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Determining CS Student Preferences During the Corona Semester


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Professor Orit Hazzan of Technion's Department of Education in Science and Technology

In this blog, I discuss how undergraduate computer science students perceive their learning of computer science, and what students value in computer science learning in both online and in on-campus settings, by analyzing their experience of distance learning during the first Corona semester.

Data was collected during the 2020 Spring semester in the Rachel and Selim Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (in which I was on sabbatical) using two questionnaires. Students were asked to reflect on their distance learning experience during the semester, to share their preferences regarding future learning if full on-campus learning is not possible, and to express their general thoughts about distance learning.

Approximately 1,800 undergraduate students are enrolled in a variety of study tracks offered by the school. The first questionnaire was distributed on April 21, 2020, during the third week of the semester and was answered by 493 students (27%); the second questionnaire was sent on June 14, 2020, about three weeks before the end of the semester and was answered by 290 students (16%). Responders were distributed as follows (to avoid too much data, averages for the responders from the two semesters are presented): 41% of the responding students were freshmen (of which about 3% began their academic studies in the Corona semester), 28% were sophomores, 23% were juniors, and the rest, 8%, were seniors; 60% were men and 40% were women (compared with an overall 70%-30% gender ratio at the school). One-third of the students who answered the questionnaire had previous experience with distance learning. Both questionnaires were in Hebrew.

The purpose of both questionnaires was to give the school management feedback on their students' experiences (including learning processes and habits, feelings, needs, and concerns) and, based on the lessons learned from the data analysis, to design the upcoming semesters, regardless of whether or not on-campus learning will be permitted. The feedback received in the first questionnaire, right after the onset of the semester, after the students had experienced distance learning for only three weeks, also enabled the school management to apply the lessons learned from the data analysis to the continuation of the semester. In the second questionnaire, the students were asked specifically to propose how they would prefer teaching to be organized during the 2020-2021 academic year if the pandemic continues and on-campus learning is limited (e.g., in small groups) or is not possible at all.

As it turns out, these questionnaires guided the students to reflect on and analyze their learning processes and behaviors before and during this semester, habits of mind they are not usually encouraged to apply during regular semesters. In fact, the analysis of the data gathered by these questionnaires enabled the school management to understand the students' perspective, not only on distance learning of computer science specifically, but also in a broader sense, how students perceive the essence of computer science and computer science learning.

Specifically, in this blog, I will attempt to answer the following questions: Do students wish to return to on-campus learning? If yes – why? If not – how do they suggest their online learning experience be improved?

Based on an analysis of the data gathered by the two questionnaires, we will see that students value learning-based social interaction, which means that students wish to interact with their peers meaningfully in the context of computer science learning, either in informal settings (outside the classroom) in on-campus learning spaces, or in formal classroom settings both on-campus and online. In other words, students do not want to return to the campus only in order to listen to lectures. It is important to note that the social interaction discussed here does not refer to the social life students usually have on-campus outside of the learning context.

Q: Do students wish to return to on-campus learning?

We asked students about their desire to return to study on campus. Since the pandemic situation has changed in the time that passed between the two questionnaires, the questions addressing the rerun to on-campus learning were formulated differently at the beginning versus the end of the semester.

Specifically, at the beginning of the semester, the students were asked: "Would you prefer to continue learning in the distance learning format when we return to the routine of on-campus learning?"; the answers to choose between were: Yes (30.7% of the students chose this option), No (41.7%), and Maybe (27.5%). At the end of the semester, the students were asked: "If it will be possible to study on campus, in small courses, in the next semester (Winter 2021), what would you prefer?" and the choices were: "To study everything possible on campus" (33% selected this option) and "To enable students who wish to, to continue studying from afar" (67%).

If we consider the "Yes" and "Maybe" answers to the first questionnaire as together equivalent to "To enable students who wish to, to continue studying from afar" in the second questionnaire, we can see that in both cases about two thirds of the students consider distance learning to be advantageous and wish to be able to choose to study in this format. Furthermore, as the semester continued, more students preferred this option relative to the beginning of the semester (58.2% at the beginning of the semester vs. 67% at its end).

This finding raised another important question: What do students find attractive in distance learning and for what purposes will they come study on campus? I discuss this next.

Q: Why do students wish to return to on-campus learning?

Social interaction in informal on-campus settings

Our analysis revealed that one of the things students value most in on-campus learning is their interactions with the teaching staff and with their peers that take place in one specific learning space in the school called the aquarium. The aquarium is equipped with computers with all relevant software tools and is designed in a way that encourages students to interact and stay for long periods of time (e.g., round tables, a fully equipped kitchen, etc.). See Figure 1.

