Posts tagged ‘perception of university’

6 Stories of Failure in Changing Higher Education: Misunderstanding Organizational Context

Last month, I had a birthday. It was not one of those big end-with-a-zero birthdays, but it was still notable. I can now get “senior” discounts from my local grocer. That’s something. Coincidentally, this month also begins my 25th year at Georgia Tech.

I’ve been reading about failure CV’s, a list of the usually-invisible things that go wrong in an academic’s career. The goal is to show that failure is quite common and that success is often a matter of luck. I’m not sure I can remember all my failed papers and proposals. I can remember a list of failures that relate to both my “senior” age and my years at Georgia Tech.

Below is a list of stories where I failed in an organizational context. In each of these, I proposed something that didn’t fly because I didn’t understand the organizational structure of higher education in general and Georgia Tech specifically. This isn’t a comprehensive list. I failed a lot more than this! I’m picking stories that offer lessons I’ve learned about the challenges of making educational initiatives in higher education, especially ones that I expect are useful in other organizations. I’m listing these in roughly chronological order.

Short form: Other computing educators may want to try these things. Didn’t work for me, and here’s why. Avoid my mistakes.

Entrepreneurial activity in education research often requires organization action or change, like new courses, new degree programs, adopting new teaching practices, or starting to teach a new population. I’ve been successful at some of this, like starting the Media Computation class and offering a variety of learning opportunities through “Georgia Computes!” Think of the stories in this list as startup ideas or business plans that don’t convince venture capitalists. These didn’t take off because I didn’t understand the market or the investors.

Side note: I’m also writing this for catharsis. Failures in organizational contexts are more painful than proposal or paper rejections. First, organizational failures are not anonymous — you are associated with the proposal, and you usually get the “no” to your face. Second, they gnaw at me. Could it have gone differently if I’d pitched it differently? To a different person? Maybe I could pitch it today and it would be different? Or is too late because the organization remembers that I already had my shot?

Story #1: A Computer Science Education Research Center

About 15 years ago, I wrote a memo proposing a Computer Science Education Research Center. (Yes, I still have it.) We had (and have) great computing education researchers, a large cohort of instructional faculty, and tons of students. The idea was to identify problems in the classrooms, develop solutions collaboratively between tenure-track faculty researchers and instructional faculty, try them out in the classrooms, and then publish and iterate. It was all about using our classrooms and students as a giant design-based research laboratory.

I’ve seen this work at places like UCSD, Duke, Stanford, and U. Toronto. It didn’t fly here, for reasons that are obvious in hindsight. The instructional faculty did not want tenure-track faculty telling them how to teach. The tenure-track faculty do not understand everything that it takes to keep huge classrooms running week-after-week, semester-after-semester. What happens when there are disagreements? There would likely be an awkward tension because of power relationships between tenure-track and instructional faculty.

The instructional faculty at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing have been overwhelmingly helpful with our Computing Education Research. Between encouraging their students to participate in our experiments, to letting us into their classrooms for observations, our lecturers and instructors support computing education research. I deeply appreciate their support. But it’s too big of an ask to have instructors change their teaching practice, or harder still, to implement an intervention in one semester and deny the intervention to another section of the same class (as a control/comparison).

I think it works at UCSD, Duke, Stanford, and U. Toronto because the instructional faculty are the computing education researchers. Changing your own courses for reasons you appreciate and value is different than doing it because researchers in a Center ask it of you. Doing it collaboratively (maybe even using some classes as control/comparisons) can lead to great research. It doesn’t work as well when the change comes from someone(s) other than the teacher.

In the end, what I proposed flew in the face of academic freedom. That faculty can teach using the methods that they think is best is a core principal in academic freedom. That’s a big part of what makes this job attractive. With rising numbers of students to teach and too few CS PhD’s becoming academics these days, we need to make the job more attractive, not add more restrictions.

