Friday, March 06, 2015

Still More Hardware for Learning Software–But Why?

I get email. And I get twitter followers. Often these new followers or email senders are promoting some new gadget for teaching. This week it was RobotIX and Hackball. Hackball is looking to get funded via Kickstarter so it’s not available yet and most of the information about it is at the Kickstarter link. The RobotIX web site talks about some robots that are “coming” but doesn’t include pictures or really any data about them. That obviously makes it hard to review them.

Why are there more and more of these sorts of things all the time? Well, I guess because they are cool and fun. Lots of people want to create the magic bullet to make teaching easier. There are already a lot of robots and what not out there (I list many at Robots For Teaching Programming) so it feels like people are “reinventing the wheel.” This is the case even though we don’t really know if any of this really works as advertised.

We seem to do a lot of things based on intuition or because we want it to work. Mark Guzdial wrote about this recently at Computing Education Must Go Beyond Intuition: The Need for Evidence-Based Practice on the Blog at CACM. That lack of evidence for most new things is what worries me. Yes I love to try new things and there are others out there like me who will. But in the end how do we know it is working? Not all teachers are trained researchers with well defined environments that allow for serious evidence gathering.

I suspect I am not alone in wishing that universities would step up and take on the task of researching what works and what doesn’t in computer science education. So far at most universities there is a lot of finger pointing and saying let the other guy do it. CS departments think Education departments should do it and Education departments think that CS departments should do it. Few schools are willing to fund real CS education research. And so we keep doing things by trial and error and hoping that the things we think are cool are also working.



Garth said...

Why is it CS Ed is in such a limbo? My local university has a professor in the Ed department who is a specialist in technology in the classroom. He teaches how to use gadgets and trinkets in the classroom. He considers CS as something absolutely unimportant. The CS department seems to consider CS in K-12 as not needed because there is no demand for it yet they cannot find students to take their classes. That seems just plain stupid and narrow sighted. Neither department is interested in CS courses for teachers. Maybe computers are not as important as the world thinks they are.

Michael S. Kirkpatrick said...

Garth, my response would be that the Ed professor is (like many people) conflating CS with IT. CS is not about gadgets; it is about computation. Point him to the CS Unplugged project. As for the CS department, they sound like the quintessential geeks that don't get or even try to get human issues. And I'm guessing they've never heard of neo-Piagetian cognitive theory or the expectancy-value theory of motivation.

One great thing to come from this year's SIGCSE was the discussion of empirical research. So there does seem to be a growing group of people interested in bridging this divide.