DCI Teaches the Teacher for Benefit of Tech Undergraduates

Monday, November 27, 2017

Although the Division of Computing Instruction (DCI) advances the development, competence and professional standing of the College of Computing's instructors and lecturers, its real beneficiaries are Georgia Tech students.

Students cannot miss the College’s instructors and lecturers when they teach nearly all first- and second-year courses. In fact, because every Tech student is required to take at least one of three introductory computing classes, they come into contact with College of Computing lecturers and instructors in significant ways.

Senior Lecturer Bill Leahy teaches computer organization and programming for CS 2110, one of Georgia Tech's most popular computer science courses.

"We teach almost half the credit hours in the college," says Senior Lecturer and DCI Director William "Bill" Leahy. "We teach very large classes in some cases. That's a whole different skill set than teaching a 12-student special topics class, and the people who do it are very, very good at it."

Non-tenured faculty have long played an important role at Georgia Tech, as they do at most universities. What's different at the College of Computing is that these educators are organized within a formal structure designed to foster their participation in a range of college matters while enhancing their effectiveness as teachers.

"The fact that the College of Computing cares enough about that to create an organization that allows the lecturers to develop, to grow and to have a voice in the college is important," says Senior Associate Dean Charles Isbell, Ph.D. "I think it's important for incoming students to know that not only do the lecturers care very much about your education, but they work together, they participate in the long-term curricular vision for the degrees that the college offers. That's a good thing."

Instructors and lecturers are highly qualified, motivated and exceptionally skilled. Instructors, many of whom are Ph.D. students, hold at minimum a master's degree. Lecturers have earned either a master's or Ph.D., and frequently have a significant academic or industrial background. In some cases, they are supported by undergraduate teaching assistants (TA).

"Undergraduate TAs help us teach only in those classes they have already taken and received an A," Leahy says. "We have special training for them, and we monitor them more closely than we might a graduate TA."

It's an elite group of very smart, capable students, he adds. "They absolutely loved the course when they took it, and they want others to get the same enjoyment and understanding they did. So they bring a high level of enthusiasm to the classroom, and we believe it's a plus that they can closely relate to the students who are taking the course."

Bill Leahy jots a few notes before resuming his computer programming lecture.

The idea for DCI surfaced a few years ago when the College developed its individual schools of Computer Science, Interactive Computing and Computational Science and Engineering. Instructors and lecturers found themselves in a kind of academic limbo, organizationally speaking. They were still affiliated with the college, but undergraduate learning had shifted to the new schools.

According to Isbell, himself a College of Computing alumnus: "Given that we had all these talented people who are passionate about undergraduate education, we decided that we needed a creative structure for them, a place where they would feel comfortable working together, develop their own notions about what matters for the students and develop their own processes that make sense for what they were doing." 

Creating the division "was a way of making it easier for them to be a part of the college's fabric and to have an influence on the way the college runs," he says, noting that a DCI member occupies a voting seat on the Curriculum Committee.

DCI also supports its members by providing a formal promotion path from instructor to lecturer and then to senior lecturer. The criteria for moving up, which is detailed in a DCI handbook, requires demonstrated excellence in two of three areas: scholarship or research; teaching; and service, such as serving on institutional committees.

"They're not just teaching and going home," Isbell says. "They are performing service, they are participating in campus life, and they're doing scholarship in working with the larger community outside of Georgia Tech."

In turn, DCI faculty bring innovative approaches to the college's operations. Consider, for instance, the daunting task of administering tests to certain introductory classes, many of which contain up to 300 students. The simple act of giving and grading these tests consume an enormous amount of time and resources. Lecturers, working in concert with their TAs, figured out a way to administer tests online, accessible from the students' laptops. They're even set up in such a way that each exam is slightly different from the others, to prevent cheating. The tests can be graded electronically, too, although eventually they still have to be viewed individually by lecturers and TAs for a final letter grade.

"DCI represents a really great group of people whose deep commitment to undergraduate education is reflected in their exceptional abilities,” Leahy says. "Every single person is here because he or she loves what they're doing — not a single one of them thinks of teaching as merely a job."