Story #2: The Weight of Teacher Development Regulations

During the early years of Georgia Computes!, we realized that preparing more computing teachers was going to be critical to success. Barbara and I were part of a statewide committee to create a computer science teacher endorsement. I wanted Georgia Tech to offer computer science education classes towards certification for teachers with a goal of being a provider for the endorsement. I was particularly eager for us to use on-line learning technologies, so that teachers in other states (maybe even in other countries?) might use this program. I was sure that the name of “Georgia Tech” would help to sell the program to teachers.

My Chair (head of my School) told me that it was a bad idea, and he would not support my proposal. His reasoning was simple — we didn’t have a School of Education. Any kind of program that leads to a teaching certification involves a lot of regulation and paperwork. Georgia Tech didn’t have any programs like that. The regulatory and bureaucratic costs would have been totally new and likely large.

He was right. Three Universities eventually offered the endorsement in Georgia. All three did it through a collaboration between the Computer Science departments and existing Schools of Education. If your university is already doing teacher certification, adding computer science is a marginal cost. If your university wasn’t, you likely don’t know what you’re getting into. Now that I know more about how different states handle teacher certification, I realize how much of the process is defined by state regulation and legislation. I should have figured out the cost of my proposal before I made it.

Story #3: Apprenticeship and Conscience over Diversity Efforts

Several years ago, I became aware of teaching practices in one of our classes that I believed were likely impacting retention of female students (as mentioned in this blog post). I didn’t have any evidence that the practices were impacting retention. I critiqued the practices as an opinion of a researcher who studies diversity in computing education. I wanted to change our teaching practices in introductory CS courses in order to improve retention of women following recommendations of groups like NCWIT. I was unsuccessful.

When I first realized that there was a problem, I approached senior tenure-track faculty in my school. I described the practices I was concerned with — and they were unconcerned. The practices I described were pretty common in industry. But what about changing practices, maybe changing industry, trying to make industry more welcoming for women? I was running into a conflict that I’d seen in my faculty workshops. There are five common perspectives on what a teacher should be. I tend to take a “social reform” perspective (let’s use school to change society) or a “developmental” perspective (let’s start from where students are). But the most common teaching perspective among the CS faculty I’ve queried is “apprenticeship” — the job of the CS teacher is to model good software development behavior and to coach students in following those practices. In that perspective, it’s more important to teach current industry practice than to try to change what’s in industry. One perspective is not better than the other. “Apprenticeship” is a valid perspective for teaching CS, and I get the argument.

I had lunch with one of our most senior instructors, and I raised my concerns. He told me that he was worried about women going into the Tech industry. He went on to talk about the working conditions and how there were much better jobs for women. I was angry, thinking that he was saying that women couldn’t do these jobs or didn’t belong in Computing. I later reflected on what he said, and realized that my first reaction was wrong.

He was having a crisis of conscience, I now believe. Our instructors pay attention to what’s going on at Uber and at Google much more than the average tenure-track faculty. The instructors see their jobs as producing students who will go work in the Tech industry. My colleague was saying that he didn’t want to send women there, given how they’d be treated and what the Tech industry is like.

I don’t know what to tell him. When I tell women this story, they often ask, “Who is he to say what women should or shouldn’t do?” Fair response, but being concerned about what students should or shouldn’t do, or even having to decide who belongs and who should be encouraged to leave CS — that’s an occupational hazard of being a CS teacher. They make those decisions every day.

The lesson learned from this story is that I didn’t think hard enough about the forces that keep things the way they are, the motivations of the decision-makers. I didn’t think about my market before I pitched my product.

Story #4: The Tensions between State Governments and State Universities

In 2014, the Georgia Governor announced that he was making an initiative to push coding in Georgia’s schools (see my blog post here on that announcement). The next year, we had a terrific CS Education faculty candidate. My chair and I came up with an idea. We wanted to ask the Governor to fund an effort to innovate and promote coding in Georgia schools, building on our successful work in “Georgia Computes!” We wanted funding to hire this CS Ed candidate as part of this effort. We drew up a one-page pitch to the Provost, and a draft letter to the Governor (in our Provost’s name) to make the request. Our Dean took these to a face-to-face meeting with the Provost.

