Posts tagged ‘computing education’

Updates: Dr. Barbara Ericson awarded ACM SIGCSE 2022 Outstanding Contributions to Education

March 2-5 is the ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium for 2022 in Providence, RI. (Schedule is here.) I am absolutely thrilled that my collaborator, co-author, and wife is receiving the Outstanding Contributions to Education award! She is giving a keynote on Friday morning. Her abstract is below.

She’s got more papers there, on CS Awesome, on her ebooks, and on Sisters Rise Up. I’m not going to summarize them here. I’ll let you look them up in the schedule.

A couple of observations about the SIGCSE Awards this year that I love. Both Barb and the Lifetime Service to the Computer Science Education Community awardee, Simon, earned their PhD’s later in life, both within the last 10 years. Barb is the first Assistant Professor to win the Outstanding Contributions award in the 40 year history of the award.

I have one Lightning Talk. The work I’m doing these days is computing education, but it’s not in the mainstream of CS education — I focus on computing education for people who don’t want to study CS. So, I’m doing a five minute lightning talk on Teaspoon languages as provocation to come talk to me about this approach to integrating computing into non-CS subjects. You can see the YouTube version here. This is my attempt to show that each Teaspoon language can be learned in 10 minutes — I describe all of two of them in less than five minutes!

Outstanding Contribution Plenary

Friday, March 4 / 8:15 – 9:45

Ballroom A-E (RICC)

Barbara Ericson (University of Michigan)

Improving Diversity in Computing through Increased Access and Success

My goal is to increase diversity in computing. In this talk I explain why diversity is important to me. My strategy to improve diversity is to increase access and success. This work includes teacher professional development, summer camps, weekend workshops with youth serving organizations, curriculum development, helping states make systemic changes to computing education, publicizing gender and race issues in Advanced Placement Computer Science, creating free and interactive ebooks, testing new types of practice problems/tools, and offering near-peer mentoring programs.

Barbara Ericson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. She conducts research at the intersection of computing education, the learning sciences and HCI, to improve students’ access to and success in computing. With her husband and colleague, Dr. Mark Guzdial, she received the 2010 ACM Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award for their work on media computation. She was the 2012 winner of the A. Richard Newton Educator Award for her efforts to attract more females to computing. She is also an ACM Distinguished Member for Outstanding Educational Contributions to Computing.

February 24, 2022 at 7:00 am 2 comments

Updates: Developing the University of Michigan LSA Program in Computing for the Arts and Science

This blog is pretty old. I started it in June 2009 — almost 13 years ago. The pace of posting has varied from every day (today, I can’t understand how I ever did that!) to once every couple of months (most recently). There are things happening around here that are worth sharing and might be valuable to some readers, but I’m not finding much time to write. So, the posts the rest of this week will be quick updates with links for more information.

During most of the pandemic, I co-chaired (with Gus Evrard, a Physics professor and computational cosmologist) the Computing Education Task Force (website) for the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). LSA is huge — about 20K students. (I blogged about this effort in April of last year.) Our job was to figure out what LSA was doing in computing education, and what else was needed. Back in November, I talked here about the three themes that we identified as computing education in LSA:

Our report was released last month. You can see the release statement here, and the full report here. It’s a big report, covering dozens of interviews, a hundred survey responses, and a huge effort searching over syllabi and course descriptions to find where computing is in LSA. We made recommendations about creating a new program, new courses, new majors and minors, and coordinating computing education across LSA.

Now, we’re in the next phase — acting on the recommendations. LSA bought me out of my teaching for this semester, and it’s my full-time job to define a computing education program for LSA and to create the first courses in the program. We’re calling it the Program for Computing in the Arts and Science (PCAS). I’m designing courses for the Computing for Expression and Computing for Justice themes, in an active dialogue (drawing on the participatory design methods I learned from Betsy DiSalvo) with advisors from across LSA. (There are courses in LSA that can serve as introductions to the Computing for Discovery theme, and Gus is leading the effort to coordinate them.) The plan is to put up the program this summer, and I’ll start teaching the new courses in the Fall.

February 22, 2022 at 7:00 am 6 comments

Computer Science was always supposed to be taught to everyone, and it wasn’t about getting a job: A historical perspective

I gave four keynote talks in the last two months, at SIGITE, Models 2021 Educators’ Symposium, VL/HCC, and CSERC. I’m honored to be invited to them, but I do suspect that four keynotes in six weeks suggest some “personal issues” in planning and saying “No.” Some of these were recorded, but I don’t believe than any of them are publicly available

The keynotes had a similar structure and themes. (A lot easier than four completely different keynotes!) My activities in computing education these days are organized around two main projects:

My goal was to put both of these efforts in a historical context. My argument is that computer science was originally invented to be taught to everyone, but not for economic advantage. I see the LSA effort and our Teaspoon languages connected to the original goals for computer science. The talks were similar to my SIGCSE 2019 keynote (blog post about that talk here, and video version here), but puts some of the early history in a different perspective. I’m not going to go into the LSA Computing Education effort or Teaspoon languages here. I’m writing this up because I hope that it’s a perspective on the early history that might be useful to others.

I start out with C.P. Snow.

My PhD advisor, Elliot Soloway, would have all of his students read this book, “The Two Cultures.” Snow was a scientist who bemoaned the split between science and humanities in Western culture. Snow mostly blamed the humanities. That wasn’t Elliot’s point for having us read his book. Elliot wanted us to think about “Who could use what we have to teach, but might not even enter our classroom?”

This is George Forsythe. Donald Knuth claims that George Forthye first published the term “computer science” in a paper in the Journal of Engineering Education in 1961. Forsythe argued (in a 1968 article) that the most valuable parts of a scientific or technical education were facility with natural language, mathematics, and computer science.

In 1961, the MIT Sloan School held a symposium on “Computers and the World of the Future.” It was an amazing event. Attendees included Gene Amdahl, John McCarthy, Alan Newell, and Grace Hopper. Martin Greenberger’s book in 1962 included transcripts of all the lectures and all the discussants’ comments.

C.P. Snow’s chapter (with Norbert Wiener of Cybernetics as discussant) predicted a world where software would rule our lives, but the people who wrote the software would be outside the democratic process. He wrote, “A handful of people, having no relation to the will of society, having no communication with the rest of society, will be taking decisions in secret which are going to affect our lives in the deepest sense.” He argued that everyone needed to learn about computer science, in order to have democratic control of these processes.

In 1967, Turing laureate Peter Naur made a similar argument (quoting from Michael Caspersen’s paper): “Once informatics has become well established in general education, the mystery surrounding computers in many people’s perceptions will vanish. This must be regarded as perhaps the most important reason for promoting the understanding of informatics. This is a necessary condition for humankind’s supremacy over computers and for ensuring that their use do not become a matter for a small group of experts, but become a usual democratic matter, and thus through the democratic system will lie where it should, with all of us.” The Danish computing curriculum explicitly includes informing students about the risks of technology in society.

Alan Perlis (first ACM Turing Award laureate) made a different argument in his chapter. He suggested that everyone at University should learn to program because it changes how we understand everything else. He argued that you can’t think about integral calculus the same after you learn about computational iteration. He described efforts at Carnegie Tech to build economics models and learn through simulating them. He was foreshadowing modern computational science, and in particular, computational social science.

Perlis’s discussants include J.C.R. Licklider, grandfather of the Internet, and Peter Elias. Michael Mateas has written a fascinating analysis of their discussion (see paper here) which he uses to contextualize his work on teaching computation as an expressive medium.

In 1967, Perlis with Herb Simon and Alan Newell published a definition for computer science in the journal Science. They said that CS was “the study of computers and all the phenomena surrounding them.” I love that definition, but it’s too broad for many computer scientists. I think most people would accept that as a definition for “computing” as a field of study.

Then, we fast forward to 2016 when then-President Obama announced the goal of “CS for All.” He proposed:

Computer science (CS) is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility.

