An educational crisis

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I spend a lot of time these days thinking about computer science education. In particular, I think about what we should be doing about the rapid decline in enrollment in computer science programs in the United States and indeed in most countries around the globe (India and China being notable exceptions). This is an issue that other educational fields have struggled with over the years, though CS in some ways has its own unique aspects that make it worthy of deeper discussion.

Let's put aside the question of whether we should reverse the trend – I believe there are very good reasons to reverse it and not simply let those professions migrate to China and India. While that is a very valid discussion topic and not without its own controversies, it's one for another day. Suffice it to say that the global demand for well educated IT professionals over the next 10 years will far exceed the capacity of the existing educational systems to provide them, so if we want to keep the economy moving forward, we need to ensure that the workforce is there.

What really interests me are the questions around why kids aren't attracted to the field in the first place, or once in it choose to leave. This is super important, because we can't fix it until we know what's broken.

So here's an interesting data point: while enrollment by women in CS and IT was never good, it turned south a few years before the general trend did, and today the number of women is at an all-time low as an overall percentage of the population. When this started happening, two CMU professors did a study to understand what was driving the drop of women in the field, and eventually wrote a book on their findings. In a nutshell:

  1. Women were attracted to the field because they saw the potential impact that CS and IT could have on the world. Contrast this with men, who were attracted to the field because they liked taking the box (physical or virtual) apart and understanding how computers work.
  2. The first couple of years of a CS program centers on taking the box apart and understanding how computers work, with very little practical application and little visible impact. This alone was the reason why many women left the field.
  3. As computer science is taught today (right or wrong), there is much emphasis on writing code that is heavily critiqued. Many women found this process very discouraging, while many men seemed to shrug it off. Since CS is largely taught as a solitary discipline with little or no support network, this also drove many women out. And I want to be clear: I do NOT think in any way that this implies that men are stronger than women (nor do the authors believe this); it simply suggests that their rewards systems are wired differently. There's also no data to suggest whether that might be “nature” or “nurture”. For the purposes of this discussion, that point is moot.

So here's my key insight: as I talk to students today, I hear both men and women saying what the women were saying five years ago. As near as I can tell, women were the leading indicator for the field – and shame on us for missing that.

So the good news is that the CMU study suggests some practical fixes to some parts of this. Early CS classes can be restructured to emphasize the practical applications and impact without in any way de-emphasizing concepts or quality of the curriculum. Also, the right support networks can be put in place to make sure that when the going gets tough, students don't get discouraged and stick with it.

That's work, but it's straightforward work that can be replicated across different universities. But we're far from done, because there are other recent studies that show that many people are being turned off from CS and IT much earlier – grade 8 or 9 seems to be the key turning point where we are losing them.

Why? It seems to be a combination of factors, all revolving around the key influencers in a kid's life at that age. That includes:

-Parents. A lot of parents are scared off by the news reports that all the IT jobs are being offshored to India and China. It's not true, and we need to get them better information.

-Guidance counselors. I try very hard not to simply blast guidance counselors, because despite being the butt of many jokes over the years many guidance counselors are very well-intentioned and trying to be helpful. But the reality is that when it comes to the IT industry, they are giving out bad information. Part of the blame is ours, because we haven't ensured that they have the good information to give out.

-Peers. This is the biggest irony of them all. Kids today (I have two of my own) are into cell phones and music players (iPods or otherwise). But few of them seem to realize that inside the boxes they carry around are computers and software – and in fact it's the computer and software that make the devices so cool and magical. Once again, it's largely our fault, because we've done nothing to help them to understand that the cool people who are changing the world aren't the ones who design the plastic case; they're the ones who design the stuff inside.

So hopefully by now you've sensed the running theme in my blathering: this isn't someone else's fault or someone else's problem. If you work in the IT industry, or you teach computer science, this is your problem. It's collectively our problem, and we need to step up to fixing it. Also, there isn't one thing that's going to fix it; there are several levers that need to move in order for us to change the direction of our field. We need to talk directly to parents, guidance counselors, and students, and help them understand that this is a cool field that changes the world, with good, high-paying jobs that won't all disappear. We need to make learning computer science fun, engaging, and practical – without sacrificing quality. We need to be mentors and supporters for people learning this field, so that people feel like they are part of a community and want to stay in it.

