Starting from the students to build engaging computing courses for non-CS majors: Response to Goldweber and Walker

March 5, 2015 at 8:38 am 15 comments

Michael Goldweber and Henry Walker responded to my blog posts (here in Blog@CACM and here in this blog) in the Inroad blog (see article here). My thanks to them for taking the time to respond to me. I found their comments especially valuable in helping to see where I was making assumptions about common values, goals, and understanding. It’s too easy in a blog to only get responses from people who share a common understanding (even if we violently disagree about values and goals). I found it helpful to get feedback from Dr. Goldweber and Dr. Walker with whom I don’t correspond regularly.

“Pedagogy” isn’t just “how to teach” for me. They argue that their articles are not about pedagogy but about what should be taught in a course that students might take to explore computer science. The page I linked to at the US Department of Education is about evidence-based education, not evidence-based pedagogy. The definition of pedagogy is “the discipline that deals with the theory and practice of education” (Wikipedia link). One meaning of pedagogy is the whole field of education, which is how I meant it in that piece (as in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.) What to teach is part of pedagogy. If we don’t use evidence for making decisions what to teach, we are practicing folk pedagogy.

My larger point was about the role of evidence rather than intuition. Whether we’re talking about how to teach or what to teach, I believe that we have to gather evidence (or in Paulo Freire’s terms, have a dialog with the students and stakeholders). Certainly, we want to gather evidence about the effectiveness of our teaching. We also need to gather evidence when designing education. My background is in education and HCI. For me, “Know thy users for they are not you” is a given in HCI, and “Student-centered” is a given in Education. Both saying suggest that we start with not-me: not the designer, not the teacher, not the domain expert.  But for Dr. Walker, “The starting point is identifying the themes and Big Ideas, not pedagogy.”

The unspoken assumption behind my posts, which may not be shared with Dr. Walker and Dr. Goldweber, is that any CS course for non-CS majors (whether a service, elective, or exploratory course) should aim to increase interest in the field of CS, and especially, should be designed to attract and engage women and under-represented minorities in CS. If we are happy with just having the male white and Asian students that we typically attract now, then sure, Dr. Goldweber’s right — we can just do like Philosophy does and build the course based on what we think is important.

Dr. Walker is absolutely right — there is too little time in a course to fit in everything that we think is important about CS. Even if we leave programming out, there is still too much material. How do we decide which Big Ideas to include?

In my process, I start with the students. What are their life goals and desired careers? What’s needed from computing for them to be successful? What are their values? How can I show that computer science is relevant to those values?  To choose among the ideas of computer science, we should use what the students need.  To teach the ideas that students may not know they need, we should speak to their values.

I disagree with Dr. Goldweber on these points:

The design of a non-major’s course in computing, which is not a service course for some other department/program, should belong in the hands of the CS faculty.  Students electing to explore a discipline take these courses.  Surely, discipline experts are those who can best decide what to present from the discipline.

We can just design courses for non-CS majors based on our own experience and intuition.  We shouldn’t be surprised, then, if we mostly attract white or Asian males and if we fail to engage diverse audiences.  Since all three of us (Dr. Walker, Dr. Goldweber, and me) are white, male, CS professors, I believe that we’re the wrong people to use only our own experience and intuition when designing courses for non-CS majors, for a more diverse student population. Yes, we’re disciplinary experts, but that’s not enough. It is our responsibility to design the courses — on that, we’re agreed. It’s our responsibility to design for the students’ success.

One of my favorite quotes about computing education comes from Betsy DiSalvo and Amy Bruckman. “Computer science is not that difficult, but wanting to learn it is.” (See article here.) If we our goal is for students to learn computer science, we have to figure out will make them want to learn it.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  March 5, 2015 at 9:02 am

    Good debate. But your response is too black-and-white.

    Our Introduction to Computing for Humanities and Social Sciences was designed primarily by two male CS professors, one white (I’m the other), built on a “what do we think they need” principle, but has always had really good female representation, sometimes enormous (I think a recent offering had over 80% female—taught by a white male professor). It’s not impossible; it requires not only very, very careful and hard thinking, but also a willingness to research and experiment (lots of micro-experiments, I’d say), and probably a dollop of luck.

