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Criticizing and Modernizing Computing Curriculum: The Case of the Web and the Social Issues Courses


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Presentation I gave at WCCCE 2012 in Vancouver.

Computing education has faced a variety of ongoing and critical self-examinations over the past 15 years. This paper provides a set of critiques and alternative teaching approaches for two vital but under-reported computing knowledge areas: web development and computing ethics/social issues. It concludes with a claim that these two knowledge areas can also provide an important way to integrate the often-heterogeneous knowledge areas in the computing curriculum.

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Criticizing and Modernizing Computing Curriculum: The Case of the Web and the Social Issues Courses

  1. 1. Criticizing and Modernizingthe Computing CurriculumThe Case of theWeband theSocial Issues CoursesRandy ConnollyMount Royal University, Calgary
  2. 2. Computing education has faceda variety of ongoing and criticalself-examinations of differentaspects of the curriculum overthe past 15 years.
  3. 3. Some computing topic areas(e.g., first-year programming)have been rigorously examinedin the education literature.
  4. 4. Other common topic areas havenot been as adequatelyexamined.
  5. 5. This paper provides a set ofcritiques and alternativeteaching approaches fortwo vital topic areas that havebeen under-reported in thecomputing education literature:
  6. 6. 1web development2ethics/social issues
  7. 7. This paper both restates andprovides a capsule summary ofthis author’s more detailedpapers on these two subjects.
  8. 8. Teachingthe web
  9. 9. In the past decade,the world of web development,has experienced a remarkabletransformation
  10. 10. The web development topics in theACM Computer Science Curriculumbarely changed from 2001 to 2008.
  12. 12. Almost all of the topicsrecognizable as pertaining tothe field of web developmentare marked as elective topicsin the CS 2008 (and 2013)curriculum.
  13. 13. ALSO
  14. 14. There has been a real dearthof research on the teaching ofweb topics.
  15. 15. Given the importance of web technologyin the real world of software development,This relative lack of interestin the web by computer scienceis somewhat surprising.
  16. 16. Number of Web-Based Software Development JobsNumber of Non-WebSoftware DevelopmentJobs Based on searches in Oct + Nov 2010 on and
  17. 17. The papers that do existgenerally begin by stressingthe many difficultiesin teaching a web development course.
  18. 18. Examining the literature,web content is usually being taught using thebroad but shallowAll-the-Web-in-One-Course (AWOC)approach
  19. 19. 60% Of CS web education papers reported A single web course 16% Web taught in CS0 or elective 12% Javascript in CS1/CS2 12% Multicourse stream on web
  20. 20. Given the importance of web systems,the time has come for retiring the AWOC approach
  21. 21. Back in the early 1970s, a math programmight have had a single course inprogramming in Fortran,but eventually it was recognized that a bodyof knowledge as complex as programmingrequires multiple courses to teach thematerial properly.Web developmentshould be in asimilar state today
  22. 22. While the AWOC approach does give studentsa sense of the big picture of web development,it by no means provides the studentswith anything approaching proficiencyin contemporary practice.
  23. 23. Why not?
  24. 24. Because web development ischaracterized by peculiar combination ofchangeandpersistence
  25. 25. 2009- Frameworks + Platforms (WordPress,JQuery,Sharepoint,etc)2006-2009 AJAX + REST/JSON services Semantic Web Standards +2003-2006 CSS (positional) + PHP/ASP.NET CSS (simple) +1999-2002 Javascript (simple) + ASP/JSP + Usability1995-1998 HTML + CGI + Graphics
  26. 26. For those stuck with the AWOC approachit will become increasinglydifficult to keep the coursecomprehensiveandrelevant
  27. 27. Because of the timelimitations of theAWOC approach, thecontent in thesesingle web coursesincreasingly seemlike they are …
  28. 28. partyinglike it’s1999
  29. 29. HTMLNot just the details(which are trivial)but also how to dosemantic separationof content frompresentation.
  30. 30. Due to practitioners’ movetowards web standards andsemantically-orientedmarkup,real world CSS iscommonly used forpositioning and layout.
  31. 31. This type of CSS is notoriouslydifficult to master due tobrowser bugs, incompatibilities, and non-obviousCSS box model interactions.
