Computing Applications BLOG@CACM

Transitioning to Distance Learning and Virtual Conferencing

The Communications Web site,, features more than a dozen bloggers in the BLOG@CACM community. In each issue of Communications, we'll publish selected posts or excerpts.

Follow us on Twitter at

John Arquilla considers responses to the Coronavirus pandemic, while Mark Guzdial ponders the impacts of competitive enrollment.
  1. John Arquilla: The COVID Catalyst
  2. Mark Guzdial: Students Get the Idea They're Unwanted When There Are Enrollment Barriers: Touring the Best of SIGCSE 2020
  3. Authors
BLOG@CACM logo April 27, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has, like its predecessors from the Black Plague to the Spanish Flu, once again demonstrated the great vulnerability of social and economic systems to microbes. Yet, it may be that there is an important difference this time around.

The bubonic plague of the 14th century completely disrupted the huge Mongol Empire and killed off a third of the population of Europe. The flu that hit at the end of World War I killed tens of millions as well. But this time around, advances in medicine—and skillful use of information technology for hotspot detection and backtracking contacts, among other functions—will, in addition to sheltering in place, keep the cost of corona in lives lost relatively low. That the world has recourse to such boons to lifesaving ought to be seen as very good news, despite the huge economic costs and serious psychological damage inflicted by the virus. And, if we're able to look a little deeper, there may be even more good news. For beyond reducing the toll taken in lives by COVID, some mitigating measures put in place may have profoundly beneficial effects if they are continued, or perhaps even expanded upon. Three areas of activity come quickly to mind.

The most obvious improvement, literally visible already, has been to air quality in metropolitan areas. Vast numbers of people can work from home—in many places around the world—sharply reducing pollution caused by commuting in automobiles. Clearly, many people will still have to go to physical workplaces outside the home, but all who don't have to should keep doing their jobs remotely. This will have tremendous benefit for those living in the urban areas blighted by pollution, and also will contribute usefully to the larger fight against global warming.

The response of the educational sector is less well developed at this point, but the use of networking systems has proved there is a way to continue to educate via distance learning. This is surely less effective at the elementary level, but the possibilities abound for high school, college-level and postgraduate education. During this quarter, I am remote-teaching master's students at the military school where I work, and find that there is in some ways a deeper, more tutorial quality that has emerged in the absence of the formal classroom setting.

This experience has caused me to muse about teaching my regular seminars "from a distance" as well, but with more than the usual flat-screen TV-style connection. Instead, we should pursue the kind of immediacy that virtual reality provides. This is certainly an area of advancing technology that could have profound effects on education, at many levels. VR might even prove an interesting way to bring actors and audiences together in "theaters" made of bits and bytes. Think of concerts, too, and a range of other kinds of group activities that can be conducted via well-designed VR.

The third area of opportunity that COVID may catalyze is the possibility of networking medical research. If Metcalfe's Law, about the power of networks being a strong multiple, perhaps the square, of the number of interconnected nodes, then it is time to put in place a global medical network. To some extent, this is already being done, but it can be built upon. What we don't want to see is what is happening right now: medical research activities are being subjected to a steady stream of hacks. Officials of the U.S. government—including the Secretary of State—have gone so far as to accuse particular foreign powers of being behind these activities. Of course, perpetrator ambiguity remains a problem, and these actions might also be by criminals who intend to sell whatever they steal.

We have international policing entities that surely will need to be increasingly attentive to this threat. But the larger point is about the need for nations to begin to think less in terms of power as gained through the control of information, and more in terms of the value created, for all, by sharing it. And not only as relates to medical research. Imagine the power of the "global mind" that has the potential to emerge. There is scarcely a problem bedeviling the world that would not succumb to this kind of networked, collective intelligence.

Beyond the three areas of opportunity discussed here, there are surely other ways in which COVID can catalyze progress—by reshaping governance and statecraft while improving global public discourse in more participatory ways, and with greater immediacy, for example. But that is a far reach. For now, the focus should be on how the response to COVID has opened up the possibility of making quantum leaps in environmental protection, education, and global health research.

