Distributed Expertise in Teaching Computer Organization

A Proposal for a Working Group for ITiCSE 2000

Lillian N. Cassel
Villanova University

Deepak Kumar
Bryn Mawr College

Improvements in technology have been explored for their potential to improve the learning experience of our students and for bringing education to widely distributed learners.  Less attention has been given to the potential for faculty to benefit from the opportunities for shared experiences, resource access, and general support when they are teaching courses outside their primary interest and expertise.

Early in 1999, the United States National Science Foundation Division of Undergraduate Education awarded funds to address the questions related to distributed expertise in computing education.  One course was chosen as a test case.  The chosen course, computer organization, was selected because there appears to be a scarcity of systems people available to teach the course and the material is generally considered core to a computing curriculum. (See curriculum recommendations of the ACM, IEEE and CSAB among others)

The first stage of the project has been to develop a survey instrument with which to gather data on the state of the art of teaching computer organization.  The survey is nearing  completion and will be administered early in 2000.  Data gathered from the survey will show the way this course is taught at many types of institutions and in many kinds of programs.  Data will include topics covered and topics avoided, the most common background of people teaching this material, kinds of classroom activities, use of laboratory experiences, demographics of classes and other characteristics of these courses.  Active participants in the project are not limited to the United States and it is hoped that the survey will gather data that reflects a wide spectrun of experiences.

The timing for this project is good.  Recent postings on the SIGCSE mailing list show that a number of departments are questioning the content of their courses in this area, the resources that go into these courses, and the role of these courses in modern computing programs.  Those who have posted those questions will be invited to participate in this working group if it is accepted.

Significant time and effort has been spent on the survey instrument.  Advice from the director of the Villanova Institute for Teaching and Learning has been helpful in considering how we will address variations in learning styles and how we will measure the effectiveness of our efforts.  The Villanova Office of Policy and Institutional Research has given advice on the format of the survey and the ways to elicit useful information without burdening the survey participants.  The NSF grant supported a graduate assistant for this semester whose only responsibility was to devise an effective web version of the survey and the programs to link the survey to a database.  We are investing this upfront effort in order to have the best possible results for analysis.

By the time ITiCSE 2000 convenes, the survey information will be available in a database constructed for the purpose.  Working group participants will review the findings of the survey and consider what actions are indicated.  The working group members will provide diversity in the viewpoints of those reviewing the data and allow for many interpretations.  If we accomplish nothing more than a thorough interpretation of this data, we will have something of value.  However, the working group will accomplish more than this.  Based on the needs identified through the survey, the working group will begin to propose means to address the needs.  We will explore opportunities for sharing expertise among the many who teach the course.  We will investigate options for closer ties between academe and industry.  We will consider the most critical resource needs and propose means to provide them.  These will range from detailed course outlines to define courses of different types that may appeal to people in various situations to possible online examinations and sets of exercises accessible only to authenticated faculty.  Other ideas for consideration include a regularly updated site to follow relevant trends in the field that may arise in student questions, lists of colleagues willing to receive calls for help and e-mail.  The working group will doubtless suggest that some of these ideas are useless or impractical and will have others to suggest.  The working group format is an ideal venue for exploring these issues and debating possible solutions.  We will make good use of the pre-conference e-mail discussion time to identify the major options and assign subareas for preliminary investigation by WG participants.  We will discuss these by e-mail and come to the conference prepared to fine tune our ideas into a meaningful report.  Ideas generated at the WG will impact courses to be taught in the following academic year.  At least two courses are committed to applying what we learn and we expect others as well.  We hope to report the results of these efforts in the following year's ITiCSE.

An important aspect of this project is that each faculty member remains independent and free to conduct the course in the way that best suits the faculty member and the students.  The project seeks to provide resources that will allow the faculty as much or as little help as is wanted.  People may share syllabi.  Some will adopt another person's syllabus directly.  Others will use posted syllabi as examples of what such courses look like at a variety of institutions and will then construct their own.  Perhaps "guest lectures" will be available for particular topics.  Many faculty will contribute as much as they take from the project.  Some will lean heavily on the support system for a while and then become contributors later.  Some type of payment system may be appropriate to compensate those who give substantial help; some support may be free.

If this work leads to useful support of faculty teaching computer organization outside their primary interest area, further funding from NSF will be sought to extend the results to a more general method for mutual support of faculty attempting to meet the demands of growing populations of computing students.

While confirmed participation in the working group is currently limited to the two proposers, interest has been high among others.  The NSF grant includes funds for travel to ITiCSE for some working group participants.  Thus, we do not anticipate any difficulty in making the group of reasonable size.  ITiCSE offers the opportunity for a number of US educators to compare experiences and share ideas with colleagues from other educational environments.  We expect that to offer value to the project that would not be available if the project is completed with US faculty only.