The next day, my chair and I received a reprimand from the upper administration for contacting the Governor without permission! Somewhere there was a misunderstanding, because we had not contacted anyone in state government. My chair cleared things up with the Provost, and we learned why there was such a strong reaction.

I had not realized how sensitive relationships are these days between state universities and state governments. States are providing less funding to their universities. Universities are understandably careful about what they ask for. Georgia Tech desperately needed a new building at the time. The Provost did not want to send mixed signals to the state government. For example, he didn’t want to give them the idea that the coding in Georgia initiative would be preferable to the building they needed.

I get it. Relations between state governments and universities are strained. You don’t want a rogue faculty member messing up the priorities, and you certainly have to be careful what you put on the wishlist. I didn’t realize that I was touching on such a sensitive negotiation.

Story #5: Teaching High School Students does not pay for MOOCs

Last year, I decided the best chance to get computer science into Georgia’s rural high schools was not Advanced Placement but dual enrollment. I told this story on Blog@CACM. I started the process of building a MOOC that would be equivalent to our CS1315 Media Computation class to offer to Georgia high school students as dual enrollment. We already have distance Calculus offered to rural high schools from Georgia Tech, but that’s delivered via special video links. I wanted to do a MOOC so that it could be more widely available.

The head of distance learning said no. MOOCs are expensive to build. We only build them if we can see a way to cover those costs. We couldn’t recoup the costs if we offered the MOOC to high school students.

Turns out that the Georgia legislature has capped the amount that universities can charge for dual enrollment tuition, and that amount does not cover Georgia Tech’s costs for MOOC development and hosting. Our head of online learning is trying to get that changed, to get the cap raised. Offering a CS MOOC for dual enrollment under those conditions would be a bad move in that negotiation.

I understand the issue. While the OMS CS is famous for being inexpensive, it’s not free. The financial model that we have for online education doesn’t work for high school students, which does have to be essentially free. We are now offering an online MOOC-based CS1 for CS majors, but that was paid for by an external funder. Maybe if I found an external funder, Georgia Tech would be willing to let me develop the MOOC. However, even the new CS1 MOOC is not available to Georgia high school students for dual enrollment. The political issue has not been resolved.

The lesson here is (again) that I should have figured out the costs of my proposal before I pitched it. I should have also figured out the politics before we started. A 10 minute conversation with the head of online education would have saved weeks of planning.

Story #6: Education Research can be Dangerous for Well-Ranked Technical Institutions

Last Spring, I got the chance to visit three engineering education programs, all of which have engineering education PhD students. I wondered whether we could build something similar here. There are several efforts on our campus to study STEM education, to be innovative in STEM education, and to evaluate novel interventions. These efforts have graduate students, and it would be great to be able to offer them a graduate certificate or even a degree. I asked the Provost for a meeting to discuss creating a STEM education research graduate certificate or degree.

The Provost started the meeting saying that there would never be a degree or academic unit at Georgia Tech with the word “education” in the title. He explained that education research is outside the unique mission of Georgia Tech. There are other education programs in the University System of Georgia. They can do STEM education research. The Georgia Institute of Technology should focus on technological advances.

I told my Dean this story, and he gave me new insight into the Provost’s motivations. The Dean thought that “never” was too strong, but he did have a specific criteria about whether to back this kind of an effort. “Which of our peer institutions has a STEM education research graduate certificate?” Georgia Tech (and the College of Computing) is well ranked. You have to be careful with that kind of ranking. You want to innovate, but you don’t want to do things that might make your peers think you’re weakening your research focus. Education research might be perceived as taking resources from technological research. It would be okay to do, if we didn’t go first.

I had not really thought through how Deans and Provosts evaluated new programs. They have a sense of mission, and new program proposals are evaluated against that mission. I should have tried to figure out the criteria first, before I made my proposal.

Conclusions

After the last story, one of the other Deans kindly reached out me. He told me, “Never is a long time.” Institutions change. Missions evolve. I am a post-Full Professor (as I described here). He suggested that I wait. There will be more opportunities for change later.

