The Future of Computing Education is beyond CS majors: Report from Snowbird #CSforAll

July 25, 2016 at 7:16 am 10 comments

Last week, I attended the Computing Research Association (CRA) Snowbird conference of deans and chairs of computing. (See agenda here with slides linked.)  I presented on a panel on why CS departments should embrace computing education research, and another on what CS departments can do to support the CS for All initiative. I talked in that second session about the leadership role that universities can play in creating state partnerships and influencing state policy (see the handout for my discussion table).

Amy Ko was in both sessions with me, and she’s already written up a blog post about her experiences, which match mine closely (including the feeling of being an imposter).  I recommend reading her post.

Here, I’m sharing a key insight I saw and learned at Snowbird.  Before the conference even started, our Senior Associate Dean for the College of Computing, Charles Isbell, challenged me to name another field that is overwhelmed with majors AND offers service courses to so many other majors. (Maybe biology because of pre-meds?)  Computer Science is increasingly the provider of courses to non-CS majors, and those majors want something different than CS majors.

The morning of the first day was dedicated to the enrollment surge.  CRA has been gathering data at many institutions on the surge, and Tracy Camp did a great job presenting some of the results.  (Her slides are now available here, so you don’t have to rely on my pictures of her slides.) Here’s the bottomline: Student growth has been enormous (across different types of institutions), without a matching growth in faculty.  The workload is increasing.


But here’s the surprise: Much of the growth in course enrollment is not CS majors.  A large percentage of the growth is in other majors taking CS classes. The below graph is for “mid-level” CS courses, and there are similar patterns in intro and upper-level courses.


Tracy also presented a survey of students (slides available here), which was really fascinating.  Below is a survey of (a lot) of intro students at several institutions.  All the differences described are significant at p<0.05 (not 0.5 as it says).  The difference in what non-majors want and CS majors was is interesting.  Majors want (significantly more than non-majors) to “make a lot of money.”  Non-majors more significantly want to “Give back to my community” and “Take time off work to care for family.”


U. Illinois has the most innovative program I have heard of for meeting these new needs.  They are creating a range of CS+X degree programs.  First, these CS+X programs are significant parts of the “X” departments.


But these stats blew me away: CS+X is now 30% of all of CS at U. Illinois (which is a top-5 CS department), and 50% of all admitted first years this year! And it’s 28% female.


It’s pretty clear to me that the future of computing education is as much about providing service to other departments as it is about our own CS major.  We have suspected that the growth is in the non-majors for awhile, but now we have empirical evidence.  I’ve been promoting the idea of contextualized-computing education, and the notion that other majors need a different kind of CS than what CS majors need.  We need to take serious the education of non-CS majors in Computer Science.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  July 25, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Hi Mark (I left this comment on Andy’s blog also)

    You didn’t mention discussion about “improving computing itself” (especially vs. academia as more and more reflecting pulls from corporate perceptions of their needs rather than both being “keepers of the flame” and “trying to improve the flame”).

    I’m much more concerned with what is being taught and the field’s own weak perceptions of itself than “dean’s problems” of large enrollments, etc.

    I think of myself as an actual “computerist” — anyone like me at this conference? (I was certainly not invited …)

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  July 25, 2016 at 8:30 am

      Actually, there was — I was saving it for a future blog post. One of my favorite sessions at Snowbird was on creating Colleges or Schools of Computing. Two of those talks talked about their vision of what CS is and what it should be. Randy Bryant talked about the Alan Perlis, Alan Newell, and Herb Simon definition of computer science which drove the creation of the School of CS at CMU (see slides here). Rich LeBlanc gave a terrific talk about the multi-faceted definition of “computing” that was the early vision for the College of Computing at Georgia Tech (see slides here). Carla Brodley had the best zinger of the session, pointing out that her College of Computer and Information Science was created eight years before any of the others and has more interdisciplinary degrees than even Illinois.

      Kentaro Toyama’s after dinner talk “Computing Alone Doesn’t Solve Social Problems. So, What’s Next?” had a decidedly anti-corporate perspective (see slides here). His first slide, on how Facebook is like The Matrix, was worth the price of admission. He quoted Mark Zuckerberg, “The richest 500 million [people] have way more money than the next six billion combined. You solve that by getting everyone online.” And then he spent the rest of the talk showing how wrong that quote is. His talk led to the most controversy, the most angry questioners I saw at Snowbird. (Tell CS department chairs that CS may not be the solution to all of the world’s problems, and they get really angry.)

