21st Century Literacy

Monday, August 23, 2010


Mark Guzdial is on a mission—an audacious mission to transform computer science education at all levels, from elementary school through the undergraduate years. It’s a mission he shares with others, and they know it’s a long-term goal.  But they share the belief that the success of this mission is key to the success of the information-based society we’ve built.

“I believe that computing is a new kind of literacy that is critical for all professions in the 21st century,” says Guzdial. “If I'm right, doing computing education well is as important as doing mathematics or physics education well and needs a similar level and kind of support.”

Guzdial’s passion for computing education isn’t new. In his senior year of high school, he taught “Bits, Bytes and Basic” in a community education class. He continued throughout his undergrad years to teach computer science in community education, afterschool classes, GED classes and even community college.

Guzdial earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Wayne State University, where he met fellow CS student Barb Ericson. After graduation the two went to work for Bell Communications Research and married. During a summer internship at Bell Labs, Guzdial got his hands on a copy of Personal Dynamic Media by Adele Goldberg and Alan Kay, which foresaw the dramatic expansion of computers into the modern lives of ordinary people. He says reading it opened his eyes and motivated him to return to school.

“I'd never before thought about computing for learning (as opposed to learningabout computing),” he writes in a brief biography on the College of Computing website.

Together he and Ericson went off to the University of Michigan to complete master’s degrees in computer science and engineering and then returned to Bell Labs. Two years later, Guzdial went back to Michigan for a joint Ph.D. in computer science and education. While there he developed Emile, an environment to support high school science students as they construct multimedia demonstrations and physics simulations. Ericson worked in graphics at General Motors Research and later had a career as a software engineer. She is now director of outreach at the College of Computing.

After arriving at Georgia Tech in 1993, Guzdial worked with Janet Kolodner (now Regents’ Professor in Interactive Computing) to develop wikis for use in classrooms, including an award-winning wiki created for use in architecture classes. Guzdial was the original developer of the CoWeb (short for Collaborative Website) and Swiki (a wiki written in the programming language Squeak) that has been used successfully with students in 4th grade and above. Swiki is now one of the most widely used wiki engines in universities around the world.

Guzdial currently serves as vice-chair of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) Education Board, and he recently co-chaired the 2009 conference of SIGCSE (the Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education). The goal of both groups is to improve and expand the teaching of computer science at every level.

With help from Ericson and interactive computing Associate Professor Amy BruckmanGuzdial also leads Georgia Computes!, a statewide initiative to improve computing education across the educational spectrum from grade-schoolers to grad students. The goal is to increase the participation of historically underrepresented groups such as women and minorities in undergraduate and graduate computer science programs by improving the quality of computing education for everyone.

Much of his research centers around one key question: How can we teach computing more effectively? And one answer he found is: in context.

“What really motivates students is the ‘why’ of what they are doing,” he says. “Contextualized computing education lowers student withdrawal and failure rates. The context impacts their decision to take or not take another computing class.”

A good example of this is the “Media Computation” approach to teaching introductory computing, which Guzdial developed and which uses contextualized computing education to attract and retain students.  In Media Computation, students learn computing by writing programs to manipulate digital media, for example, to remove red eye from photos, to reverse sounds and to create digital video special effects.

Since 1999, Georgia Tech has required all undergraduates to take the standard CS1 class, but it was clear the policy wasn’t having the intended effect of educating the students about computing. The proof? Only about half of the architecture, biology, economics, history, management and public policy majors passed the class.

Georgia Tech implemented the Media Computation approach in spring 2003, when—for the first time—majors from the Colleges of Architecture, Management, and the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts were given the option to take a course in media computation to fulfill their introductory CS requirement. Engineering majors were given the option of taking a new course made just for them, in which they used a programming language popular among professional engineers and worked on problems from engineering. In the new courses, computing was presented as a powerful tool for thinking, doing and creating cool stuff.

By fall 2005 the change showed impressive and quantifiable results: nearly 85 percent of students majoring in architecture, biology, economics, history, management and public policy were passing the course with a C or better, compared with less than 50 percent just three years before.  Guzdial and Ericson have now written four textbooks that support teachers at different levels, using different programming languages in implementing the Media Computation approach.

Other experiments to improve outcomes in computing courses—such as an introductory class for CS majors in which they learn computing through programming their own personal robots—also have been effective.

But Guzdial says attracting students to computing is a process that must begin long before college is even on their minds. That’s why he, Ericson and Bruckman want to introduce middle and grade school students to computing through summer camps, support teachers in their efforts to turn students on to computer science and want more high schools in the state to offer AP computer science classes. Many students who go into biology, math or chemistry discover their interest in middle school or earlier and then are supported by a strong curriculum throughout high school.

“That’s what we need for computer science if we want to encourage and prepare more kids to study computing,” Guzdial says. “Students decide way before they’re undergraduates that they are not interested in computing.  We need to introduce computing earlier if we want them to join us here.”