So what does work for higher education change? There’s another whole blog post to write about how Media Computation, Threads, and Georgia Computes actually worked, but I can generalize as the inverse of the above failures. Before you make a pitch like one of these, think about the motivations of the decision-makers. “It will improve learning” is rarely motivating for a higher-education administrator. “It will improve retention” is also unlikely to win, unless the low retention rate is a cost (e.g., students failing a required class may mean more students re-take the class, which costs in future enrollments). Fixing a known problem, reducing costs, improving stature, bringing in additional resources, and increasing fame — those are motivators for administrators and other higher-education decision-makers.

Mitchel Resnick has a new book out on Lifelong Kindergarten (see Amazon link). The interview with him on NPR about the new book is terrific. I particularly like Mitchel’s final quote, and it’s an apt conclusion to these stories:

I sometimes describe myself as a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist.

I know how difficult it is to shift systems and mindsets. But I see the needs of societies changing so much, that the kinds of approaches in the book make so much sense, that ultimately we’ll win out. It’s what keeps me going. I’ve dedicated my life to this.

October 9, 2017 at 7:00 am 2 comments

Disrupt This!: MOOCs and the Promises of Technology by Karen Head

Over the summer, I read the latest book from my Georgia Tech colleague, Karen Head. Karen taught a MOOC in 2013 to teach freshman composition, as part of a project funded by the Gates Foundation. They wanted to see if MOOCs could be used to meet general education requirements. Karen wrote a terrific series or articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the experience (you can see my blog post on her last article in the series here). Her experience is the basis for her new book Disrupt This! (link to Amazon page here). There is an interview with her at Inside Higher Education that I also recommend (see link here).

In Disrupt This!, Karen critiques the movement to “disrupt education” with a unique lens. I’m an education researcher, so I tend to argue with MOOC advocates with data (e.g., my blog post in May about how MOOCs don’t serve to decrease income inequality). Karen is an expert in rhetoric. She analyzes two of the books at the heart of the education disruption literature: Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out and Richard DeMillo’s Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities. She critiques these two books from the perspective of how they argue — what they say, what they don’t say, and how the choice of each of those is designed to influence the audience. For example, she considers why we like the notion of “disruption.”

Disruption appeals to the audience’s desire to be in the vanguard. It is the antidote to complacency, and no one whose career revolves around the objectives of critical thinking and originality—the pillars of scholarship—wants to be accused of that…Discussions of disruptive innovation frequently conflate “is” (or “will be”) and “ought.” In spite of these distinctions, however, writers often shift from making dire warnings to an apparently gleeful endorsement of disruption. This is not unrelated to the frequent use of millenarian or religiously toned language, which often warns against a coming apocalypse and embraces disruption as a cleansing force.

Karen is not a luddite. She volunteered to create the Composition MOOC because she wanted to understand the technology. She has high standards and is critical of the technology when it doesn’t meet those standards. She does not suffer gladly the fools who declare the technology or the disruption as “inevitable.”

The need for radical change in today’s universities—even if it is accepted that such change is desirable—does not imply that change will inevitably occur. To imply that because the church should have embraced the widespread publication of scripture, modern universities should also embrace the use of MOOCs is simply a weak analogy.

Her strongest critique focuses on who these authors are. She argues that the people who are promoting change in education should (at least) have expertise in education. Her book mostly equates expertise with experience. My colleagues and I work to teach faculty about education, to develop their expertise before they enter the classroom (as in this post). I suspect Karen would agree with me about different paths to develop expertise, but she particularly values getting to know students face-to-face. She’s angry that the authors promoting education disruption do not know students.

It is a travesty that the conversation about the reform or disruption of higher education is being driven by a small group of individuals who are buffered from exposure to a wide range of students, but who still claim to speak on their behalf and in their interests.

Disrupt This! gave me a new way to think about MOOCs and the hype around disruptive technologies in education. I often think in terms of data. Karen shows how to critique the rhetoric — the data are less important if the argument they are supporting is already broken.