I completely buy the necessity part and the basic skill part, and it’s true that CS can provide economic opportunity and social mobility. But that’s not what Perlis, Simon, Newell, Snow, and Forsythe were arguing for. They were proposing “CS for All” decades before Silicon Valley. There is value in learning computer science that is older and more broadly applicable than the economic benefits.

The first name that many think of when talking about teaching computing to everyone is Seymour Papert. Seymour believed, like Alan Perlis, “that children can learn to program and learning to program can affect the way that they learn everything else.”

The picture in the lower right of this slide is important. On the right is Gary Stager, who kindly shared this picture with me. On the left is Wally Feurzeig who implemented the programming language Logo with Danny Bobrow, when Seymour was a consultant to their group at BBN. In the center is Cynthia Solomon who collaborated with Seymour on the invention of the Turtle (originally a robot, seen at the top) and the development of Logo curriculum.

Cynthia was the lead author of a recent paper describing the history of Logo (see link here), which included the example of early Logo use on the upper right of this slide, which generates random sentences. Logo is named for the Greek word logos for “word.” The first examples of Logo were about manipulating natural language. Logo has always been used as an expressive medium (music, graphics, storytelling, and animation), as well as for learning mathematics (see the great book Turtle Geometry).

This is the context in which I think about the work with the LSA Computing Education Task Force. Our question was: At an R1 University with a Computer Science & Engineering undergraduate degree and an undergraduate BS in Information (with tracks in information analysis and user experience (UX) design), what else might undergraduates need? What are the purposes for computing that are broader and older than the economic advantages of professional software development? We ended up defining three themes of what LSA faculty do with computing and what they want their students to know:

  • Computing for Discovery – LSA computational scientists create models and simulate them (not just analyze data that already exists), just as Alan Perlis suggested in 1961.
  • Computing for Expression – Computing has created new ways for humans to express themselves, which is important to study and to use to explore, invent, and create new forms of expression, as the Logo community did starting in the 1960’s.
  • Computing for Justice – LSA scholars investigate how computing systems can encode and exacerbate inequities, which requires some understand of computing, just as C.P. Snow talked about in 1961.

We develop our Teaspoon languages to meet the needs of teachers in teaching non-CS and even non-STEM classes. We argue that there are computing education learning objectives that we address with Teaspoon languages, even if they don’t include common languages features like for, while, and if statements. A common argument against our work in Teaspoon languages is that we’re undertaking a Sisyphean task. Computing is what it is, programming languages are what they are, and education is not going to be a driving force for changing anything in computing.

And yet, that’s exactly how the desktop user interface was invented.

Alan Kay (another Turing laureate in this story), Adele Goldberg, and Dan Ingalls led the development of Smalltalk in Xerox PARC in the 1970’s. The goal for Smalltalk was to realize Alan’s vision of a Dynabook, using the computer as a tool for learning. The WIMP (overlapping Windows, Icons, Menus, and mouse Pointer) interface was invented in order to achieve computing education goals. For the purposes of education, the user interface that you are using right now was invented.

The Smalltalk work tells us that we don’t have to accept computing as it is. Computing education today focuses mostly on preparing students to be professional software developers, using the tools of professional software development. That’s important and useful, but often eclipses other, broader goals for learning computing. The earliest goals for computing education are different from those in most of today’s computing education. We should question our goals, our tools, and our assumptions. Computing for everyone is likely going to look different than the computing we have today which has been defined for a narrow set of goals and for far fewer people than “all.”

November 26, 2021 at 10:00 am 22 comments

Media Computation today: Runestone, Snap!, Python 3, and a Teaspoon Language

I don’t get to teach Media Computation1 since I moved to the University of Michigan, so I haven’t done as much development on the curriculum and infrastructure as I might like if I were teaching it today. I did get a new version of JES (Jython Environment for Students) released in March 2020 (blog post here), but have rarely even started JES since then.

But using Jython for Media Computation is so 2002. Where is Media Computation going today?

I’ve written a couple of blog posts about where Media Computation is showing up outside of JES and undergraduate CS. Jens Moenig has been doing amazing things with doing Media Computation in Snap! — see this blog post from last year on his Snap!Con keynote talk. SAP is now offering a course From Media Computation to Data Science using Snap! (see link here). Barbara Ericson’s work with Runestone ebooks (see an example blog post here) includes image manipulation in Python inside the browser at an AP CS Principles level (see example here). The amazing CS Awesome ebook that Beryl Hoffman and Jen Rosato have been doing with Barb for AP CS A includes in-browser coding of Java for the Picture Lab (see example here).

I was contacted this last January by Russ Tuck and Jonathan Senning. They’re at Gordon College where they teach Media Computation, but they wanted to do it in Python 3 instead of Jython. You can find it here. It works SO well! I miss having the image and sound explorers, but my basic demos with both images and sounds work exactly as-is, with no code changes. Bravo to the Gordon College team!

On the right is Python 3 code doing Media Computation. On the left are two images -- the original in the middle, and a red-reduced image on the far left.

Most of my research these days is grounded in Task-Specific Programming languages, which I’ve blogged about here (here’s a thread of examples here and here’s an announcement of funding for the work in social studies). We now refer to the project as Teaspoon Computing or Teaspoon Languages — task-specific programming => TSP => Teaspoon. We’re adding a teaspoon of computing into other subjects. Tammy Shreiner and I have contributed a chapter on Teaspoon computing to a new book by Aman Yadav and Ulf Dalvad Berthelsen (see announcement of the book here).

We have a new Teaspoon language, Pixel Equations, that uses Media Computation to support an Engineering course in a Detroit Public School. Here, students choose a picture as input, then (1) enter the boolean equations for what pixels to select and (2) enter equations for new red, green, and blue values for those pixels. The conditionals and pixel loops are now implicit.

In several of our tools, we’re now exploring bilingual or multilingual interfaces, inspired by Sara Vogel’s work on translanguaging (see paper here) and Manuel Pérez-Quiñones’s recent work on providing interfaces for bilingual users (see his TED talk here and his ACM Interactions paper here). You can see in the screenshot below that colors can be referenced in either English or Spanish names. We’re now running participatory design sessions with teachers using Pixel Equations.

I’m planning a series of blog posts on all our Teaspoon languages work, but it’ll take a while until I get there.


  1. For new readers, Media Computation is a way of introducing computing by focusing on data abstractions used in digital media. Students write programs to manipulate pixels of a picture (to create photo filters), samples of a sound (e.g., to reverse sounds), characters of a text, and frames of a video (for video special effects). More at http://mediacomputation.org

September 6, 2021 at 7:00 am 5 comments

Announcing the inaugural Illinois Computer Science Summer Teaching Workshop: Guest blog post from Geoffrey Challen

We are excited to invite you to the inaugural Illinois Computer Science Summer Teaching Workshop: https://teaching-workshop.cs.illinois.edu/. The 2021 workshop will be held virtually over two half-days on August 10–11, 2021. The workshop is free to attend, and teaching faculty, research faculty, as well as graduate and undergraduate students are all invited to participate—either by presenting, or by joining the conversation. The deadline to submit an abstract is Tuesday July 20th.


Our goal is to bring together college instructors who are engaged with teaching computer science to discuss best practices, present new ideas, challenge the status quo, propose new directions, debunk existing assumptions, advocate for new approaches, and present surprising or preliminary results. This year’s theme is “How the Pandemic Transformed Our Teaching“, allowing participants to reflect on the difficult year behind us as we prepare to return to classrooms next fall. We are excited to welcome Professors Margo Seltzer (UBC), Tiffani Williams (Illinois), Susan Rodger (Duke), Nate Derbinsky (Northeastern), and David Malan (Harvard) as invited speakers.