    In the end we’re all always making something for someone who isn’t exactly like us (I trust the average student in your class doesn’t have a PhD in CS and education). As with all other design exercises, the more experience and empathy you have, the better your chances are. And sometimes it resonates with groups entirely different than the ones you imagined and carefully designed for. The key thing, I think, is always the ability to try to put yourself in various other people’s shoes—and that’s the key to all good teaching anyway, not just to creating computing classes for non-majors.

    Reply
    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  March 5, 2015 at 9:35 am

      You don’t think that experiments and micro-experiments are examples of “gathering evidence”? The number of females isn’t the only measure of success, right? Could you have run fewer experiments and micro-experiments if you’d gathered evidence first?

      Reply
      • 3. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  March 5, 2015 at 8:16 pm

        Of course the micro-experiments are gathering evidence. I put that phrase in there to acknowledge the value of that. But they were small, and along the way, and hardly preparatory.

        What evidence would we have gathered beforehand? Today, based on the content, this would be called “Working with Big Data” or something like that. At the time it was conceived, not only did the term “big data” not exist, but even the concept was scarcely around. To put it in the most visceral terms: at the conception, Twitter was three years in the future, and Facebook was also a year away. That is, these sites literally didn’t exist, much less begin to enter the vernacular. Put yourself in 2003 and trying to design a “big data” course. The world is a pretty lonely place.

        Still, I had a hunch that lots of social data would exist, and their existence would change the way social sciences would be practiced, and we should get ahead of the curve and teach our students to contend with such things so that they become leaders, not followers.

        As researchers we’re paid to do science, but we’re also paid to take big, bold bets. This was a big, bold bet. It paid off. If I spot a trend like it, I hope I’ll do the same thing again.

        I often teach software engineering, and in that space there is a never-ending debate between different development methods. I’ve always used my software engineering process knowledge to design courses, because there are many, many deep similarities. Sometime you want to be a waterfall; some of my courses are designed that way. And sometimes you want to be agile. It’s unwise to assume only one method always produces the best result.

        Reply
    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  March 5, 2015 at 11:41 am

      There is a danger in claiming that two male CS professors can make a class for female students without involving female students, especially when you argue that you know what they need. It’s a patriarchal attitude, e.g., “We don’t have to bother the women with this. We know what they need.” Experience and empathy is good, but respect for the other means that we ask the other.

      Reply
      • 5. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  March 5, 2015 at 8:17 pm

        Mark, please. You’re assuming various things that aren’t true, and concluding in an accusation of outright sexism. I would like to think you’d at least ask more questions before leveling such a claim in public.

        Reply
        • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  March 6, 2015 at 9:51 am

          Shriram, I have absolute faith that you only had the best intentions in the design of your course. I’m also willing to believe that it’s a great course. The phrase I used is “there is a danger in…” There is a non-zero probability that, when majority group teachers design a course for minority group students, we will make assumptions that are wrong or will design sub-optimally for the students concerns and needs. I don’t know what questions I might ask you to alleviate that danger, since I’m also in the majority group and just as susceptible.

          Ethnographers talk about the human observer as a flawed and biased scientific instrument. Ethnographers try to make explicit their biases. They use other data to validate their conclusions. They ask others to review their data and compute inter-rater reliabilities.

          Designers are similarly flawed and biased. We need to have a dialog with our students and other stakeholders to validate what we believe. Did you ever read my blog post about developing STEM education for American Indians? Involving the students and other stakeholders in the design process, even if you end up at nearly the same place, changes their relationship to the course.

          Shriram, if I designed a programming language for end-users and didn’t include type declarations and checks, I’m sure that you’d tell me that I’d done it wrong. I might disagree with you, but I’d listen to you. I’m telling you that designing education without gathering evidence and talking to the students and other stakeholders is the wrong process. I have written papers about our design process for MediaComp, which did involve research, focus groups, and advisory boards. Gathering evidence doesn’t guarantee no mistakes. (And still, in 2013, I wrote a paper about the things I got wrong in the first 10 years.) It’s a better process.