October 6, 2017 at 7:00 am 2 comments

Should Computing be in its own College or School?

Probably my favorite session from the CRA Snowbird conference this last summer (see agenda with links to all talks) was a session on creating Colleges or Schools of Computer Science.  Should we?  Why?

The most compelling two talks in the session were from Randy Bryant and Rich LeBlanc, because they were so similar in structure.  They both argued that you don’t make the argument for a high-level College or School of Computing because you’re big and important.  You make it because you have a driving definition of computing that makes it unique.

  • Randy told the story of how CMU’s School of Computer Science was driven by the original definition of computer science from Newell and Simon, and how that definition was broader than most people’s definition of CS today. I recently blogged on that definition.
  • Rich told the story of how Georgia Tech’s College of Computing was driven by the ACM report The Future of Computing (led by Peter Denning) which showed how Computing crossed science, mathematics, and engineering.  Of course, Rich’s story was particularly powerful for me because I lived that definition — that was the vision that drove the College of Computing when I first got here in 1993.  Rich told the story of how that definition convinced faculty and administrators at Georgia Tech that Computing couldn’t be contained within the Colleges of Engineering or Science.  It needed to be its own entity. (I may also be biased because Rich quoted me from this blog 🙂

Many of the people in the audience wanted to know, “How can I turn my Department into a School or College?”  One audience member said, “My CS department is the biggest one in the College of Engineering. How do I break apart into my own College.”  All the panelists told him, “You can’t.”  No Dean will allow its biggest department to leave — that would be crazy.  Some participants (from U. Michigan and U. Washington, in particular) pointed out why they don’t have a College or School of Computing — they have successful multi-department collaborations that make it unnecessary.  A new College or School is expensive.  Don’t do it unless you have to.

 

September 23, 2016 at 7:10 am 3 comments

Every University Student should Learn to Program: Guzdial Arguing for CS for All in Higher Education

A colleague recently approached me and said, “It would be useful if Universities got involved in this CS for All effort.  All Universities should offer courses aimed at everyone on campus. There should be a systematic effort to get everyone to take those classes.”

I agree, and have been making this argument for several years now.  I spent a few minutes gathering the papers, blog posts, and book where I’ve made that argument over the last decade and a bit.

In 2002, Elliot Soloway and I argued in CACM that we needed a new way to engage students in intro programming: Teaching the Nintendo Generation to Program.

In 2003, I published the first paper on Media Computation: A media computation course for non-majors.

In 2004, Andrea Forte led the team studying the Media Computation class at GT:Computers for communication, not calculation: Media as a motivation and context for learning and  A CS1 course designed to address interests of women.

In 2005, Andrea Forte and I presented empirical evidence about the courses we’d designed for specific audiences: Motivation and nonmajors in computer science: identifying discrete audiences for introductory courses. I published a paper in CACM about how the courses came to be at Georgia Tech: Teaching computing to everyone.

In 2008, I offered the historical argument for teaching everyone to program: Paving the Way for Computational Thinking.

We’ve published several papers about our design process: Imagineering inauthentic legitimate peripheral participation: an instructional design approach for motivating computing education and Design process for a non-majors computing course.

My 2013 ICER paper was a review of a decade’s worth of research on Media Computation: Exploring hypotheses about media computation

My keynote at VL/HCC 2015 was on how computing for all is a requirement for modern society: Requirements for a computing-literate society

My 2015 book is, to a great extent: an exploration of how to achieve CS for All: Learner-Centered Design of Computing Education: Research on Computing for Everyone.

In blog posts, it’s been a frequent topic of conversation:

I don’t know how to convince University CS departments to do just about anything, but here are my contributions to the dialogs that I hope are happening at Colleges and Universities worldwide about how to prepare students to engage in computational literacy.