July 17, 2021 at 10:51 am 2 comments

Considering the Danish Informatics Curriculum: Comparing National Computer Science Curricula

Michael Caspersen invited me to review a chapter on the Danish Informatics curriculum (see a link here). He asked me to compare it to existing school CS curriculum with which I’m familiar. That was an interesting idea — how does anyone relate curricula across diverse contexts, even between nations? I gave it a shot. I most likely missed, in that there are many curricula that I don’t know or don’t know well enough. I welcome comments on other CS curricula.

The Danish Informatics curriculum is unique for its focus on four competence areas:

  • Digital empowerment which describes the ability to review and critique digital artifacts to ask where the strict demands of a computational system may not serve well the messy world in which humans live.
  • Digital design and design processes which describes the ways in which designers come to understand the problem domain for which we design digital artifacts.
  • Computational thinking and modeling which describes how data and algorithms are used to construct digital solutions and artifacts.
  • Technological knowledge and skills which describes the tools (e.g., programming languages) and infrastructures (e.g., computer systems, networking) used to construct digital solutions and artifacts.

I am not familiar with any curriculum that encompasses all four competencies. I’m most familiar with elementary and high school curricula in the United States. Each US state has control over its own school system (i.e., there is no national curriculum) though many are influenced by recommendations from the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) (see link here) and the K12 CS Framework (link here).

In the United States, most computing curricula focus on technological knowledge and skills and computational thinking and modeling. The former is important because the economic argument for computing education in schools is the most salient in the United States. The latter most often appears as a focus on learning computing skills without programming, e.g., like in the CS Unplugged activities from Tim Bell at the University of Canterbury (link).

Modeling is surprising rare in most state curricula. Calls for modeling and simulation are common in US mathematics and science education frameworks like the Next Generation Science Standards (link), but these have influenced few state curricula around computing education. Efforts to integrate computing to serve the needs of mathematics and science education are growing, but only a handful of states actively promote computing education to support mandatory education. For example, Indiana has include computing learning objectives in their state’s science education standards, in order to develop more integrated approaches.

I don’t know of any state curricula that include digital empowerment nor digital design and design processes. These are critically important. Caspersen’s arguments for the Danish Informatics curriculum build on quotes from Henry Kissinger and Peter Naur, but could also build on the work of C.P. Snow and Alan Perlis (the first ACM Turing Award laureate). In 1961, Snow and Perlis both argued for mandatory computing (though at the University level). Perlis argued that computing gave us new ways to understand the world. He would have recognized the digital design and design processes competency area. Snow warned that everyone should learn computing in order to understand how computing is influencing our world. He wrote: “A handful of people, having no relation to the will of society, having no communication with the rest of society, will be taking decisions in secret which are going to affect our lives in the deepest sense.” He would recognize the concerns of Kissinger and Naur, and the importance of digital empowerment.

The Danish Informatics curriculum is unique in its breadth and for considering the social aspects of computing artifacts and design. It encompasses important needs for citizens of the 21st Century.

July 12, 2021 at 7:00 am 9 comments

The Bigger Part of Computing Education is outside of Engineering Education

My Blog@CACM post this month is about the differences I’ve seen between computing education and engineering education (see link here). Engineering education has a goal of producing professional engineers. I describe in the post how ASEE is about the profession of engineering, and developing an engineering identity is a critical goal of engineering education. Computing education is about producing software engineers, but that’s only part of what computing education is about. SIGCSE is about learning and teaching of computing, and as computing educators, we teach students with diverse identities. They overlap, but the part of computing education that is outside the intersection with engineering education is much bigger than the part inside.

Computing education for me is about helping people to understand computing (see the Call for Papers for the International Computing Education Research conference) — not just CS education at the undergraduate level. Preparing future software engineers is certainly part of computing education, but sometimes computing educators only see engineering education goals. Computing education has a bigger scope and range than engineering education. Here are three areas where we need to focus on the bigger part outside engineering.

1. K-12 is for everyone. Computing education in elementary and secondary school should be about more than producing software professionals. There are certainly CS teachers who disagree with me. An example is Scott Portnoff’s critique of CS curricula that does not adequately prepare students for the AP CS A exam and the CS major. I agree that we should offer CS courses at secondary school that give students adequate preparation for post-secondary CS education, if students want to go on to a CS major and become a computing professional. But K-12 has to serve everyone, and the most important goals for K-12 CS education are goals for what everyone should learn about computing. We want students:

I am personally much more interested in K-12 teachers using computing to teach everything else better. Computational science and mathematics are powerful for helping scientists and mathematicians gain insight. We should use computing in the same way to advance student learning in STEM, social studies, and other disciplines — without turning those other classes  into CS classes. This is the difference that Shuchi Grover is talking about with her two kinds of CT: learning about CS vs using computing to learn other things.

2. Courses for non-CS Majors. I’m co-chairing a task force on computing education for the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Sciences, & Arts (LSA) (see a blog post on this effort and our website with our NEW preliminary report). I’m learning about the ways that LSA faculty use computing and how they want their students to learn about and use computing. Their purposes are so different from what we teach in classes about computer science or data science. Sure, computational scientists analyze data like data scientists, but they also create models that turn their theories into simulations (which can then generate data). Computational artists use computing to tell engaging stories in new ways. Computational journalists investigate and discover truth with computing. LSA faculty care a great deal about their students critiquing how our computing systems and infrastructure may be unjust and inequitable. (Interesting note: The word “justice” does not appear in the new Computing Curriculum 2020, and the word “equity” appears only once.)

There are computer scientists who tell me that there is only one computer science for all students. Their argument is that better engineering practices help everyone — if those computational scientists, journalists, and artists just programmed like software engineers, the world would be a better place. Their code would be more robust, more secure, and more extensible. That is likely true, but that perspective is misunderstanding the role of code in doing science and making art. You don’t critique the poet for not writing like a journalist or a novelist. These are different activities with different goals.

We should teach non-CS majors with courses that serve their needs, speak to their identities, and support their values. We should not require all artists and scientists to think, act, and program like engineers just to take computing classes.

A CS educator in the Bay area once tried to convince me that the most important purpose for courses for non-CS majors was to identify the potential for being great programmers. He claimed that there are programmers who are two magnitudes better than their peers, and identifying them is the most important thing we can do to support and advance the software companies on which our world economy depends. He argued that we should teach non-CS majors in order to identify and promote future engineers, not for their own purposes. I see his argument, but I do not agree that scientists, journalists, and artists are less important than engineers. As I consider this pandemic, I think about the role that computing has played in medicine, logistics, and media. Of course, we have relied heavily on software engineering, but I don’t believe that it’s more important than all the other roles that computing played.

3. Supporting diverse identities. There is a disconnect between efforts to broaden participation in computing and framing CS classes as engineering education. As I mentioned in my Blog@CACM post, I taught my first EER course this last semester and read a lot of EER papers. A big focus in engineering education is developing an engineering identity, i.e., helping students to see themselves as members of the engineering community of practice and as future professional engineers.

One of my favorite papers that we read this semester was “Feminist Theory in Three Engineering Education Journals: 1995–2008” by Beddoes and Borrego. They define different branches of feminism. “Liberal feminism” is the goal for women to be treated the same as men, to get access to the same jobs at the same pay. “Standpoint feminism” points out that “liberal feminism” is too much about fitting women into the jobs and cultures of men, as opposed to asking how things would be different if created from a feminist standpoint.

The professional identity of software engineering is male and White. That’s true from the demographics of who is in the Tech industry, but it’s also true from a historical perspective on the systemic bias in computing. Computing has become dominated by men, with many studies and books describing how women were forced out (see for example The Computer Boys Take Over and Programmed Inequality). Our tools privilege one part of the world. Every one of our mainstream programming languages is built on English keywords. That’s a barrier for 85% of the people on Earth. (Related point: I recommend Manuel Pérez Quiñones’ TED talk “Why I want My Voice Assistant to Speak Spainglish” in which he suggests that the homogenous background of American software engineers leads to few bilingual user interfaces — surprising when 60% of the human race is.)