Progress in each of these areas, however, is wholly dependent upon robust cybersecurity. Without a solid virtual foundation, the ability to move forward in any of these areas will always be held at risk. And in a world still too wedded to the firewall-and-antiviral paradigm—rather than, say, to ubiquitous use of strong crypto and cloud computing—what COVID catalyzes may end up producing a fizzle instead of a fountain-head for transformation.

Back to Top

Mark Guzdial: Students Get the Idea They're Unwanted When There Are Enrollment Barriers: Touring the Best of SIGCSE 2020 May 2, 2020

The ACM Special Interest Group on CS Education (SIGCSE) cancelled its technical symposium in Portland the morning the conference was scheduled to start. I was there. My wife (Barbara Ericson, and I arrived on the evening of Wednesday, March 11, a half-hour before Oregon's governor banned large meetings. The next morning, I got the announcement that the conference was closed. I visited with others who had arrived for the first day (all of us observing social distancing), met with collaborators during the day, then flew back home on Friday, March 13.

While it was disappointing that the conference was cancelled, I'm happy to see that all the papers are posted in the ACM Digital Library (at I've been spending time looking through the papers, wishing I'd have had the opportunity to hear the presentations and talk to the authors.

Let me tell you about the easiest paper to recommend: one of the Best Paper awardees for CS Education Research: Competitive Enrollment Policies in Computing Departments Negatively Predict First-Year Students' Sense of Belonging, Self-Efficacy, and Perception of Department, by An Nguyen and Colleen M. Lewis of Harvey Mudd College ( The punchline of the paper is in the title, and might be described as "if you send students the message that they're unwanted, they're going to feel unwanted."

Nguyen and Lewis look at a dataset from the Computing Research Association based on a survey of 1,245 first-year students. They looked at four outcome measures:

  • Perception of department as welcoming indicated by agreement with phrases like "My department cares about its students."
  • Sense of Belonging indicated by agreement with phrases like "I feel like I belong in computing."
  • Self-efficacy (a sense you can achieve tasks in a domain) indicated by agreement with phrases like "I am confident that I can pass my classes."
  • Growth mindset (a sense you can always get better at something through effort) indicated by agreement with phrases like "Anyone has the ability to learn computing and be good at it."

They defined a department as having competitive enrollment if students had to apply to become a computing major, or if a student needs to meet grade thresholds (beyond simply passing) to become a computing major. They found students in departments with competitive enrollment had a lower sense of being welcomed and a lower sense of self-efficacy. If students had prior experience, they still had a sense of belonging in computing, but that wasn't true for students who didn't have prior experience in belonging. Overall, female, Black, and Latinx first-year CS students had a lower sense of belonging and lower self-efficacy.

Departments are using competitive enrollment as a way of managing rapidly rising enrollment, or just to make sure that the students who get to the upper-level classes succeed. In any case, these moves are a barrier to students. The results from this paper suggest the moves are having an impact on students.

Some of the discussion about this paper on Twitter points out that the effect isn't all that strong; statistically significant, but not a large effect size. That makes sense to me. These are subtle and likely indirect effects. If a CS professor said to a student, "You'll never make it in CS. You don't belong," and then the student consequently showed a decrease in self-efficacy and sense of belonging, we would say the mechanism would be pretty clear and the effect would be direct. In this case, the competitive enrollment barriers may not take effect until the second or third years of undergraduate, and this study is looking at all first-year students. The direct impact is maybe some form of social pressure on students (such as talking to other students facing these barriers), or the student dreading a future date when they would have to be judged. Competitive enrollment tells students not everyone is welcome, and first-year students seem to be responding to that.

We can't know the future of CS enrollment. Will CS still have huge enrollment next year, when the world is still dealing with COVID? How will competitive enrollment measures need to change in the future? This is an important study to realize there are likely effects of barriers, even for students in their first year.

There is a lot more great stuff in SIGCSE 2020. I recommend taking a stroll around the proceedings.

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More