Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Burden of Large Enrollments

This week I'm at the CRA Snowbird conference, the biennial meeting of CS chairs and other leaders in the field. In 2012 many of the discussion focused on MOOCS. This year the challenge facing most CS chairs are booming enrollments in CS courses. A nice problem to have, but a problem nevertheless.

Last night we had a broad discussion about the burgeoning number of students. Ed Lazowska showed his NCWIT slides giving anecdotal evidence. It's too early to get a complete survey of CS departments but hardly anyone in the audience felt that enrollments were not going up by double (or triple) digit percentages. Not only an increase in majors, but a number of non-majors, minors or others, who take upper level courses.
At Georgia Tech it seems every engineering student wants to minor in CS.

We all have to deal with the increase in the short term. Depending on the institution, we have more classes, larger classes, enrollment caps, increases in instructors, PhD lecturers, teaching postdocs, automated grading, undergrad and MS TAs and having other departments take up some of the load. All of this could hurt the undergrad experience but with careful planning we can mitigate those effects.

What's driving the increase? Some suggested a change in the ubiquitous view of computing and the more positive opinion of geeks in society. More likely though, the driver is jobs, the great need for computer scientists and not just from computing companies, and the limited jobs for those graduating with non-technical majors.

Is the big shifts in enrollment a permanent change or just another part of the boom and bust cycle in CS? More than a theoretical questions, a permanent change makes for a better argument with deans and provosts to increase faculty sizes in computer science. There are some signs of "this time is different," such as the increase in non-majors in upper level courses, but it's an argument that will have a hard sell unless the increase is sustained for several years. One good argument: If you draw a linear line through enrollments since the 70's you get a consistent 10% yearly increase averaged over booms and busts.

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