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Nudging Computing Education

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Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Mark Guzdial

I just started reading Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Thaler and Sunstein.  I’d heard of behavioral economics before, especially in the context of how these ideas are influencing the Obama administration.  I’m recognizing implications for computing education as well.

The basic premise of behavioral economics is that people are bad decision makers, and those decisions are easily biased by factors like the ordering of choices.  Consider the choice between a cupcake and a piece of fruit.  The worse choice there only has consequences much later and the direct feedback (“You gained weight because you chose the cupcake!”) is weak.  Thaler and Sunstein promote libertarian paternalism.  The idea is that we want to offer choices to people, but most people will make bad choices.  Libertarian paternalism suggests that we make the default or easiest choice the one which we (paternalistically) define as the best one — that’s a nudge.  It’s not always easy to decide which is the best choice, and we want to emphasize making choices that people would make for themselves (as best as we can) if they had more time and information.

An obvious implication for computing education is our choice of first programming language.  Alan Kay has pointed out many times that people are sometimes like Lorenz’s ducks, who were convinced that the Lorenz was their parent: people “imprint” on the first choice they see.  Thaler and Sunstein would probably agree that the first language someone learns will be their default choice when facing a new problem. We want to make sure that that’s a good default choice.

How do we choose the first, “best choice” language?  If our students are going to become software engineers, then choosing a language which is the default (most common, most popular) in software engineering would make sense: C++ or Java.  But what if our students do not want to become software engineers?  Then we’ve made their first language harder to learn (because it’s always harder as a novice to learn the tool used by experts), and the students don’t have the vocational aspirations to make the extra effort worthwhile.  That choice might then lead to higher failure/withdrawl rates and students regretting trying computer science.  Hmm, that seems familiar…

Another choice might be to show students a language in which the best thinking about computer science is easiest.  For example, Scheme is a great language for pointing out powerful ideas in computer science.  I believe that Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programming by Abelson and Sussman is the best computer science textbook ever written.  It’s power stems, in part, from its use of Scheme for exemplifying its ideas.

The challenge of using Scheme is that it is not naturally the language of choice for whatever problem comes the student’s way.  Sure, you can write anything in Scheme, but few people do, even people who know Scheme.  Libraries of reusable tools that make it easy to solve common problems tend to appear in the languages that more people are using. If students were well-informed (or are/become informed), would they choose Scheme? If the answer to that question is “No,” the teacher appears coercive and constraining, and the course is perceived as being irrelevant. That’s another familiar story.

The ideas of Nudge have implications for teachers, too. I am on the Commission to design the new Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science exam in “Computer Science: Principles.”  (This exam is in contrast to the existing Level A CS AP exam in computer science programming in Java.) We just met for the first time this last week.  There will be programming in the new APCS exam, and there’s interest in providing teachers with choices of what language they teach.  Providing infinite choice makes it really hard to write a standardized, national exam.  Teachers will likely be offered a menu of choices.  How will those choices be ordered?  How will teachers make these choices?  While there are some wonderful high school teachers, there are too few high school CS teachers.  The new APCS exam will only be successful if most of the teachers offering it are brand new to computer science.  These teachers need help in making these choices, with reasonable default values, because they simply won’t have the experience yet to make well-informed choices.


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