  32. 32. Another important part of webdevelopment that is almost alwaysleft out of the AWOC approach isdigital media
  33. 33. Yet another vital knowledgearea in web development isusability, an area that isalmost always ignored inAWOC courses.None of the current webtextbooks examined for thispaper contained any substantialmaterial on usability.
  34. 34. Javascript has become toocomplex to be covered in aAWOC course.The type of Javascript that canbe covered in one or two weeks(rollovers, form data validation, browser sniffing)was reasonably close to whatwas needed professionally in thelate 1990s.
  35. 35. Since the discovery of XmlHttpRequestand the subsequent flourishing of newuser interface coding and asynchronouscommunication with web services, Javascript coding as become simultaneously crucial to contemporary web development and significantly more complicated.
  36. 36. Analogous to the case with CSS,this type of Javascriptprogrammingis very difficult to learn due to:browser differences,the untyped nature of the language,the lack of a cross-browser debuggingenvironment,general conceptual complexity ofworking with callback functions
  37. 37. A key part of learning real-world web development isthe server-sideenvironment.Potentially this is a verylarge topic, and has its owndifficulties from a teachingperspective.
  38. 38. If students haven’t fullymastered the ability toimplement a non-trivial designin HTML, CSS, and Javascript,the added indirection ofwriting a program to generateHTML, CSS, and Javascript canbe quite tricky conceptuallyfor a novice developer.
  39. 39. Server-side development also has anumber of substantial additional topics,which are difficult to fit into a singleAWOC course.
  40. 40. Web-based APIs usingREST or SOAP servicesare also an importantpart of the web worldof 2008+
  41. 41. Web vulnerabilities/security is another area that is difficult to comprehensively cover in the AWOC approach.None of the current webtextbooks examined for thispaper contained any substantialmaterial on web security.
  42. 42. Our students also need to learn acertain amount about hosting andadministration issues, such as:The architecture of the main web serverplatforms such as Apache and Microsoft’s IIS.Hosting topics such as web gardens, webfarms, load balancing, and serverconfigurations for scalability. Image Source:
  43. 43. More and moreorganizations areusing alreadyexisting open-source and/orproprietary webframeworksinstead ofcreating theirweb infrastructurefrom scratch.
  44. 44. This is perhaps themost substantialrevolution in webdevelopment sincethe mass adoption ofCSS in the early2000s
  45. 45. Content management systems,blogging systems,and web forumsare more and moreoften being usedas the main framework for anorganization’s public or privateweb presence,since these systems handlemany of the most common webneeds of an organization.
  46. 46. Similarly, due to thecomplexity of layout-oriented CSS and AJAX-focused Javascript, it isbecoming increasinglycommon to use anexisting CSS orJavascript framework.
  47. 47. For the students, it is important to learnabout the existence of these existingframeworks and templates because the futureof web systems will increasingly lie in theiruse, integration, and customization. Sometimes multiple existing systems will be used by an organization and the key role of the web professional will be to get these systems to interoperate through their public APIs.
  48. 48. Teachingethics +social issues
  49. 49. Students “need to understand thebasic cultural, social, legal, andethical issues inherent in thediscipline of computing.”
  50. 50. of American computer science programs include SPI incurriculum (Social and Professional Issues)
  51. 51. of international computer science programs include SPI incurriculum
  52. 52. Teaching SPI withincomputing has beendominated by a veryspecific analytic approach. Can you spot it?
  53. 53. Articulatethe impacts of ICTandethically evaluatethose impacts
  54. 54. Almost all ofthese booksfollow asimilaralgorithmicmethodology
  55. 55. It is not hardto seethe attraction ofthis approachfor uscomputerprofessors
  56. 56. The “many grayareas of computerethics are oftenfrightening …to professorswho are worriedabout how toanswer things ofwhichthey themselves areunsure.”
  57. 57. of SPI courses taught by computer science faculty
  58. 58. Some have indeed argued thatusing this algorithmicprovides a sense of security andmethodologyfor nervous CS faculty teaching an SPIconfidencecourse
  59. 59. I am going to argue that boththis algorithmic methodologyandthe theoretical understanding of the relationshipbetween technology and society that it is baseduponare deeply flawed.