There’s the disconnect. We want students in computing with diverse perspectives and identities. But engineering education is about developing an identity as a future professional engineer. Professional software engineering is male and White. How do we prepare diverse students to be future software engineers when that professional identity conflicts with their identities? We should teach computing, even for CS majors, in ways that go beyond the engineering education goal of developing a professional engineering identity.

We might argue that we want everyone to have the opportunity to participate in CS, but that’s taking the “liberal” perspective. Broadening participation should not be about fitting everyone into the same identity. It’s not enough to say that everyone has the chance to learn the programming languages that are based in English, that are grounded in Western epistemologies, and where the contributions of women have been marginalized. We need to find ways to accept and support the unique identities of diverse people. 

One way to support a “standpoint” perspective on computing education might be to support activity over identity in our CS curriculum. At Georgia Tech, the undergraduate computer science degree is based on Threads (see website). There are threads for Intelligence, People, Media, Devices, and Theory — eight of them in all. A BS in CS at Georgia Tech is any two threads, so there are 28 paths to a degree. This allows students to define their professional identity in terms of what they are going to DO with computing. “I’m studying People and Devices” is something a student might say who wants to create consumer computational devices like Echo or Roomba. The Threads curriculum allows students to make choices about professional identity, in terms of how they want to contribute to society.

Of course, some of our students want to become software engineers at a FAANG company. That’s great, and we should support them and prepare them for those roles. But we should not require those identities. Computing education is about more than producing software engineers who have the traditional engineering identity.

The Bigger Part of Computing Education. I claimed at the start of this post that “computing education that is outside the intersection with engineering education is much bigger than the part inside.” All the studies I have seen say that’s true. While CS undergraduate enrollment has been exploding, the number of end-user programmers is likely a magnitude larger than the number of professional software developers. K-12 is about 50 million students in the United States, and computing education is available to most of them. The number of computing education students who are NOT seeking an engineering identity or profession is much larger than those who are. That’s the more-than-engineering challenge for computing education.


My thanks to Leo Porter, Cynthia Lee, Adrienne Decker, Briana Morrison, Ben Shapiro, Bahare Naimipour, Tamara Nelson-Fromm, and Amber Solomon who gave me comments on earlier drafts of this post.

April 26, 2021 at 7:00 am 7 comments

Become a Better CS Teacher by Seeing Differently

My Blog@CACM post this month is How I evaluate College Computer Science Teaching. I get a lot of opportunities to read teaching statements and other parts of an academic’s teaching record. I tend to devalue quantitative student evaluations of teaching — they’re biased, and students don’t know what serves them best. What I most value are reports of the methods teachers use when they teach. Teachers who seek out and use the best available methods are mostly likely the best teachers. That is what I look for when I have to review College CS teaching records.

On Twitter, people are most concerned with my comments about office hours. Computer science homework assignments should not be written expecting or requiring everyone in the class to come to office hours in order to complete the assignment. That’s an instructional design problem. If there are questions that are coming up often in office hours, then the teacher should fix the assignment, or add to lecture, or make announcements with the clarification. Guided instruction beats discovery learning, and inquiry learning is improved with instruction. There is no advantage to having everyone in the class discover that they need a certain piece of information or question answered.

My personal experience likely biases me here. I went to Wayne State University in Detroit for undergraduate, and I lived in a northern suburb, five miles up from Eight Mile Road. I drove 30-45 minutes a day each way. (I took the bus sometimes, if the additional time cost was balanced out by the advantage of reading time.) I worked part-time, and usually had two part-time jobs. I don’t remember ever going to office hours. I had no time for office hours. I often did my programming assignments on nights and weekends, when there were no office hours scheduled. If an assignment would have required me to go to office hours, I likely would have failed the assignment. That was a long time ago (early 1980’s) — I was first generation, but not underprivileged. Today, as Manuel pointed out (quoted in this earlier blog post), time constraints (from family and work) are a significant factor for some of our students.

Teachers who require attendance at office hours are not seeing the other demands on their students’ lives. Joe Feldman argues that we ought to be teaching for the non-traditional student, the ones who have family and work demands. If we want diverse students in our classes, we have to learn to teach for the students whose experiences we don’t know and whose time costs we don’t see.

CS teachers get better at what we see

I’m teaching an Engineering Education Research class this semester on “Theoretical and Conceptual Frameworks for Engineering Education Research.” We just read the fabulous chapter in How People Learn on How Experts differ from Novices. One of the themes is on how experts don’t necessarily make good teachers and about the specialized knowledge of teachers (like pedagogical content knowledge). I started searching for papers that did particularly insightful analyses of CS teacher knowledge, and revisited the terrific work of Neil Brown and Amjad Altadmri on “Novice Java Programming Mistakes: Large-Scale Data vs. Educator Beliefs” (see paper here).

Neil and Amjad analyze the massive Blackbox database of keystroke-level data from thousands of students learning Java. They identify the most common mistakes that students make in Java. My favorite analyses in the paper are where they rank these common mistakes by time to fix. An error with curly brackets is very common, but is also very easy to fix. Errors that can take much longer (or might stymie a student completely) include errors with logical operators (ANDs and ORs), void vs non-void return values, and typing issues (e.g., using == on strings vs .equals).

The more controversial part of their analysis is when they ask CS teachers what students get wrong. Teachers’ predictions of the most common errors are not accurate. They’re not accurate when considered in aggregate (e.g., which errors did more teachers vote for) nor when considering the years of experience of a teacher.

Neil and Amjad contrast their findings with work by Phil Sadler and colleagues showing that teacher efficacy is related to their ability to predict student errors (see blog post here).

If one assumes that educator experience must make a difference to educator efficacy, then this would imply that ranking student mistakes is, therefore, unrelated to educator efficacy. However, work from Sadler et al. 2013 in physics found that “a teacher’s ability to identify students’ most common wrong answer on multiple-choice items . . . is an additional measure of science teacher competence.” Although picking answers to a multiple-choice question is not exactly the same as programming mistakes, there is a conflict here—either the Sadler et al. result does not transfer and ranking common student mistakes is not a measure of programming teacher competence, or experience has no effect on teacher competence. The first option seems more likely. (Emphasis added.)

I don’t see a conflict in that sentence. I believe both options are true, with some additional detail. Ranking common student compiler mistakes is not a measure of programming teacher competence. And experience has no effect on teacher competence on things they don’t see or practice.

Expertise is developed from deliberate practice. We get better at the things we work at. CS teachers certainly get better (become more competent) at teaching. Why would that have anything to do with knowing what compiler errors that Java students are getting? Teachers rarely see what compiler errors their students are getting, especially in higher-education with our enormous classes.

When I taught Media Computation, I thought I became pretty good at knowing what errors students got in Python. I worked side-by-side students many times over many years as they worked on their Python programs. But that’s still a biased sample. I had 200-300 students a semester. I might have worked with maybe 10% of those students. I did not have any visibility on what most students were getting wrong in Python. I probably would have failed a similar test on predicting the most common errors in Python based on my personal experience. I’m sure I’d do much better when I rely on studies of students programming in Python (like the study of common errors when students write methods in Python) — research studies let me see differently.

Here at the University of Michigan, I mostly teach a user interface software class on Web front-end programming in JavaScript. I am quite confident that I do NOT know what JavaScript errors my students get. I have 260-360 students a semester. Few come to office hours with JavaScript errors. I rarely see anybody’s code.

I do see exams and quizzes. I know that my students struggle with understanding the Observer Design pattern and MVC. I know that they often misunderstand the Universal Design Principles. I know that CSS and dealing with Java asynchronous processing is hard because that’s where I most often get regrade requests. There I’ll find that there is some unexpected way to get a given effect, and I often have to give points back because their approach works too. I get better at teaching these things every semester.

CS teachers can be expected to become more competent at what they see and focus on. Student compiler errors are rarely what they see. They may see more conceptual or design issues, so that’s where we would expect to see increased teacher competence. To developer teacher competence beyond what we see, we have to rely on research studies that go beyond personal experience.