      What I found most interesting about the talks I described in this post was not about the Dean’s problems of large enrollments. I’m excited about the opportunity of have a different kind of student interested in computer science, in sizable numbers. So much of CS undergraduate curriculum is about preparing students to be software engineers. Now here’s evidence that almost half our students don’t want to be software engineers, don’t want to create the next start-up. They want to use computer science to make the world a better place. That gives us leave to teach something other than Eclipse, C++, code reviews, and Agile methods.

      (I’ll put this over on Andy’s blog, too.)

      • 3. alanone1  |  July 25, 2016 at 9:32 am

        Thanks Mark!

        I didn’t buy either Randy’s or Rich’s arguments — separate *departments* within a larger “Arts and Sciences” college is likely a better idea — and the long ago not good practice of having a separate Engineering college just happens again with computng.

        E.g. is a “Physics College” a good idea? (I don’t think so)

        Kentaro Toyama’s talk was more fun to poke through. He missed a chance to point out that the Renaissance was already started by some decades before the printing press was revealed in 1454 (and that one of the main histories of this has the title “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change” (Eisenstein).

        He could have asked questions about “literacy” and “what literacy brings and doesn’t bring” (both with reference (say) to the classic studies of Scribner and Cole in Africa, or to what literacy means in a totalitarian and/or a religious fundamentalist society).

        But he should also have asked questions about exposure to “multiple perspectives” and what else is required to see distinctions between the simple “right” and “wrong” versus “more than one way to look at the world”.

        An equally acute problem are the many forms of “scale up failures” in education in general, and computing in particular. There are many of these: two are (a) the failure of simple computing ideas from the 50s to work after generations of Moore’s Law and the Internet, and (b) the human failure to move on from simple childhood narcissism and world view to the points of view needed for adults in the 21st century.

        There are lots of manifestations of these (and many more examples of other failures). One that is particularly troubling is to see “successful industrialists” not understand the amount and kinds of things that had to be going successfully — over historical durations — for them to become successful. That “computer people” also have a hard time with this — maybe even a harder time — means partly that they have gained almost no sense of “systems” but are still thinking on much smaller and more local — even parochial — terms.

        Seems as though this discussion should not have been relegated to a banquet talk ….

  • 4. Bob Irving  |  July 25, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    To answer your dean’s question…. what about English? They teach business writing, remedial writing, technical writing, various reading courses, etc. as a matter of course to students across all disciplines. As well, they do the lit-heavy stuff for English majors… so there’s a precedent!

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  July 25, 2016 at 6:21 pm

      But there are few English majors.

      • 6. Bob Irving  |  July 27, 2016 at 7:43 am

        True, but there is an analogy of sorts there. And we could also have a wider discussion about the benefits of getting a broader education and not just learning in our own little “silos”…..

    • 7. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 26, 2016 at 8:55 pm

      In a lot of places the English Department does only English Literature, not freshman composition, which is a separate service department, Writing, staffed almost exclusively with contingent faculty.

      Biology comes closer, though one could argue that almost everyone taking intro bio courses is planning on one flavor or another of bio major, unlike intro CS courses. Psychology probably has a bigger number of non-majors taking intro courses, and lots of majors (at least in colleges where it is the fail-out major for people not making it in other disciplines).

      Math has huge service teaching loads (even if statistics is taught by a separate department), but the number of majors is small.

      CS probably has the wildest boom-and-bust swings in enrollment of any major. We’re currently in a large boom.

  • 8. Raul Miller  |  July 26, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    I suspect that everyone needs a sort of multi-disciplinary approach analogous to what you are suggesting here.

    For example the majors whose motivation is “make a lot of money” should probably be getting some business school training, if nothing else so they can talk the same language as that of the many others with the same interests.

    More generally, though, the interesting and useful stuff often happens when you combine knowledge and skills from different fields.

    Anyways, I do not think I am proposing anything earth shaking here – this is just a reminder.

  • […] CS departments to participate in President Obama’s “CS for All” initiative (see blog post here). This year, Barbara Ericson, Rick Adrion, and Megean Garvin will tell us about how their CS […]

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