  60. 60. I will try to convince you thatwe need to move away fromthe ethical evaluation ofimpactsand insteademphasizethe social context of computing
  61. 61. In particular, the way we teach SPI materialneeds to integrate the decades-oldof researchers in the philosophy, history, and sociology ofinsightsthat emphasizes a very different approach totechnologySPI.
  62. 62. The common way of seeing technology isit is akin to a cue ballthatimpacting or altering the rest of society
  63. 63. In this perspectivekey technological inventionshave transformed the world.Thus new technologiesneed to be analyzed to understandwide changes they will enact.the
  64. 64. This approach to technologyis generally referred to asTechnologicalDeterminism
  65. 65. Dependent Variables(society, politics, economy, psychology, etc) determines Independent Variable Technological Chang
  66. 66. It is understandablewhy computer professionals findtechnological determinismattractive. people helping toWe are theinvent new technologies
  67. 67. It feeds our to beclear sociallydesire relevant
  68. 68. … and ourdesire to believethat wecomputer geeksare the driver ofsocial change,and notpoliticians,business people,or celebrities.
  69. 69. Most current historians and sociologists offirmly reject technologicaltechnologydeterminismbecause it istheoretically inconsistentandempirically under-supported
  70. 70. The well-established academic field ofscience, technology and society (STS)studies (that began in the 1960s)has time and time again found that whenexamined carefullymost technologies rarely have had theeffect that was expectedorhad the transformative impact peopleclaim.
  71. 71. economy history technolog y cultur esociety politics
  72. 72. 1. Empirically false2. Not used by STS researchcommunity3. Naively focused on functional capabilities
  73. 73. functional capabilities?Most technological deterministic impact prognosticators dotheir work by looking at the functional capabilities of a giventechnology
  74. 74. In all these cases – and practically any other set of prognostications andimpact evaluations than begin from an unquestionedbelief that the functional capabilities of a technology(i.e., the means) do what is promised (i.e., achieve theirends) –the expected social impactsended up being wildly wrongbecause the prognosticatorsbelieved in anaïve technologicaldeterminism.
  75. 75. The introduction of household technologydid not end up creating,in the words of Ruth Schwartz Cowan,less work for mother,butin factmore workbecause of a series of social changes that could nothave been predicted if one limited one’s analysis just tothe functional capabilities of the household technologies.
  76. 76. Efficient internet search-engineshave notresulted in people withtoo much knowledge;instead,unpredicted changes in how peopleinteract with words and even possiblycognitive decline due to the brain’splasticityhave arguably resulted in theexact opposite consequence
  77. 77. The introduction of anti-lock discbrakes have notreduced accidents at all,because drivers tend to drive faster and tailgatemore closely due to the improved brakingtechnology and also partly because of increasesin the intensity of traffic due to unexpectedchanges in urban geography.
  78. 78. The first stepThen we should take in ourSocial and Professional Issues coursesis to communicate how rarelytechnologies achieve their promiseand indeed,how many do the opposite.
  79. 79. The revenge effect of technologyis extremely well documentedyetit is uncovered in any of thecomputer ethics textbooks examinedfor this presentation.
  80. 80. One way to achieve this goalwould be by beginning the SPI coursewith examples and readingson how certain vital technologies hadlittle impact on some societies,oron how certain technologies werestrongly modified and differentlyadapted in different cultures andcountries.
  81. 81. This more historically-nuancedapproach to technology andsociety is what is generally calledsocialconstructivism
  82. 82. In this approach,one looks at how technologies areresearched,invented,financed,developed,adopted,marketed,and propagatedwithin a very complex systemgenerally referred to as society.
  83. 83. In other words,our SPI courses shouldlook more like ahistorical sociology courseand a lot lesslike a philosophic ethicscourse.
  84. 84. CONCLUSION
  85. 85. It has been this paper’scontention that both the weband social issues courses needto be modernized in terms oftheir curricula.
  86. 86. These two sometimes-neglectedknowledge areas can alsoprovide students withexperience in working withintegration and complexity.
  87. 87. Randy ConnollyDept. Computer Science & InformationSystemsMount Royal University, Calgary, Canadarconnolly@mtroyal.caImages from iStockPhoto and stock.xchng