Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘computing’

MOOC Diversity

In academia, computer science on February 5, 2013 at 8:43 am

My colleagues, perhaps like yours, are discussing MOOCs a lot. I’ve got my own set of reservations about them, but today I want to focus on a question. How diverse are the instructors of MOOCs and what implications does that have for increasing diversity in STEM fields?

Recently my colleague, Mark Guzdial, argued that we should do no harm via a MOOC. His point was simple, that MOOCs could reverse the decades of hard-won efforts to diversify Computer Science. I know from experience, every single time I teach Computer Science classes just how non-diverse Computing remains. I’ve been in the situation of doubling the number of women in the class more than once (especially when I have a female TA). It would be nice to get away from that.

And then I saw my colleague, Tucker Balch’s, demographics from his MOOC. Wow! Highly educated men dominated the people who completed his course. As Mark points out in his analysis of Tucker’s demographics, some of this is likely due to the nature of the course, particularly it being an elective (Computational Finance).

This led me to my question. I wonder what diversity is like on the other side, among the faculty who offer MOOCs? And I offer my story of how I stayed in STEM as an example of why I think it matters. My first Computer Science teacher was a woman. She watched out for me and the other one or two women in the class. I remember that she encouraged me, took time to talk to me beyond the content of the classroom… and so I stayed for two years in a classroom with over 25 14-16 year old boys. (I think this deserves a OBE).

This continued with my second teacher, a man. The class was very small, seven and I was the only woman. The advantage of the small class was that we all got to know each other well, perhaps too well. Some boys of 16-18 well, boosting, talking about sex and women in ways that weren’t exactly flattering…  My teacher recognized that this was hard for me, and spent time talking with me about why I should persist despite it. He taught me that developing trust, taking time with an individual student outside of the academic content, could be crucial to inspiring the type of trust that would lead to confidence.

I needed those two teachers. I needed them very much. They are without doubt the reason I am still here. Especially since while I had a couple of faculty at Leeds who really encouraged me (thank you), I didn’t find the part of the discipline that I was passionate about until I reached UC Irvine and my Ph.D.

Given the lack of women in academia, particularly in STEM, I wonder whether the pattern of male dominance repeats itself in who offers the MOOC and I wonder what in turn that does to the student population. Perhaps some would say, offer a MOOC, redress it. But, my route into the field was not about volume encounters, but about those that were very personal. Its only maybe four people who made enough of a difference that I got through, but how can any person be that when they have 50,000 students? Also, how can you achieve these intimacies at a distance, across the network as opposed to face-to-face.


What is Interactive Computing?

In computer science, discipline, research on January 27, 2011 at 10:45 am

Recently I came across the following sentence in an article (written by my advisor, Jonathan Grudin).

“What are intelligent machines for if not interacting with people?”

That sentence struck me as being, with slight modification, an interesting definition for Interactive Computing. My revised sentence.

“What are intelligent machines for if not interacting with intelligent people?”

Sometimes people ask me “what is Interactive Computing?”

One answer to this has been that it’s the science of changing the machine in response to a deep understanding of computing in the world.  While that is an important part of Interactive Computing, I don’t think it captures the entire research space, and crucially the sole focus on changing the machine leaves out a very important piece of the design/change terrain: people.

Hence the addition of the word intelligent to the people in that phrase (although I am not quite sure that’s the right word, but it’s a start).

I think that there’s an important and significant amount of research within Interactive Computing that focuses on giving people the type of intelligence that they will need to effectively, appropriately, relevantly, and so forth engage with computational experience in the world. Interactive Computing is a dialog between people and machines. And while a part of that involves making the computational platform a better participant in this interaction, we must also help people to engage in that dialog in new ways. In other words, I see the space of research opportunities for Interactive Computing including not just redesigning the machine, but also to ethically and carefully shape the human experience itself.

One area of research that we pursue in Interactive Computing makes the people part of the interaction very clear: Computing Education. My colleague Mark Guzdial’s research and resultant practice is all about changing what people learn in order for more people to be able to participate in Computing, and to broaden (not just in terms of diversity) what it means to participate in Computing.

However, I also view some of the work that I have done and supervised in that way also. For example, when I worked to understand the human challenges in the production of software systems, it was as much with the view of changing the way that work happened as it was to create a new tool to support that work. Crucially, having a design space that was open to process and product innovations gave us so much more space to design a good interaction with computing. Susan’s work on religious practices and technology was about understanding that interactive experience. One outcome was a redesign of some systems, most notably the SunDial prayer time reminder system. But, her focus on extraordinary computing was about understanding the very powerful human engagement and what that told us about the adoption and use of technologies.

I do not think Mark or I are alone in exploring and even changing the human part of the human-computing equation.

So, to me, Interactive Computing is about a “dialog”, the interaction, between intelligent machine and intelligent person, taking place in the real-world. It’s about building all the technologies and all the competencies required to grow the mechanisms by which that interaction occurs.

