2019 ACM Education Advisory Council meeting: it’s complicated!
For a few years now, I’ve served as a member of a ACM Education Advisory Council. It’s a committee that has a broad scope, including defining curricular frameworks, coordinating education perspectives from each of ACM’s Special Interest Groups, and working on special projects to advance the education perspectives of the community. I’ve written about past meetings, and have always found them to be a curious but occasionally compelling melange of ideas, priorities, and community. This year, we met in Toronto, a week before the ICER 2019 conference (also in Toronto).
One of the things I find most odd about the meeting is that it’s structured primarily as 1.5 days of presentations. I can appreciate that presentations are familiar and safe for a bunch of faculty used to giving slides, but they are far from the most effective way of sharing information. The result is that the meeting leaves little room for community building and planning, and at most times, people are on their laptops doing something else.
That said, the breaks, the meals, and the hallway conversations that happen in them are incredibly valuable, and can lead to meaningful new priorities and projects. As usual, I tried to use this trip report to keep my attention on all of the interesting things happening in the world of computing education, and capture some of the more notable developments.
Tuesday morning kicked off with an update about ACM itself. It turns out that ACM only staffs about 60–70 people, which is surprising given its level of activities. This is likely because the community is primarily volunteer driven. But it’s not a particularly diverse community: 20% women, 51% U.S., and 50% practitioners. But things are looking up: there’s a new diversity and inclusion council that’s going to coordinate diversity efforts across computing to amplify existing efforts. There are also more diverse conferences then ever, a new technology policy council, and new conferences on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency; AI for Data Discovery and Reuse, and Computer Science and Law.
The ACM education council itself is also doing a lot, despite being almost entirely volunteer run: new computing curricular for 2020, new data science curricula, revised information systems curricula, the Learning at Scale conference, the NDC survey, retention and equity in undergraduate CS, among a dozen other initiatives. The charge for the two day meeting was to solicit volunteers to either advance these projects or start new ones. As a volunteer-driven community, the only things that really happen on the council are things that members want to happen.
Our first update was about the council’s sole conference: the Learning at Scale conference. Curiously, the conference was created by the education council, not by a SIG, and so the council also manages its finances. It’s been co-located a lot, it’s financially sound (largely because of sponsors), and still attracting 100–200 attendees. The conference is shrinking a bit after the modest decline of MOOCs, but it’s pretty stable, and has a solid base of a community. Armando Fox was present to advocate for the conference and encourage everyone to attend and submit. There was also an interesting discussion about whether Learning at Scale might eventually move to an ACM SIG—the question was which one, as its broadly concerned with all education, not just CS education, and so SIGCSE isn’t a perfect fit. But neither are any of the other SIGs.
One of the ongoing sagas on the council, and in computing in general, is how to participate in and manage the unwieldy interdisciplinary perspectives in data science. The strategy in the past has been to ensure that computing participates in everything, so that policies, frameworks, and reports, weren’t completely determined by just Statistics. The result of these efforts was the creation of parallel set of ACM curricular recommendations, rather than joint recommendations, with a better attempt than Statistics mustered to be more interdisciplinary. The task force on this has been working hard to bring people from statistics and applied math to a joint task force, but the interdisciplinary work is hard. Personally, I’ve felt like the information perspective is largely missing from these efforts, despite the importance of key questions around the ethics of data modeling, privacy, and central challenges of archiving and information retrieval. But the task force has been working hard to integrate some of these into its knowledge area recommendations.
Another long term project is the 2020 Computing Curriculum framework. The computing framework is much broader than the CS curriculum framework, including other fields such a computer engineering, information systems, information technology, and software engineering. Apparently, the group working on this has gotten really caught up on whether one can teach “disposition” and whether the curriculum should have a definition fo the disposition required for students participating in computing curriculum. I found the draft curriculum to be massive; I can’t help but wonder whether the value of the report is the report itself or the immense amount of interdisciplinary networking needed to put it together.
Another project that the council has embraced is the EngageCSEdu project, which began as an NCWIT project that began as a way of soliciting peer reviewed teaching materials for improving CS classes, supported by Google. But eventually, NCWIT needed to hand it off, and Brianna Morrison took on the role of managing it. The update this year is that they’re going to create a new first-of-a-kind ACM journal for peer reviewed CS teaching materials. Not only will publishing the materials help improve teaching, but also providing a top-tier venue to demonstrate teaching excellence for teaching-stream faculty. One of the interesting challenges this idea faces is trying to provide open access for everything, and allowing Creative Commons licenses to support remixing. As always, this comes back to money: who’s going to pay ACM for open access? Another interesting challenge was trying to figure out how to incentivize submission; the task force interviewed several department chairs to get their perspectives and found a lot of support for both teaching and tenure-track faculty submitting to it. I find the project fascinating and potentially transformative, but I worry about the bean counters breaking the vision.
