By Martha Bushong
Replacing the 19th century conveyor belt model of education with a 21st century black belt model is the aim of the Mason Self-Paced Learning Increases Retention and Capacity (SPARC) project that received a $900,000 grant from tech giant Google’s Computer Science Capacity Awards Program.
The university has received the first of three $300,000 installments from Google for the program.
“Our concept goes beyond increasing capacity, and includes increasing retention and enrollment by women and underrepresented groups,” said Professor Jeff Offutt, the grant’s principal investigator.
Offutt and his team believe traditional methods of simply adding more classrooms and teachers isn’t the solution. Their project identifies specific problems that make teaching introductory computer science courses difficult and limit the ability to encourage collaboration, critical thinking skills and divergent problem-solving abilities. SPARC proposes a pilot that involves testing a new approach to teaching the classes.
“Currently we expect students to learn the same material at the same rate of speed,” said Offutt. “The new courses will blend online learning, automated assessment, collaborative practice and peer-supported learning. This method will allow students to self-pace their way through the material.”
With SPARC, students will collaborate on practice assignments, and when they’re ready, present themselves for individual assessments, similar to karate students who earn belts by demonstrating their forms in front of instructors. Advanced and fast-learning students may speed through the courses, while less advanced and slower-learning students can proceed at a slower pace.
“Even if we don’t succeed in meeting Google’s goal of 3X capacity in three years, I am sure that we will improve student retention and make progress on addressing the capacity challenges facing computer science departments,” said Sanjeev Setia, computer science department chair.
Educational institutions were invited to contribute proposals for innovative, inclusive and sustainable approaches to address current scaling issues in university computer science educational programs, Google officials said.
Other universities funded by Google include Carnegie Mellon University, Duke University, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina, Mount Holyoke College, Rutgers University and the University of California at Berkeley.
George Mason University team members include Jeff Offutt, Paul Ammann, Kinga Dobolyi, Jamie Lester (College of Humanities and Social Sciences), Huzefa Rangwala, Liz White, Pearl Wang and Sanjeev Setia. The group includes three Mason Teaching Excellence Award winners.