Archive for September 23, 2015

Different is not Lite: A 2002 Argument Against Media Computation


I recently moved offices. In the process of packing and pitching, I found the above editorial from the Georgia Tech student newspaper.  Dated September 2002, it urged the faculty in the Liberal Arts, Architecture, and Management Colleges to reject the newfangled Media Computation class that was being proposed.

I had heard the argument being made in the editorial before, and continue to hear it today.  The argument is that we do our students a disservice if we don’t give them “real” computer science.  The editor cited above is arguing that all students at Georgia Tech deserve the same high-quality computer science education.  If we don’t give them the “real” thing, if liberal arts and management majors aren’t getting the same thing as CS majors, they are only getting “CS lite.”

That phrase “CS lite” gets applied to our BS in Computational Media regularly. (See the blog post where I talk about that.)  Which is funny, because all but one of the CS classes that CM majors take are the same ones that CS majors take.  Georgia Tech CS majors take many more credit hours than other majors (including CS majors at other institutions), and the CM major has enough CS courses to be ABET accredited as a computing program.  So, what’s “lite” about that?  Are other schools’ BS in CS programs “Georgia Tech CS lite” because they have fewer credit hours in CS?

Media Computation wasn’t lite. It was different.  MediaComp didn’t cover everything that the intro course for CS majors did.  But the course for CS majors didn’t cover everything that MediaComp did.  In fact, after a few years, the CS instructors complained that our CS majors didn’t know about RGB and how to implement photo effects (like how to negate an image, or how to generate grayscale from a color picture) — which non-CS majors did know!  Content on media got added to the CS majors classes.

Computational Media isn’t CS lite.  It’s CS different.  The one course that’s different between CS and CM is the required course on computer organization.  CS majors take a course based on Patt and Patel’s book.  CM majors take a course where they program a Nintendo Gameboy.  The courses are not exactly the same, but have a significant overlap.  We did a study of the two courses a few years ago and published a journal paper on it (see link here, and article is on my papers page). There was no significant difference in student learning between the two courses.  But the CM majors liked their course much more.  Now, there are projects on programming the Gameboy in the CS majors classes, too.

Different is good.  Different is where you invent new things.  Some of those new curricular ideas helped CS courses.  Some of those different ideas stayed in the CM and MediaComp courses. Those courses serve different populations and different needs. Not all of it was appropriate or useful for CS majors.

Just because there is difference doesn’t mean that it’s lite.  Do we call mechanical engineering “physics lite”?  Or chemical engineering “chemistry lite”?  I’m sure that there are people who do, but that’s disparaging to the difference and diminishes the value of exploring different combinations of subject areas.  Valuing different combinations with computing is a particularly important idea for computer science, because interdisciplinary computing degrees are the only ones where the percentage of women majors are growing (see RESPECT report here).  We should value interdisciplinary courses and programs because it’s good for our students and for diversity.  We should not disparage the CS + X perspectives as “CS lite.”

September 23, 2015 at 8:22 am 2 comments

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