CS teachers need to get better at teaching those we don’t see

The same principle applies to why we don’t improve the diversity of our CS classes. CS teachers don’t see the students who aren’t there. How do you figure out how to teacher to recruit and retain women and students from Black, Latino/Latina, and indigenous groups if they’re not in your classes? We need to rely on research studies, using others’ eyes and others’ experiences.

Our CS classes are huge. It’s hard to see that we’re keeping students out and that we’re sending a message that students “don’t belong,” when all we see are huge numbers. And when we have these huge classes, we want the majority of students to succeed. We teach to the average, with maybe individual teacher preference for the better students. We rarely teach explicitly to empower and advantage the marginalized students. They are invisible in the sea of (mostly male, mostly white or Asian) faces.

I have had the opportunity over the last few months to look at several CS departments’ diversity data. What’s most discouraging is that the problem is rarely recruitment. The problem is retention. There were more diverse students in the first classes or in the enrolled population — but they withdrew, failed, or dropped out. They were barely visible to the CS teachers, in the sea of huge classes, and they become completely invisible. We didn’t teach in a way that kept these students in our classes.

Our challenge is to teach for those who we don’t easily see. We have to become more competent at teaching to recruit those who aren’t there and retain those students who are lost in our large numbers. We easily become more competent at teaching for the students we see. We need to become more competent at teaching for diversity. We do that by relying on research and better teaching methods, like those I talk about in my Blog@CACM post.

February 15, 2021 at 7:00 am 2 comments

Promote diversity by teaching to many goals for computing

My Blog@CACM post for this month is about the working definitions of computing that we are developing in a task force at the University of Michigan see post here). We are charged with identifying the computing education needs for undergraduates in the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts (LS&A). My post describes three different goals for computing education, based on what LS&A faculty do with computing and what they want their students to know.

  • Computing for Discovery
  • Computing for Expression
  • Critical Computing

In my post, I described how these are different, and about the challenges of meeting all of these educational needs. The biggest challenge I wonder about is the organizational one. Whose job is it to teach to each of these goals?

In this post, I want to argue from a different direction. All of these have a CS component. These aren’t typically priorities in many CS departments. To have more diversity in computer science, we ought to make them a priority.

There’s CS in All of These

Each of the three LS&A themes represent a significant CS research thrust. We distilled them from discussions with faculty in Literature, Sciences, & the Arts, but students could be interested in these themes and seek a computer science degree and career. I’d expect that these themes are more common among students who enter computing from liberal arts and sciences than from engineering.

Computer scientists often create infrastructure and theory for “Computing for Discovery,” from NeurIPS to ACM SIGSIM. At Georgia Tech, there is a School for Computational Science and Engineering. One of my colleagues in that school was Richard Fujimoto, who studied how to run discrete event simulations in parallel and distributed systems. He does his research so that others (scientists or engineers) could do theirs.

Computer scientists invent and create tools to make “Computing for Expression” possible, presented in places like ACM SIGGRAPH and CHI. Alanson Sample joined U-M CSE the same time I did. He was formerly at Disney Research at Pittsburgh, where some of his team worked on the new Pandora exhibits at Disney World. The animatronic Na’vi were difficult for the animators to control, since the robot representation of the aliens were not meant to be human-like. Alanson’s colleagues created new kinds of design tools to support translating facial animations into robotic actuation for the Na’vi. I love that as an example of computer science enabling a new kind of expression.

Technology Review recently published an accessible summary of the paper that led to Timnit Gebru’s being fired from Google (see link here). I knew about Timnit’s work as a scholar in “Critical Computing.” The TR piece did a terrific job explaining the deep CS ideas in their paper — like the potential fallacies of the language models used by Google and the enormous energy costs of running them. Computer science plays an important part in making thoughtful critiques of existing computing systems and infrastructures.

Supporting Diverse Goals for Diverse Students

Imagine that you are a student who has always dreamed of working at Pixar and building tools for animators. Or you are a student who is concerned about creating sustainable IT infrastructure for your community. You decide to pursue a computer science degree, and now you’re in classes about AVL trees or learning the issues between cache coherence and memory consistency. You might very reasonably drop out, to pursue a degree that move clearly helps you better achieves your goals. The problem is that that those are computer science issues. It’s perfectly reasonable to pursue computing education for those goals, but those might not be the goals that most CS Departments at Universities support.

This does happen exactly as I described. Colleen Lewis and her colleagues showed us how it most often happens with candidates who are from groups under-represented in computer science (see blog about the paper here). These students come to computer science with their goals, and if they don’t see how to achieve their goals with the classes they’re given, they lose interest and drop out. Colleen and her students showed that having goals about community values were were more common among students who were female, Black, or Hispanic than students who were male, white, or Asian.

The draft of the 2020 ACM/IEEE Computing Curriculum report is here. It’s a big document, so I might have missed it, but I don’t see these goals represented in the computer science outcomes. Some of these themes are in information systems or information technology. Some of the media fundamentals are in computer engineering. The core of computer science in the 2020 report is focused on “algorithms and complexity, programming languages, software development fundamentals, and software engineering” (quoting page 28). There is very little in the document about justice, equity, and critical consideration of our computing systems and infrastructure.

A student can certainly start from the core of CS and focus on any of these sets of goals — but do students know that? How do we communicate that to them? This was a real problem when we created the Threads program at Georgia Tech where students identify two “threads” of computing which they will combine to create their BS in CS degree program. A student who chooses Media and Theory may be interested in video compression algorithms, and a student who chooses People and Intelligence might be interested in creating explainable AI, but both of those students will be in the same data structures and discrete math classes. We (mostly Charles Isbell and Bill Leahy) made sure that the foundational classes created the narratives that explained how the foundational concepts connected to these Threads. We wanted students to see how their goals were met by the core of CS.

This might be easier in colleges focused on liberal arts and sciences with smaller classes. At my University, I taught the introduction to computing course to 760 students. We regularly have first year CS courses with over 1000 students. It’s very hard to cater to individual student goals at that scale. What we did at Georgia Tech and what we’re doing in our task force at the University of Michigan is to identify common goals and themes, and provide support and narrative for those. We will not reach all students’ goals. We aim to support more student goals than just software development in large Tech firms.

We do our students a disservice if we do not help them see how they can pursue their goals within our undergraduate programs. A computer science degree from a major University is a big deal. It’s worth a lot in the economic marketplace. Is it fair to deny the degree to students who are engaged and curious about computer science because our CS undergraduate programs focus on one set of goals and ignore the others? Computer science is broader than just what the FAANG companies hire. CS undergraduate degree programs should not just be a Silicon Valley jobs program. Universities should support diversity in CS thoughts and goals if we want to have students from diverse backgrounds in computing.

January 11, 2021 at 7:00 am 2 comments

HyperBlocks come to Snap! — UX for PX in CS4All

Jens Moenig kindly shared with me a video announcing HyperBlocks that he’s added to the next version of Snap! The idea of hyperblocks is to support vector and matrix operations in Snap!, as in APL or MATLAB.

I’m interested in the research question whether vector operations are easier or harder for students, including considering who the students are (e.g., does more math background make vector operations easier?) and how we define easier or harder (e.g., is it about startup costs, or the ability to build larger and more sophisticated programs?). My suspicion based on the work of folks like L.A. Miller, John Pane, Diana Franklin, Debbie Fields, and Yasmin Kafai is that vector operations would be easier. Students find iteration hard. Users have found it easier to describe operations on sets than to define a process which applies the operation to specific elements. It’s a fascinating area for future research.

And, you can do Media Computation more easily (as Jens shows) which is a real win in my book!

They also have an online course, on using Snap! from Media Computation to Data Science: https://open.sap.com/courses/snap2

Soon after Jens sent me this video, I got to see him do this in real-time at Snap!Con, and then he and Brian Harvey won the NTLS Education Leadership Award for their work on Snap! (see link here). Congratulations to them both!

