I returned last night from the 2014 SIGCSE Symposium. It was fantastic as always, with so many things to do and people to see. I’ve written a lot about the benefits of conferences, but if I’m being honest I also have to admit that attending conferences is exhausting. I never sleep well in hotels, and early morning talks combined with late-night socializing doesn’t help in the least. Work piles up while I’m gone, and I also miss my partner and daughter when I’m away. As a result I’m happy to get home, even if it means facing hours and hours of work.
At the same time, I’m also sad to leave conferences. Some of my favorite people in the world are colleagues I meet at computing education conferences. They’re smart, fun, interesting, funny, and make me happy, and I couldn’t imagine my life without them. But they live in South Carolina, New York, Finland, Australia, or New Zealand (among many other far-away places), which means I don’t have a chance to see them more than a few times a year. So leaving a conference means saying goodbye to them for 6 months or a year, which is entirely too long. I should probably be happy that I have them in my life at all, but right now that’s small consolation.
In the two classes that I’m teaching this quarter one of the most important topics we cover is recursion. It’s the first time any of them have seen the subject, and it’s something that’s assumed in later courses. As might be expected, a majority of students struggle with it. The first recursion assignment for both groups is due on Monday, and for the first time this quarter I’ve been getting regular e-mail questions. Last quarter I tried very hard to get my students to e-mail me with questions, but I had limited success. I didn’t realize how discouraged that made me feel until I started getting more questions this quarter. Yes, I’m sure it helps that I happened to have reminded them about the one-hour rule last Wednesday. But the fact that I forgot to tell them about the one-hour rule prior to last week is a sign to me that I had all but given up on students asking for help from me. Every message I’ve gotten this weekend has lifted my mood since having my students talk to me more, even when it means more work for me, makes me so much happier.
Our midterms have come and gone at DePaul, and there’s nothing like an exam and the associated midterm grades to cause students to reflection about their courses, and sometimes their careers. This quarter was no exception, and I had one student who was particularly distressed after the midterm. Immediately after taking the exam she headed to one of the staff advisors, telling the advisor that she had failed the exam and was thinking about switching her major. Fortunately, the advisor told my student to contact me and find out how she was doing in the class before making any big decisions. As it turns out the student passed the exam, although not with a stellar grade. In my conversation with her, she told me that she was beginning to think that computer science wasn’t for her. After all, she said, all of the other students in the class understand things so much better than she does. I reassured her that while we do have several people who are outstanding programmers in the class and probably shouldn’t be in an introductory course in the first place, there are also a lot of (silent) people who are on less firm ground. I shared with her that showing off is a common phenomenon in computer science (especially programming) classes, which caused a light to dawn for her. And I told her that her progress in the class was fine as far as I was concerned. She walked away feeling better about things, and she’s remained in the class.
This process of reassuring students that a single less-than-perfect assessment doesn’t mean that they should rule out computer science as a field has become a routine experience for me. Telling students that it’s not easy, that many people struggle, that they won’t get everything right the first (or even 20th) time, is something I do nearly every quarter. And, yes, I know that there are people for whom computer science isn’t the right discipline, and I’m diplomatic but honest with them. But many students who question whether they want to stay are in fact decent students who could contribute to the field. Given that this is a discipline where failure is a part of daily life, the ability to cope with setbacks is important. But it takes confidence in your ability as a computer scientist to not see failure as a personal issue. I sometimes think that my biggest contribution as a teacher is to convince students that what they’re experiencing is completely normal and not a reflection of them as people.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about working in computing education is having a chance to collaborate with people from around the world. Meeting new people is already fun, but it’s even more enjoyable when you get to learn something about a country or culture with which you were unfamiliar. My newest collaborator is from Finland, and prior to our work I knew almost nothing about the country. In the time we’ve been working together I’ve learned a lot, both about our work and about his culture. The cultural characteristic that has come up most often is a desire to blend in and not stand out from the crowd. While I don’t doubt that this is a Finnish thing, I suspect that it’s also a personality trait of this particular collaborator. After all, I know plenty of people from other countries who share that desire.
In one recent exchange with my collaborator I mentioned the fact that I don’t share the desire to blend in. At times I’ve even worked to stand out, for example, by shaving my head in graduate school. But no one likes to think of themselves as a spotlight hog, so I’ve been thinking a lot about why it might be that I don’t have a problem with standing out. When I woke up this morning, I had an answer that makes perfect sense. As a woman in computer science, I don’t stand a chance of blending in. My mere existence in this field makes me stand out. In fact the few situations in which I’m not in the (small) minority are so memorable that I always take note of them, for example the current situation on the SIGCSE Board which only has one elected male member. If I were uncomfortable standing out, I would have never chosen to be a computer scientist.
