New Instructional Area Bolsters Faculty in the Ever-Changing World of Computing Education

9/27/2022 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Developed with input from many stakeholders and supported by administrative leadership, the Instructional Area dedicates itself to continual development of our CS education with the student in mind.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Classroom at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science full of students, raising their hands in celebration.
Formation of the new Instructional Area at Illinois CS allows for a formal effort focused on the faculty's ability to teach most effectively with the student in mind.

For years Illinois Computer Science, just like many other large CS departments, has formally structured its research through areas that allow for specialized focus on each topic to tap into resources, allow for fervent discussion about advancements and possibilities, and to ensure coordination between faculty, staff, and students.

Just as important, from a strategic and logistical standpoint, the department has now introduced the Instructional Area.

It’s mission: “The CS Instructional Area is comprised of award-winning, creative, world-class faculty who are leading a diverse set of high-impact education- and computer science-based initiatives. By creating and sharing innovative and inclusive educational practices, visualizations, technologies, and transformative learning experiences, the instructional area is helping to redefine education at Illinois and beyond.”

Research Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer Margaret M. Fleck won the Rose Award for Teaching Excellence.
Margaret Fleck

Margaret Fleck, Teaching Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs, sparked the idea. From her idea, administrative support came from Abel Bliss Professor and CS Department Head Nancy M. Amato as well as Mahesh Viswanathan, Professor and Associate Head for Academics with the department.

The formation of it then came into the capable hands of Teaching Associate Professor Eric Shaffer, and the Instructional Area will be chaired by Teaching Professor, Gies RC Evans Innovation Fellow, and CITL Fellow Lawrence Angrave.

Shaffer explained the area’s purpose through a unique perspective, as he has been an instructional faculty member with CS since 2014 and a student previously – earning both his BS and PhD here.

“If I look at the difference between when I was an undergrad and now – and I was very happy with my education here – I think that one thing that has advanced significantly is that we put a lot more effort into trying to figure out how to teach things well, and not just what to teach,” said Shaffer, who also researches on topics of Computers and Education. “I think it's not always obvious to people, especially the current generation, that computer science is still a relatively young field. As a result, most of the other disciplines at the university have a much longer tradition of education.

“Because of that, I think that computer science went through a period of time where the focus was much more keyed on what to teach rather than how best to teach it.”

Teaching Assistant Professor Eric Shaffer
Eric Shaffer

As CS instruction has progressed – Shaffer said this hinged on more active learning techniques, and testing to mastery – Illinois CS has also ramped up support of the practice.

More instruction faculty has led to fewer courses per instructor and a higher level of expertise on the topic taught. Increased technology has aided in the progress of instruction here, too, as developments like Angrave’s ClassTranscribe system is now used in multiple classes throughout CS, Statistics, and across campus where videos are available in a learning centric interface. To continue to meet students needs regarding accessibility, ClassTranscribe not only provides captions in multiple languages but can generate course notes for lecture videos, too.

“But we don’t stop innovating at Illinois,” Angrave said. “For example, can we improve learning by using AI to generate questions from video content?”

The goal for the Instructional Area is to have a more formal outlet for discussions to take place, increasing efficiency as new ideas gain support and are put into place.

Lawrence Angrave
Lawrence Angrave

“We can now communicate goals that the faculty have with regard to instruction to the department management in a streamlined manner,” said Angrave, area chair. “The goal is to increase our organization behind instruction to make things better and tackle even more challenges.”

Its support has come in many forms already, as CS leadership paved the way for a large range of current instructional faculty to reach 23 professors.

Additionally, there are helpful outlets for instructional faculty, such as the second-ever Illinois Computer Science Summer Teaching Workshop that took place virtually in August. The conference invited a broad range of CS faculty with a straightforward motivation to showcase interactive approaches to teaching best practices and presenting new ideas.

“We’re dedicated to attracting the best instructional faculty into our Teaching Professor track, and we see the development of the Instructional Area as an important step in supporting our faculty,” said Amato. "I’m continually impressed by the amazing innovations that our faculty bring to their courses and other teaching and mentoring activities. They have fully embraced and embody our departmental mission to provide inclusive and excellent computing education at scale. 

“The creation of this area recognizes these accomplishments and provides a visible home and support for these activities in our departmental administrative structure."

And all of this is being done with the student in mind, according to Shaffer.

While he does conduct research in the areas of visualization, mixed reality, scientific computing, and education, it’s his love of teaching that has become the cornerstone of Shaffer’s academic career at Illinois CS.

His coursework includes topics such as Interactive Computer Graphics, Production Computer Graphics, Numerical Methods, Virtual Reality, and Scientific Visualization.

But his dedication goes well beyond the topic he’s teaching at the moment.

“First of all, I get to work with some truly amazing students who go on to do some amazing things in the field. The idea that you have helped them achieve things that they're happy to have achieved, that is great,” Shaffer said. “Beyond that, I get to learn, too. The CS field is ever-changing, and, because of that, the courses I teach are never the same – even semester to semester. I’m constantly updating and trying to create new challenges.

“That represents my chance, right alongside the students, to keep learning.”

As Illinois CS continues to blaze a path forward in the ever-changing world of computing education, Shaffer says it’s his colleagues’ continual dedication to the same motivations that places this development on solid ground.

Through a dedicated effort to develop a collaborative and innovative space, CS faculty keep pushing forward – and the Instructional Area is just one more example of this effort.

“Another thing that I find to be inspirational is the fact that I’m privileged to work with some truly excellent instructors. You can’t help but feel compelled to match them – their creativity and their innovative methods,” Shaffer said. “That is, to me, a manifestation of the investment our department makes to instruction.”

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This story was published September 27, 2022.