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Communications of the ACM


The State of Computing Education in the World: Report on the 2014 ACM Education Council Meeting

Mark Guzdial

The ACM Education Council held its 2014 meeting in mid September in Portland. The Education Council, co-chaired by Jane Prey and Mehran Sahami, is a meeting of education leaders from across ACM with representation from around the world. The meeting provides an opportunity to share information about initiatives, identify critical issues, and develop action items for what the Education Council can do to meet needs in computing education. (The collection of all the presentations at the meeting is available here.)

The first talks set the global perspective for the meeting. John White, CEO of ACM, sent an update about the membership trends in ACM. The US now represents less than half of ACM’s members, and the number of US members has declined over the last six years. The greatest growth is in China which has grown a whopping 1432% in the same period. ACM now has more members in China than in Europe.

Ming Zhang from ACM China, Mathai Joseph from ACM India, and Andrew McGettrick from ACM Europe gave presentations on computing education issues in their regions.

  • Ming’s talk was about growth. There is enormous interest in China around computational thinking, computer science, and new computing-related degrees, like a new degree in the Internet of Things. Chinese computing educators are developing their own curriculum standards. Educational resources are not uniformly distributed across China, and there is a great interest in using MOOCs (see a listing here) to provide more computing education opportunities.
  • Mathai talked about challenges across levels of school. There is interest in computing in Indian primary and secondary schools, but there are not enough teachers. At the post-secondary level, the ACM India Education Committee is focused on improving teaching and developing new curriculum standards. There is very little uptake of MOOCs by Indian institutions, in part because there are few Indian MOOCs that speak to the syllabi in India and the backgrounds of Indian students.
  • In Europe, Andrew told us how ACM Europe works with Informatics Europe (consisting of Heads of Computing programs across Europe) on education issues. In 2013, they issued a joint report on Informatics Education in secondary schools (here). Now there is a joint committee whose first charge is mapping computing in schools across Europe.

One of the pleasures and discomforts of the Education Council meetings is the reporting out from efforts across ACM. John Impagliazzo told us about the efforts to update standardized curricula in computer engineering and information technology. Heikki Topi told us about efforts to create data science curricula and degrees, and Debra Richardson gave us an update on CS Ed Week. We also heard from CSTA, CSAB, SIGCHI, SIGGRAPH, SIGPLAN, SIGCAS, SIGCSE, and — and more. Most of these reports were only about 10 minutes long. It’s wonderful that there are so many great things going on in computing education! It’s challenging to stay focused for so many reports! (Lisa Kaczmarczyk does a better job of describing these first day reports at her blog post here.)

One of the more interesting reports for me was Owen Astrachan’s update on the effort to create the new Advanced Placement course and exam in Computer Science Principles. The framework for the new course is available at The exam is being defined, with performance tasks that students will undertake in pairs to demonstrate their knowledge. Owen also talked about the CS10K effort to develop 10,000 computer science teachers in 10,000 high schools in US. One of the challenges of CS10K is providing professional learning opportunities for so many prospective teachers. Two groups tried MOOCs this last summer, both 4-5 weeks long.

  • In one effort, 1000 teachers signed up, 500 were active, and 50 finished.
  • In another effort, around 700 registered, and around 60 took the final exam, and about 40 completed everything.

Completion does matter when we’re talking about teachers and curriculum — every teacher needs to know and be able to teach all the parts of the curriculum. These results don’t say to me that we can’t use distance education to offer teachers opportunities to learn CS, but they do suggest that the current models are not going to reach enough teachers to help with the CS10K goal. We may need different models that attract and engage more teachers to completion.

We held breakout groups to talk about the pressing issues on computing education and what the ACM Ed Council might do about them. I was in a group on improving diversity in computing. We have increasing evidence that people are choosing not to go into computing because of the ugly culture in technology (see the gamergate story). The problem of an insensitive culture isn’t just in schools (see the list of things that women in the tech industry are tired of hearing). Could the ACM Education Council help to shine a light on this problem? We have formed a task force to address this question.

I was on a panel on Computing Education Research (CER), asking "How can ACM better promote the role of computing education research and grow the community?" My co-panelists were Jan Cuny, Josh Tenenberg, and Heikki Topi, with Jane Prey as moderator. The panel was fascinating. Jan laid out the challenges of needing to know more about learning and teaching in computing, without any doctorate programs helping us do that research. Josh gave an overview of where CER is today, and Heikki talked about CER across the variations of computing: CS, IS, and IT. I compared CER to engineering education research (which has far fewer international collaborations and laboratory studies than CER) and physics education research (which has surprisingly little work in broadening participation, despite having almost as bad a gender skew).

In response to our panel, two members of the Council said that they saw the hot research question in CER as: "If we teach conditionals to grade school kids, what do we teach them in high school, and what new things do we teach in undergraduate?" I agree that that is a research question, but it’s not really hot. The top undergraduate schools might face it sooner, but it’s not really going to be a problem for decades yet (see my prediction about being 100 years behind). The problem is that we’re nowhere near saturation (e.g., in the US, less than 10% of high schools have computer science teachers), and most of what we’re doing isn’t going to work. Our best guess is that only about 70% of students in undergraduate CS are learning what we want in the first course — and that’s teaching students with an interest in CS who were admitted into college. We know far less about teaching primary and secondary school students (with a much wider range of cognitive abilities), and we are certainly reaching our learning objectives with less than half of them. We have a long way to go before we face the problem of most of our entering college students knowing too much CS.

At the end of the meeting, the Ed Council came up with the list of action items for the next year. Plans were started to provide a workshop in India about ACM standard curricula and to develop curriculum guidelines about data science and about cybersecurity. CSTA asked for a landscape study of K-12 CS education. Alison Clear of New Zealand is leading the development of an international taxonomy of computing education terms to help with worldwide collaborations.

ACM Education Council meetings are exhausting. There are so many reports, and plans, and strategizing in just a day and a half. They are expensive meetings to host, to bring in education leaders from around the world. But they are important to share initiatives and results, and to promote computing education under the banner of the world’s largest professional organization in computing.


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