Archive for May 9, 2016

What should a post-full Computing Education Researcher do next?

My school chair, Annie Anton (most recently famous for being on a Presidential Commission on Cybersecurity), asked me to think about what I’d like to do, what I’d like to make, and what I’d like to be next — and what are the challenges to those goals. It’s a great exercise for anyone post-full professor. I have no tenure or promotion goals to achieve, but I “am not dead yet.” What comes next?

I’ve been privileged to be part of some significant efforts: From “Georgia Computes!” and “Media Computation,” to “ECEP” and our ebooks. Both of my currently-funded NSF projects (ECEP and our Ebooks) end in Fall 2017. So I have to do something else to fund graduate students and to cover the overhead of being faculty in a research university.

Below are some of the options that appeal to me. It isn’t really a wish list — there are incompatible activities on this list. This is an exploration of possibilities that particularly appeal to me. Many interesting and worthwhile problems that I might pursue aren’t interesting to me because I don’t think I have any useful leverage on the problem, or the problem is too big to make a useful dent in it..

I’m sharing it as a blog post because it might be a useful starting point for similar reflections for other post-full faculty.

To be part of a significantly-sized Computing Education Research group

The last few weeks, I’ve been part of an NSF Expeditions preliminary proposal around computing education research. It’s been a deeply engaging intellectual activity, and one that I’d like to do more often. It’s been terrific to work with a group of faculty who know computing education research (different emphases, different areas of research, but with a common core literature and research values) to have detailed discussions about what we think is known and what’s important to do next.

I see my colleagues around here doing that kind of planning in HCI and in Robotics, and it probably happens in any area with three or more faculty. I used to be a peripheral participant in meetings like that at University of Michigan, when Elliot Soloway, Phyllis Blumenfeld, Joe Krajcik, and Ron Marx were inventing technology-enhanced project-based learning for STEM. We used to have visioning activities like those when Janet Kolodner led the EduTech Institute here at Georgia Tech, but most of those faculty at the heart of the EduTech have moved on. (It’s even hard to find a digital footprint of EduTech today.)

You can do that kind of planning if you have several faculty in an area. It’s harder to do with one or two faculty and some students. It’s still hard to grow CER at scale in research-oriented computing departments. How many CER courses can one department offer, and when you hit that limit, what else will the CER faculty teach? Like any new area, it’s hard to explain it to all the other faculty, to get them to appreciate a candidate.

It would be great to be part of a Center doing the work that pushes the boundary of what we know and what we know how to do in computing education research. I know some universities that are thinking about building a Center that includes computing education research. Others, aren’t. There is some distrust of STEM Ed research — I once had a senior administrator say that an academic unit focused on STEM education research would happen on his campus “over his dead body.” I’d like to work with others to create significant, impactful projects in CER — the kinds of things that are bigger than what one or two people can do.

To create an organization/system to have a lasting impact on Computing Education in the US

Like most people in CER, I hope my work has research value in the future, but I don’t expect any of the particular products to last for long. I expect that no curriculum, assessments, tools, or standards that we’re developing for K-12 schools today will still be in schools in 20 years. All of these will have to change dramatically because the students we’ll be teaching, what we think we ought to teach, and how we teach will change. We’re at the very beginning of growth of the field, so now’s (a) when we expect to realize how little we know, and (b) when I hope that decision-makers will start asking, “What do we already know?” That’s a big part of why I wrote the book last year Learner-Centered Design of Computing Education: Research on Computing for Everyone. I wanted to put a signpost to say, “Here’s where we’ve been and where we are now in figuring out how to teach computing to everybody.”

I’ve got a few more years left in my career. I’d like to leave something of longterm use for computing education. I’m creating a CS Ed Research class at Georgia Tech, but classes come and go. We created a lot of learning science and technologies classes when we had those faculty in years past, but we can’t even teach all of those courses anymore.

We need to create organizations, systems, and programs to sustain computing education. Key to that goal is establishing CER in schools of Education. I would like to be part of that effort. Schools of Education are how we get education reforms to stick around in the United States. We need faculty doing CER in schools of Education. We need computing education in pre-service teacher education. I love the idea of defining introductory computer science classes for teachers. (Hint: “Python or Java?” is completely the wrong question, and not the least because both answers are wrong.)