In the first questionnaire, when asked, "In your opinion, does computer science have unique characteristics when studied in distance learning mode?", students paid a lot of attention to the interactions that take place in the aquarium, mainly in order to get support from the course staff and their peers. Here are several illustrative quotes:

  • Yes. The most significant difference in my opinion is the programming exercises. In routine times, these tasks can be performed in the aquarium and we can enjoy the help of other students and sometimes of staff members (subject to official office hours). Also, all relevant libraries and software tools are installed on the aquarium computers. These days, however, we are forced to connect to aquarium computers remotely, and are challenged to cope with challenging tasks completely on our own.
  • Yes, it is very difficult, especially programming exercises that are often done in the aquarium where we have the option of consulting and helping each other (beyond the difficulty of remote connection required in certain courses).

 

Figure 1: The Aquarium – the learning space of the School of Computer Science and Engineering. Credit: Yoram Asheim

 

In the second questionnaire, we wanted to quantify the contribution of the aquarium to students' learning and so we asked them to indicate, on a 1-4 scale (1=low, 4=high), the extent to which the aquarium contributes to their learning when studying on campus. The average of the 285 answers received for this question was 3. Specifically, 42.3% indicated 4, 29.6% indicated 3, and the rest indicated 1 and 2 – 14.1% each. The importance students attributed to the aquarium for their learning is also expressed by their request to open the real aquarium when allowed to according to the social distancing regulations and to open a virtual aquarium for each course, which in effect means holding a nonstop Zoom meeting for each course.

These answers tell us that the social interactions that take place in the aquarium have a clear purpose: they enable students to learn computer science in a more meaningful way, while interacting with peers and receiving relevant support from the course staff.

The social interactions for learning purposes that students ask for are not limited to informal, outside the classroom, settings. We now see that students wish to interact with their peers also during formal on-campus and online lessons.

Social interaction in formal on-campus setting

In response to the question in the second questionnaire: "If on-campus teaching in small groups is possible in the upcoming Winter 2021 semester, what would be most important for you in terms of such a setting?", students explicitly mentioned active learning activities that encourage interaction, such as working on tasks in groups during the lessons and having their questions answered by the lecturers, in addition, of course, to the availability of learning spaces such as the aquarium. The analysis of additional data gathered by the questionnaires led us to conclude that only such interactions would justify their arrival on campus despite their concerns about the pandemic.

Q: How do students suggest their online learning experience be improved?

Social interaction in formal online setting

Students' desire to interact and to be active during class was exhibited more clearly when they addressed online learning. This observation is derived from students' answers to several questions asked in the second questionnaire.

When asked "What social activities would you suggest adding to the online learning?", students suggested many learning-oriented activities, such as working in teams, learning in teams, hackathons, a virtual aquarium, and mentoring of small groups of students. As can be seen, although the students were asked about social activities, they explicitly referred to learning-based social activities. What is even more interesting is that students requested the teaching staff to "force" them to work with their peers. For example, several students suggested that work be required to be submitted in pairs or groups (so that they would not work alone) and that random learning groups be created to enable them to meet new classmates. See also my June 8, 2020 Blog on The Advantages of Teaching Soft Skills to CS Undergrads Online.

A similar picture emerged from students' answers to the question: "Assuming that in the Winter 2021 semester it will be possible to view recordings of the lessons from the Spring 2020 semester, what activities, in your opinion, are worth conducting during the (online) lessons?".

Summary – What opportunities does this picture open up?

In this blog we saw that students value the learning-based social interaction associated with computer science learning in both on-campus and online settings. They miss the interaction with their peers and the course staff that during routine times takes place mostly in the school's learning space. This tells us that students attribute importance to on-campus learning if it involves meaningful interaction and active learning. The students do not allude to this; they clearly declared that they would return to the campus only for meaningful interaction that contributes to their studies.

In other words, if students' voices are heard, they will return to a different on-campus learning experience than the one they experienced prior to the pandemic. This change will be in line with changes that are expected to be exhibited in other sectors, which will not return to their old ways and practices after the pandemic ends. For example, employers in the tech industry, which does not involve manufacturing, have realized that there is no need to arrive at the work place in order for routine work to take place; on-site meetings will be required only for brainstorming processes and meaningful support and learning processes, in which face-to-face interaction is important and has added value.

It seems relevant to conclude this blog with the following quote, taken from the answer of a freshman (in her second semester) to the last question of the second questionnaire: “If you have additional thoughts, we will be happy to hear them.” She wrote: “In general, the investment and efforts of the university are considerable—thank you! However, this is a golden opportunity to move on to the next stage toward which the whole world is directed. Let's develop the next generation of learning!”

Orit Hazzan is a professor at the Technion’s Department of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on computer science, software engineering, and data science education. For additional details, see https://orithazzan.net.technion.ac.il/ .


 

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