September 2013 Special Issue of IEEE Computer on Computing Education
Betsy DiSalvo and I were guest editors for the September 2013 special issue of IEEE Computer on Computing Education. (The cover, copied above, is really nice!) The five articles in the issue did a great job of pushing computing education beyond our traditional image of CS education. Below I’m pasting our original introduction to the special issue — before copy-editing, but free for me to share, and it’s a reasonable overview of the issue.
Introduction to the Special Issue
Computing education is in the news regularly these days. England has just adopted a new computer science curriculum. Thousands of people are taking on-line courses in computer science. Code.org’s viral video had millions of people thinking about learning to code.
A common thread in all of this new computer science education is that it’s not how we normally think about computing education. Traditional computing education brings to mind undergraduates working late night in labs drinking highly-caffeinated beverages. “CS Class” brings to mind images of students gaining valuable vocational skills in classrooms. The new movement towards computing education is about computing education for everyone, from children to working adults. It’s about people learning about computing in places you wouldn’t expect, from your local elementary school to afterschool clubs. It’s about people making their own computing on things that only a few years ago were not computable at all, like your personal cellphone and even your clothing.
Computing has changed. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, computing moved from the laboratory into the business office. In the PC revolution, it moved into our homes. Now in the early 21st Century, it is ubiquitous. We use dozens of computers in our everyday life, often without even recognizing that the processors are there. Knowing about computing today is necessary for understanding the world we live in. Computer science is as valuable as biology, physics, or chemistry to our students. Consider a computer science concept: that all digitized information is represented in a computer, and the same information could be a picture or text or a virus. That is more relevant to a student today than the difference between meiosis and mitosis, or how to balance an equilibrium equation.
Computing also gives us the most powerful tool for creative expression humans have ever invented. The desktop user interface we use today was created at Xerox PARC in order to make the computer a creative device. Today, we can use computing to communicate, to inform, to delight, and to amaze. That is a powerful set of reasons for learning to control the computer with programming.
The papers in this special issue highlight how computing education has moved beyond the classroom. They highlight computing as porous education that crosses the boundaries of the classroom, and even boundaries of disciplines. These papers help us to understand the implications and the new needs of computing education today.
Maria Knobelsdorf and Jan Vahrenhold write on “Addressing the Full Range of Students: Challenges in K-12 Computer Science Education”. The issues change as computer science education moves down from higher education into primary and secondary education. What curricula should we use in schools? How do prepare enough teachers? Maria and Jan lay out the challenges, and use examples from Germany on how these challenges might be addressed.
“STEAM-Powered Computing Education using E-Textiles: Impacting Learning and Broadening Participation” by Kylie Peppler talks about integrating art into traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) classrooms through use of new kinds of media. Kylie has students sewing computers into fabrics. Her students combine roles of engineers, designers, scientists and artists as they explore issues of fashion and design with electronic circuits and computer programming.
In “The Porous Classroom: Professional practices in the computing curriculum”, Sally Fincher and Daniel Knox consider how computer science students learn beyond the classroom. Learning in the classroom is typically scripted with careful attention to students activities that lead to learning outcomes. The wild and unconstrained world outside the classroom offers many more opportunities to learn, and Sally and Daniel look at how the opportunities outside the school walls influence students as they move between the classroom and the world beyond.
Karen Brennan’s paper “Learning Computing through Creating and Connecting” starts from the programming language, Scratch, which was created to introduce computing into afterschool computer clubhouses. Students using Scratch learned through creating wonderful digital stories and animations, then sharing them with others, and further learning by mixing and re-mixing what was shared. Karen then considers the porous education from the opposite direction — what does it take to take an informal learning tool, such as Scratch, into the traditional classroom?
The paper by Allison Elliott Tew and Brian Dorn, “The Case for Validated Tools in Computing Education Research”, describes how to measure the impacts of computing education, in terms of learning and attitudes. This work ties these themes together and back to the traditional classroom. Wherever the learning is occurring, we want to know that there is learning happening. We need good measurement tools to help us know what’s working and what’s not, and how to compare different kinds of contexts for different students. Allison and Brian tell us that “initial research and development investment can pay dividends for the community because validated instruments enable and enhance a host of activities in terms of both teaching and research that would not otherwise be feasible.” Tools such as these validated instruments may allow us to measure the impact of informal, maker-based, or practice-based approaches. Work in basic tools for measurement help us to ground and connect the work that goes on beyond our single classroom through the porous boundary to other disciplines and other contexts.
The story that this special issue tells is about computer science moving from subject to literacy. Students sometimes learn computer science because they are interested in computers. More often today, students learn computer science because of what they can do with computers. Computing is a form of expression and a tool for thinking. It is becoming a basic literacy, like reading, writing, and arithmetic. We use reading and writing in all subject areas. We see that students are increasingly using programming in the same way. The papers in this special issue offer a view into that new era of computing education.