Different is not Lite: A 2002 Argument Against Media Computation

September 23, 2015 at 8:22 am 2 comments


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.”

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  September 23, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Just to be clear (based on poking around websites), BSCM is not the same as BSCS with a media thread, correct? From what I can see, BSCS requires more math, including linear algebra, probability/stats, etc. Is this part of the posturing that underlies the idea that “CS is *science*, so it has to be mathematically rigorous.”

    As an alternative theory, I think it’s just an extension of the larger culture and history of CS, and this will make it a much harder problem to tackle. (I’m teaching a societal & ethical issues in computing course this semester, so I’ve been reading/thinking about this stuff a lot lately. Oh, and I teach it immediately after teaching OS, which is the most bizarre teaching transition I’ve ever encountered…) Throughout the ’70s-’90s, there was a deep cultural rift between the connected power users (e.g., the Usenet crowd, ITS hackers, and Unix fans) vs. the stand-alone PC users who had never heard of the jargon file and had the audacity to think that Basic was a real programming language. This split contributed to the CS vs. CIS rivalry, with the emacs and terminal users proclaiming superiority over those weak-minded business majors that had to use a mouse to work with their spreadsheets because they couldn’t figure out how to use sed, awk, and regular expressions to manipulate data using just a keyboard. Now, with comp media, you’re not just suggesting that graphical interfaces should be used, but they’re actually worthy of being studied? And you’re not even requiring each student to write their own multithreaded graphical processing engine in assembly? (Hopefully the hyperbole, snark, and caricature through this was obvious enough…)

    While we definitely need to, I’m, sadly, not confident that we can change the culture of arrogance any time soon. The problem reminds me of the idea (from a Malcolm Gladwell book, I think) that a company’s culture is defined by its founder and that culture will persist for years after the founder leaves. In essence, the culture will remain until a new leader that is more charismatic can change it. So the implication for CS is that, until we have a pro-CM person as powerful and influential as people like Jobs, Gates, Bezos, Ellison, etc., there’s a lot of inertia to overcome. Of course that means we have to start now with conscious efforts to try. Because it’s possible that one of our students could go on to become that leader.

  • […] of my work and my students’ work is about embedding computing education (e.g., Media Computation which embeds computing in the digital media context that students value, or Brian Dorn’s work embedding computing in a graphic design context) and tailoring […]


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