Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Did Academic Computing Overlook a Big Threat to Its Sustainability?

I'm going to go out on a limb and field an idea for your consideration. It may be provocative but I'm going for it because it is worth serious evaluation.

Take 2 related and heavily discussed issues:

1. What "is" computer science? The verbal wars that have been waged over this question.....yikes. Especially every time a new set of ACM/IEEE curricular guidelines are developed. I (and possibly you) have heard people publicly go for the jugular defending one point of view or another.

2. Why do enrollments in computing programs continue to have high attrition, and a problem attracting students in the first place - especially so-called "under-represented" students? By the way, to state the (hopefully) obvious, computing students overall are under-represented from the pov of numbers in program compared to any one of a large number of other fields.

As I continue to barrel through the book The Innovator's Dilemma (see last two posts) I wonder:

  • Is it possible that part of the reason computing struggles for legitimacy among students is because the faculty did not recognize soon enough an increased use of computer science in other fields? 

  • Is it possible that computing faculty did not recognize the deeper and deeper incursion of computing into other fields for what it was to become - a serious curricular challenge? 

  • Is it possible that faculty were focusing so heavily on what they had been doing all along, and focusing innovation on traditional areas within the discipline, that they simply were unable to recognize a need to embrace radical curricular and research change and maybe (out on my limb here for sure) a radical re-evaluation of the definition of computer science? 

These ideas cross my mind because:

The Innovator's Dilemma demonstrates case after case where established companies (substitute "academic departments") steadfastly focus their innovations on existing customers (substitute "traditional ideas of what a computing student should be interested in and good at"), such that they do not recognize "entrant" companies (substitute "other departments that increasingly rely on computing to support their cutting edge advances") as threats until it is too late and they lose most of their business (substitute "students").

Anecdotal Evidence: I have heard many discussions (as I suspect have you) where the claim is made that computing used in another discipline is "not real computer science". Hence not to be seriously worried about.

  • Is it possible that computing programs got into the position they are in with regards to enrollment problems because they did not recognize the nature of future competition?

Maybe yes, maybe no. I'm not going to step into that tar pit.

More important: The historical answer becomes moot if current reality is that other disciplines attract more students than computing attracts, and students find those other disciplines more tractable, and if along the way students acquire enough computer science skills such that they go on to successful careers where computational thinking is required. Minus a degree in computing and all the critical skills and experience brought with it.

If you have not read the The Innovator's Dilemma and know this already, I want to strongly point out that in no way does the above imply companies/departments were doing anything "wrong". In fact, the theory goes out of its way to show how successful corporations that were eventually over-run were following well accepted good management practices and "doing all the right things". That is much of what makes the whole notion of good management missing the boat so fascinating.

To transpose the situation onto computing departments would mean that computing departments were playing to their strengths, following established understandings of what success in computer science teaching and research entailed, and working very hard at attracting those students who had historically been successful. In point of fact, there is a lot (a LOT) of pressure on successful corporations (and by extension disciplines) to keep doing what they have expertise in. And a lot of pressure not to branch out in other risky directions.

I'd sure like to know what computing faculty think about these ideas.

So? What do you think?


  1. Let me state that I am a retread twice over. I have a PhD in Physical Chemistry, considerable academic experience as an educator first in Chemistry, then in Computer Science as a teacher and then department chair, then private sector positions, then as a teacher again only in an IT department, then a chair of IT and now a full-time teacher again in the “classic” IT area and networking.

    Late in my career I find myself with experiences and perspectives but no real innovative expertise or, for that matter, real vision; only a bushel basket full of observations.

    The Computing College at the Rochester Institute of Technology was created in 2000 but the CS department dates back to the early 70’s. In 2000, we had departments of CS, IT, and SE. The BS in IT was first offered in 1992 and was the first of its kind in North America. The SE department split off from CS and offered the first BS SE degree in the US. In 2005, IT split off a networking department and in 2009 it split off a department of interactive games and media.

    The trend here at RIT is to attempt to offer degree programs that meet the students’ demands as determined by our enrollment management and admissions people (don't get me started on that group of administrators). Our splits, however, resulted from a very large body of faculty with disparate subgroups that felt existing organizational structures were a hindrance to the establishment of their own identity.

    Within our college, we now boast 3200 students total, a PhD program that stands alone (administratively equal to an academic department), two schools, 5 departments, and totals slightly in excess of 100 faculty. We offer BS degrees in CS, SE, IT, applied networking, information security and forensics, and medical informatics.

    You state: “Is it possible that computing programs got into the position they are in with regards to enrollment problems because they did not recognize the nature of future competition?” I would submit the answer is ‘yes.’ My own computing college has gone through splits to meet perceived demands with new degree programs. And we have a very successful Computer Engineering department in our College of Engineering as well as other computing activities in our College of Imaging Arts and Sciences. We’ve got degree programs up the wazoo! We’ve got students pouring in the door.

    Internally, however, we’ve become silos of specialty areas that hinders collaboration across department, school and college-level boundaries.

    I’ll leave it at that for now to see if my comments inspire any sympathies or flames.

    Jim Leone, Professor
    School of Informatics
    College of Computing and Information Sciences

  2. Hi Jim,

    You have said several very interesting things.

    It sounds like there has been quite a bit of innovation at RIT. Yet you said you find yourself without innovative expertise. You have been around for and/or involved in some significant changes at RIT. Given how atypical your school sounds, I would venture to call it innovative. And by being involved, or even a close observer, I would say that qualifies you to claim some expertise?

    Do you define innovation and expertise in a different way?

  3. I believe the issue is that problem solving skills are not known or taught by many Computing Science instructors. Too many of our CS programs train students to make a program "right" rather then teach them to make essential engineering trade-offs.