Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Weaving Social Issues into the APCS Principles Course

Integrating social issues into the curriculum is, imo (that's "in my opinion" for anyone who doesn't know the lingo), the most effective way to help students consider the fact that computing, and people who use or work with computing, effect the world around them - for good or bad. Social issues are part and parcel of every field (not just computing), every endeavor. Societal impacts need to be thought about, discussed and evaluated. Today's students will someday be running our corporations, serving in government and in countless other ways making decisions that affect the world around them. Sounds a bit cliche but it is very very true.

(Btw  - and that is "by the way" - does anyone know how to make blogger access accented letters? Changing my entire system to French doesn't seem to do it. Grrr)

So it is very gratifying (and exciting) to see that "technology and society" issues are an integral part of the APCS Principles course at UCSD. They show up in several ways.  A certain percentage of each student's grade comes from specific Technology and Society assignments. Each assignment has a short, manageable investigative component, followed by a forum posting about what the student found. Following this there is a thoughtful online discussion between the students on each others postings (visible to the class members but not the general public, for obvious privacy reasons).

So far the results are looking good. Students are actively engaging with the assignments. Given last week's terrible student suicide, it is not surprising that there have been quite a few postings about cyber bullying. I find this a healthy opportunity to encourage students to express themselves on this topic if they wish, in the way that they wish. Their remarks remain within the confines of the course, and the pedagogical goal of encouraging serious contemplation about how technology can be used or abused is met.

Also interesting to me, there have been some postings about the possible ramifications of blogging! Students have been considering the effects of putting one's words out there for the whole world to see - considering the issues surrounding speaking your mind, sometimes in different cultures with different expectations. All of this is exciting and fascinating; students are looking at the use of social media from multiple perspectives. The pros and cons and potential pitfalls. The thoughtfulness of student commentary is sometimes moving and makes me pause.

It is important to point out that these assignments tie into current content discussion in the course, and so in another way demonstrate the linkages between the technical and the social.

Finally, interdisciplinary social issues are being regularly woven into lectures and labs. These occurrences are more subtle but they reinforce the embodiment of the idea that people, the world, the environment are part of design and implementation of programming code.

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