Sign In

Communications of the ACM


Teaching Critical Computing is a Grand Challenge for the Whole CS Curriculum

View as: Print Mobile App Share:
Professor Mark Guzdial

Credit: University of Michigan

The October 2020 CACM had an article by Dr. Amy Ko and her students, "It is time for more critical CS education" (paper link here). I had been looking forward to this paper since I saw Amy give the keynote talk on this topic at the Koli Calling conference in 2019, "21st Century Grand Challenges in Computing Education" (see YouTube link here). The authors argue that computing is so pervasive and critical to modern society that we need to prepare students to make decisions as professionals that are careful with the power that they're wielding. We must be teaching students that:

  • Computing has limits.
  • Data has limits.
  • CS has responsibility.

I highlight here one particular paragraph in the paper:

Realizing a more critical CS education requires more than just teachers: it also requires CS education research. How do we teach the limits of computing in a way that transfers to workplaces? How can we convince students they are responsible for what they create? How can we make visible the immense power and potential for data harm, when at first glance it appears to be so inert? How can education create pathways to organizations that meaningfully prioritize social good in the face of rising salaries at companies that do not?

I strongly agree that we need CS education researcher to figure out how to achieve these goals, because we don't know how right now. I also agree that we need more than "just teachers." We need ALL CS teachers. You don't meet a grand challenge with a handful of education researchers. A grand challenge requires a broad and pervasive response. We can use research from other-than-CS sources to identify the issues in meeting the challenges in Ko et al.'s paper.

A significant risk of teaching students about critical computing is the risk of buoying confidence without imparting knowledge or changing behavior. There are questions about the effectiveness of ethics education, like this study in business. Some studies of financial literacy education showed that students leave the course with greater confidence in their ability to make decisions, but without enough knowledge to actually make better decisions (see this study and this study). The concern is that we may give CS students the confidence that they know how to make critical decisions about computing, when they actually don't know enough to make those decisions or they don't use the knowledge that they have effectively.

We can't solve a grand challenge with a single course, either. Erin Cech is a sociologist who studies engineering education. She writes (see paper here) that we can't get past the "culture of disengagement" unless we send a consistent message across the entire curriculum. A single "ethics" course sends the message that ethics is a one-shot deal, a box that you tick. Learning sciences research suggests that getting students to apply their knowledge in outside-the-classroom situations (the challenge of "transfer") requires an approach that helps students connect the knowledge to several situations. If we want students to engage with ethical decision-making, it has to be a message sent throughout the curriculum.

We need to prepare our students' to have a critical perspective on computing. It's a research challenge, but it's also a challenge of will. We have to decide to meet this challenge as a field, not just with a course.

Thanks to Michael Kirkpatrick for pointing me to the Cech paper.


Mark Guzdial is professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering, and professor of information in the School of Information, of the University of Michigan


No entries found