Educational Research and the Design Degree

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Mark Guzdial wrote a thoughtful post yesterday that pondered approaches to educational research that fail to address the domain specificity that lies at the core of so many educational challenges.

Computing Education Research vs Real Education Research « Computing Education Blog.

Among other things he mentioned the challenges faced by those of us who have a genuine interest in computer science education. He recalls being questioned by his colleagues for choosing CSEd instead of “real computer science research” (which also made me ponder, what IS real CS research these days? math? engineering? but that’s for another post).

Here is some of what I replied, along with some additional thoughts:

While I have no doubt that these tensions exist between education and most disciplines, I think it is especially acute between CS and Ed. Almost everyone I’ve come across whose formal training was in Ed seems to have a special animosity towards CS. The strongest reactions have come from people in EdTech.

It does of course go both ways. When I was working on my PhD in EdTech while still tenured faculty in CS, my Dean (in Science) actually told me to my face that my PhD would be of no value to him or anyone else in Science. It is part of what convinced me that CS was seriously missing the boat when it came to understanding their place, both in the Academy and in the world at large.

On the other side, the faculty in EdTech had no interest in my perspective on Tech and said (more politely than my Dean, mind you) that CS had nothing to offer them because they already knew all about tech. I’ve talked about this before too. It is not a coincidence that many, if not most race car drivers are mechanics. You can’t be a great driver if you don’t know how your car works. Try talking to an Ed Tech academic about how something actually works as opposed to effusing about some new technology that has just hit the stores.  Their eyes glaze over and they either change the subject or talk about how they are too busy to learn about such details. Besides, they claim, it isn’t germane to their goals. This kind of haughty disinterest is common among people who are pretenders.

When it came to teaching CS, my 25 years of teaching experience seemed of less value to those in Education than a 4-month grad course. The fact that I actually understood the subject matter at a depth that they could not did not seem to affect their sense that they knew how to do this better because they had degrees in Education.

In his post, Mark talked about something called pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). Curiously, I never heard that mentioned in any of the Education courses I took while completing my candidacy. I took quite a lot of courses too – to make up for the fact that I had no prior formal training in Education. I took almost enough courses to earn a course-based M.Ed. There was never any acknowledgment of the importance of actually knowing the subject you are trying to teach. I think it is difficult for many in Ed to acknowledge the importance of PCK  because many of them have none themselves. Aside from elementary education, which I see as a special case, most people trained as educators are trained to “Teach” but are NOT trained to teach SOMETHING. Education is a highly applied discipline but it is not usually treated as such. It is often treated as some sort of generic skill – Educators are trained to teach, so, of course, we are supposed to believe they can teach anything.

Is that realistic?

To me it would be like studying to be a “Designer”. We learn about design and how to do design (not unlike learning to manage a business that makes those amazing widgets). What we are designing is secondary, right? Clothes, buildings, machinery, software, weapons systems, or drugs – it’s all the same – it’s all Design, right? All I should need is my Design Degree. While I will freely admit that there are some aspects to design that are similar no matter what you are designing, most of us would agree that if you are going to design weapons systems, you should really know something about weapons systems, and the military, and warfare, and…. If you are going to design software, or clothing, or climbing equipment, or cages for rabbits it’s kind of important to understand software, or fabric and human anatomy, or to know something about climbing, or have raised rabbits.

Which brings me to one of my favorite quandaries:

What does someone in discipline X need to know about discipline Y if they are going to do work that is situated in both domains?

It is one of the questions that really intrigues me and it’s a hard one to answer. It gets exponentially more complex when we are talking about something that combines many disciplines, like Serious Game Design.

Suppose we were trying to teach people how to design educational videogames for example (a subject very close to my heart). I know that my 30 years in CS gives me a perspective that someone with degrees in Ed and EdTech can’t have. I also know that my 30 years of trying to teach (thousands of) people something hard gives me a perspective on teaching that a career academic in Education can’t have. To be fair, my formal training in EdTech and Instructional Design has also helped. But we can’t expect potential educational game designers to go away and spend 30 years doing what I did. So the question is, “Which of those things I know/learned are important for others to learn in order to do this well?”

Always one to try and put my money where my mouth is, I recently embarked on a project to do just that, or at least one facet of that. I am writing a book with Jim Parker on the technical aspects of computer simulations and games. It is written for people who are NOT computer scientists, and who don’t want to be (though my publisher would rather I not say it that way because she’s convinced our audience would likely include people in IT as well). We will explain the ins and outs of computer simulation, without code, and without a lot of math. It will contain the answer to the question: What does someone who is designing, developing, or using a computer simulation or game for learning and development need to know about simulations?

Stay tuned…..

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