Just before lunch, there was an interesting conversation about equity and access to CS, particularly around non-majors and students from underrepresented groups. The big debate was less about whether there are inequities, and more about whether ACM has a role in addressing them. Some thought that the role ACM could play was in getting good data. Others thought the role might be for the ACM to make a strong statement to CS departments. Others still talked about the role of the curricular guidelines for shaping what departments teach and how they teach it. From my perspective, the big question on this topic was what power ACM (really a collection of volunteers affiliated with ACM), have over what CS departments do about equity.
Reflections on teaching stream faculty roles
Diane Horton from University of Toronto joined us after lunch to talk about the teaching stream faculty at U of T. She had two topics: the evolution the department went through, and the supports that have been necessary. U of T is huge, with 91,000 students overall, and well over 80 faculty. Early on in the early 1980's, they had short contracts, could be terminated without cause, and hiring and promotion were informal with little to no evidence of teaching effectiveness. Teaching track faculty were also hired to take on administrative responsibilities. They had a lot of trust and freedom in those early days. But there was very little work happening on curriculum. But when the university defined Lecturer and Senior Lecturer roles, for the first time, teaching stream faculty in CS had job security. And interestingly, the promotion criteria recognized really diverse activities, including not only teaching, but administration, advising, curricula, external partnerships, research, new teaching methods. The next major phase of change was when U of T dramatically grew CS; they hired 25 faculty in 5 years including 9 teaching stream faculty. And at the time, they had a new chair who was very committed to undergraduate education. That critical mass of 12 teaching-stream faculty completely changed their working life, creating a coherent group to support each other, teach each other, and share workload. Even more recently, they changed the titles to Assistant, Associate, and Full Professors, (Teaching Stream), adding a third rank. One of the really neat things they’re starting most recently is a teaching postdoc, intended to be a launching point for a teaching-focused career. They get a lowered teaching load and mentorship from the group.
Given the maturity of U of T’s teaching stream faculty culture, Diane had some thoughts on what’s critical for creating this culture. She raised several key things:
- (Three) really strong teaching and learning centers at the university, which build community across campus.
- Baseline funding for all faculty ($3,600/year), plus other funds to support teaching innovation.
- A wealth of teaching awards for teaching, including a unique teaching fellows program that offers course release, a research assistant, and a role in the teaching center.
- A culture that offers job security, autonomy, respect.
- Sabbatical to invest in improving teaching.
All of this support has led to a lot of impact, including major curriculum initiatives, support of hundreds of student software projects, and many educational technologies to support teaching.
The CS curriculum framework
One of the flagship efforts of the council is the CS curriculum framework. I was long skeptical about it’s significance until I joined this council, where I learned that a large number of CS departments rely on the framework to decide how to evolve their curriculum. The last update was in 2013, which to some in the community, felt like yesterday. They tend to be updated every 10 years, and so an update in 2023 would be reasonable. But given how long these take (3 years), planning really has to start now to develop consensus. One interesting constraint on this is that many of the CS departments in the world are still absorbing some of the bigger ideas in the 2013 framework. There was some agreement that AI/ML, and the fields that it affects (e.g., HCI), deserve some revision. But there was also concern that AI/ML was far too unstable right now to make it worth writing specific proposals. Personally, I’m more activist: the council should have an opinion and express it, rather than just be messengers of settled discourse. We have power, let’s use it!
After a lively lunch discussing ethics in computing with my task force, we continued with updates:
- ACM Europe is having a lot of debates about Informatics for All, mirroring the U.S. CS for All efforts, but they’re having a hard time planning around different countries existing efforts. This mirrors the state-level differences in the United States.
- ACM China, which established SIGCSE China in 2016, is trying to get faculty to attend international conferences on computing education. They’ve been holding the ACM Global Computing Education Conference. An increasing number of faculty fro China are publishing at SIGCSE. They’re also holding a workshop on computer science education every two years.
- ACM India has taken on three major activities, including a CSPathshala (its CS for All effort), summer schools to generate interest in students, and a new education research conference (COMPUTE) that’s attracting more than 300 attendees. India’s numbers are staggering: they have already reached 300K students with CSPathshala, and two thirds of these are government schools. They’ve created a fully unplugged curriculum that doesn’t require a computer to support this. They’ve also passed policy that includes CS in two state governments.
- CSTA president Jake Baskin updated us on three priorities: annual conference, local chapters, and revenue stream. The conference is bigger than ever (more than 1,000 attendees now), and offers a lot of exhibits and professional development. There are over 70 chapters now, and they’ve developed a chapter success rubric, and chapters have really picked up the new expectations. The CSTA+ membership program is growing (1,700 plus members of 33,000 overall). They’ve also been working with standards for CS educators in partnership to support the development of pre-service programs.
