Using Theory to Inform Capacity-Building: Bootstrapping Communities of Practice in Computer Science Education Research

By Fincher, Sally; Tenenberg, Josh | Journal of Engineering Education, October 2006 | Go to article overview
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Using Theory to Inform Capacity-Building: Bootstrapping Communities of Practice in Computer Science Education Research


Fincher, Sally, Tenenberg, Josh, Journal of Engineering Education


ABSTRACT

In this paper, we describe our efforts in the deliberate creation of a community of practice of researchers in computer science education (CSEd). We understand community of practice in the sense in which Wenger describes it, whereby the community is characterized by mutual engagement in & joint enterprise that gives rise to a shared repertoire of knowledge, artefacts, and practices.

We first identify CSEd as a research field in which no shared paradigm exists, and then we describe the Bootstrapping project, its metaphor, structure, rationale, and delivery, as designed to create a community of practice of CSEd researchers. Features of other projects are also outlined that have similar aims of capacity building in disciplinary-specific pedagogic enquiry. A theoretically derived framework for evaluating the success of endeavours of this type is then presented, and we report the results from an empirical study. We conclude with four open questions for our project and others like it: Where is the locus of a community of practice? Who are the core members? Do capacity-building models transfer to other disciplines? Can our theoretically motivated measures of success apply to other projects of the same nature?

I. INTRODUCTION: PROBLEMATISING CSED RESEARCH

The subject of computer science education (CSEd) research is an inevitably situated practice. It is situated within an institutional context, which dictates (among other things) quality assurance procedures and funding allocations; it is situated within a departmental context which depends on student intake, the chosen curriculum, and academic expectations; and it is situated within individual classrooms-these students, this topic-where teaching is an enactment of private, personal, and largely tacit beliefs about teaching and learning. For CSEd research to be viable, educators must be able to transfer from generalised results to the specifics of individual contexts. This requires that the research extend beyond the descriptive account of situated practice-the Marco Polo paper ("been there, done that"), the teaching tool report, and the nifty assignment exposition-that has characterized the bulk of CSEd research presented in the major CSEd teaching-practitioner conferences to date [1]. Though these accounts play important roles in teacher development and community self-definition, they do not constitute a theoretical base for CSEd.

The primary challenges in developing this base of CSEd research are sociological. There is as yet no paradigm of CSEd research. As Kuhn states [2]:

Effective research scarcely begins before a scientific community thinks it has acquired firm answers to the following: What are the fundamental entities of which the universe is composed? How do these interact with each other and with the senses? What questions may legitimately be asked about such entities and what techniques employed in seeking solutions?

"Normal" science takes place among scientific communities that have a shared set of answers to the above questions. Kuhn calls this socially shared set of beliefs a paradigm. Paradigms comprise a disciplinary community's ontology (what things we are concerned with), epistemology (how we may know things to be true), and methodology (how we find things out). These core beliefs inform, as well as constrain, the behaviour of workaday scientists.

Not having a shared paradigm for carrying out CSEd research means that the models of how established research communities work do not pertain. Because the subject matter requires both disciplinary knowledge and familiarity with research techniques of the human sciences, it is often the case that there are at most one or two staff members in any given department with the necessary knowledge and expertise. There are no specific "meeting places" (conferences, societies, publications and citations) where researchers can gather together and form the identity of the work through recognition and acknowledgement [3], no places where newcomers can join in at the periphery [4].

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