Posts tagged ‘computing for everyone’

Growing evidence that lectures disadvantage underprivileged students

The New York Times weighs in on the argument about active learning versus passive lecture.  The article linked below supports the proposition that college lectures unfairly advantage those students who are already privileged. (See the post about Miranda Parker’s work for a definition of what is meant by privilege.)

The argument that we should promote active learning over passive lecture has been a regular theme for me for a few weeks now:

  •  I argued in Blog@CACM that hiring ads and RPT requirements should be changed explicitly to say that teaching statements that emphasize active learning would be more heavily weighted (see post here).
  • The pushback against this idea was much greater than I anticipated. I asked on Facebook if we could do this at Georgia Tech. The Dean of the College of Engineering was supportive. Other colleagues were strongly against it. I wrote a blog post about that pushback here.
  • I wrote a Blog@CACM post over the summer about the top ten myths of computing education, which was the top-visited page at CACM during the month of July (see post here).  I wrote that post in response to a long email thread on a College of Computing faculty mailing list, where I experienced that authority was able to sway CS faculty more than research results (blog post about that story here).

The NYTimes piece pushes on the point that this is not just an argument about quality of education.  The argument is about what is ethical and just.  If we value broadening participation in computing, we should use active learning methods and avoid lecture. If we lecture, we bias the class in favor of those who have already had significant advantages.

Thanks to both Jeff Gray and Briana Morrison who brought this article to my attention.

Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

The partiality of the lecture format has been made visible by studies that compare it with a different style of instruction, called active learning. This approach provides increased structure, feedback and interaction, prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.

Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.

Source: Are College Lectures Unfair? – The New York Times

September 18, 2015 at 8:44 am 4 comments

Students concerned about demand for CS classes at Berkeley: First of many

The article below is from the Berkeley student newspaper, but it’s not just a Berkeley issue.  Enrollment is surging, and schools have too few resources to meet demand.  Dealing with the enrollment surge was a big topic at the ACM Education Council last month.  Based on what I heard at last year’s meeting of the Ed Council, I predicted that the enrollment surge would like lead to less diversity in CS (see blog post here). This year, I came away with the sense that most attendees believe it’s quite likely.  The issue now is measuring the impact and seeing what resources can be marshaled once there’s evidence that there has been damage to diversity.  Both CRA and the National Academies are conducting studies about the impact of the enrollment surge.  Right now, action is more about studying the impact than responding to the need — people might be willing to respond, but we have so few options.  Google has funded several projects to invent new ways to respond (see blog post here), but those are just starting now.  We won’t know for months if they’ll work.

When the culture at UC Berkeley simultaneously stresses the importance of a computer science education and heightens GPA requirements for the major, barriers to entry become increasingly difficult to overcome. More and more students entering UC Berkeley feel pressured to learn basic computer science skills to meet the needs of the postgraduation job market — a notion that the campus and its highly ranked computer science department encourage…But the upsurge in enrollment means fewer resources for beginner students, especially in terms of access to teaching assistants and professors.

The computer science department recently changed its requirements for petitioning for admission to the major: Students who entered UC Berkeley before this fall needed a cumulative GPA of 3.0 in the seven lower-division course requirements, whereas students who came in this fall need to complete, specifically, CS 61A, 61B and 70 with a cumulative GPA of 3.3. These are arguably the more difficult “weeder courses” within the prerequisites, and increasing the average required GPA from a B to a B+ makes a real difference for many deserving students hoping to earn a computer science degree. In CS 61A, for example, the past average is a 2.84, or a B-. Holding beginners to such a high standard, especially given the amount of pressure from an increasingly technologically focused society, is a tool to sort students into winners and losers rather than educate them.

Source: Campus computer science program does not compute | The Daily Californian

September 14, 2015 at 7:26 am 7 comments

The narrative of grit: We need to change the system, too

I’ve heard Angela Duckworth talk about the importance of grit in achieving success in American schools (see National Geographic piece on her here). I’ve also heard Jane Margolis rail against this idea, saying that the grit narrative is blaiming the underprivileged for not succeeding more in schools. The below blog piece does a nice job explaining about the interaction of poverty and the grit narrative.

