Why MOOCs don’t help CS Education: Learning to lighten up

July 31, 2014 at 8:54 am 5 comments

Last year, Peter Denning approached me about contributing a post to an on-line Symposium that he was going to hold in the  ACM Ubiquity magazine.  The opening statement was written by Candace Thille  — I am a big fan of Candace’s work, and I really liked her statement. I agreed to provide a response for the symposium.

My article has just been published (here). The whole symposium with all the preceding posts is here.  But the ending I quote below is not the ending it had originally.

Back in May, when I originally wrote the ending, I was concerned that so many Computer Scientists were working in MOOCs.  MOOCs don’t address the critical needs of CS education, which are broadening participation and preparing more teachers. The real worry I had was that MOOCs would suck all the air out of the room. When all the attention is going to MOOCs, not enough attention is going to meeting our real needs. MOOCs are a solution in search of a problem, when we already have big problems with too few solutions.

My original ending took off from Cameron Wilson’s (then director of public policy for ACM, now COO of Code.org) call for “All Hands on Deck” to address issues of broadening participation and teacher professional development. Extending the metaphor, I suggested that the computer scientists working on MOOCs had gone “AWOL.” They were deserters from the main front for CS education.

This was the first article that I’ve ever written where the editor sent it back saying (paraphrased), “Lighten up, man.” I agreed. I wrote the new conclusion (below).  MOOCs are worth exploring, and are clearly attractive for computer scientists to work on. Researchers should explore the avenues that they think are most interesting and most promising.

I’m still worried that we need more attention on challenges in computing education, and I still think that MOOCs won’t get us there.  Critiquing MOOC proponents for not working on CS ed issues will not get us to solutions any faster.  But I do plan to keep prodding and cajoling folks to turn attention to computing education.

Here’s the new ending to the paper:

MOOCs may be bringing the American university to an end—a tsunami wiping out higher education. Given that MOOCs are least effective for our most at-risk students, replacing existing courses and degrees with MOOCs is the wrong direction. We would be tailoring higher education only to those who already succeed well at the current models, where we ought to be broadening our offerings to support more students.

Computer science owns the MOOC movement. MOOC companies were started by faculty from computing, and the first MOOC courses were in computer science. One might expect that our educational advances should address our educational problems. In computing education, our most significant educational challenges are to educate a diverse audience, and to educate non-IT professionals, such as teachers. MOOCs are unlikely to help with either of these right now—and that’s surprising.

The allure of MOOCs for computer scientists is obvious. It’s a bright, shiny new technology. Computer scientists are expert at exploring the potential of new computing technology. However, we should be careful not to let “the shoemaker’s children go barefoot.” As we develop MOOC technology, let’s aim to address our educational problems. And if we can’t address the problems with MOOC technology, let’s look for other answers. Computing education is too important for our community and for our society.

via Ubiquity symposium: MOOCs and technology to advance learning and learning research.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ken Bauer  |  July 31, 2014 at 10:50 am

    You are doing excellent work here Mark and I do agree that we need more people doing research in CS ed and training teachers. The real question is how to incentivize this?

    I do believe increasing visibility of CS is important and many people are working on this; definite kudos to Hadi Partovi and all of the people including teachers involved with Code.org.

  • 2. Peter Donaldson  |  August 1, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    Hi Mark, I agree with Ken about the excellent work you’re doing. Academics who’ve been active in CS Education research and vocal over many years really do make a difference. It’s been immensely helpful to have access to a range of ideas that help to clarify what Computing as a discipline at high school level could be.

    Visibility and wider understanding in the general public is something that is likely to make a big difference. I’d also like to add that some solid research showing that a focus on CS and underlying principles rather than application training leads to more confident and effective users of technology who can rapidly adapt to change both now and in the future. The studies looking at whether general problem solving skills improved always felt to me as if they were overly ambitious particularly in light of what is known about the difficulty of far transfer.

    The other thing that would help is a good book for CS teachers specifically on pedagogy for teaching computing. Something summarising the research, exploring teaching methods we know are particularly effective and the interesting curricular approaches that could be taken would be perfect. There are a couple of books out there but nothing that quite hits the spot.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  August 3, 2014 at 7:47 pm

      Thank you, both. I’d love to see that study, too, Peter, and I agree about the need for that book.

  • 4. Nate Clark  |  August 22, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Hey Mark,

    I wholeheartedly agree that MOOCs have become obnoxiously buzzy, but I think they are important as a public option. I recently finished my BS in CompSci, and most of my actual learning happened on Udacity/Edx/Coursera. I’ve heard instructors say: “In C++, if you need a big integer, use a double.,” “C++ is a garbage collected language, because everything is cleaned up when it leaves the main function.,” “Why are we teaching them types when we are using Python? Python doesn’t have types.” Half of my senior level Operating Systems class dropped after the instructor announced that we would be using the unix command line and writing C.

    MOOCs may only be effective for high-performers, but they may be the best thing high-performers can access.

  • […] I understand why caps are going into place.  We can’t support all these students, and there are no additional resources coming.  What else can CS departments do?We might think about a lottery or using something beyond CS GPA to get those seats, something that’s more equitable. State budgets for universities have been cut back across the US, and it’s not clear that anyone (companies or the Federal government) could swoop in and cover that shortfall.  In lean budget times, few university administrators (public or private) are willing to invest in CS right now.  There will likely be a push for more MOOCs in the introductory courses — which is exactly where MOOCs are least effective (see my article in Ubiquity.) […]


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