There are lots of people working hard on re-vamping computer science curriculum, particularly at the college level. I get to see much of it in my job, and it makes be very excited. I worry more about the kids that we lose before college, because there's a “scale-out” problem there that requires thousands of people to reach the parents and guidance counselors and sway their opinion about computing and IT as a career. This really needs to be a grassroots movement; every one of us who cares should minimally seek out the guidance counselor at our kids' schools and have a conversation with him or her about careers in IT.

Let me just end with a statement and a question: I and several other stakeholders at the leading companies in the industry are willing to pitch in to get materials made that would help to “get the facts” out to parents and guidance counselors, in support of a grassroots effort. My question to you: if you were to go talk to a guidance counselor, what facts, figures and materials would you want to have in-hand?



The Discussion

  • User profile image

     I think what also needs to be discussed is industry creating the demand and vocalizing it to local leaders, the idea of the 4 year degree retooled into a associate degree program, and getting skilled programmers into the teaching of code and logic concepts.  There are lots of kids in the community college sector that would love to get in to web design, (of course that leads to programming) but the resources are few to get those kids into a class and coding.  There's also a "fear" of technology to overcome.  Also, it takes a little reality check for the kids as well.  How many kids use web based programs to blog or share photos without ever realizing that they could be the one's building it from scratch.  It never occurs to them because why build when you can use.  Speaking of programming can some one fix this UI so when I hit backspace it actually erases the characters? 

  • User profile image

    Our nation's children, for the most part, spend their childhood in a quasi-Lord of the Flies social setting, where they are taught how to pass standardized tests. It's not natural.

    Our schools don't teach children how to think or nurture their natural curiousity. They don't teach real-world skills like organization, financial competence, team-work, etc.

    Instead, they bore the hell out of kids, make learning entirely uninteresting, and transform kindergartners who start off loving school into middle-schoolers hate it.

    Our schools are like factories, bell ringing and all; how can we be surprised they aren't churning out CS caliber material? Could it be that the CS curriculum is just too tough for most public school graduates?

    Stakeholders have to look a lot deeper than the immediate problem. I'm not smart enough to pinpoint what's wrong or offer the answers...but I doubt it's guidance counselors. By then, it's too late.

  • User profile image

    ... the uncomfortable reality in the IT field is that IT is a pure commodity, and as such, developers who work for large corporations (where a significant portion of jobs are) tend to be treated like any commodity worker. Now, this might be fair turnabout for the 90s when anyone who could even barely slap together HTML acted like a prima donna, but the reality is that the IT field has lost nearly all its glamor.

    The Financial Aid Podcast

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    Dennis E. Hamilton

    I share the concern.  I am so far away from being a newcomer that I have no perspective on what needs to be known, though.

    I wonder if we are doing something that makes computing inaccessible.  That concerns me a lot.   Last night at the Seattle Webloggers meet-up, we had an unusually geeky gathering, and we got into a rant about whether we're doing it wrong and we don't know how to engage kids.  I'm not ready to say we should have adopted Smalltalk or Squeak, but it did get me thinking that maybe we have complexified ourselves into an uninteresting vocation.  I hope not.

    Where does passion take hold that embraces CS & IT?  I remember when it was marvelous to work with computers and we were all bemused that people paid us to do it.  What happened?

  • User profile image

    I will be entering college very soon, and I consider myself a computer enthusiast and just all around love technology, but I would never consider going into the IT field. Job security scares me. The fact is this trend will probably continue, and more and more jobs will move over seas. I never want to find myself without a job, that would be horrifying. I think there are ways to solve this though. If Microsoft or any company is serious about wanting US jobs, pay for their college education. Administer a test every year and take the top 150 kids and pay for their college. In 4 years you have people trained and ready to go. How many problems do you know of that can be fixed in 4 years (give or take)?

