Archive for November 5, 2018

What do I mean by Computing Education Research? The Social Science Perspective

As a new guy at the University of Michigan, I spend a lot of my time explaining who I am and what I mean by computing education research. In this and the next blog posts, I am sharing two of those explanations.

The first one was a six minute lightning talk to the University of Michigan School of Information. My audience was well-versed in social sciences, so I explained who I was in those terms.

I ground a lot of my work in Lave and Wenger’s (1991) theory about Communities of Practice. Let me create a symbol here to represent a community of practice. My symbol has a light boundary where novices engage in legitimate peripheral participation, there is a darker area where full-fledged members of the community work, and the core where the experts live who represent the values and practices of the community.

When people think about computing education research, they mostly think about this community of practice: software development. How do we help students join the community of practice of software developers? That’s an interesting question, and I have done some work there (e.g., on how students come to understand multiple class object-oriented systems, like Model-View-Controller), but that’s not my focus.

Let’s set that community of practice aside (lower left), and consider another that I’m much more interested in: end-users who program. I’ve taught thousands of liberal arts, architecture/design, and business/management majors to program using Media Computation, a contextualized approach to computing that focuses on their interests and needs. I worked with Brian Dorn as he studied graphics designers who learn to program. End-user programmers are far more numerous than professional software developers. They use programming for different purposes, so we would expect them to use different practices, languages, libraries, and tools. That’s why we developed JES, a Python programming environment for our future end-users who are programming with media. I’m very interested in understanding and supporting the practices of end-user programmers.

Let’s keep that community of practice in consideration, and next consider a different one: High school teachers who teach computer science. They’re not about software development, either. They’re going to do something different (different practices) and have different values. High school teachers need to learn efficiently because they don’t have a lot of time to learn, and they want to learn effective methods for their students. Here’s where we work on ebooks, and subgoal labeling, and Barb’s Parsons problems. I’m interested in how we make computing education efficient and effective, and in understanding the underlying cognitive mechanisms at work. Why do some things work better for learning programming than others?

Here’s another community of practice I care about: scientists and engineers who use programming as a new way to do science. Again, different practices and values than software developers. How do we best support them?  What tools do they need for their practices?

I would like students to have the same advantages as scientists and engineers, to be able to use code as a powerful and executable notation. Lately, I’ve been particularly focused on pre-calculus and economics. I know it’s stretching Lave and Wenger’s notion to think about classrooms as kinds of community of practice, so maybe the real community of practice is economists and professionals who use Computing. My specific interest is the edge of the community of practice, constructing legitimate peripheral participation for students who might use computing to aid in their entrance into the field. When does programming help with learning something else, and why does it help, and how can we make it more effective (e.g., use the best parts of programming that have the greatest leverage on supporting learning)?

So let’s consider these communities of practice.

This is a really weird picture, from Lave and Wenger’s perspective. I’m saying that programming is a practice in all of these communities, but it’s different in each one. We actually do know practices like this: Reading and writing, and the use of mathematics.

I suggest that programming is a literacy. (I’m not the first, of course, and I don’t make the argument nearly as well as my colleague, Yasmin Kafai.) It’s a way of expressing thought, communicating with others, and testing and exploring new ideas.

And that’s what makes computing education a social justice issue. If we have really invented a new literacy, we need to make it available to everyone.

November 5, 2018 at 9:00 am 9 comments


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