Saturday, March 7, 2015

SIGCSE2015 Comings & Goings in New Directions

It's that time at SIGCSE, when the sheer volume of coffee and unhealthy food is starting to catch up with me. This morning's egg and cheese on bagel put me over the top. Thank goodness I am not having a cholesterol test any time soon. However, all that protein is good brain food for processing the deluge of activity of the past few days.

There have been some real patterns. I started my teaching career in the community college system and I have never lost a feeling of affinity with them. So I really noticed this year that the Community College contingent is out in force at the conference. The palindromic ACM Committee for Computing Education in Community Colleges (CCECC) has been swooping in to help community college teachers network with one another, work on curriculum development in cyber security, talk about articulation with CS2013 curricular guidelines, host a large networking lunch, and give presentations and workshops in a way that I haven't seen in all the many long years I've been coming to SIGCSE. If you are a community college faculty or know some community college faculty in the computing field, and want to find like minds, I'd definitely recommend dropping them a line. They are active all year, and from what I've been told are planning on ramping up opportunities to stay connected.

There has also been a lot of talk about the enrollment surge at many if not most CS departments in the US. I don't have the full picture yet on what the situation is like outside the US, but all but one person I have spoken to from the US has told me they are experiencing record demand for CS courses. Great on one hand, highly problematic on the other hand because personnel and resources are so strained.

I attended a panel on the subject of the enrollment surge and capacity problems yesterday. The dominant theme was stress and worry. There are many ways to respond to the jump in numbers and many of them are not healthy for students or faculty. The way in which different institutions respond is tied to many things including institutional historical context, what part of the school the department is in (Arts & Sciences, Engineering, Business etc), attitude of administration, budgets, public or private. It is clear however that already there are some short sighted and non sustainable responses such as requiring overloads, increasing class sizes dramatically, enrollment caps and GPA minimums, eliminating non-major classes and electives.

What I didn't hear, and this worries me significantly, were creative think outside the box ideas for strategically tackling the capacity problem. It's hard to think creatively and strategically when you are being pressured from all sides on a daily basis to take on more and more. I also noticed that there was a divide in the audience about whether or not this boom is simply the third Bubble, or permanent as a result of economic changes and the ubiquity of computing. When asked, 1/3 of the audience said they thought this a Bubble, 1/3 said long term/permanent, 1/3 had no idea.

Whether or not you think the boom is a short term phenomenon or not is important because it affects how you react to it. We also have to look at history. We've been here before; if you were around in the 80s you remember the enrollment surges then and similar responses. As a result of historical memory and contemporary experience and research on the subject, we know that diversity is negatively impacted when we blindly fall back on a "best and the brightest" set of class and programmatic filters. Yet another reason to find a way to get the mental space to come up with creative responses. And to be proactive about sharing those ideas.

I'm on an active search to find people willing to speak out about healthy and creative ways to address the capacity surge. If you have ideas, whether or not they've been implemented, especially if your idea is different from the run of the mill ideas, contact me. 

On another note, I'm noticing a generation gap, so to speak, among those at the conference who are plugged in to social media as a mode of communication and those who are not. If you can hold onto your seats until June, you can read in my next ACM Inroads column about why you should pay attention to how communication about our science is taking place on social media. But meanwhile, I'll point out that there is an active Twitter feed going about this conference #SIGCSE2015 and there you can read a somewhat random but interesting and often informative stream of info about things going on. More importantly, you can get a sense of what people consider important, what they choose to share with others. This matters. Taking the pulse of the community is important to understanding what people care about, what their perspective is, where they are headed.

But when I meet the twitter folk, they are almost always the younger contingent of the SIGCSE conference crowd. Sure, perhaps predictable, and I can only say "YES KEEP COMMUNICATING!"

For the rest of you, those for whom social media is not your best friend and constant companion, consider coming up to speed with some aspect of it. If you want to be plugged in to current and future thought leaders and decision makers and rabble rousers alike, this is a place to go. There is a whole aspect of SIGCSE going on virtually. I've met several new and interesting people via SIGCSE twitter exchanges the past few days. We've then met in person. People I'd never have met and perspectives I would never have heard. I value all these perspectives. I can, and do, plan on bringing what I have heard into the in person meetings and committees I attend.

Meanwhile, I'm going to get out of this chair and go to...lunch. I hope there is lots of leafy green salad.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mind Stretching at ACM SIGCAS (Computers & Society) Meeting

Hidden Near a Freeway Old Meets New

As always, my SIGCSE (ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education) week hit the ground running. Barely had I gotten to my hotel room and hooked up with my roomie than she and I were plotting and planning. So far this year we have not blown up anything or needed to call hotel mechanics. Such a shame.

My day today started off with a bone chilling walk to explore the Kansas City area in search of...whatever. Bone chilling mostly because it was below 20F and I didn't have winter clothes. My eyebrow had just about frozen together along with the freezing of my knuckles as I kept whipping out my camera to capture something just too good to pass up (see archaeology picture above) when I ran into three guys with no jackets at all (they must be natives because they didn't look half as brittle as I did in my fleece jacket) who directed me to a local independent coffee shop where I recuperated while supporting free trade coffee.

Some time later I found myself (by design) in the SIGCAS meeting (Special Interest Group on Computers and Society) which traditionally takes place the day before the start of the SIGCSE Technical Symposium. One interesting presentation after another about incorporating socially beneficial projects and activities into the computer science curriculum. Some projects were very local and some were global. From Latina community concerns to water scarcity allocation modeling to Bangladesh. By the end of the afternoon all sorts of ideas were flying through my head.

For example...

What makes a "Good" computing professional? We're talking "good" in the sense of socially beneficial, rather than technically good. More to the point, how do we know? How do we evaluate this term? (Do we want to evaluate it? Define it?) It's interesting to think about this because if we want to encourage the integration of socially / environmentally beneficial considerations into the very heart of the curriculum, how do we know we are doing it well? If we want computing professionals to integrate a social consciousness into their work how do we determine what that looks like? Or, do we even want to do this? It is worth pondering from a first principles perspective.

How are Codes of Conduct interpreted across cultures? Several global organizations such as ACM and IEEE have codes of conduct that professional members are asked to adhere to. It hadn't occured to me until today that this could be tricky due to differences in cultural interpretations of what is ethical. The idea was planted in my head because one of the presenters today said a segment of their students (economically disadvantaged, from some developing nations) said the hardest part of these Codes to adhere to would be the prohibition on taking bribes. Really? The hardest. Well, when you think about cultures where taking bribes is endemic, and business is done that way, ... sure it might be really hard to imagine bucking the system. I ask might one determine how "bad" this activity really is? Might one for example need to follow the chain reaction effect of individual bribes? How bad is it if it gets things done? Whoa....

We know that story telling, making content personal, is an effective way of making material (academic in this case) engaging and accessible. Some programming languages, (many?) don't, by their very nature, lend themselves to story telling. Java comes to mind. Python. Scratch? As opposed to a language like Alice. So, how might we talk about incorporating story telling into teaching introductory programming? This sounds like a really interesting challenge. Can it be done? I'd love to see ideas kicked around about this.

I gotta say that this was one dynamic meeting. The group made some decisions about action items to take, which, darn it, I missed due to having to boogie off to a meeting of the ACM Education Council. However, I'll find out and report back on this at a later date with a followup.

Tomorrow, the SIGCSE conference starts. Turbo charged. Stay tuned.