September 19, 2016 at 7:15 am 16 comments

Higher Ed Might Help Reduce Inequity (mostly doesn’t): Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast

Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History, recently included a mini-series about the inequities in society that higher education perpetuates. Higher education is a necessity for a middle class life in today’s US, but not everyone gets access to higher education, which means that the economic divide grows larger. We in higher education (an according to Richard Tapia in his foreword to Stuck in the Shallow End, we in computer science explicitly) may be playing a role in widening the economic divide. David Brooks wrote about these inequities in 2005, in his NYTimes column, titled “The Education Gap“:

We once had a society stratified by bloodlines, in which the Protestant Establishment was in one class, immigrants were in another and African-Americans were in another. Now we live in a society stratified by education. In many ways this system is more fair, but as the information economy matures, we are learning it comes with its own brutal barriers to opportunity and ascent.

Gladwell has written about higher education before. In David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants, he told the story of Caroline Sacks who loved science since she was a little girl. When she applied to college, she was accepted into both University of Maryland and Brown University. She chose Brown for its greater prestige. Unfortunately, that prestige came with a much more competitive peer set. Caroline compared herself to them, and found herself wanting. She dropped out of science. Gladwell suggests that, if she’d gone to Maryland, she might have persisted in science because she would have fared better in the relative comparison.

Gladwell’s three podcasts address who gets in to higher education, how we pay for financial aid for poorer students, and how we support institutions that serve poorer students.

In Carlos doesn’t remember, Gladwell considers whether there are poorer students who have the academic ability to succeed but aren’t applying to colleges. Ivy League schools are willing to offer an all-expenses-paid scholarship to qualified students whose family income is below a certain level, but they award few of those scholarships. The claim is that there are just few of those smart-enough-but-poor students. Economists Avery and Hoxby explored that question and found that there are more than 35,000 students in the United States who meet the Ivy League criteria (see paper here). So why aren’t they applying for those prestigious scholarships?

Gladwell presents a case study of Carlos, a bright student who gets picked up by a program aimed at helping students like him get access to high-quality academic opportunities. Gladwell highlights the range of issues that keep students like Carlos from finding, getting into, and attending higher education opportunities. He provides evidence that Avery and Hoxby dramatically underestimate the high-achieving poor student, e.g., Avery and Hoxby identified some students using eighth grade exam scores. Many of the high-achieving poor students drop out before eighth grade.

As an education researcher, I’m recommending this podcast to my graduate students. The podcast exemplifies why it’s so difficult to do interview-based research. The title of the episode comes from Carlos’s frequent memory lapses in the interview. When asked why he didn’t mention the time he and his sister were taken away from their mother and placed in foster care, Carlos says that he doesn’t remember that well. It’s hard to believe that a student this smart forgets something so momentous in his life. Part of this is a resilience strategy — Carlos has to get past the bad times in his life to persist. But part of it is a power relationship. Carlos is a smart, poor kid, and Gladwell is an author of international bestsellers. Carlos realizes that it’s in his best interest to make Gladwell happy with him, so he says what he thinks Gladwell wants to hear. Whenever there is a perceived power gap between an interviewee (like Carlos) and an interviewer (Gladwell), we should expect to hear not-quite-the-truth. The interviewee will try to tell the interviewer what he thinks the world-famous author wants to hear — not necessarily what the interviewee actually thinks.

The episode Food Fight contrasts Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in New York. They are similar schools in terms of size and academics, but Bowdoin serves much better food in its cafeterias than Vassar. Vassar made an explicit decision to cut back in its food budget in order to afford more financial aid to its poorer students. Vassar spends almost twice as much as Bowdoin in financial aid, and has a much higher percentage of low-income students than Bowdoin. Vassar is explicit in the trade-offs that they’re making. Gladwell interviews a student who complains about the food quality, but says that she accepts it as the price for having a more diverse student body.

But there’s a tension here. Vassar can only afford that level of financial aid because there is a significant percentage of affluent students who are playing full fare — and those affluent students are exactly the ones for which both Bowdoin and Vassar compete. Vassar can’t balance their budget without those affluent students. They can’t keep providing for the poorer students unless they keep getting their share of the richer students. Here’s where Gladwell starts the theme he continues into the third episode, when he tells his audience, “Never give to Bowdoin!”

