Computer Science Education: Perspectives on Teaching and Learning in School
Editors: Sue Sentance, Erik Barendsen & Carsten Schulte
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Published:22 Mar 2018
Reviewed: 21st Mar 2018 By David Longman
You are now reading this review, so it is likely that you are aware of, or part of, the rapidly emerging research and practice domain of computer science education. You may also have little doubt that computing in all its forms is a significant technology to be reckoned with, leaving few lives untouched or unmodified, and you most likely agree that effective computing education must be part of our collective response.
Just such a confident undercurrent runs throughout this book, promoting computer science education as a foundational discipline, a required and necessary subject for all students wherever they are educated across the globe. The focus is clear: this is a book about computer science and how to educate students about it, with only an occasional passing nod to digital literacy, or information technology.
Naturally, the book aims to be useful and accessible with its own educational function, to explain and discuss research that might improve practice. Thus the general layout for the chapters includes ‘sidebar’ examples, key point summaries and ‘things to think’ about. In the Foreword, Simon Peyton-Jones tells us that “… teachers are the audience this book is intended to serve. …” and this is echoed in the Editors’ preface where, urging the value of research for educational practice, the book “…is intended to be accessible to you wherever you live and work.”
While computing education is high on policy agendas the world over (among many other priorities), how these get played out can look very different. Although this edited book draws together a range of chapters covering diverse aspects of teaching and learning computer science its international perspective remains broadly Eurocentric.
Inevitably, an edited book of collected chapters will vary in style and approach and readers will find different chapters more engaging than others. For some there may be chapters that do not say enough about computer science education and instead dwell on what the intended audience might already be expected to know. For example, a chapter about teaching the language of computing is interesting but on the whole the pedagogy is quite familiar to most teachers, as are chapters on key professional topics such assessment, curriculum design, or objectives versus competences. In many of these examples, the way that they might shape computer science education is often hard to find beneath more well-known detail.
Conversely, there are occasions where there is not enough detail or explanation, leaving the typical reader (e.g. this reviewer?) a little unsure of some details. For example, some of the more technical aspects of computer science such as how to teach computing concepts or programming constructs seem to assume quite specific knowledge on the part of the reader. Where the reader needs the explanatory details it seems to be missing. Similarly, the ambitious attempt to define Computer Science as a discipline seems cursory, perhaps trying to cover too much ground, and the range of details in the chapter on taxonomies might bemuse both qualitative and quantitative researchers alike!
One compensation for all this, however, is that many of the cited sources are fairly readily available to an audience that is largely outside the Higher Education sector. Too often, research-based books that aim to disseminate the value of research for professional practice and improvement rely on sources that are inaccessible because they are ‘gated’ to members of particular educational communities such as universities. That’s tough if you are an outsider, perhaps a member of the very audience that books like this aim to reach! This collection of chapters nevertheless seems to be more successful than some similar publications because many of the sources listed for each chapter are publicly available either through web search or, where worthwhile, through public library services. This is certainly a book that can be built on, given the time and commitment, and it offers many signposts to the continued exploration and investigation of the pedagogy of computer science education.
Here again, though, the book seems to falter in its mission to both promote research-informed practice and to promote research-engaged practice (“… [to] provide a basis for practitioners to follow and engage in research on CS education.”). For nowhere is there an overview, even brief, of how research in computer science education might be approached. This is surprising. Although the term ‘research’ is common term throughout the book but is rarely phrased as something that is done by people (e.g. .’research project’, ‘research carried out’, ‘research undertaken’ etc.).
Some readers may delight in knowing that ‘constructivism’ is never mentioned (except in a reference!) but others may be less pleased to know that ‘qualitative’ does not appear either. Is there an unspoken debate here about key ideas in education research? I doubt it, because the term ‘quantitative’ is not there either! But given that other key aspects of educational practice are covered, sometimes in great detail, this common and familiar distinction in education research is invisible without comment. That’s intriguing if not puzzling. This reviewer would have gladly swapped out the chapter about ‘Mindset’ for an overview of useful approaches to research in computer science education and the common ground with current research practice in education.
For this review I was able to read the ebook copy, and more specifically the epub version. Too often the formatting and layout of the ebook versions is never quite as useful as it should be. In this case too there are issues. Publishers do need to think of the ebook version as not merely a replication of the print layout but as a format that brings advantages to the reader. Authors too need to be more aware, the more so for topics like computing. The epub format, for example, includes tools for constructing a table of contents – still a useful device in an ebook – but they are not used here. Instead and used somewhat oddly to provide reciprocal linking between the contents list and the chapters. Yet where reciprocal linking is sorely needed (e.g. to flip between a citation and its reference) it is absent in any form. For a book of this type, such navigation is essential and provided by the epub toolset but inadequately deployed.