- Stu Zweben has continued efforts to annually track enrollment and retention in CS departments, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and gender, and data continues to show declines amongst women, black, and hispanic identified groups.
- Cara Tang has been leading a group to formalize guidelines for 2-year colleges and partnering with ABET to accredit them.
- Bobby Schnabel reported on our task force on education and ethics and computing. Our plan is to develop a curated set of readings for the community to build upon.
At dinner I sat near Shuchi Grover (independent), Leigh Ann Sudol-DeLyser (CS for All), Jake Baskin (CSTA president), Jane Prey (chair of the ACM Education Council), and Rodrigo Duran (PhD student at Aalto University). I had many wide ranging conversations with them about research narratives, about identity and representation in CS, about schools and teachers, the intricacies of supporting non-profits with foundation contributions, and the importance of academic freedom and independence in advancing evidence about CS teaching and learning.
Toronto’s Digital Literacy Week
Susan Viegas (Senior Advisor or Toronto Economic Development) dropped by in the morning to talk about Toronto, it’s economy, and the role of digital technology in its economy. She described a large, diverse city that imploys 220,000 in education, with over 100 languages in the city. She focused in particular on the city’s recent lack of a digital literacy strategy, despite having many other strategies across many dimensions of the city. As she started talking to everyone in the city, the theme that emerged was having a digital literacy day that showcases what the city has to offer to support digital literacy. This included using the library, the universities, and private corporations, which rallied around a marketing theme that raises awareness of the importance of technology access and skills. They organized a huge number of webinars, workshops, and other activities, reaching thousands of residents of the city.
- Rodrigo Duran reported that the Brazil Computing Society has been growing rapidly. There are huge gender disparities in Brazil across its ~80,000 CS students; it’s developing CS curriculum for public education and working hard to reduce the gender disparity.
- Paul Leidig gave an update on ABET and CSAB, two accreditation bodies, which have an army of program evaluators that have recently been retrained. They’ve been updating their accreditation criteria and are soliciting feedback.
- Jodi Tims gave an update on ACM-W. It had a transitional year with a leadership reorganization. But it moved forward with student chapters, scholarships, and celebrations. It’s goals for next year are primarily around deeper integration with activities in each of the SIGs to provide them support.
- Michelle Craig gave an update on SIGCSE. The SIGCSE technical symposium, ITiCSE, ICER, and CompEd are all growing. There’s a new board and there’s a new technical symposium leadership organization to align leadership with skills and reputation. There’s also a new ITiCSE top 5 most influential papers award.
- Mihaela Sabin gave an update on SIGITE, the information technology education SIG, and it’s IT education conference has been growing moderately.
- Susan Reiser gave an update on SIGGRAPH, which continues to be huge (18,000 attendees, 20,000 remote attendees). It’s education committee tries to support educators of graphics and animation, and it also offers an educator award and an educator’s form.
- Olivier St-Cyr gave an update on SIGCHI, which also continues growing (3,300 people). The HCI education community of practice is growing, there’s an HCI living curriculum, and there’s a new symposium called EduCHI that brings together a few hundred HCI educators.
- Mikey Goldweber gave an update on SIGCAS, which concerns computing and society, ranging from ethics, policy, and sustainability. It has two education intiatives, including a computing for social good group.
After the morning talk and updates, the group broke out into four groups and developed ideas for the projects for the year:
- The data group wants to acquire global CS retention data.
- The curriculum group came up with three projects: 1) a preliminary of CS+X that is currently being taught, 2) CS 2023 interim report, and 3) a special session at SIGCSE on assignments for computing for social good.
- The K-12 group (which I joined) wants to develop concrete recommendations for how CS departments can (and really must) support pre-service programs by offering courses suitable for meeting CS content knowledge requirements. For example, should CS departments just require CS1 courses, or something different? The group will create a mapping (a crosswalk in education parlance) between the CSTA standards and the CSTA teacher endorsement recommendations.
- The general education group had some level of interest in computing literacies for students not enrolled in 4-year CS degrees. They proposed to develop a 1-Page “lexicon” for universal CS literacies.
Reflections on the meeting
These meetings are strange creatures. They fundamentally tackle problems that require interdisciplinary, volunteer-driven change, which is messy, thankless, and often critical. It’s a testament to the strange power that academia and non-profits have at attracting passionate, intrinsically motivated people to solve big problems.
At the same time, this work is unruly, slow, and often personality-drive, which can make it feel inefficient and frustrating. I’m especially aware of this as someone who straddles the generational boundary between first generation computer scientists and our newest generation of leaders, who are much more comfortable with activism, change, and disruption. I constantly found myself bumping into these cultural tensions, making suggestions that I viewed as conservative, but others viewed as radical. Or maybe I’m just from Seattle :)