The third episode, My Little Hundred Million, starts from Hank Rowan giving $100 million to Glassboro State University in New Jersey. At the time, it was the largest philanthropic gift ever to a higher education institution. Since then there have been others, but all to elite schools. Rowan’s gift made a difference, saving a nearly-bankrupt university that serves students who would never be accepted at the elites. It made a difference in providing access and closing the “Education Gap,” in exactly the way that David Brooks was talking about in 2005. So why are such large gifts going instead to schools like Stanford and Harvard, who don’t play a role in closing that gap? And why do the rich keep giving to the elite institutions? Gladwell continues the refrain from the last episode. Stop giving to Harvard! Stop giving to Stanford!

The most amazing part of the third episode is an interview with Stanford President, John Hennessy. Gladwell prods him to defend why Stanford should get such large gifts. Hennessy talks about the inability of smaller, less elite schools to use the money well. Do they know how to do truly important things with these gifts? It’s as if Hennessy doesn’t understand that simply providing access to poor students is important and not happening. Hennessy is painted by Gladwell as blind to the inequities in the economy and to who gets access to higher education.

I highly recommend all of Revisionist History. In particular, I recommend this three-part mini-series for readers who care about the role that higher education can play in making our world better. Gladwell tells us that higher education has a critical role to play, in terms of accepting a more diverse range of students through our doors. We won’t do much to address the problems by only focusing on the “best and brightest.” As Richard Tapia writes in his foreword to Stuck in the Shallow End, that phrase describes much of what we get wrong in higher education.

“Over the years, I have developed an extreme dislike for the expression ‘the best and the brightest,’ so the authors’ discussion of it in the concluding chapter particularly resonated with me. I have seen extremely talented and creative underrepresented minority undergraduate students aggressively excluded from this distinction. While serving on a National Science review panel years back, I learned that to be included in this category you had to have been doing science by the age of ten. Of course, because of lack of opportunities, few underrepresented minorities qualified.”

Closing the Education Gap requires us to think differently about who we accept into higher education, who we most need to be teaching, and how we pay for it.

August 29, 2016 at 7:09 am 12 comments

Harvard student newspaper calls for University to curtail CS50

At first blush, the Harvard Crimson‘s call seems a stark contrast to the Berkeley student’s call for more access to CS (see previous post here).  I hear both student articles asking for the same thing — computing as a literacy to which everyone gets access.

CS50 is a phenomenon.  Set aside the “CS50 paraphernalia” described below.  CS50 has pizza parties and all night hackathons, sponsored by Facebook.  Events are held at the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center.  It’s probably the richest and most privileged CS class in the world.  If you got into Harvard, and were excited to learn to code, CS50 is absolutely the class you want to be in — and you’re going to get an experience that matches your expectations.

Check out the syllabus for CS50 (linked here). This is a hard-core, intense computer science class for computer science students.  It runs on the CS50 appliance in Ubuntu Linux.  The course covers C, PHP, and SQL.

When I visited Harvard’s Graduate School of Education last year, I met students who really wanted to learn computer science.  They wanted to learn CS in order to teach it.  They wanted to learn about Scratch and Blockly, Greenfoot and BlueJ, Media Computation and CS Principles.  That’s not the goal of CS50, but the CS50 size and culture sucks all the air out of the room.  There’s not going to be another introductory CS course taught when Harvard has CS50 on its hands and in its checkbook.

The Harvard Crimson is saying that they want classes, liberal arts style classes, not phenomena. If it was just a normal class, maybe you could offer more than one of them?  Maybe some aimed at other kinds of introductory CS needs?

Outside of the classroom, however, CS50 is anything but the liberal arts course its creators proclaim. Its unprecedented corporate sponsorship ensures that the course has an unmatched visibility on campus.No other course gives away and sells merchandise en masse to its students and fan base. T-shirts, umbrellas, aprons, stress balls, M&Ms, and other CS50 paraphernalia are ubiquitous on Harvard’s campus. No other course makes the first five weeks—that is, the add-drop period—significantly easier than the proceeding eight weeks of the semester, luring less confident students until it’s too late to turn back. In no other course on Harvard’s campus are students allowed to simultaneously register for conflicting courses, even if they too are filmed. No other course has disciplinary procedures that bypass the Ad Board. No other course has seen reports that TFs are instructed to decline to give comment on the course to The Crimson before conferring first with the professor.