Standing out has been a part of my work life for so long that it no longer really registers with me. I, like my female students do now, noticed it a great deal more when I was an undergraduate. As a graduate student I gradually grew accustomed to it, which helped when I moved up the pipeline and the number of women around me decreased further. Now I only notice it when the gender balance in the room is dramatically skewed (like in one of my classes this quarter where I only have a single female student or in committee meetings where I’m the only woman) or, more often, in the rare circumstances in my life when the gender balance is even or shifted in favor of women (see the SIGCSE Board comment in the previous paragraph). Standing out is so much the norm for me that blending in has become a rare and noticeable event. Like all unusual experiences, it’s something I appreciate. Blending in brings with it a calm comfort, and I enjoy it every time it happens. But it’s not something I seek out or have to have, which is good since I love the field of computer science and can’t imagine myself anywhere else.
There are many things I’d like to improve about myself, but one of the things I think I do well is time management. I manage my tasks well, with ample help from a complex to-do list. I almost always make deadlines, and my life isn’t crazy in the process. But I’ve come to realize that my tightly-managed schedule has a negative side effect: I almost never have unstructured time. Time when I don’t have anything in particular planned is rare, but it’s precisely that time when I’m most creative.
I rediscovered that unstructured time encourages creativity last night. We don’t have our nanny on Thursdays, making it a “mommy day.” I work at home until 3 pm when I go to pick up my daughter from school. It happens that she doesn’t have school this Friday so she didn’t have homework. She also spontaneously invited one of her classmates for a playdate, so I had more time in the afternoon to get things done. By the time the evening rolled around I had finished everything I needed to, and I had an hour or so for just relaxing. I turned on my iPod and just hung out. In the process I started thinking about the fact that I didn’t have a submission for the 2014 DePaul Teaching and Learning Conference and in 15 minutes had brainstormed an idea for it. I finished writing the submission this morning, helped by the fact that a submission is really just a long abstract. Without that hour of time with nothing to do I never would have created a submission for a conference I enjoy enormously.
Now I just have to figure out how to find more unstructured time. I’m not sure if scheduling unstructured time will have the same effect, especially if I have other things pressing on me. But I must find a way to do it.
Although I haven’t written about it in my blog, anyone who has spent time talking with me about MOOCs knows that I’m a skeptic. I’ve been of the opinion that they are more hype than anything else since they first hit the headlines, and those close to me have had to suffer through more rants than they can possibly enjoy. So I couldn’t resist an article with the headline Completion Rates Aren’t the Best Way to Judge MOOCs, Researchers Say which appeared in the Chronicle recently. There are a couple of quotes that I need to mention. First the opening few lines:
When it comes to measuring the success of an education program, the bottom line is often the completion rate. How many students are finishing their studies and walking away with a credential? But that is not the right way to judge massive open online courses, according to researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Course certification rates are misleading and counterproductive indicators of the impact and potential of open online courses,” write the researchers in the first of a series of working papers on MOOCs offered by the two universities.
The snarky part of me enjoys this a great deal, since it sounds a lot like “We’re getting bad results/press using standard metrics, so we’re going to change them.” But taken another way, I think this is a good sign for the evolution of MOOCs and how they are used. A later quote highlights that point:
A MOOC is more of a blank canvas, said Mr. Ho. Some students who register for MOOCs have no intention of completing, and some instructors do not emphasize completion as a priority. Success and failure take many forms. “It’s reaching a completely different set of students, with different intentions, perhaps, and different ways of seeing the instructors and the content of the course,” said Isaac Chuang, a professor of physics, electrical engineering, and computer science at MIT. In future studies, the researchers hope to classify registrants according to their reasons for taking a MOOC, “so we can judge the impact of these courses in terms of what students expected to get out of them,” Mr. Ho said.
Yes, I think it’s very likely that students taking MOOCs (in their current form) have different purposes than students in more traditional online classes or in face-to-face classes. In my mind acknowledging that is a big first step toward moving past the ridiculous assertions that we’ve seen so far about MOOCS and understanding how they can be helpful in education. Maybe there will even come a time when I’ll enjoy a hype-free and productive discussion about MOOCs. I, and even more my friends and family who have had to listen to me rant, look forward to that.