Monday, June 27, 2005

AAAS: Building strength in computer science

The title above links to a news story from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which, among other things, publishes the respected academic journal Science. It's about a report, "Preparing Women and Minorities for the IT Workforce: The Role of Nontraditional Educational Pathways." This is a topic near to my heart, as a Computer Science faculty member, as a faculty member at an institution that purports to facilitate access by non-traditional students (i.e., students who are not full-time, 18-21 year-olds), and as the father of two daughters. The entire report is 178 pages long, so I hope you'll excuse me if I focus instead on the news article and the 12-page executive summary.

The news article conflates together the issues of under-representation of women and minorities in Information Technology/Computer Science (IT/CS), the recent drop in CS enrollment, and support for non-traditional students (here meaning: students who are non-traditional because of their age and/or part-time status, not merely because they are women or from an under-represented minority group). Among other things, it gives the case study of Tanya Gunn, who started taking night classes in CS in the early 1980s. Here's an interesting quote:
"There weren't that many women majoring in computer sciences," Gunn said in an interview. "I kind of struggled because a lot of the guys in the class, including the instructors, really were stand-offish. It was like I had the plague, and they didn't know what I was doing there. 'She's a girl -- let's don't talk to her. This is a boys' club'."
There's a problem with this: the early-to-mid 1980s were the peak of female CS enrollment; many departments had around 50% women students! I guess that this was a difference between night classes and full-time study, which brings me back to this issue of conflation:
The new report found such themes common among non-traditional students. Even now, the authors report, traditional four-year schools often are not structured to meet their needs. Instructors are not always sensitive.
The case study was a non-traditional woman student in a non-traditional CS program, at a time when traditional programs were apparently receptive to women and graduating them in increasing numbers. In contrast, the non-traditional program seemed at best insensitive to her. Can you see the problem I'm having here? In what way do the problems in a non-traditional program say anything about the traditional ones? At best, you could say that the non-traditional program wasn't like the traditional ones in terms of accepting and encouraging women, but that seems a failing of non-traditional programs of the time, not traditional four-year schools.

That's not to say that four-year schools do meet the needs of non-traditional students -- they don't, in general. And there's good reason. Because of job and family commitments, non-traditional students attend night classes: one or two at a time, for a number of years before getting their degrees. This is a considerable sacrifice for them, being away from their families, perhaps working in a job they don't like so they'll have the time to go to school, doing without time to relax, etc. But, the effort is self-limiting -- eventually, they'll graduate -- and rewarding -- upon graduation, they'll get a career change. Now, consider the faculty who teach night classes. They make similar (though less extreme) sacrifices, working in the evenings when their children are out of school and so not seeing them, perhaps for days at a time, the abnormal social lives and sleep schedules of people who work the late shift, etc. But, for the faculty, this is not a self-limiting or rewarding existence: they look forward to a career of doing this, with no better reward than their colleagues who teach traditional students.

Is it any surprise that "for-profit schools such as Strayer University and DeVry Institute of Technology were the top U.S. producers of computer science bachelor's degrees in 2001" (links added by me)? Go to those "universities'" web sites and look around. Do the "Bachelor degree" majors sound like those that other universities offer? Who are the faculty members? Can you even find information about the faculty (I couldn't)? It's easy to find investor information, however.

In fact, contrary to the AAAS news article, I couldn't find a CS degree program at either; instead, they have a strange combination of specific and generic BS majors, like Computer Networking, Computer Information Systems, Internetworking Technology, and Database Technology, all of which seem to be a mixture of very specific, skills-oriented courses (e.g., "Administering Windows 2000 Professional") and general-education classes.

The executive summary itself doesn't have "Computer Science" in the title, and the cover has a photo of a woman assembling some kind of electronic device. So, maybe it's not about CS, and the news article was misleading. Then, I read the abstract, which says, "It was sparked by the finding that the nation's number one producer of bachelor's degrees in information technology and computer science (IT/CS) was not a major research university, but instead was Strayer University..."

The rest of the summary isn't too much better. There are several recommendations. One is that CS/IT curricula go through a standards process similar to that done for engineering (which is via the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET). There already is one, run by CSAB, which is part of ABET. I'd be surprised if any for-profits were CSAB accredited. However, CSAB accreditation isn't considered very necessary by many excellent CS departments, and perhaps it should be, at least for marketing purposes.

Other recommendations will certainly increase enrollment at traditional schools, by increasing access and funding. I think the idea of changing financial aid to better match the need of part-time students with full-time jobs is well taken. Some financial aid is already based on credit-hour, rather than time, limits, but some is still targeted at four year durations. Internships and co-op programs can be very valuable, if properly managed, but do require significant oversight to ensure that projects have real educational value and in any event are standard parts of many engineering-based CS degree programs.

The summary also makes some points about the lack of CS/IT faculty diversity, and notes the pipeline problem. It then mentions that over 50% of CS doctorates are awarded to foreign students. This seem a non sequitur. Are the authors implying that too many foreign students reduces faculty diversity? No explanation is given. There is a suggestion that admission criteria need to be changed "to emphasize the applicant's problem-solving IT/CS skills in the admissions process rather than his or her programming experience alone." Personally, I'm not aware of a requirement that incoming students to a four-year degree program already have computer exposure, and I'm not sure how programming experience would be assessed prior to admission, so I'm not sure where this is coming from. Freshman CS1 classes start from the beginning.

The argument that increasing access for non-traditional students will increase the diversity of the CS/IT workforce is well taken. However, I don't see that this will be much more than at the margins. Certainly, if we want to increase the number of women and minority members in the profession, we must attract them from the enormously larger traditional college student population. Their absence should serve as a "canary in a coal mine," warning us that something is terribly wrong. As I've said before, I consider this to be a very different issue that the recent drop in enrollment, which will be self-correcting as the employment picture brightens, as it has been in the past.

A final note I'd like to make is the lack of distinction made in the news article and summary between the for-profit schools and the traditional universities. I find the skills-oriented curriculum of the for-profits especially troubling considering the extended educational periods of many non-traditional students. Of what use is studying Windows 2000 administration to someone who won't graduate for six or more years? Even in the lower-level courses, there's a big difference between learning how to program in Java (or PL/I, thinking back to the early '80s) and learning fundamental concepts of program design and implementation using Java as a particular tool and example. I understand completely that, when you're hungry, being given a fish seems like the best possible thing. But, in the long run, a fishing rod and some lessons on how to use it are best. Strayer and DeVry may have slick advertising (by the way, look at their web sites -- do they appear to be targeting non-traditional students?), but they also have stockholders and that's where their interest lies -- providing a return for their stockholders. If you're considering one of these schools, ask yourself this: what are they selling? It's certainly not their faculty, who are almost absent from their web sites. But the faculty will be the folks you learn from and traditional schools know this -- that's why departments' web sites always list faculty and link to their personal web pages.

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