So here’s the question that I wonder: Who does Snap! work for, and who doesn’t it?

  • I find Snap! fascinating but not usable for me. I have tried to do what I see Jens doing, but have to keep going back and forth from the video to the tool. It’s not obvious, for example, where to get the camera input and how to use it. I’m sure if I spent enough time using Snap!, I’d get it. What teachers and students are willing to pay that cost? Obviously, some are — Snap! is popular and used in many places. Who gets turned off to Snap!? Who doesn’t succeed at it?
  • I attended some of the sessions at Snap!Con this summer: https://www.snapcon.org/conferences/2020. I was particularly struck by Paul Goldenberg’s session. He showed videos of a young kid (somewhere in 8-10) using Snap!. He was struggling to place blocks with a trackpad. Think about it — press down at the right place, drag across the trackpad without lifting up, release at the right place. This is hard for young kids.

These are important questions to consider in pursuit of tools that enable CS for All. UX for PX – how do we design the user experience of the programming experience.

P.S. Jens just sent me the link to his Snap!Con talk video: https://youtu.be/K1qR4vTAw4w

October 5, 2020 at 7:00 am 11 comments

Proposal #3 to Change CS Education to Reduce Inequity: Call a truce on academic misconduct cases for programming assignments

I participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago, where I first heard the slogan “Defund the Police.” I was immediately uncomfortable. The current model for police in the US may be broken, but the function of the police is important. But the more I learned, the more I became more comfortable with the idea. As this NYTimes article suggests (see link here), the larger notion gaining support in the US is that we need a reinvestment. We want to spend less on catching criminals, and more on supporting community health and welfare. That’s when I realized what I wanted for my third and final proposal to change CS education to reduce inequity.

This is my four and last post in a series* about how we have to change how we teach CS education to reduce inequity. The series has several inspirations, but the concrete one that I want to reference back to each week is the statement from the University of Maryland’s CS department about improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within their department:

Creating a task force within the Education Committee for a full review of the computer science curriculum to ensure that classes are structured such that students starting out with less computing background can succeed, as well as reorienting the department teaching culture towards a growth mindset

Students don’t learn best by discovery

Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard Clark have been writing a series of controversial and influential papers in educational psychology. The most cited (in Educational Psychologist) lays out the whole premise in its title “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discover, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching” (see link here). Another, in American Educator, is a more accessible version “Putting students on the path to learning: The case for fully guided instruction” (see link here). A quick summary of the argument is that learning is hard, and it’s particularly hard to learn if you are trying to “figure things out” or “problem-solve” at the same time. In fact, it’s so hard that, unless you tell students exactly what you want them to learn, the majority of your students probably won’t learn it.

Computer scientists are big believers in discovery learning. I’ve had a senior faculty member in my department tell me that, if they gave students feedback from the unit tests (vs. a binary passed/failed) used in autograding, “we would be stealing from students the opportunity to figure it out for themselves.” I have been interviewing teaching assistants for the Fall. They tell me that if I made my class harder, so students have to struggle more to figure out the programming assignments, they would learn more and retain it longer. I know of little evidence for these beliefs, and none in CS education. Telling students leads to more students learning and learning more efficiently than making them figure it out. Efficiency in learning does matter, especially when we are talking about students who may have competing interests for their time (like a job) and during the stress of a pandemic.

Learning requires challenge, but too much cognitive load reduces learning. My guess is that we believe in the power of struggle because it’s how many of us learned computing. We struggled to figure out undocumented systems, to make things work, and to figure out why they worked. We come away with a rationalization that the process of discovery, without a teacher or guidance, is what led to our learning. The problem is that for experts and high-ability/highly-motivated learners, we like to learn that way. We want to figure it out for ourselves. There is a motivational (affective) value for discovery. However, the available evidence suggests that our belief in discovery is a mirage, a cognitive illusion, a trick we play on ourselves. We don’t learn best by discovery.

What’s worse, by forcing more students to learn by discovery, we will likely drive away the less prepared, the less motivated, and the less able students. That’s the point of this series of blog posts. We as CS teachers make decisions that often emphasize how we wanted to be taught and how our top students want to learn. That is inequitable. We need to teach “such that students starting out with less computing background can succeed.”

Programming assignments should be practice, not assessment

Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller describe how we should be teaching to be most effective and efficient:

Teachers providing explicit instructional guidance fully explain the concepts and skills that students are required to learn. Guidance can be provided through a variety of media, such as lectures, modeling, videos, computer-based presentations, and realistic demonstrations. It can also include class discussions and activities—if the teacher ensures that through the discussion or activity, the relevant information is explicitly provided and practiced. In a math class, for example, when teaching students how to solve a new type of problem, the teacher may begin by showing students how to solve the problem and fully explaining the how and why of the mathematics involved. Often, in following problems, step-by-step explanations may gradually be faded or withdrawn until, through practice and feedback, the students can solve the problem themselves. In this way, before trying to solve the problem on their own, students would already have been walked through both the procedure and the concepts behind the procedure.

Programming assignments are the opportunities to practice in this model, not the time to “figure it out for themselves” and not the time to assess learning or performance. In explicit instruction in programming, the teacher tells the student exactly what to do to solve a programming problem. Tell them how to solve the problem, and let them practice the same problem. (Better yet, give students worked examples and practice interleaved, as we do in our ebooks.) Programming is a great place for learning, since it provides feedback on our tests and hypotheses.

Students should be encouraged to engage in programming practice. The way we do that is by giving points towards grades. We should probably give more points for correct solutions, because that creates desirable incentives. But being able to program does not indicate understanding. The recent ITiCSE 2020 paper by Jean Sala and Diana Franklin showed that use of a given code construct was not correlated well with understanding of that code construct (see paper here). It’s also the case that students may understand the concept but can’t make it work in code.

As I was writing this blog post, the ACM SIGCSE-Members email list had a (yet another!) great thread on how to reduce cheating in CS1. The teachers on the list were torn. They want to support student learning, but they don’t want to reward cheaters. Many echoed this same point — that programming assignments have to be an opportunity for learning, not a summative assessment.

We need to separate learning and assessment activities. Most programming should be a learning opportunity, and not a time to assess student learning. I suppose we might have a special programming assignment labelled, “This one is under exam conditions,” and then it’s clear that it should be done alone and for assessment. I don’t encourage trying to make those kinds of distinctions during remote teaching and learning. I completely understand the reason for plagiarism detecting and prosecution on exams and quizzes. Those are assessment activities, not learning activities.

We should evaluate the students’ programs and give them feedback on them. Feedback improves learning. It shouldn’t be about punishing students who struggle with or even fail at the programs — programming should be part of a learning process.

We can assess learning about programming without having students program

One of our biggest myths in computer science is that the only way to test students’ knowledge of programming is by having them program. Allison Elliott Tew showed that her FCS1 correlated highly with the final exam scores of the students from four courses at two universities who were part of her study (see post here, with diagram of this scatterplot). Her test (all multiple choice) was predicted the grade of the semester’s worth of programming assignments, quizzes, and tests.

Over the years, I’ve attended several AP CS presentations from psyshometricians from ETS. Every time, they show us that they don’t need students to program on the AP CS exams. They can completely predict performance on the programming questions from the multiple choice questions. We can measure the knowledge and skill of programming without having students program.

Of course, it’s easier to tell the students to program, as a way of testing their programming knowledge. However, it’s not an effective measurement instrument (understanding and coding ability are not equivalent), it’s inefficient (takes more time than a test), and it creates stress and cognitive load on the students. (I recommend the work by Kinnunen and Simon on how intro programming assignments depress students’ self-efficacy.) We can and should build better assessments. For example, we could use Parsons problems which are more sensitive measures of understanding about programming than writing programs (see blog post). We want students to program, and most of our students want to program. Our focus should be on improving programming as a learning activity, not as a form of assessment.

