) than traditional […]

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  • […] for lots of reasons.  Certainly, that’s one of the big stumbling blocks in MOOCs — many people who start a MOOC aren’t prepared for that level material (or maybe, the MOOCs presume too much knowledge to start).  The CAITE alliance was able to improve […]

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