Understanding CS Ed Research in The Soul of the Research University

July 20, 2014 at 9:10 am 8 comments

The below-linked article is highly recommended.  It’s an insightful consideration of the different definitions of “University” we have in the US, and how the goals of helping students become educated for middle class jobs and of being a research university are not the same thing.

This article gave me new insight into the challenges of discipline-based education research, like computing education research.  We really are doing research, as one would expect in a research university, e.g., trying to understand what it means for a human to understand computation and how to improve that understanding.  But what we study is a kind of activity that occurs at that other kind of university.  That puts us in a weird place, between the two definitions of the role of a university.  It gives me new insight into the challenges I faced when I was the director of undergraduate studies in the College of Computing and when I was implementing Media Computation.  Education research isn’t just thrown over the wall into implementation.  The same challenges of technology adoption and, necessarily, technology adaption have to occur.

At the “TIME Summit on Higher Education” that the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Time magazine co-sponsored in September 2013 along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the disconnect between the views of the research university from inside and outside was vividly on display. A procession of distinguished leaders of higher education mainly emphasized the need to protect—in particular, to finance adequately—the university’s research mission. A procession of equally distinguished outsiders, including the U.S. secretary of education, mainly emphasized the need to make higher education more cost-effective for its students and their families, which almost inevitably entails twisting the dial away from research and toward the emphasis on skills instruction that characterizes the mass higher-education model. Time’s own cover story that followed from the conference hardly mentioned research it was mainly about how much economically useful material students are learning, even though the research university was explicitly the main focus of the conference.

via The Soul of the Research University – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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

Research Outcome: Professors work long hours, spend much of day in meetings, and tuition increases aren’t because faculty are getting raises MOOCs get schoolified: Two reports predict MOOCs will simply be absorbed

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  July 20, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    What I find most saddening is:

    – On the one hand, most people do not understand why having faculty who actively do research is a vital part of improving the educational experience; and simultaneously,

    – how the faculty who actively do research often ensure that this common misunderstanding is not misplaced.

    Put differently, this is a manifestation of the (trite) maxim “in theory there is no difference between practice and theory, but in practice there is”.

    This leads to a vicious cycle, and results in the kind of (false in theory, real in practice) dichotomy the original article is about.

    In the computer science context, I especially call out CS departments with great research reputations whose introductory teaching is nevertheless done by instructors.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  July 20, 2014 at 10:24 pm

      I’m not sure that it’s a false dichotomy. While I agree with the value for teaching that you’re expressing, I also see that having an instructional staff is how research universities meet the teaching expectations of a state university.

      I do agree: I would prefer to blend the goals of research and teaching. But I recognize that I have a biased and privileged perspective. For me, teaching feeds into my research. University of Toronto is a place that blends these purposes well. Their instructional staff keep up with CS Education research, and work together to write research papers, e.g., gathering data in their different classes, analyzing the pooled data, and writing up the findings for SIGCSE or other forums.

      • 3. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  July 20, 2014 at 10:43 pm

        If that’s how they satisfy the state’s expectations, then they are mis-advertising themselves to students, who go there expecting to be taught the people who give the departments their research reputation: tenure-track/tenured faculty who also have a reputation for innovation in some aspect of computing (including computing ed when treated as a _research_ subject).

        When the media, parents, and students talk about certain well-known departments as innovators in computing, they mean the folks doing robotics or security or whatever. That’s who they want access to. They often don’t realize that these folks are not who they’re going to meet, at least for a while. I see confusion about this every year when I talk to prospective students.

        Some departments take seriously the notion that the people who give the departments their research reputations should also be the ones who students confront from the first day onward, because we have a deep belief that excellence in one influences how the other is conducted. It can be done; it just needs people to have a certain value system. And of course not all those researchers are good to put before first year students—lord, can I name some!—but some are.

        Of course, it’s nice when you can turn the teaching into a research subject in its own right. You’ve done a great job of it; we’ve done it coming from the other end (eg, the many innovations in DrRacket that required solution of complex technical problems to give students simple learning environments). But they don’t _have_ to relate; one can still treat them as separate domains and succeed at both. (Andy van Dam is a good example of this for several decades now. And speaking personally, the majority of my research has nothing at all to do with teaching first-year students.)

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  July 21, 2014 at 10:21 am

          At least here at Georgia Tech, the research faculty do teach undergraduates — just not the introductory courses. All our faculty are required to teach undergraduate courses, too, so it’s certainly possible to access those doing the research that the University is known for.

          Absolutely, one can excel at both research and teaching without a direct connection between them (from ed research or PL research). But what incentivizes that? There are a lot of filters and drivers for quality in research, e.g. peer-review in publication and grants. How about for education? Who pushes for quality in teaching? Certainly not from the research faculty side. I’ve had colleagues tell me that good teachers are born not made so developing teaching skill is useless. Another argues that it’s not possible to measure good teaching, so if it’s not possible to tell if you’re doing well or not, why bother?

          I’m not convinced that state universities with a teaching mission can focus more on teaching quality. When I was director of undergraduate studies in the College, I was frustrated that so much of our effort was spent on just managing the hordes of students, not improving quality. (Eric Roberts has been warning about this problem for years.) When Lijun Ni interviewed university faculty in teaching-oriented colleges, she found that they were worried about their research, because tenure and promotion still required publications.

          Teaching and research can co-exist, and can even synergistically improve each other. One can be good at both even without those connections. How do we make quality teaching more common?

          • 5. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  July 21, 2014 at 2:31 pm

            I don’t know of a research university where the research faculty don’t _eventually_ teach undergrads. (Sorry, my message was poorly worded and gave the wrong impression.) But I’m referring specifically to courses in the first year or even two.

            Again, it goes back to departmental culture. Who pushes for quality in teaching? In my department, it certainly is the research-active faculty.

  • 6. Skill is a four letter word | Lorin Hochstein  |  July 20, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    […] Mark Guzdial points to an article by Nicholas Lemann in the Chronicle of Higher Ed entitled The Soul of the Research University. It’s a good essay about the schizophrenic nature of the modern research university. But Lemann takes some shots at the notion of teaching skills in the university. Here’s some devil’s advocacy from the piece: […]

  • 7. Not apprenticeship! | Lorin Hochstein  |  July 20, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    […] Mark Guzdial points to an article by Nicholas Lemann in the Chronicle of Higher Ed entitled The Soul of the Research University. It’s a good essay about the schizophrenic nature of the modern research university. But Lemann takes some shots at the notion of teaching skills in the university. Here’s some devil’s advocacy from the piece: […]

  • 8. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  July 21, 2014 at 11:03 am

    I remember hearing a couple of years ago about a change made to the British system: Faculty could declare themselves as research-oriented or teaching-oriented with the ostensible goal that both groups were given prestige, tenure, etc. Does anyone know if there has been follow-up on that system and how it has worked?


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