          I’m not calling you sexist. I’m calling you human, and therefore, biased and flawed.

          Reply
          • 7. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  March 6, 2015 at 9:55 am

            That’s fine, Mark. We actually did try getting some feedback up front (as stage 2, after the initial conception). We didn’t really succeed in getting much of anything (perhaps because what we were trying to do was so new and/or because people weren’t that interested in investing effort at that time). We have gotten lots of feedback over the years (eg, from students). We’ve adapted based on it. It’s not like we’re not trying to get feedback, or shutting out whatever we’re getting. But the truth is, 90% of the course is basically unchanged from its conception. Maybe it’s because we’re stubborn or blind, but it may also be from other factors. That’s all.

            Reply
  • 8. alfredtwo  |  March 5, 2015 at 9:18 am

    Several years ago at an advisory board meeting for a high school career/technical program someone asked a university representative on the board what the most important thing a HS CS course should teach. His reply was “get them interested. If they come to college interested we can teach them what they need.”

    This was in someways an unsatisfactory answer but it was also an important answer. While we all want the first course to provide a base of knowledge to build on later in many ways a first course that does not build a desire to learn more is not a real success. I don’t think this is any less true at the university level than it is at the secondary school level.

    To get students interested in learning more it has to be relevant to them. It has to meet some need that they have (or that you can convince them to have). Yes, domain experts are the ones who know what base of knowledge students need to have but they may not be the ones best to determine how to present that knowledge in a way that helps a student want to learn more.

    Reply
  • 9. carpetbomberz  |  March 5, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Carpet Bomberz Inc. and commented:
    Prof. Mark Guzdial on the topic of designing courses and what is pedagogy vs. what is curricula. They’re not the same.

    Reply
  • 10. Jana Markowitz  |  March 5, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Mark, I love that you are delving into what will interest women and minorities in CS and creating intro classes for non-majors. However, I think if we wait until college to get them interested, we will never have reasonable representation from these groups. A friend (EE, white male, IT professional) and I (CS, white female) created a “Build a Computer” workshop of 2-3 hours for 10-12 year old girls and delivered it to two local girls’ schools. We disassembled a few desktops, explained the parts and what they do (at a very high level) then let the girls re-assemble the desktops, boot them up (yay! they worked) and play games on them. Then we showed them the Raspberry Pi has the same parts and lets them play the same games – and told them their phones are also computers with the same components. In addition we showed them slides on the history of computers from mainframes to smartphones (including lots of women wiring boards on ENIAC) as well as Corning’s Day Made of Glass video that shows future technologies – with two pre-teen girls as the primary characters.

    The most fulfilling outcome was one 10-year-old girl’s saying to me, “So computers aren’t hard, are they?” If we can’t get this sort of observation from 10 to12 year old girls, I’m afraid not many of your freshmen women will opt for a CS class, no matter how well you’ve designed it for them.

    When a girl’s first exposure to computers is AP CS in high school, computers ARE hard and it turns her off. We have to start sooner, make it easier and show them how it helps them day-to-day (i.e.troubleshoot their own Internet issues, fix their own phone app glitches, resolve their operating system issues.)

    Oh, one other great question a little girl asked, “If that’s a mother-board, and these are daughter-boards, where are the son boards?”

    Reply
    • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  March 5, 2015 at 2:16 pm

      Sounds like a great course, Jana, but I don’t think it’s a one-or-the-other. If we turn off women in undergraduate, then getting them interested at an early age didn’t get the place we want to be.

      I disagree that we HAVE to start early. My school chair (my boss), Annie Anton, didn’t see computer science until undergraduate, and now she’s a full-professor in CS at Georgia Tech. In our study of over 2K undergrads in CS across Georgia, most of the women and under-represented minority students had their first taste of CS in high school. I do agree that it’s BETTER to start earlier, but starting early without the later years working doesn’t get us to greater diversity.

