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Is CS Really for All, and Defending Democracy in Cyberspace

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Mark Guzdial mulls the difficulty of getting into a computer science class, while John Arquilla ponders political warfare in cyberspace.
  1. Mark Guzdial: The Growing Tension Between Undergraduate and K-12: Is CS for All, or Just Those Who Get Past the Caps?
  3. John Arquilla: In (Virtual) Defense of Democracy
  4. Authors
Mark Guzdial, John Arquilla

February 3, 2019

The New York Times recently ran an article titled "The Hard Part of Computer Science? Getting Into Class" ( about the dramatic increase in undergraduate enrollment, and the inability of U.S. computer science (CS) departments to keep pace with the demand. These facts aren’t a surprise. The Computing Research Association report "Generation CS" ( described the doubling and tripling of CS undergraduate enrollment at U.S. institutions from 2006 to 2015. American academia took notice with the 2017 National Academies report on the rapid growth of CS enrollments (

Everyone is trying to figure out how to increase capacity in undergraduate computer science education. CRA-E maintains a list of successful practices for scaling capacity in CS enrollment, many of which were funded by Google (see The New York Times article describes how CS departments are responding to the greater demand than supply in CS classes. We are seeing caps on enrollment, GPA requirements, rations, and even lotteries to allocate the scarce resource of a seat in a CS class.

We may be approaching an inflection point in computing education—and maybe it’s one we’ve seen before. Eric Roberts of Stanford has written a history of undergraduate CS enrollments dating back over 30 years ( He suggests the downturn in enrollment in the late 1980s may have been the result of CS departments’ inability to manage rising CS enrollments in the early 1980s. Then, as now, caps and limits were put into place, which sent the message that computer science wasn’t for everyone, that only elite students could succeed in computer science. Eric writes, at

The imposition of GPA thresholds and other strategies to reduce enrollment led naturally to a change in how students perceived computer science. In the 1970s, students were welcomed eagerly into this new and exciting field. Around 1984, everything changed. Instead of welcoming students, departments began trying to push them away. Students got that message and concluded that they weren’t wanted. Over the next few years, the idea that computer science was competitive and unwelcoming became widespread and started to have an impact even at institutions that had not imposed limitations on the major.

Unlike the 1980s, we now have a national movement in the U.S. that wants "CS for All" ( Primary and secondary schools are increasing access to CS classes. States and school districts are mandating computer science for all students.

We are facing a capacity crunch in undergraduate CS classes, and we are not even close to CS for all. While an increasing number of U.S. schools are offering CS classes, only a small percentage of students are taking them up on the offer. Data coming out of U.S. states suggests that less than 5% of U.S. high school students take any computer science, for example, less than 1% in Georgia or Indiana (see state reports at What happens to undergraduate CS enrollment if we get up to 10% of high school students taking computer science, and even a small percentage of those students decide they want to take post-secondary computer science classes? What if we get past 50%?

I don’t have a prediction for what happens next. I don’t know if we’ve ever had this kind of tension in American education. On the one hand, we have a well-funded, industry-supported effort to get CS into every primary and secondary school in the U.S. ( Some of those kids are going to want more CS in college or university. On the other hand, we see post-secondary schools putting the brakes on rising enrollment. Community colleges and non-traditional post-secondary education may take up some of the demand, but they probably can’t grow exponentially either. Like the 1980s, CS departments have no more resources to manage growing enrollment—but there is even more pressure than in the 1980s to increase capacity.

The greatest loss in the growing demand for CS classes is not that there will be a narrower path for K-12 students to become professional software developers. As the Generation CS report ( showed, a big chunk of the demand for seats in CS courses is coming from CS minors and from non-CS majors. More and more people are discovering that computer science is useful, in whatever career they pursue. Those are the people who are losing out on seats. Maybe they first saw programming in K-12 and now want some more. That’s the biggest cost of the capacity crisis. In the long run, increasing computational literacy and sophistication across society could have even bigger impact than producing more professional programmers.

Inability to meet the demand for seats in CS classes may limit the growth in our computing labor force. It may also limit the growth of computational scientists, engineers, journalists, and teachers—in short, a computationally literate society.

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It strikes me that nontraditional learning may be able to take up some of the slack. That won’t address the desire for conventional credentialing. I am not certain how that serves folks preparing themselves for non-CS disciplines in which some computation grounding/experience is sought.

Just the same, I wonder if the current control of the spigot by traditional post-secondary arrangements is part of the problem now, and also later if the "demand" decreases for whatever reasons. Having excess capacity on hand, and some way to redirect it, is not the kind of resiliency we afford educational institutions.

Dennis Hamilton

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John Arquilla: In (Virtual) Defense of Democracy

March 19, 2019

In February, The New York Times reported that disruptive cyber operations were launched against the Russia-based Internet Research Agency during the 2018 elections in the U.S. These operations took two forms: direct action causing brief shutdowns, and messages to suspected malefactors that sought to deter. The intended goal of these actions was to "protect American democracy."

Neither form of action will prove effective over time. Election propaganda-by-troll can come from myriad sources and surrogates, easily outflanking clumsy efforts to establish some sort of "information blockade." As to deterrence, this is an old chestnut of the age of nation-states. Hacker networks will almost surely not be intimidated, whether they are working on their own or at the behest of a malign third party. Indeed, in the future, election hackers are far more likely to ramp up efforts to shape electoral discourses and outcomes—in democracies everywhere.

How, then, can this threat be appropriately countered? There are two ways—to date, neither of which has been chosen. The first has to do with seeking, via the United Nations, an "international code of conduct" (ICC) in cyberspace that would impose behavior-based constraints on both infrastructure attacks and "political warfare." Ironically, it is the Russians who have been proposing an ICC for more than 20 years now—while the American position has been in firm opposition—beginning shortly after the first meeting between U.S. and Russian cyber teams. I co-chaired that meeting, and thought the Russians had proposed a reasonable idea: creating a voluntary arms control regime, like the chemical and biological weapons conventions. It is well past time to return to this important idea.

The other way for democracies to take the sting out of political warfare waged from cyberspace is to clean up their own practices, which in too many countries have descended into outrageous spirals of distortion and lying. What foreign actors are doing pales next to what is being done by the very political parties and citizens of democratic nations now crying "foul" because some other is in the game. The world should look to America’s Ronald Reagan, who back in the 1980s waged some of the cleanest political campaigns in memory. It will not be easy to stop individuals from becoming bad political actors in cyberspace, but the major political parties should set an example—and an implied moral norm—by rising to the challenge of focusing on fact- and issue-based election campaigns.

One last thought: the U.S. has to be careful about condemning others for engaging in interventions into its political processes. As Dov Levin pointed out in a study conducted while he was a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon, from 1946-2000 the U.S. intervened in 81 foreign elections. The number for Russia over the same period was 36. Some have defended American actions by saying that it is okay to intervene when your goal is to shore up liberal forces against authoritarians. But this kind of reasoning can be used by those who attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election in the U.S.; they can say that by "outing" the Democratic Party’s backroom efforts to undermine Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign, they were serving the true foundation of democracy: free and fair processes.

Political discourse in cyberspace is a fact of life now, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future in democratic nations. There are two ways to proceed, if the trolls are to be tamed. One involves multilateral action via the United Nations; the other demands an inward-looking devotion—among the political class and at the individual level—to cultivating the better angels of our cyber natures. Both are worth pursuing.

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