Now more than ever, encourage collaboration

Here’s the big ask, Stop prosecuting students for academic misconduct if you detect plagiarism on programming assignments. My argument is just like the policing argument — we should be less worried about catching those who will exploit the opportunity to get unearned points, and more worried about discouraging students from collaboration that will help them learn. We already have inequality in our classrooms. During the pandemic, the gap between the most and less prepared students will likely grow. We have to take specific actions to close that gap and always in favor of the less-prepared students.

Notice that I did not say “stop trying to detect plagiarism.” We should use tools like MOSS to look for potential cheating. But let’s use any detection of plagiarism as an opportunity to learn, and maybe, as a cry for help.

Why do students cheat on programming assignments? There’s a body of literature on that question, but let me jump to the critical insight for this moment in time: All those reasons will be worse this year.

  • When we ask students to program, we are saying, “I have shown you all that you need to be able to complete this program. I now want you to demonstrate that you can.” Are we sure about that first part? We’re going to be doing everything online. We might miss covering concepts that we might normally teach, maybe in side conversations. How would we know if we got it wrong this next year?
  • One of the most powerful enablers for cheating is that students feel anonymous. If students feel that nobody knows them or notices them, then they might as well cheat. Students are going to feel even more anonymous in remote teaching.
  • Finally, at both higher education institutions where I’ve taught, the policy term for cheating is “illicit collaboration.” Especially now in a pandemic with remote teaching, we want students to collaborate. The evidence on pair programming and buddy programming is terrific — it helps with learning, motivation, and persistence in CS. But where’s the line between allowed and illicit collaboration when it’s all over Zoom? I’m worried about students not collaborating because they fear that they’ll cross that line. I have talked to students who won’t collaborate because they fear accidentally doing something disallowed. It will be even harder for students to see that line in a pandemic.

Some students cheat because they think that they have to. “If I don’t cheat and everyone else does, I’m at a disadvantage.” That’s only true if student grades are comparative. That’s why Proposal #2 is a critical step for Proposal #3 — stop pre-allocating, curving, or rationing grades. Use grades to reward learning, not “rising above your peers.”

I worry about us encouraging cheating. The pressures that Feldman identifies as exacerbating cheating will be even greater in all-online learning:

For example, we lament our students’ rampant cheating and copying of homework. Yet when we take a no-excuses approach to late work in the name of preparing students for real-world skills and subtract points or even refuse to accept the work, we incentivize students to complete work on time by hook or by crook and disincentivize real learning. Some common grading practices encourage the very behaviors we want to stop.

Feldman, Joe. Grading for Equity (p. xxii). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

If you detect plagiarism, contact the student. Tell them what you found. Ask them what happened. Ask how they’re doing. Are they getting lost in the class? Use this as an opportunity to explain what illicit collaboration is. Use this as an opportunity to figure out how you’re teaching and what’s going on in the lives of your students. This will be most effective for your first-generation students and your students who are in a minority group. They would likely feel alone, isolated, and invisible even in the in-person class. It’s going to be worse in remote teaching. They are less likely to reach out for help in office hours. Let them know that you’re there and that you care.

Last year, I was in charge of “cheat finding” for a large (over 750 students) introductory programming course. In the end, we filed academic misconduct accusations for about 10% of the class (not all of whom were found guilty by the Honor Council). It was a laborious, time-consuming task — gathering evidence, discussing with the instructional team, writing up the cases, etc. We should have spent that time talking to those students. We would have learned more. They would have learned more. It would have been a better experience for everyone.

Let’s change CS teaching from being about policing over plagiarism, to being about student health, welfare, and development.


* This will be last post for awhile. I’m taking a hiatus from blogging. This series on CS teaching to reduce inequity is my “going out with a bang.”

July 30, 2020 at 7:00 am 8 comments

Managing CS major enrollment boom with a lottery: “A lottery, by definition, is fair.”

I am excited to see that the University of California, San Diego is now managing their over-enrollment in the computer science major with a lottery — see the article here.

Instead of enrolling students holistically or based on GPA, the department selects at random — assuming they exceed the 3.3 CSE GPA threshold. With the lottery system, all students are equally considered despite differences in their experience, drive, and ability.

When asked about the implications of the new system — and possible disadvantage to high-performing students — CSE Chair Dean Tullsen explained, “a lottery, by definition, is fair.”

“I think there’s this false assumption that the students who work harder are the ones who are getting the 4.0s, that hard work directly translates to a higher grade. [The lottery system will] admit a lot of hard-working students who weren’t getting in before,” CSE Vice-Chair for Undergraduate Education Christine Alvarado added.

This is a much more fair system than simply allowing in the top GPA students. It probably doesn’t make Tech companies happier, but it’s not clear that it makes them less happy. They will still get lots of potential employees who are above the bar. Those employees will likely be more diverse than the graduates being produced from CS programs today. The students getting the top grades in the early classes are typically those with more opportunity to learn CS, more wealth, and more privilege. A lottery says that anyone who is prepared for the courses can take them.

June 22, 2020 at 7:00 am 22 comments

Becoming anti-racist: Learning about race in CS Education

I don’t usually invite external review on my blog posts for CACM, but I did this month because it’s such an important topic and I know too little about it — “CS Teachers, It’s (Past) Time To Learn About Race” (see link here). Many thanks to Melissa Perez, Carl Haynes, Leigh Ann DeLyser, Betsy DiSalvo, Leo Porter, Chad Jenkins, Wes Weimer, Barbara Ericson, Matthew Guzdial, Katie Guzdial, and Manuel Perez Quinones.

We have to change CS Education. We do not talk enough about BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students and faculty in CS education. We have to reflect that Black Lives Matter in our teaching practice. We have to become explicitly anti-racist (a term I just learned this last week, see the book link here) — actively seeking to address historic and systemic inequities (see piece at CNN too).

One of the reviewer’s comments was that, by offering some small suggestions (like changing how we grade), I might dissuade people from bigger changes. It’s a valid concern. I’m hoping that people will take me at my word: I’m just learning here, and I hope that you will educate me (and each other) by sharing other ideas and resources. Please do share more ideas in the comments to this post.

Here are a few more that have come my way since that post that I wanted to share:

  • Ron Eglash has written up a terrific list of strategies for address issues of racism in technology — see link here.
  • Melissa Perez, a PhD student working with Barb Ericson, pointed out that it’s not enough to bring more people into CS education if we don’t change what we’re doing in CS. For example, we have to consider the problem of using biased training data for machine learning training. She recommends this article for considering the ethics of what we do in CS, besides how we teach CS. We need to integrate ethics across CS education.
  • Carl Haynes, also a PhD student working with Barb, recommends this book on intersectionality (see link here).
  • Manuel Perez Quinones recommends this Best Paper awardee from CHI 2020 on “Critical Race Theory for HCI” (see link here).
  • Kamau Bobb gave a talk at CornellTech in January “Unpacking Equity: To Code + Beyond” which is available on YouTube here. (Thanks to Leigh Ann DeLyser and Dianne Levitt for this.)
  • Patricia Garcia, who does terrific work on helping underserved students author their computational identities, recommends this video on Black Lives Matter myths debunked.
  • The University of Michigan’s School of Information has been having an amazing online discussion about how to make their education anti-racist. A book that stood out on the resources shared there was Stamped from the Beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America by Ibram Kendi (Amazon link here).
  • I had my children read the CACM blog post, and they gave me valuable comments on it. My daughter, Katie, a science teacher in Detroit Public Schools suggested these three books: The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America by Richard Rothstein (link), We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina Love (Amazon link), and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum (Target link).

The issues of race, culture, and members of underserved groups are particularly critical for us to consider as we move into the 2020-2021 academic year during a worldwide pandemic. As we move classes on-line, we are putting at a greater disadvantage underserved populations. We have to be sensitive and thoughtful that our response to pandemic doesn’t exacerbate our existing structural inequities. Let’s worry less about cheating, and more about

  • how to help students taking our classes remotely who don’t have laptops, or who have to share a single laptop with a family, or who don’t have broadband Internet access;
  • how to help students who can’t come to class because they would be put at risk;
  • how to help students who have hearing disabilities and won’t be able to read lips if a teacher is wearing a mask (thanks to Bonnie MacKellar for pointing out that concern).

