Thursday, April 12, 2007

Marketing CS 101

A colleague pointed me to an essay entitled "The Death of Computing" over on the British Computer Society website (author: Neil McBride; dated: Jan 2007). The article offers several reasons for why CS enrollments will never return to their lofty heights of a few years ago. The main one (and the most compelling) is that the marketplace of students no longer finds CS necessary for creating computing technologies. Globalization and fears of low job prospects are mentioned as usual, but the overall message is on the market. The essay deride's universities' attempts to re-make the CS's image by focusing on games or fundamental connections to real-world problems to convince students that CS really is worth taking. It's an interesting read, in part for the vivid Titanic-esque imagery it uses to describe the situation.

It would be easy to respond defensively to this essay: the myth of job shortages has been debunked (thanks in parts to detailed studies such as the recent ACM report on offshoring) and everybody knows that computing has become a fundamental part of our intellectual infrastructure. But those arguments miss the point. Enrollments are about the student market, the student market is looking elsewhere, and universities are largely misinterpreting why. We talk about our "image problem" and look for the magic introductory course that will entice students to study CS. We reassure parents that the jobs aren't really gone. But what are we doing for the student who finds computing intriguing but is turned off by hours spent at a terminal building larger-scales systems? As the essay points out, technology has evolved to the point that casual system builders can achieve a lot, and without a CS degree. If academic CS hungers to rebuild its enrollments of the late 90s, it has to talk to these students. MIS programs aren't quite the right solution, because they focus on management rather than the creation of new technologies using computing. There's a fascinating open space here for us to fill (and if we don't, someone else will).

Of course, one could argue that enrollments aren't the right metric for academic CS, particularly in light of our infrastructural importance. Let's ask the physicists what they think. Like it or not, funding and academic clout are economic issues, and enrollments are a key factor. So let's embrace the challenge of thinking more broadly about what constitutes CS, damning the resource constraint issues for now. The question is thrilling. What would a computing program look like without hours of bleary-eyed coding in a lab? Do the folks emphasizing design and "computational X" have it right yet? My experience using modern computational products doubts it. Anyone else interested in this journey?

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