  • User profile image

    I think the issue is commodity. Programmers and programming have become and are becoming commodity. There are a few bright stars but becoming a programmer to get rich (a motivating factor) is not at best a lottery. Those few lucky ones who end up at a good start up might make millions and the rest of the programmers will not.

    Perception about offshoring is overwhelming almost all other issues. It is making programming "too common" and eventually that will turn into the attitude of programming being "not done here", if not already.

    So if I was going to approach the problem with documentation I would attack that aspect of the problem. I would also have some information on the shortage that will eventually come of all of this.

  • User profile image
    Stephen Clancy

    I read a lot about the decline of comp sci majors and I wonder where IT schools fit in. I am a Penn State student majoring in Information Sciences and Technology, which is a relatively new major. The idea is to emphasize a wider range of skills then just programming. We have some programming classes, some discrete math, design, and also context courses where we look at social and legal applications of technology. The program has been a pretty big success and I think we're one of the leaders in this field. I wonder whether we're part of the solution or if we're the major that is pulling people away from comp sci.

  • User profile image

    "I wonder if we are doing something that makes computing anaccessible." 

    Take a look at the culture.  I'm a female college student, who didn't become interested in CS until I'd already been at school for 2 semesters.  Even with my love for technology, I'm often put off by the elitest attitude of the computing culture.  Within the computing industry, admitting that you don't know something is grounds for ridicule and, as a result, learning becomes a very solitary activity.  It isn't the complexity of the field that scares me; it's the disdain for beginners.

    If anything needs to change, I would claim that the truly gifted need to become more approachable, and better teachers.  Of course, perhaps part of what sets them apart is that superior attitude that I find so intimidating?  What do I know...I'm just a student.

  • User profile image
    Pete M

    "I remember when it was marvelous to work with computers and we were all bemused that people paid us to do it.  What happened?"

    Well I and a bunch of others had that at school and that was only a few years ago so I don't think that's changed too much - but almost every job nowadays involves work on a computer - I think the passion has to come from the purpose of the work you're doing to make someone want to do a job.  With IT, or at least for me, the passion comes from being able to make changes that positively affect the world.

    On a slightly different note, it occurs to me that part of the excitement also comes with using and EXPLORING new and exciting things.  I'd say the IT world has matured considerably in the past few years and computer rooms, say in high schools, are constantly filled with people largely doing the same stuff - pushing out or assimilating the old-type elite computer crew. 


  • User profile image
    Pete M


    With respect to CS degrees, it seems in order to keep the excitement there needs to be fewer professor-led theory classes, and more industry-led opportunities.  I'm not quite sure what I mean by this - all I know is that I feel a special excitement that I can remember from my high school days whenever I'm in the presence of an IT professional at the front-line of the industry (say a Microsoft employee) and being talked to about cutting edge products and practices.


  • User profile image

    I read this entry with mixed feelings. There is no question that a global drop in CS graduates is not a good thing. And yet, here I sit with one of those CS degrees and 14 years of work experience, and I can't even buy an interview. My employer laid me off four years ago,  but I haven't had one interview despite sending out thousands of electronic resumes. Recruiters contact me with a great deal of excitment--until they learn that I'm in a power wheelchair and use a computer to speak with.

    It seems to me that another part of this general problem is that would-be employers ignore options that are right under their noses out of ignorance and prejudice.

  • User profile image

    Insightful observations there Kevin !

    In this post of mine , ive highlighted the urgency being assessed to promote entrepreneurship in the  educational system especially in developing countries and i think it can be extended to any system across the world .

    Keep Clicking,
    Bhasker V K ,

  • User profile image
    Christopher John Hawkins

    I myself plan on doing a Bachelor of Computer Science at LaTrobe University, Melbourne, when I've finished school (I'm currently in Year 10).

    Sorry if I confused you with the Australia schooling system - trust me, it's you who are strange, not us. Tongue Out

  • User profile image
    Christopher John Hawkins

    Wow, I wish that was available down here (Australia, for those of you who haven't read my other post) - or is it? I've been researching, but not found too much apart from Comp Sci that interests me...

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