Putting it all together – discussing curriculum with students

One of the nice things about my new grand challenges course is that the lecture slots are a pre-reading based discussion of the grand challenges in my discipline (Computer Science), based on the National Science Foundation’s Taskforce report. Talking through this with students allows us to identify the strengths of the document and, perhaps more interestingly, some of its shortfalls. For example, there is much discussion on inter-disciplinary and international collaboration as being vital, followed by statements along the lines of “We must regain the ascendancy in the discipline that we invented!” because the NSF is, first and foremost, a US-funded organisation. There’s talk about providing the funds for sustainability and then identifying the NSF as the organisation giving the money, and hence calling the shots.

The areas of challenge are clearly laid out, as are the often conflicting issues surrounding the administration of these kinds of initiative. Too often, we see people talking about some amazing international initiative – only to see it fail because nobody wants to go first, or no country/government wants to put money up that other people can draw on until everyone does it at the same time.

In essence, this is a timing and trust problem. If we may quote Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons:

A picture of Wimpy saying "I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!"

Via theawl.com. Click on the link for a very long discussion of Popeye and Wimpy related issues.

The NSF document lays bare the problem we always have: those who have the hamburgers are happy to talk about sharing the meal but there are bills to be paid. The person who owns the hamburger stand is going to have words with you if you give everything away with nothing to show in return except a promise of payment on Tuesday.

Having covered what the NSF considered important in terms of preparing us for the heavily computerised and computational future, my students finished with a discussion of educational issues and virtual organisations. The educational issues were extremely interesting because, having looked at the NSF Taskforce report, we then looked at the ACM/IEEE 2013  Computer Science Strawman curriculum to see how many areas overlapped with the task force report. Then we looked at the current curriculum of our school, which is undergoing review at the moment but was last updated for the 2008 ACM/IEEE Curriculum.

What was pleasing was, rom the range of students, how many of the areas were being addressed throughout our course and how much overlap there was between the highlighted areas of the NSF Report and the Strawman. However, one of the key issues from the task force report was the notion of greater depth and breadth – an incredible challenge in the time-constrained curriculum implementations of the 21st century. Adding a new Knowledge Area (KA) to the Strawman of ‘Platform Dependant Computing’ reflects the rise of the embedded and mobile device yet, as the Strawman authors immediately admit, we start to make it harder and harder to fit everything into one course. Combine this with the NSF requirement for greater breadth, including scientific and mathematical aspects that have traditionally been outside of Computing, and their parallel requirement for the development of depth… and it’s not easy.

The lecture slot where we discussed this had no specific outcomes associated with it – it was a place to discuss the issues arising but also to explain to the students why their curriculum looks the way that it does. Yes, we’d love to bring in Aspect X but where does it fit? My GC students were looking at the Ethics aspects of the Strawman and wondered if we could fit Ethics into its own 3-unit course. (I suspect that’s at least partially my influence although I certainly didn’t suggest anything along these lines.) “That’s fine,” I said, “But what do we lose?”

In my discussions with these students, they’ve identified one of the core reasons that we changed teaching languages, but I’ve also been able to talk to them about how we think as we construct courses – they’ve also started to see the many drivers that we consider, which I believe helps them in working out how to give feedback that is the most useful form for us to turn their needs and wants into improvements or developments in the course. I don’t expect the students to understand the details and practice of pedagogy but, unless I given them a good framework, it’s going to be hard for them to communicate with me in a way that leads most directly to an improved result for both of us.

I’ve really enjoyed this process of discussion and it’s been highly rewarding, again I hope for both sides of the group, to be able to discuss things without the usual level of reactive and (often) selfish thinking that characterises these exchanges. I hope this means that we’re on the right track for this course and this program.

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