Archive for October, 2014

NPR When Women Stopped Coding in 1980’s: As we repeat the same mistakes

The NPR Planet Money segment cited below is excellent.  I’m really glad that they reached out to Jane Margolis and Telle Whitney to get the history right.

The question that they don’t address in the segment is, “Why did the classes get so much harder in the mid-1980’s that only the boys who were playing with PCs could succeed at them?”

In the early 1980’s, interest in Computer Science spiked.  There was more interest than there were seats available in CS classes.  Eric Roberts talked about these times in his keynote at the Future of Computing Education Research workshop in January 2014, which I blogged about here.  What to do with the burgeoning enrollment and no additional resources? Caps were put into place, and classes became harder.  Berkeley raised their cap until you had to have 4.0 in all your pre-requisite CS classes to get accepted to the major.  Eric Roberts was chair of the CS department at Wellesley in the early 1980’s, and he told me about introductory CS classes at MIT with insane workload, where only the boys with lots of prior CS experience and who were fanatical about computing were getting through.  Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher talked about this phenomenon in Unlocking the Clubhouse when they describe how the men and women in the CS classes at CMU had different views of the computer, which influenced how they interacted with it and how much time they were willing to put into their classes (nice summary of this story is on Wikipedia).

The classes may not have been made harder explicitly to deal with overcrowding, i.e., to “weed out.” It may have happened in response to an influx of boys who already knew a lot from playing with their PC toys, compounded with a lack of resources because of the overcrowding. With boys who already knew a lot, CS teachers could start skipping over topics, or covering them lightly, or just assigning programming tasks so that the student “figures it out” on his or her own. If a student can’t learn with this approach, then teacher might decide that the student just “can’t” learn to program. Maybe the student doesn’t have the Geek Gene. Some students do succeed with this approach, because they know a lot from prior experience (or have the Geek Gene).

Now, put this in the setting of high enrollments and tight budgets.  A student with lots of prior experience needs less teacher time to succeed. A student with less experience needs more time and effort in order to succeed in CS classes. In lean times, there are fewer resources for teaching, and those with less experience will not get the resources they need to succeed. Students with more experience will succeed just fine, so we continue to have high-quality CS graduates who get good jobs. Unless we look carefully at who is succeeding and who isn’t, we might not even notice that our program now presumes prior experience in order for the student to succeed.

What’s scary is that we may now be following the exact same path.  Eric has been warning about this for some time (see blog post). Enrollment in CS is exploding nationwide.  Now, the caps are starting to be put into place.  Berkeley now requires a 3.0 in the pre-requisite classes to get in to the major.  Here at Georgia Tech, the College of Computing has just requested to have a grade requirement in pre-requisite CS classes before allowing students to transfer into CS.

It’s still the case that it’s mostly wealthier (middle or upper class), white or Asian males who get access to high school CS. That’s in Barb’s AP analysis that got so much coverage this last year (see blog post here and the media coverage here).  AP CS is the most gender-skewed AP (more male than AP Studio Art is female).  So, even if you’re in a school that can afford AP, women will most likely not be in the CS class. In our AP analysis SIGCSE paper last year, we showed how wealth in a state has a strong relationship with AP CS offerings in the state.  We’re now starting to show the relationship continues to the district level as appeared in this blog a few weeks ago.

These kinds of caps have two effects which limit access by women and under-represented minorities (the second of which was pointed out to me by Eric):

  • First, the students who succeed the most in intro CS are the ones with prior experience.
  • Second, creating these kinds of caps creates a perception of CS as a highly competitive field, which is a deterrent to many students.  Those students may not even try to get into CS.

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.)

It looks likely that we are going to reduce the diversity in CS, again.  While on our watch.


Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Most of the big names in technology are men.But a lot of computing pioneers, the ones who programmed the first digital computers, were women. And for decades, the number of women in computer science was growing.But in 1984, something changed. The number of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged.

via Episode 576: When Women Stopped Coding : Planet Money : NPR.

Many in the ideas for this blog post came from discussions with the Diversity Task Force of the ACM Education Council. All the mistakes are mine.

October 30, 2014 at 8:19 am 44 comments

Going beyond the cognitivist in computing education research questions

In Josh Tenenberg’s lead article in the September 2014 ACM Transactions on Computing Education (linked below), he uses this blog, and in particular, this blog post on research questions, as a foil for exploring what questions we ask in computing education research.  I was both delighted (“How wonderful! I have readers who are thinking about what I’m writing!”) and aghast (“But wait!  It’s just a blog post!  I didn’t carefully craft the language the way I might a serious paper!”) — but much more the former.  Josh is kind in his consideration, and raises interesting issues about our perspectives in our research questions.

I disagree with one part of his analysis, though.  He argues that my conception of computing education (“the study of how people come to understand computing”) is inherently cognitivist (centered in the brain, ignoring the social context) because of the word “understand.”  Maybe.  If understanding is centered in cognition, yes, I agree.  If understanding is demonstrated through purposeful action in the world (i.e., you understand computing if you can do with computing what you want), then it’s a more situated definition.  If understanding is a dialogue with others (i.e., you understand computing if you can communicate about computing with others), then it’s more of a sociocognitive definition.