We have privilege and resources, and we should use them to address inequities.

TL;DR: I know too little about race, and I have not considered the historic and systemic inequities in CS education when I make my daily teaching decisions. I haven’t read all of the above, but I’m working on it daily. Please do share valuable resources you have found in the comments. Let’s learn about race in CS education and make change to improve learning for everyone.

June 8, 2020 at 7:00 am 13 comments

Goals for CS Education include Getting Students In the Door and Supporting Alternative Endpoints

ACM Inroads has published an essay by Scott Portnoff “A New Pedagogy to Address the Unacknowledged Failure of American Secondary CS Education” (see link here). The Inroads editors made a mistake in labeling this an “article.” It’s an opinion or editorial (op-ed) piece. Portnoff presents a single perspective with little support for his sometimes derogatory claims. I have signed a letter to the editors making this argument.

Portnoff is disparaging towards a group of scholars that I admire and learn from: Joanna Goode, Jane Margolis, and Gail Chapman. He makes comments about them like “had CSEA educators been familiar with both CS education and the literature.” Obviously, they are familiar with the research literature. They are leading scholars in the field. Portnoff chides the CSEA educators for not knowing about the “Novice Programmer Failure problem” — which is a term that I believe he invented. It does not appear in the research literature that I can find.

In this blog, I want to try to get past his bluster and aggressive rhetoric. Let’s consider his argument seriously.

In the first part, he suggests that current approaches to secondary school CS education in the United States are failing. His measure of success is success rates on the Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles exam. He also talks about going on to succeed in other CS courses and about succeeding at industry internships, but he only offers data about AP CSP.

He sees the reason for the failure of US CS education in high school is that we have de-emphasized programming. He sees programming as being critical to success in the AP exams, in future CS classes, and in industry jobs. Without an emphasis on programming, we will likely continue to see low pass rates on the AP CS Principles exam among female and under-represented minority students.

In the second part, Portnoff lays out his vision for a curriculum that would address these failings and prepare students for success. He talks about using tools like CodingBat (see link here) so that students get enough practice to develop proficiency. He wants a return to a focus on programming.

What Portnoff misses that there is not consensus around a single point of failure or a set of goals about CS Education. In general, I agree with his approach for what he’s trying to do. I value the work of the CSEA educators because the problems that they’re addressing are harder ones that need more attention.

The biggest problem in US high school CS education is that almost nobody takes it. Less than 5% of US high school students attend any CS classes (see this blog post for numbers), and the students we currently have are overwhelmingly male, white/Asian, and from wealthier schools. Of course, we want students to succeed at the Advanced Placement exams, at further CS courses, and at industry jobs. But if we can’t get students in the door, the rest of that barely matters. It’s not hard to create high-quality education only for the most prepared students. Getting diverse students in the door is a different problem than preparing students for later success.

CSEA knows more about serving students in under-served communities than I do. They know more about how to frame CS in such a way that principals will accept it and teachers will teach it. That’s a critical need. We need more of that, and we probably need a wide range of approaches that achieve those goals.

A focus on programming is critical for later success in the areas that Portnoff describes. The latest research supporting that argument comes from Joanna Goode (as I described in this blog post), one of the educators Portnoff critiques. Joanna was co-author on a paper showing that AP CS A success is more likely to predict continuation in CS than AP CSP success. I’m also swayed by the Weston et al. article showing that learning to program led to greater retention among female students in the NCWIT Aspirations awards programs (see link here).

I also agree with Portnoff that learning to program requires getting enough practice to achieve some level of automaticity. CodingBat is one good way to achieve that. But that takes a lot of motivation to keep practicing that long and hard. We achieve reading literacy because there are so many cultural incentives to read. What will it take to achieve broad-based programming literacy, and not just among the most privileged? Portnoff tells us that his experience suggests that his approach will work. I’m not convinced — I think it might work with the most motivated students. He teaches in the same school district where the ExploringCS class was born. But Portnoff teaches in one of LAUSD’s premier magnet schools, which may mean that he is seeing a different set of students.

An important goal for CS Education is to get students in the door. I’m not sure that Portnoff agrees with that goal, but I think that many involved in CS education would. There is less consensus about the desired outcomes from CS education. I don’t think that CSEA has the same definition of success that Portnoff does. They care about getting diverse students to have their first experience with computer science. They care about students developing an interest, even an affinity for computing. They care more about creating a technically-informed citizenry than producing more software developers. Portnoff doesn’t speak to whether CSEA is achieving their desired outcomes. He only compares them to his goals which are about continuing on in CS.

There is a tension between preparing students for more CS (e.g., success in advanced classes and in jobs) and engaging and recruiting students. In a National Academy study group I’m working in, we talk about the tension between professional authenticity (being true to the industry) and personal authenticity (being personally motivating). The fact that so few students enroll in CS, even when it’s available in their school, is evidence that our current approaches aren’t attractive. They are not personally authentic. We need to make progress on both fronts, but considering how over-full undergraduate CS classes are today, figuring out the recruitment problem is the greater challenge to giving everyone equitable access to CS education.

I just learned about a new paper in Constructionism 2020 from David Weintrop, Nathan Holbert, and Mike Tissenbaum (see link here) that makes this point well, better than I can here. “Considering Alternative Endpoints: An Exploration in the Space of Computing Educations” suggests that we need to think about multiple goals for computing education, and we too often focus just on the software development role:

While many national efforts tend to deploy rhetoric elevating economic concerns alongside statements about creativity and human flourishing, the programs, software, curricula, and infrastructure being designed and implemented focus heavily on providing learners with the skills, practices, and mindset of the professional software developer. We contend that computing for all efforts must take the “for all” seriously and recognize that preparing every learner for a career as a software developer is neither realistic nor desirable. Instead, those working towards the goal of universal computing education should begin to consider alternative endpoints for learners after completing computing curricula that better reflect the plurality of ways the computing is impacting their current lives and their futures.

June 1, 2020 at 7:00 am 20 comments

Data science as a path to integrate computing into K-12 schools and achieve CS for All

My colleague Betsy DiSalvo is part of the team that just released Beats Empire, an educational game for assessing what students understand about middle school computer science and data science https://info.beatsempire.org The game was designed by researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University; Georgia Tech; University of Wisconsin, Madison; SRI International; Digital Promise; and Filament Games in concert with the NYC Dept. of Education. Beats Empire is totally free; it has already won game design awards, and it is currently in use by thousands of students. Jeremy Roschelle was a consultant on the game and he just wrote a CACM Blog post about the reasoning behind the game (see link here).

Beats Empire is an example of an important development in the effort to help more students get the opportunity to participate in computing education. Few students are taking CS classes, even when they’re offered — less than 5% in every state for whom I’ve seen data (see blog post here). If we want students to see and use computing, we’ll need to put them in other classes. Data science fits in well with other classes, especially social studies classes. Bootstrap: Data Science (see link here) is another example of a computing-rich data science curriculum that could fit into a social studies class.

Social studies is where we can reach the more diverse student populations who are not in our CS classes. I’ve written here about my work developing data visualization tools for history classes. For a recent NSF proposal, I looked up the exam participation in the two Advanced Placement exams in computer science (CS Principles and CS A) vs the two AP exams in history (US history and World history). AP CS Principles was 32% female, and AP CS A was 24% female in 2019. In contrast, AP US History was 55% female and AP World History was 56% female. Five times as many Black students took the AP US History exam as took the AP CS Principles exam. Fourteen times as many Hispanic students took the AP US History exam as took the AP CS Principles exam.

Data science may be key to providing CS for All in schools.

April 27, 2020 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

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