Archive for February 8, 2021

National Academies Report on authenticity to promote computing interests and competencies

The National Academies has now released the report that I’ve been part of developing for the last 18 months or so: “Cultivating Interest and Competencies in Computing: Authentic Experiences and Design Factors.” The report is available here, and you can read it online for free here.

The starting question for the report is, “What’s the role of authentic experiences in developing students’ interests and abilities in computing?” The starting place is a simple observation — lots of current software engineers did things like take apart their toasters as kids, or participate in open-source programming projects as novices. I hear that it’s pretty common in technical interviews to ask students about their GitHub repositories, assuming that that’s indicative of their potential abilities as engineers.

There’s a survivor bias in the observation about toasters and open-source projects. You’re only seeing the people who made it to the software engineering jobs. You’re not seeing the people who were turned off by those activities. You’re not seeing the people who couldn’t even get into open-source projects. Is there a causal relationship? If a student engages in “authentic experiences,” does it lead to greater interest and skill development?

You can skip all the way to Chapter 8 for the findings: We don’t know. There are not enough careful studies exploring the question to establish a causal relationship. But that’s not the most important part of the report.

The key questions of the report really are: “What is an authentic learning experience? What prevents students from getting them?” We came up with two definitions:

  • There’s professional authenticity which is what the starting question assumes — the activity has something to do with professional practice in the field.
  • There’s personal authenticity which is where the activity is meaningful and interesting to the student.

These don’t have to be in opposition, but they often are. The Tech industry and open-source development is overwhelmingly male and white or Asian. Learning activities that are culturally relevant may be interesting and meaningful to students, but may not obviously connect to professional practice. Activities that are grounded in current practice may not be interesting or meaningful to students, especially if the students see themselves as outsiders and not belonging to the culture of software development (open source or industry). Formal educational systems place a premium on professional, vocational practice, and informal education systems need personal authenticity to keep drawing students in.

The report does a good job covering the research — what we know (and what we don’t), how the issues vary in informal and formal education, and what we can recommend about designing for authenticity (both kinds, without opposition) in learning experiences.

If you ever get the chance participate in a National Academies consensus report, I highly recommend the experience. You’re producing something for the community, so the amount of review and rewriting is significant — more than in any other kind of writing I’ve ever done. It’s worth it. You learn so much! It’s the National Academies, and they gather pretty amazing committees. If you ever get the chance to grab a coffee or beer with any of the participants on the committee, external or staff, take that chance! (I’m not sure I’d recommend chairing or directing one of these committees — the amount of work that Barbara and Amy did was astounding.) Every single one of these folks have amazing insights and experiences. I’m grateful for the opportunity to hang out with them (even when it went all on-line), write with them, and learn from them.

February 8, 2021 at 7:00 am Leave a comment


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