Teachers who subscribe to this “grit” narrative risk conveying the idea that poverty is caused by poor work ethic. The “grit” narrative presents America as a meritocracy where everyone person has full control over their destiny. The “American Dream” is certainly a seductive idea. It is also little more than a fairy tale for many living in poverty today. Just looking at the few examples of poor minorities who have broken through the barriers of poverty creates a blindspot towards all of the other reasons that make it difficult to break through those barriers. These other reasons desperately need attention – both inside and outside of the school system. I see the “grit” narrative as a classic confusion between correlation and causation. This narrative and other ideas highlight the risks that teachers take if they act purely out of a sense of helpful urgency.

via Poverty, Grit, and Teachers « Mr. Williams’ STEM Education Blog.

September 9, 2015 at 8:03 am 1 comment

New Google for Education report on K-12 CS Ed: Parents want it, Principals don’t get it

Google has just released a new report on K-12 CS Education.  It’s linked at the bottom.  I’m going to quote from a new Wired article that describes one of the big bottomlines.

In a big survey conducted with Gallup and released today, Google found a range of dysfunctional reasons more K-12 students aren’t learning computer science skills. Perhaps the most surprising: schools don’t think the demand from parents and students is there.

Google and Gallup spent a year and a half surveying thousands of students, parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents across the US. And it’s not that parents don’t want computer science for their kids. A full nine in ten parents surveyed viewed computer science education as a good use of school resources. It’s the gap between actual and perceived demand that appears to be the problem.

via Huh? Schools Think Kids Don’t Want to Learn Computer Science | WIRED.

Searching for Computer Science: Access and Barriers in U.S. K-12 Education

To understand perceptions of computer science and associated opportunities, participation, and barriers, we worked with Gallup, Inc. to survey over 1,600 students, 1,600 parents, 1,000 teachers, 9,600 principals, and 1,800 superintendents. We found:

  • Exposure to computer technology is vital to building student confidence for computer science learning.

  • Opportunities to learn computer science at schools is limited for most students. When available, courses are not comprehensive.

  • Demand for CS in schools is high amongst students and parents, but school and district administrators underestimate this interest.

  • Barriers to offering computer science in schools include testing requirements for other subjects and limited availability and budget for qualified teachers.

via Google for Education: Computer Science Research.

August 28, 2015 at 7:31 am Leave a comment

ICER 2015 Report: Blocks win–Programming Language Design == UI Design

ICER 2015 at the University of Nebraska, Omaha was fantastic.  Brian Dorn did a terrific job hosting all of us.

The Doctoral Consortium went really well.  We had 20 students from US, Chile, Germany, and UK.  Below is a picture from the “Up against the wall bubble sort” where experienced students went to one side, and newer students went to the other, and the former gave advice to the latter.




Georgia Tech had even more going on at ICER and RESPECT than I mentioned in my earlier blog posts (like here and here).  The GVU Center did a nice write up about all of us here.  The biggest thrill at ICER for the GT crowd was Briana Morrison receiving the Chairs Award (one of two best paper awards at ICER) for the paper that I blogged about here.  Below is the whole GT contingent at ICER (including chair Brian Dorn, GT alum).


The other best paper award, the peoples’ choice John Henry Award, went to Kristin Searle and Yasmin Kafai (see paper here) about the e-textiles work with American Indians that I blogged about here.  Kristin had so many interesting insights, like the boys in her project telling her that “I don’t own” the projects they made because they felt no ownership over the programming environment they were using.

The quality of the papers was very good (you can see the list of all of them here).  My favorite paper from my review packet was presented Monday morning, Spatial Skills in Introductory Computer Programming.  Steve Cooper and Sheryl Sorby with two undergraduates at Stanford did the study that I’ve been wanting to see for ages (see blog post where I talk about it). Training an experimental group in spatial skills improved performance over a control group.  Surprisingly, SES and race differences disappeared in the experimental group!  This is an important result.

But one session blew me away — it changed how I think about blocks programming.

  • The first paper was from Thomas Price and Tiffany Barnes showing that students using blocks were able to achieve programming tasks faster than those using text, but with no difference in learning or attitudes afterwards (paper here).  This was an interesting result, but it was a limited study (short intervention, no pre-test) so it mostly supported a finding from Chris Hundhausen from years previous that graphical, direct-manipulation languages lead to faster start-up than text languages (see paper here).
  • David Weintrop presented his remarkable paper with Uri Wilensky (see paper here).  Below is the graph that changed my thinking about blocks.  David carefully developed an isomorphic test in blocks and text, and gave it to the same population.  Students did much better on the blocks-based test. MODALITY MATTERS!  Blocks and text are not equivalent. He did careful analyses at each level of the test. For example, David replicated the result that else clauses in text are really hard for novices (which I talked about here), but students perform much better in blocks-based if-else.




