Saturday, November 23, 2013

An Answer to the Vexing CS Ed Question: "What Should We Do?"

A few days ago I was  having a conversation with some computing faculty about their proposed curriculum development; the topic came up of how to make certain courses appealing to under represented groups. These faculty are all too aware of the need to increase the demographic diversity in the computing classroom. We talked about a variety of approaches that made sense for their situation and laid out the beginnings of a plan to implement the ideas.

Later on, as I was mulling over the next steps in their plan, it occurred to me that I have had a similar conversation a lot recently. It often starts when, somewhere in a curriculum revision discussion, someone mentions the low numbers of certain demographic groups. A few moments later someone says "what do we do?". Accustomed to focusing on the technical aspects of curriculum development the group is silent.

Complex and challenging it is. Whole books and endless research studies have identified things you ought to pay attention to. One of those things is context. Context is everything, including but not solely limited to, your institution and your student population. As much as we might like, there is no silver bullet, no one size fits all. That is why it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

Fortunately, there is something concrete you can do to get moving in the right direction and make a difference. Something that any one can do.

Start by asking yourself these questions:  What specific examples do you plan to give in class, in modules you develop? What exact contexts do you plan to embed your assignments and projects in? As much as possible try to avoid answering in generalities.

Probably you find these examples and contexts interesting or else you wouldn't choose them. But does the under represented demographic group you want to attract and engage find them interesting as well? How do you know? Do you think so? Do you assume so? Where's the data to back it up?

It is easy to act upon assumptions. It is easy to overlook that you are making decisions based upon unexamined assumptions. It is easy to assume that something you find interesting is likewise interesting to others.

Yet, in terms of getting students excited about [fill in your topic], those assumptions can lead to problems when we belatedly find out that the demographic of student we care about just doesn't find our examples relevant to their lives. (perhaps the most classic example is presenting science and math concepts using automobiles and sports. these subjects have a pretty solidly documented track record of being far less appealing to girls than boys.) Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as finding "neutral" examples. As ample research has also shown there really isn't any such thing as a "neutral" example.

However There is Hope! Herein lies a simple thing you can do to get the ball rolling. It is so simple that it can be overlooked. I suspect that is why I get asked "what should we do?" as often as I do. 

Place your technical content in a social context in which coming up with the solution allows the student to see a positive difference made for someone or something. A lot of students really grok that.

If you don't believe me, you can dig up the research. If you do so, you will find along the way that it is very important to use social contexts that your target groups have an affinity for. Don't just choose whatever comes into your head or you are likely to be back where you started - winging it and hoping your demographic population also finds it interesting. So you have some work to do. You need to find out what is interesting to them. This doesn't mean something trivial. As a matter of fact, trivial fluffy examples are disastrous - you trivialize the material and yourself in the eyes of the students. You do have some work to do to discover what are meaningful non-trivial examples.

We aren't going to solve the entire problem of recruitment and retention in computing by integrating socially meaningful examples into all aspects of technical content presentation. But it is an important start.

Becoming aware of the fact that you may be making implicit assumptions about what are (are not) interesting contexts is a huge step in the right direction. Taking stock of the context in which you frame your technical content and questioning your assumptions about why you think it is engaging is another huge step in the right direction. Going out and attempting to find out what the students you want to engage in computing find interesting is a humungous step.

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