The questions he calls out are clearly cognitivist.  I’m guilty as charged — my first PhD advisor was a cognitive scientist, and I “grew up” as the learning science community was being born.  That is my default position when it comes to thinking about learning.  But I think that my definition of the field is more encompassing, and in my own work, I tend toward thinking more about motivation and about communities of practice.

Asking significant research questions is a crucial aspect of building a research foundation in computer science CS education. In this article, I argue that the questions that we ask are shaped by internalized theoretical presuppositions about how the social and behavioral worlds operate. And although such presuppositions are essential in making the world sensible, at the same time they preclude carrying out many research studies that may further our collective research enterprise. I build this argument by first considering a few proposed research questions typical of much of the existing research in CS education, making visible the cognitivist assumptions that these questions presuppose. I then provide a different set of assumptions based on sociocultural theories of cognition and enumerate some of the different research questions to which these presuppositions give rise. My point is not to debate the merits of the contrasting theories but to demonstrate how theories about how minds and sociality operate are imminent in the very questions that researchers ask. Finally, I argue that by appropriating existing theory from the social, behavioral, and learning sciences, and making such theories explicit in carrying out and reporting their research, CS education researchers will advance the field.

via Asking Research Questions.

October 28, 2014 at 8:18 am 8 comments

Adjunct Faculty are Unionizing

I wonder if this is the start of a trend that will change higher education.  The job of being faculty is becoming harder, especially in CS as enrollments rise without a rise in faculty numbers. Adjunct faculty are particularly put upon in universities, and unionizing is one way for them to push back.

Part-time faculty members at downtown Pittsburgh’s Point Park University have voted to join the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers AFA-USW.The group filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board NLRB in April to hold a mail ballot election. A total of 314 part-time Point Park instructors were eligible to vote, and the ballots were counted this morning at the NLRB’s downtown offices.

via Point Park Adjunct Faculty Votes to Join AFA-USW Union | United Steelworkers.

October 26, 2014 at 8:58 am 15 comments

Computational media women are retained to graduation

After my post claiming that Georgia Tech’s Computational Media program is the most gender-balanced, ABET-accredited computing undergraduate degree program in the United States, I had several people ask, “But that’s enrollment. Do the women graduate? Do they stick with the program?” My sense was that they did, but I asked our College data person, Elijah Cameron, and he sent me the below. Last year, BS in Computational Media graduates were over 40% female. Pretty good.


October 24, 2014 at 8:31 am 1 comment

In Silicon Valley diversity conversations, age is left out

I’ve heard this from former students in Silicon Valley.  It’s hard to stay in the game for long, because you “age out.”

But one set of statistics has been noticeably absent: the age of those companies workers.Silicon Valleys conversation about diversity has revolved chiefly around gender and race, although the stereotype of the techie as white, male and young has written out the over-40 set as well.”Walk into any hot tech company and you’ll find disproportionate representation of young Caucasian and Asian males,” said Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. “All forms of diversity are important, for the same reasons: workforce demand, equality of opportunity and quality of end product.”

via In Silicon Valley diversity conversations, age is left out – SFGate.

October 22, 2014 at 8:39 am 3 comments

The Growing Tide of Anti-Intellectualism

The issues raised about education are particularly relevant to this blog. State cutbacks of funding to universities send a message about what’s valued and what’s not. CS departments in state schools (and elsewhere) are facing enormous increases in enrollment, and without additional resources, are going to be imposing caps — which will serve to reduce the diversity of computing, as it did in the 1980’s. Where we place our resources indicates our values.

Spaf's Thoughts

There is an undeniable, politically-supported growth of denial — and even hatred — of learning, facts, and the educated. Greed (and, most likely, fear of minorities) feeds demagoguery. Demagoguery can lead to harmful policies and thereafter to mob actions.

I’ve written on this topic here before. I also have cited an excellent essay from Scientific American about how the rising tide of anti-intellectualism threatens our democracy and future (you should read it).

What prompts this post is a recent article about a thinly-veiled political probe of the National Science Foundation, combined with the pending national election in the US. (Some of these issues apply elsewhere in the world, but this is a US-centric post.)

This view is also reinforced by my current experience — I am on a combined speaking tour and family vacation in Poland. I recently visited a memorial to the Katyn massacre, remembering when Soviet…

View original post 1,026 more words

October 20, 2014 at 11:07 am 1 comment

Women computer science grads: Raw numbers went up as percentages went down

Fascinating analysis! It turns out that the number of women getting degrees in CS actually rose in the early 2000’s, but the percentage shared dropped because so many men women were taking CS, too.

Here’s the number of women getting CS degrees:

Here’s the percentage view:

The gains by women actually weren’t keeping up with the overall increase in the population of CS grads. More men were filling those seats than women. As a share of all CS bachelor’s degrees granted that year, females had slipped almost 10 points, from 37% in 1984/1985 to 27% in 2003. The overall trendline was clearly downward, as seen below.

via Women computer science grads: The bump before the decline | Computerworld.

October 20, 2014 at 8:25 am 2 comments

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