Sunday, 3 February 2008

History repeats

From 1987 to the end of 1992, Marilyn and I edited and produced a newsletter in support of Christian ministry groups using computers. A friend in Canada asked me whether I had copies of these newsletters and I have been scanning them so I can send a CD containing them to him.

Now scanning isn’t exactly a challenging job so I distract myself by reading some of the articles. As I scanned issue 13 (January/February 1990, I noticed that I had placed an item in the newsletter saying that I was looking for work. In the article, I said “The computer industry in New Zealand appears to have slumped. The result is that many companies are having difficulties and are more than willing to shed staff” (p 8). As I recall later that year, I left my position with a computing company in Auckland and we departed for a month’s holiday in Japan during which we attended a friend wedding.

On return, the industry had indeed slumped and I found myself not being able to find work. At the time, the employment agencies were saying that because my experience was in mainframe computer programming, I was not a suitable candidate for the new microcomputer programming market. Despite trying to show them evidence that in the twelve months before I left for Japan, I had learnt a new midrange system and was programming that and could easily do the same with microcomputers (I was already programming them to run a bulletin board system), they declined to put me forward for any jobs. As a result, I was unemployed for approximately six months before taking up a position teaching programming using Pascal on microcomputers.

Now, I find myself again unemployed and again partly by choice but also partly because the institution that I was at did not value my research efforts. Although I am applying for positions, I am not going to employment agencies. This is in part because I have my thesis to write and I don’t want to take up a new position and find I can’t finish it according to the schedule. However, I do see parallels between the two stories. My university told me that I didn’t have the credentials for a research position but I could have a tutoring position and do a little research on the side. Like the employment agencies telling me that I could not possibly programming microcomputers, I feel the university is mistaken. Do I have any evidence? I feel the acknowledgement of my research by the computing education research community at the Australasian Computing Education conference and the positive support and encouragement that I have received from my supervisors over the last week.

My thesis will not be a Computer Science PhD as my supervisor is in the College of Education and the key research is about education of a computer science topic. The question that I ask is “does that make me no longer a computer scientist?” As we reflect on who would be appropriate examiners for the thesis, we realise that an educationalist without a computer science background would struggle with being able to interpret my results. On the other hand a computer scientist who understands object-oriented programming but has had nothing to do with educational research methods may struggle with understanding the method and may actually want to reject the method even though it is an established method for educational research. Many of those who have the appropriate blend in Australasia are disqualified because I have worked with them on the BRACELet project or because I have interviewed them as part of the research.

Coming back to the question “does that make me no longer a computer scientist?” I would argue that it does not. My primary results are about the understanding or perceptions that people have of object-oriented programming. In order to be able to write on that theme, I do need to have a reasonable understanding. During the interviews for the research, my knowledge of object-oriented programming was both a help and a hindrance. It was a help in the sense that I knew I was being given good data by the interviewees and I could recognise key words that related to the topic. But it was a hindrance because it was too easy for me to assume that the interviewee was using those words in the way that I understood them.

So yes, I regard myself as a computer scientist although I may lack the current mathematical background used by some to validate their theories in the field. More importantly, I regard myself as a computer science educationalist with an increasingly strong educational background. This is a rare commodity in this field and is reflected in the nature of the papers presented at conferences.

I may not do theoretical computer science research but there is a lot of uncovered ground that needs to be explored that relates to computer science education and I look forward to continued participation in this field. And yes, like the 1990 change, this is another slight change in direction.

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