Source: Harvard Should Curtail CS50 | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson

October 7, 2015 at 7:35 am 2 comments

Interesting Pushback Against Incentivizing Active Learning in CS Classes

My Blog@CACM post this month makes a concrete proposal (quoted and linked below). We (all academic computing programs) should incentivize faculty to use active learning methods by evaluating teaching statements for hiring, tenure, and promotion more highly that reference active learning and avoid lecture.

On my Facebook page, I linked to the article and tagged our Dean of Engineering, the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education, and the RPT Chair for our College, and asked, “Can we do this at Georgia Tech?”  The pushback on my Facebook page was the longest thread I’ve ever been part of on Facebook.

The issues raised were interesting and worth discussing:

  • Would implementing this put at a disadvantage new PhD’s who have no teaching experience and don’t learn about active teaching?  Yes, but that incentivizes those PhD programs to change.
  • My blog post title is “Be It Resolved: Teaching Statements must embrace Active Learning and eschew Lecture.”  I chose the word “eschew” deliberately.  It doesn’t mean “ban.” It means “deliberately avoid using” which is what I meant.  Lecture has its place — I wrote a blog post defending lecture which still gets viewed pretty regularly.  The empirical evidence suggests that we should use active learning more than lecture for undergraduate STEM education.
  • Should such a requirement for teaching statements emerge from faculty talking about it, or should it be done by administrative fiat?  I lean toward the latter.  As I’ve pointed out, CS faculty tend to respond to authority more than evidence. The administration should do the right thing, and deal with educating teachers (e.g., what are active learning methods first? how do we use them? even in large classes?) later. Faculty will learn the active learning methods in order to create those teaching statements.  The incentive comes first.
  • Lots of respondents thought I was saying that we should require all teaching to be active learning. I wasn’t, and I don’t know how to enforce that anyway.  By evaluating teaching statements more heavily that emphasize active learning, we create an incentive, not a requirement.
  • Some faculty pushed back, “How about students that like lecture? Tough luck for them?” Since we know that active learning is better, even for students who like lecture — yes.
  • Several respondents suggested that active learning is just too hard, that faculty are over-stressed as it is.  Faculty are over-stressed, but active learning isn’t that hard.  In fact, it’s hard for faculty because they have to be quiet and listen in class more.  It is hard to make change, but that’s the point of incentives.  We start somewhere.
  • The biggest theme in the thread is that we should first aim to get faculty to care about teaching and to take active steps to improve their teaching.  I don’t think that’s enough.  Libertarian paternalism (see Wikipedia page) suggests that we set the incentive at the minimal acceptable level (use of active learning) then encourage choice above that (choosing among the wide variety of active learning methods).  We don’t want people to choose options that won’t be in the best interests of the largest number of people.

The discussion went on for four days (and hasn’t quite petered out yet).  I do wonder if active learning methods will be forced upon faculty if we don’t willingly pick them up.  The research evidence is overwhelming, with articles in Nature and hundreds of studies reviewed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  How long before we get sued for teaching but not using the best teaching methods?  One of the quotes in the blog post says, “At this point it is unethical to teach any other way.” We should take concrete steps towards doing the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.

Here is something concrete that we in academia can do. We can change the way we select teachers for computer science and how we reward faculty.

All teaching statements for faculty hiring, promotion, and tenure should include a description of how the candidate uses active learning methods and explicitly reduces lecture.

We create the incentive to teach better.  We might simply add a phrase to our job ads and promotion and tenure policies like, “Teaching statements will be more valued that describe how the candidate uses active learning methods and seeks to reduce lecture.”

via Be It Resolved: Teaching Statements Must Embrace Active Learning and Eschew Lecture | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM.

August 21, 2015 at 8:24 am 14 comments

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