To be part of growing Computing Education Research globally

My experience in India has me realizing how little I know about how most of the world’s education systems work (see blog post comparing Indian and US Education contexts). I also realize that computing education is growing all over the world. My years spent at the boundary of computer science and education suggest to me that I might have something to share in those efforts.

I was one of the co-founders of the International Computing Education Research (ICER) conference, and that’s the most rigorous CER conference around today. That’s great to have a high-quality conference, but there’s a lot more demand for CER than ICER can meet. The SIGCSE Symposium and ITICSE serve a larger audience than ICER, but are still mostly Western, mostly privileged, and mostly missing most of the world.

I’ve recently joined the program committees of both Koli Calling (Finland) and LaTICE (which has mostly Southeastern Asia, but moving to Saudi Arabia this next year and South Africa in two years). I would like to be involved in more international conferences. I want to understand what parts of the challenge of computing education are due to the design of the educational system and context, and what parts are inherent to the complexity of understanding computing.

The mechanics of being a participant in an international community are challenging. I’ve used NSF funds to go to ICER and Dagstuhl (in Germany), but that’s dissemination on a grant. How does one fund going to international conferences when it’s less about dissemination and more about scholarly exchange — me learning about their context, and us discussing research issues from different contexts? There probably are mechanisms, but beyond the ones used by a traditional US POP (Plain Ole Professor).

To focus on teaching

I still love to teach Media Computation. Every Spring, I get to teach around 150 non-technical majors about computation. There’s a set curriculum that is mostly programming-focused (about 80% intersection with my book), but I still find space to talk about Alan Turing and Claude Shannon, incompleteness theorem, and how “The Matrix” and “Sin City” were created. Could I become a full-time teaching faculty? I don’t like how they get typically treated (see this blog post), so I don’t think I would want to become teaching track.

If I did focus on my teaching, I’d need to do it in a context that values research-based CS teaching methods. I want to be able to say to my colleague teachers, “Did you see what Beth, Leo, and Cynthia are doing with peer-instruction?  Or how about what Leo and Dan are doing from the last SIGCSE proceedings? Let’s try that!” The teaching faculty that I know work very hard and care deeply. Especially with today’s enrollments, few of them have the capacity to read CER, too. I know I’d get bored if I couldn’t talk about the research, try to use it, and to extend it with my colleagues.

To just focus on research

I could hunker down and just do computing education research — no more public policy, no more broadening participation work, only occasional international conferences when we have something big to report. It is so hard to make traction on broadening participation in computing these days — diversity has taken a back-burner in many CS departments because they’re just trying to keep their head above water.

There are lots of research questions I’m interested in:

  • I recently attended a AAAS/NSF symposium on STEM Education (which I blogged about at Blog@CACM), and was struck again about how far behind computing education research (CER) is behind other discipline-based education research (DBER). Too much of what we know about CER is bound to particular classes and languages. (Because novices tend to attend to surface-level features, programming languages likely are important, but then we need to parameterize use the language to understand how different languages interact with student understanding.) So much of computing education is focused on implementation, and there is so much fundamental research yet to do. We know too little about misconceptions, learning progressions, alternative models of big ideas and thinking practices, and even, interaction of different natural languages with learning CS (see Yogendra Pal’s work). There is so much to do, and we are years behind other fields.
  • What is the right media for teaching about computation? I’m working on a couple of different kinds of ebooks now. I’ve always been interested in interactive multimedia (see MediaText that I did as a grad student), and the work of our ebooks is promising. I’ve even been thinking about the interaction between MOOCs and ebooks — how could they aid one another?
  • How do we provide education without a teacher? I think often about my trip to India and the need for learning without teachers. MIT recently produced a tablet that they literally just gave to kids in Ethiopia, and it did lead to gains in literacy (see article here). What would you put on a tablet to self-start learning about computing?

I don’t think I’d stop writing in the blog, at least in the forseeable future, for any of these paths. I like to write. The blog gives me an excuse. I hope it provides a service to readers.

(Thanks to the friends who gave me comments on earlier drafts of this document! I appreciate all of it!)

May 9, 2016 at 7:46 am 10 comments


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