Fall 2017 marks a full decade since the Georgia Tech College of Computing revolutionized undergraduate computing instruction with its groundbreaking Threads curriculum. In those 10 years, the world of GT Computing has changed dramatically—and for the better.
Ten years ago, computer science (CS) education trend lines were very different. Just a few years removed from the bursting of the dot.com bubble, university CS enrollments had just about hit rock bottom. In Fall 2001, the College enrolled some 1,557 computer science majors; six years later, that number had dropped by more than half to 723.
All this despite the fact that throughout the first decade of the new millennium, computers, computational technology and media, and data analysis continued to play an ever-increasing role in global society. Perhaps part of the problem was how CS was taught?
“Across the country, top computing colleges and departments and national computing organizations have recognized that undergraduate computer science curricula have become ossified, too inflexible to meet the needs of students or the requirements for individual competitiveness,” read the report, Creating Symphonic Thinking Computer Science Graduates for an Increasingly Competitive Global Environment, co-written in 2006 by then-College of Computing Dean Rich DeMillo and Distinguished Professor Merrick Furst.
Forging a New Direction
“These curricula have become very good at producing a single kind of graduate – inflexible, inadaptable graduates, far from the symphonic-thinking graduates that will be leaders in the future of computing… The breadth of computing and computer science has not been successfully tapped in the design of curricula.”
Enter Threads. When it debuted in Fall 2007, this new approach to an undergraduate CS curriculum was something of a curiosity—and a risk. Georgia Tech has always prided itself on its academic rigor, and CS was no different. Some faculty worried that Threads would be perceived as “dumbing down” traditional CS instruction. In that first semester, just four students took advantage of the new curriculum. So the jury was out: Would Threads help resurrect undergraduate computing enrollments and usher in a new era of computing education?
For a start, enrollments have not just rebounded but exploded. Fall 2007 marked the low point of CS enrollments, which began to climbsteadily and today are higher than ever. In Fall 2017, some 2,110 students are majoring in computer science, and that doesn’t include a few hundred more majors in the B.S. Computational Media (CM) program, as well as the rapidly growing number of students minoring in computing. Speaking of CM, in 2011 the College of Computing and Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts moved the joint program to a “threaded” curriculum.
And, in a very telling move, within a few years of Threads’ introduction, other top computing programs launched new undergraduate curricula that looked uncannily similar to what was going on at Georgia Tech.
Over the curriculum’s first 10 years, individual threads have varied in popularity. Information Internetworks has proven the most popular thread by a significant margin. In fact, about half of all CS graduates since Threads’ inception have selected it as one of their two threads.
With the advent of machine learning and AI-powered technology, the Intelligence thread has steadily risen in demand over the decade, selected by about a third of CS grads. And as the worlds of entertainment and technology have continued to converge, Media took its place as the third most popular thread at just over 30 percent.
Curricular Evolution for Changing Student Interests
In all, some 2,114 Georgia Tech students have received their B.S. CS degrees via Threads, and even that number will jump sharply in the next few years with overall enrollments growing so large.
“Threads has shown not just the value but the genuine need for curricular evolution in the face of changing student interests and industry priorities,” said Katie Raczynski, director of undergraduate advising in the College. “It also set the tone, I think, for an openness among College of Computing faculty to further innovations and improvements in our undergraduate curriculum that would not be so easy to do at other universities.”
Indeed, since Threads launched, the College of Computing has continued to provide leadership for the world in computing education.
In 2013 it announced the online M.S. in Computer Science (OMSCS) program, which has since grown to nearly 6,000 students. In 2016 it announced a first-of-its-kind online Intro to Computing course that has been used both for on-campus instruction and by free MOOC learners around the world. It’s continued to produce scholarly evidence for and best practices in CS educational innovations through the work of researchers Mark Guzdial, Barb Ericson, and Betsy DiSalvo.
Shaking Things Up
Though Fast Company specifically cited OMSCS as the reason for naming the College as one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies in 2017, it could easily be viewed as an honor earned by an overall body of work.
“With Threads, we showed that innovation in education can have a tremendous impact on student engagement and that we shouldn’t be afraid to examine longstanding pedagogical practices or shake them up once in a while,” said Executive Associate Dean Charles Isbell, who worked with DeMillo and Furst to design and implement Threads.
“Would our enrollments have rebounded without Threads? Probably. But we grabbed an opportunity to both move our undergraduate curriculum into the 21st century and establish a precedent that Georgia Tech is not afraid to take a risk in the name of education. That, in itself, was a gamble worth taking.”