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