Archive for December 23, 2019

What’s unique about CS education compared to other DBERs?

I was recently asked by an NSF program officer to answer the questions, “What makes CS education different than other discipline-based education research (DBER, like math ed, physics ed, or engineering ed)? What research questions might we ask (that we might not currently be asking) to improve practice in CS education?” If I’m going to write a long-form email reply, I might as well make it a blog post. I’m using the specific term, computer science education, not my preferred and more general computing education because the question was framed specifically about CS programs, not necessarily about information technology, information systems, cybersecurity, or other computing programs.

Computer science education research has a quadruple-whammy right now that isn’t facing any other DBER that I know:

  • ONE: We know less about how to do CS education well than we know about math, physics, science, or engineering education. A point I made in my SIGCSE keynote is that ASEE is 126 years old, NCTM started in 1920, and AAPT in 1950. CSTA started in 2004. With Ben duBoulay, I wrote the history chapter for the new Handbook of Computing Education Research. The field only dates back to 1967. Because CS is so new, there are few mechanisms to track progress at a systemic level. Most US states don’t gather data on CS like they do reading, science, mathematics, and other school subjects. We have less knowledge of how to teach and what’s going on because we’ve been at it for a shorter time.
  • TWO: Below are two slides that I built but decided to edit out of my SIGCSE keynote talk. These are about the relative sizes of CS Ed and other DBER conferences. CS departments are desperately seeking more faculty (see the latest job ads analysis here). We have fewer practitioners and researchers than these other fields.



  • THREE: Perhaps a natural consequence of the first two: CS teachers know less of what we do know about evidence-based methods than STEM teachers in other fields. Charles Henderson showed that the vast majority of physics teachers in the US know about evidence-based teaching methods (over 80%) and try to use them (over 60%). Christopher Hovey presented evidence that it’s a small percentage for CS teachers (closer to 10%, see paper here). This might be expected given that we’re new (e.g., haven’t had the time to develop dissemination mechanisms that actually reach teachers) and there are relatively few teachers (compared to other disciplines) so it’s a smaller target to reach.
  • FOUR: We are facing enormous economic demand for computer science. Undergraduate University CS enrollments are skyrocketing in the US. There’s a great story and infographic from UNC this last week on their enrollment demands.

The result is that we’re providing CS education to many students with few resources (teachers) and without a whole lot of data or use of evidence-based methods. From a research perspective, it’s also interesting that lots of students are resisting CS education — which is pretty common across STEM education. Students complain about algebra, calculus, physics, chemistry, and so on. The interesting twist is that students resisting CS ed are also then resisting the economic benefits, which makes it a bit more intriguing to study. The incentives are there, but many students still find the costs greater than the benefits.

Some of the research questions that I find interesting which are unique to CS education research:

  • Why isn’t the enrollment boom extending to high schools?. Undergraduate education is exploding, but over 90% of US high school students are avoiding computer science, even when it’s being offered (which Miranda Parker explored in her dissertation). These are much lower numbers than in other STEM fields. (See blog post here about the low CS numbers in high schools, and this blog post comparing CS to other STEM fields.) We need ethnographic work and design work, to understand what’s going on and to document what might influence students to find CS more attractive.
  • What would computing education look like for the other 90%? If we wanted to invent computing education that would reach the rest of US high school students, what would it look like? I suspect that the answer is going to be mostly about integrating CS into other-than-CS classes (like Bootstrap, STEM-CT, and Project GUTS). It’s an issue both of engaging students and getting teachers to adopt. I’m working on task-specific programming with teachers informing the design (see post here), to create programming that they’ll actually adopt and integrate into their non-CS classes. Katie Cunningham is working on inventing CS education that is focused on user needs rather than programming language demands. This is an area where we need a lot of design studies to explore a wide range of possibilities.
  • What’s going on in community college CS? I know of studies of CS education at the high school level, the four year college, and the university level. I know of few studies at the community college level. How do they manage the economic imperative of CS education with preparing the students to go on to university? How do they motivate students to complete degrees if students just want to get a good job?
  • What’s going on in undergraduate CS classes, especially during the enrollment boom? One of Lecia Barker’s greatest hits was her definition of the “defensive climate,” how students in CS are more about competing than collaborating, and even questions in class are more about showing-off than gaining knowledge. We published a paper that drew on defensive climate research at ITICSE last year (see blog post) — and that was one of the few papers published on the subject since Lecia’s ground-breaking work in 2002-2004. As I search in Google Scholar, I see a couple papers from Colleen Lewis (2011 and 2013), but other than those, there are very few papers testing or extending these notions over the last 15 years. Is “defensive climate” still an issue? I bet it is. How do we test for it? How do we address it? Is there a difference in climate between liberal arts and engineering based CS? How does the climate impact diversity? We have few studies of what’s going on in CS classes under these extreme conditions these days.
  • How do we improve teaching quality in CS education? CS education has an issue like Engineering, but unlike science and math. I bet few calculus teachers are seriously swayed by, “How do professional mathematicians use calculus?” But in CS Ed, we’re always swayed by that economic benefit — many CS teachers worry about preparing students for current jobs, for current tools and languages. That focus on industry may inhibit a focus on pedagogy, but that’s a hypothesis to be explored. How do we teach CS teachers to know and use better teaching methods? What influences adoption of new teaching methods? This is particularly an important question in post-secondary where we have such extreme enrollment pressure. When I talk to CS teachers about new methods, the most common response is, “Sure, but when could I learn to do that?!?”
  • What influences access to CS education?. When I teach my class on CS education research, I ask my students to identify open research questions. Last semester (see blog post here), a lot of their questions were about access to CS classes, which is complicated by the unique issues of CS education: How do parents’ education level/career influence student choices in CS, e.g. ,to take a CS class, to get a CS degree, to seek a CS job, etc.? Do students with learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia) view code differently, and does that influence their participation in CS? Could we use fMRI or eye tracking to measure this? Why don’t more lower-income students go into CS, especially since it has such a large economic benefit? What percentage of current CS students are lower-income? How many lower-income students have the opportunity to learn CS and don’t take it?

With this post, I’m taking a break from the blog, both for the holidays and to deal with some intense proposal writing. It’s been an exciting year. I’m going to end with a picture from the recent Georgia Tech PhD graduation ceremony. Not only did I get to hood Dr. Miranda Parker, but Barbara and I watched our son, Dr. Matthew Guzdial, get his doctoral hood. It’s a nice bright spot to close out the year. I wish you a happy holiday season and a successful 2020.

December 23, 2019 at 7:00 am 20 comments


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