      Reply
  • 12. Jana Markowitz  |  March 5, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    Mark, you misunderstood – I don’t think it’s “one or the other.” I wasn’t suggesting we start giving girls computer science experiences in K-5 and then have dismal intro classes in college. I’m just saying it would be easier to interest a freshman girl in CS if she had had positive experiences in K-12 than if she had had only a negative (too hard, seemingly irrelevant AP CS) experience in high school or no experience of CS at all. With no personal experience young women go with popular stereotypes of computer science (“it’s hard”) and computer people (“socially inept geeks”) – almost all of which are negative. I don’t doubt there are women PhD’s in CS who never saw a computer before college, but I don’t think the few exceptions disprove the general rule. And in our society today it would be almost impossible to NOT have some sort of computer experience by age 8; I believe those experiences should include an explanation of how the device they are using works, not just which buttons to push or icons to swipe. When you demystify a technology, it becomes less daunting. The general public thinks CS is “too hard” for non-geniuses.

    I had girls who are in a private, college-prep school and have perfect SAT scores ask me, “What if I’m not smart enough to do computer science?” Their (un-informed) teachers and college counselors reinforce this incorrect perception of CS. A college counselor at one of these schools told me, “We would only have one or two girls who would be able to go into CS.” She meant one or two who could get into Harvey Mudd or Carnegie Mellon (which they have had students do.) I pointed out that schools other than those two offer CS degrees.

    I’m saying this problem is bigger than getting a non-major female interested in an intro to CS class (although I applaud your doing this and think it will help – Harvey Mudd requires intro CS for all and is at 50%+ females majoring in CS.) But the problem starts with opinions/perceptions formed in K-12 and is exacerbated by uninformed K-12 faculty and advisers. Because the problem starts there, I believe the solution to it MUST start there as well (so I disagree with you on this one point.) Only by starting early will we get back to 35-40% females in CS everywhere, which is where we were when I graduated and there were not yet PCs, video games or a general mentality that “only boys” like computers.

    Reply
    • 13. Mark Guzdial  |  March 6, 2015 at 10:03 am

      You may very well be right, Jana. It’s certainly worth exploring. I’m not convinced that it’s necessary to get CS in elementary school to address our lack of diversity. It certainly would help!

      Two of the reasons why I don’t think it’s necessary:

      Our over 40% female Computational Media program — changing the undergraduate major does attract more women, even if they haven’t had elementary school CS.
      Nathan Ensmenger’s description of the 1970’s and 1980’s, when CS was 40% female, when we had even less elementary and high school CS than we do now.

      But it’s worth doing, and we’ll learn a lot by trying!

      Reply
  • 14. Bonnie  |  March 6, 2015 at 11:50 am

    I am one of those female CS PhDs who never had exposure to computers until college. In fact, I didn’t even switch into CS until my junior year in college. I started as an art history major! But this was also in the era (early 80’s) when there were lots of women majoring in CS. I am sure that there were around 40% women in my classes. But the CS major itself was even more dry, strict, and math oriented than today. We didn’t have computational media or lab sessions or clickers or anything geared towards at risk students. We had programming assignments dumped on us from on high, which we were expected to do on our own with little help. And still women were happy to major in CS. Why? I think because the atmosphere was so different back then. No games, no Mark Zuckerberg, no Silicon Valley startup culture. Computer science was very much seen in my generation as a safe steady job for girls who liked math but didn’t want to go into accounting or K12 math education, which at the time were seen as the traditional choices for women. Perhaps one reason for the decline in female participation in CS is simply that opportunities for math loving women increased in fields like finance, the sciences, and other areas of engineering. But certainly the huge change in culture, due largely to gaming, played a big role.

    Sometimes I wonder if pushing Scratch in K12 so much will have a negative impact, because the culture around Scratch is so gaming-oriented. I do Scratch workshops at our library sometimes – attendance is always just boys, and all they want to do is play the games that other kids have developed. One of our middle school teachers is trying to get more girls involved with her after school computing program by switching focus over to wearables, based on input from the middle school girls she is targeting. I wonder if that will help.

    Reply
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