Define Computer Science so CS Departments include CS Ed

October 26, 2020 at 9:00 pm 8 comments

The CSEd Grad website and research project is supporting growth of research in CS education by supporting pathways for CSEd graduate students. I am excited to be speaking at their conference in a couple weeks (see program here), in a Q&A session with Dr. Amy Ko.

Where would you expect that pathway to lead? Where would you expect faculty working in CS Education research to have their academic home? Education? Information? Computer Science?

If we want to see computer science departments include CS education research, then we have to define computer science in a way that includes computing education research. My favorite definition of computer science is the first one published, in 1967 from Allen Newell, Alan Perlis, and Herbert Simon (all three Turing Award laureates, and Simon is also a Nobel laureate). They say that: Computer science is the study of the phenomena surrounding computers. Helping people to learn what computation is and how to program falls within that definition — it’s part of the phenomena surrounding computers. Some historians, like Nathan Ensmenger (see post here), have suggested that the lack of investment and innovation in CS education influenced the direction of CS research.

Most definitions of computer science are not as broad as that. CSTA,, and ECEP have just come out with a new report on the state of CS Education in the United States (see report here). The definition they use (see K-12 Framework page here): “the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including their principles, their hardware and software designs, their implementation, and their impact on society” This definition includes fields like social computing and human-computer interaction, but doesn’t include the study of how people learn about computing. That’s a little ironic, that a report promoting CS education is promoting a definition that keeps education out of CS.

The definition matters when decisions are made on the basis of it. A popular website that ranks CS departments around the world,, does not include CS education. I wrote my Blog@CACM post this month on my critique of (see post here). I am opposed to it because it’s America-first, anti-progressive, and anti-interdisciplinarity. People make decisions based on Graduate students use it to pick departments to apply to. Recommendation letters reference for what is quality CS. If people use to determine what “counts” (for attracting students, for promotion and tenure), then CS education literally doesn’t count. Researchers in CS education are at a disadvantage if their work doesn’t help their department in influential rankings.

Let’s define computer science to reflect our values long-term. Where do we build a home for CS education researchers in the future?

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jayce Warner  |  October 27, 2020 at 10:32 am

    Thanks, Mark, for this thoughtful post. Are there examples of other disciplines that include the education side of their domains in their respective departments? For example, most math education divisions/programs that I know are housed in universities’ college/school/department of education. The same is true for other disciplines that have established fields of education research. That leads me to further questions: Given that ed research disciplines tend to be grouped this way, if we want CS education research to have a more prominent place within the sphere of academic research, wouldn’t make sense to focus efforts in making that home in Education? What is the advantage of CS ed faculty having their academic home in CS Ed departments?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  October 27, 2020 at 10:38 am

      Diane Levitt has been looking around: Medical Schools do include medical education as a research area, and include top-notch learning scientists like Tim Koschmann Research in legal education tends to occur in law schools

      I would like to see CS Ed in schools of Education, too, but that’s not happening in the US:

      • 3. Jayce Warner  |  October 27, 2020 at 10:42 am

        I meant to say: “… having their home in CS* departments?”
        Looks like you understood what I was trying to say, though. Thanks for those links. I agree that it’s not happening in the US but should.

      • 4. Sam Tobin-Hochstadt (@samth)  |  October 27, 2020 at 11:40 am

        Are there any disciplines in which K-12 disciplinary education research is housed in the disciplinary department? What about research on undergraduate education (perhaps engineering)?

        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  October 27, 2020 at 12:43 pm

          I don’t want to repeat the previous comments (about physics, medicine, and law), but instead ask the meta-question: Is CS more like medicine and law and engineering (all of which include disciplinary education research within their academic homes), or more like reading and mathematics? Is CS Ed about the profession or basic literacy? Or is it both?

          • 6. Sam Tobin-Hochstadt (@samth)  |  October 27, 2020 at 2:29 pm

            CS Ed seems to be in a fairly unique position — there’s both lots of CS Ed research on K-12 as well as lots of CS education in K-12 itself (unlike law or medicine or engineering) but CS Ed also talks a lot about collegiate education (unlike reading education, for example).

            It seems like CS Ed is more like math or writing, where there’s a lot of research on both K-12 education and college-level education, although the balance of CS Ed research is weighted towards the college level, reflecting the balance of CS education itself.

  • 7. Monica McGill  |  October 27, 2020 at 10:41 am

    Can you expand on your comment regarding the K-12 Framework definition? I would not expect K-12 teachers to teach CS Education research–the how/what/where/why/which students learn computing per se (though the Framework does cover its impact on society and that could easily encompass parts of what might be relevant to students).
    In general, I am concerned that housing CS education research within CS rather than in Education (or a hybrid) would lead to the continued loss of understanding of formal theory and processes in education research. Having been formally trained in both CS and education research, I lean on my education research training much more heavily in my research than I do on my CS training (note: n=1).

    It seems like that this would also sow a lot of discord within CS departments, who may not value the work conducted by CS education research faculty.

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  October 27, 2020 at 10:56 am

      Yes, including CS Ed in CS departments will likely sow discord. The pattern across DBERs (Discipline-based Education Research) has been that the pioneers in the ed research branch tend to get reviled, but it can change (see NAS report: Lillian McDermott was not well-respected within Physics at U. Washington when she started doing physics education research, but is now admired. (She just died in July of this year Having big names like Carl Weiman and Eric Mazur in physics education research certainly helps to develop respect for the field.

      My research has sometimes drawn more heavily on my education training, sometimes more heavily on CS. Much of it both equally. My public policy and curriculum development work was pretty much both equally. My current work on task-specific languages looks more like HCI research than anything I’ve done before.

      Perhaps more than most other disciplines, CS education research influences CS research. Why don’t we program in machine or assembly language? It’s too hard. People make too many mistakes. Education researchers can explain that in terms of cognitive load. Nathan Ensmenger makes this argument well in his “The Computer Boys Take Over” ( Software engineering as a discipline developed, in part, because we discovered that we didn’t know how to teach most people to program well.


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