  • Diana Franklin presented their paper describing fourth graders reading Scratch programs (see paper here).  I was expecting a paper on program comprehension — it wasn’t.  Instead, it was a paper about user interfaces, and how the user interface interfered or supported students exploring and coming to understand the program.

I came away from that three papers realizing that blocks programming is likely the best modality to use in elementary school programming, and perhaps even when starting to program in high school, and maybe even for end-user programmers.  But even more important, I realized that Andy Ko’s comments about programming languages as being a powerful and unusable user interface (see his blog post here) is the critical insight about programming today.  David showed us that blocks can dramatically increase readability of programs.  Diana showed us that the user interface dramatically influences the readability of the blocks.  At the novice programming level, blocks-based languages are the most promising direction today, and designing good blocks languages is as much a user interface design problem as it is a programming language design problem.


August 17, 2015 at 7:27 am 1 comment

RESPECT 2015 Preview: Project Rise Up 4 CS

Our second RESPECT paper is by Barbara Ericson and Tom McKlin. Barb has been developing this cool intervention based on the Texas-based Advanced Placement Incentive Program (APIP) from AP Strategies (see paper about that work) and Betsy DiSalvo’s Glitch (see blog post here). Barb is offering financial incentives to African American students to encourage them to take advantage of additional learning opportunities (e.g., attend webinars and face-to-face workshops), and then pass the AP CS exam. NMSI has also offered grants to states to replicate the Texas APIP project (e.g., blog post at NMSI).

Barb has published on Project Rise Up 4 CS at SIGCSE (see my blog post on that paper). This new paper, “Helping African American Students Pass Advanced Placement Computer Science: A Tale of Two States,” describes Barb’s efforts to replicate the project in another state, and Tom’s efforts to measure what happened.

The bottomline is that in both states where she tried this, the participants had significant improvements in attitudes towards computing from pre to post. Probably the most important attitude change is that the participants had a significant increase in their perceived ability to pass the exam, and some of the students said that they couldn’t have passed the AP CS exam without Project Rise Up 4 CS. Both states had their highest-ever African American AP CS pass rates, though it would be hard to ever make a causal argument that this is due to Project Rise Up 4 CS.

The significant contribution of the paper is the deep understanding of what the project meant to the students, based on interviews. Students talked about their classes and teachers, what worked in Project Rise Up 4 CS, and how the project helped their confidence and knowledge. Barb used undergraduate students to host the webinars and workshops, who served as “near-peer” mentors and role models for the students. Those near-peer mentors were a critical piece in making Project Rise Up work.

Barb’s paper is being highlighted as one of four “Exemplary” papers at RESPECT.

August 12, 2015 at 7:43 am 1 comment

RESPECT 2015 Preview: The Role of Privilege in CS Education

On Friday, August 14, the first RESPECT conference will be held in Charlotte, NC — the first international meeting of the IEEE Special Technical Community on Broadening Participation with technical co-sponsorship by the IEEE Computer Society (see conference website here). RESPECT stands for Research on Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology.

We have two papers in RESPECT which I’ll summarize in a couple of blog posts. I’m less familiar with IEEE rules on paper referencing and publishing, so I’ll make a copy available as soon as I get the rules sorted out.

Miranda Parker has just finished her first year as a Human-Centered Computing PhD student at Georgia Tech, working with me. She’s done terrific work in her first year which I hope to be talking more about as she publishes. At RESPECT 2015, she’ll be presenting her first paper as a PhD student, “A critical research synthesis of privilege in computing education.”

Miranda defines privilege as:

Privilege is an unearned, unasked-for advantage gained because of the way society views an aspect of a student’s identity, such as race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and language.

Her short paper is a review of the literature on how we measure privilege, where its impact has been measured in other STEM fields, and where there are holes in the computing education literature. She’s using studies of privilege in other STEM fields to help define new research directions in computing education. It’s just the sort of contribution you’d want a first year PhD student to make. She’s surveying literature that we don’t reference much, and using that survey to identify new directions — for her, as well as the field.

August 10, 2015 at 7:41 am 3 comments

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