A Name for Computer Science

In academia, computer science, discipline on March 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

This post continues a series of reflections on the discipline that is sometimes known as Computer Science.

I while ago I wrote about some of the naming conventions that we use in our discipline. One is to name around function: networking, security, operating systems. In this we choose a function of the machine itself, suggesting a separation of parts. I can’t help thinking that this separates theory from practice. Because in theory these are distinct, but in practice all these things must work together. And in practice there are collaborations across the fields. Another naming scheme we use emphasizes the greatness of the machine or its complexity. I think of high-performance computing and many core computing as two examples. Rhetorically we choose abundance over scarcity.

But naming also seems to be part of our disciplinary discussion right now.

One question turns on Computing or Computer Science. It is, for example, the “Computing Community Consortium” that’s an entity designed to promote, well Computing or Computer Science? The College of Computing uses Computing distinctly from Computer Science, but I don’t know whether the CCC or the Computing Research Association sees the two as distinct. If it is a distinction, what is it?

The College has three schools: Computational Science and Engineering, Computer Science, and Interactive Computing. Like other free standing Schools (Colleges at Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech has other naming issues that are beyond the scope of this particular post). We recently became this way, and one reason I have always assumed that we separated into Schools was because the College was getting a little unweildly. I’ve always assumed that this was a solution to our increased size, and also a response to what I call the devolution of Computer Science.

But, to share another example, UC Irvine has a free-standing Computing school: the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and it comprises three departments, Computer Science, Informatics, and Statistics. At a point, and this seems to be it, free standing schools/colleges are moving towards a structure that has internal divisions. And of course, other Universities are also working with a division, and working out what’s housed where. The University of Washington strikes me as an example, where you can find people who have a research interest in HCI who have affiliations in Computer Science and Engineering, the Information School and Human Centered Design and Engineering.

What will this be? It is clearly a work in progress, not just here at Georgia Tech, and more broadly. And as for me? I think that we should postpone the discussions about what Computer Science is until that’s decided nationally, and simultaneously we should participate in those discussions since Georgia Tech has such a stake in them.

Thoughts on Systems Software Research is Dead

In computer science, discipline, empirical, research on October 20, 2009 at 7:31 am

I’ve just finished reading Rob Pike’s Systems Software Research is Dead talk that he gave in 2000 (right before I left Bell Labs). It’s a provocative piece, but I think that’s Rob Pike.

The piece made me think several different things.

First, he claims that the Systems research community has abandoned the development of operating systems and languages in favour of measuring things about existing systems. Measurement as a “misguided” focus on science, but then he adds:

“By contrast, a new language or OS can make the machine feel different, give excitement, novelty. But today that’s done by a cool Web site or a higher CPU clock rate or some cute little device that should be a computer but isn’t.

The art is gone.

But art is not science, and that’s part of the point. Systems research cannot be just science; there must be engineering, design, and art.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Computer Science is all about, what (who 😉 it should embrace recently. And I have to say this just sounds a lot more exciting to me, this statement draws me into an exploration of systems and machines as a holistic activity. Do we have to strip out the design, art, and engineering so that we can live up to the name Computer Science?

It also got me thinking about impact. There’s a lot of attention given to having research that has impact. Impact. One way, although probably not the only way to have impact is to have industrial/commercial impact. Having studied commercial software production processes, I’m somewhat cynical. I used to, especially when I was attempting to make change, think it was a miracle that any software ever got built let alone shipped and used. This type of impact, I firmly believe requires patience and intelligence and also a degree of luck. I suppose that’s true of many things, but impact and luck are an interesting pair.

Setting aside luck. One route to impact is to have success in American Industry. I’ve said before that I think this raises questions for some research areas, ones where there are interesting collisons between profits and innovation.

But, as I was reading Pike’s talk it also occurred to me that Computer Science has a peculiar relationship with industry. While we, as researchers, approach it as a way to have impact, it is this same industry that’s simultaneously closed off research opportunities.

He says “Even into the 1980s, much systems work revolved around new architectures (RISC, iAPX/432, Lisp Machines). No more. A major source of interesting problems and, perhaps, interesting solutions is gone.”

I’m trying to think of another discipline that has had commercial impact so central to its sense of self-value as Computer Science. And there was a time when commercial systems, in their biodiversity, gave rise to challenges. But, the Computer Industry seems to have shut down opportunities as it has focused on the creation of hardware and software standards that at least according to Pike may have ended the best of Systems Software Research. I can’t help thinking that the relationship of industry and academia in Computer Science is at best more complicated than I recall ever having had discussions about. FWIW, and since it’s my blog, I think that there are other problems with what I increasingly see as a play towards a notion of impact, success and business in general being equated to industry because the two organizational types are not the same.

And of course Pike agrees with me. He ends his talk with “The community must separate research from market capitalization.”