Monday, August 16, 2010

Is Contextualized Computing Appropriate?

Following the conversations about whether "contextualized" content, particularly in CS1, is appropriate or not, is getting more interesting. The standout example and prime target is of course Media Computation, initiated by Mark Guzdial at Georgia Tech and now being disseminated across the United States for both computing and non computing students.

Mark reported recently in his blog post about the ICER conference that another well known computer science education researcher, Moti Ben-Ari said as follows:

"Moti did say during his talk that he's against contextualized computing education (fairly pointedly to me). He says that it's ok for a short while to gain motivation, but decontextualized knowledge is better, more transferable, and more creative."

Moti's claim is not new, but a variant of the concrete vs. abstract "which is best" discussions that have been going on in our community for years. The comment also leads down the well trodden path of Constructivism and related learning theories so I'm not going there today.

Where I am going is to look at newer arguments against contextualized computing. My set of "reporters" from the recent ICER and ITiCSE conferences have told me that some of the complaints against Media Computation (and presumably other contextualized approaches to teaching computing) are using interesting arguments:

  • Contextualized computing is "fooling" students. This argument leads directly or indirectly to:
  • Media Computation / contextualized computing is not "real" computer science
  • Contextualized computing in CS1 does not properly prepare students for transition to CS2. This argument leads directly or indirectly to:
  • Contextualized computing takes away from / distracts from / cuts out time for "real" computer science
The third bullet point is currently being studied by several faculty around the United States, so we shall soon have data by which to assess the claim. The second and fourth bullet points will be topics of future posts here.

Today I am zeroing in on a part of the first bullet point: Contextualized computing is "fooling" students.

Something disturbing was relayed to me from one of the conferences. One of my "reporters" told me that a speaker said something to the effect that we need to hold onto women students until it is too late for them to change majors. The implication was that we should do whatever it takes to keep women in computing classes, even if it means misleading them about what computing "is".

Perhaps that interpretation is not what the speaker intended. But at least one audience member understood it that way quite clearly. A message that arguably proposes misleading students plays right into the hands of those who contend that contextualized computing is not real computer science. (At this point you should have an idea where I stand on the issue if by some odd chance you didn't previously)

There is another problem with the "hold onto them until it is too late" argument, whatever the intent. Suppose that students don't realize until their third or fourth year that they dislike computing, the courses are not what they wanted and they want out? Students are not stupid. They will find a way out. I have an example.

Some time ago I published a journalism piece about a Hispanic woman who now is a successful software engineer. During our interviews she spoke about her many cohorts who left the field. One story really stood out. A friend of hers decided midway through her program that she did not like computer science studies. She finished the degree because she felt it was too onerous to change late in the game. The moment she graduated she entered the Fashion industry and never looked back.

The bottom line here is: how does it help the computing field if students only stay because we make it difficult to leave, or if we place  the use of known motivational approaches low on the priority scale after the first year? Under either scenario we lose.

1 comment:

  1. Beth Simon's paper at this year's ITICSE speaks to some of your claims. She's finding that media computation students at UCSD are more likely to still be CS majors in their second year than students in more traditional CS, even though the rest of the program is more traditional, decontextualized classes.