Column

How computer coding can increase engagement, provide a purpose for learning

Photo of Annie Murphy Paul

Tech Smart

“Why does this matter?”

Teachers are often called upon to answer this question about an academic subject, and computer science instructors may face this demand more frequently than most. Learning to write lines of code can seem, to many students, like a pointless exercise in tedium.

But a few professors of computer science have a compelling reply at the ready. They are participants in the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software project, known as HFOSS—or, more grandly, Software for Humanity. Why does this matter? these professors might respond. Because it’s helping to feed needy people in Haiti, or to deliver supplies to earthquake survivors in China, or to manage the medical care of malaria victims in Rwanda.

These are all actual real-world humanitarian missions that have benefited from computer programming services provided for free by students engaged in an HFOSS project. Started in 2007 at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and now operating at a dozen East Coast colleges and universities from Maine to Washington, D.C., the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software project brings together students eager to solve real-world problems with social service agencies desperate for their help.

In Haiti, a nonprofit organization called ACDI/VOCA uses an app developed by student coders to track data on recipients of food rations. In China, volunteers assisting the victims of an earthquake were managed via a computerized system programmed by college students. And in Rwanda, doctors employ an electronic medical record system, created in part by U.S. undergraduates, to monitor the spread of malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis. The HFOSS project has been likened to the well-known charity Habitat for Humanity — except that, instead of building houses for the needy, participants are building computer programs for use in situations where information is the scarcest and most valuable resource.

File photo. (AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White)

File photo. (AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White)

One of the goals driving the project is to draw a more diverse group of students to computer science — young people, including women and minorities, who might find the prospect of helping people in need around the globe more appealing than learning programming for its own sake. Another aim is to counter misconceptions about what computer programmers actually do. Participants learn that “programming is part of a complex, team-oriented, creative process,” writes Ralph Morelli, a professor of computer science at Trinity, in an article he authored with other colleagues involved in the project. “The HFOSS development process has no room for lone programmers working in isolation.”

Students who volunteer their efforts also gain real-world experience that is likely to make them more attractive to employers — experience that is often hard to come by in academic settings. Take the Sahana project, for example. Sahana is a disaster management system used in the wake of earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides and other catastrophes to coordinate information about survivors, volunteers and supplies. HFOSS students write sections of code that update, adapt and expand on the current system, but in accordance with the standards set out by the students’ “client,” the Sahana Software Foundation. All student-produced code is reviewed by the Sahana team before being incorporated into the system. Documentation must be provided and deadlines met in a large-scale international collaboration, similar to the ones computer science graduates will likely encounter in the workplace.

RELATED: Latest games are finally unlocking the key to making learning more fun

Students may even forge contacts with industry professionals. Consultants from Accenture, the management consulting and technology services firm, serve as volunteer mentors and advisors to students working on HFOSS projects. (Funding for the HFOSS program comes from a grant from the National Science Foundation.)

But the most unexpected benefit of helping to create “software for humanity” is that it likely improves students’ learning. An emerging body of research demonstrates that students who find meaning and relevance in their studies are more engaged and motivated to master the material. Students must recognize the value of academic work themselves, however — it can’t simply be pointed out by an instructor.

In fact, a teacher’s heavy-handed emphasis on the relevance of students’ coursework can even backfire. Several studies have found, for example, that informing students that the study of mathematics will be important to their futures actually undermines interest in math among students who weren’t very interested in math to start with, or who have doubts about their competence in math.

A more effective approach is to “encourage students to generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of course material to their lives,” writes Chris S. Hulleman, a research associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, in a 2010 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology. Hulleman and his coauthors found that a writing exercise in which students were asked to apply the material they were learning in their math or psychology courses to their own lives increased their interest in those subjects. The effect was strongest among students who had low expectations for their performance in math or psychology, or had performed poorly in these subjects in the past.

RELATED: What it actually takes for schools to ‘go digital’

Other research reports that even when academic work is boring, providing a “pro-social, beyond-the-self-oriented purpose for learning” helps students to persist in the face of boredom, and can even help them raise their grades. “When tasks are likely to be experienced as tedious or uninteresting — as many repetitive, foundational, skill-building math and science tasks are in the U.S. — it can be helpful to focus on creating meaning,” writes Angela Duckworth in a paper published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year. (Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is most famous for having demonstrated the importance of “grit” to academic success.)

In the case of building “software for humanity,” the relevance and purpose of the work hardly needs pointing out. Students can see how their experience working on real-world programming projects will benefit them when it’s time to apply for a job in the field. And HFOSS participants are well aware that their efforts are contributing to a cause bigger than themselves. When instructors supply a satisfying answer to students’ pressing question — “Why does this matter?” — engagement, motivation and persistence take care of themselves.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Add Comment
comments powered by Disqus

Annie Murphy Paul

Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer; the author of two previous books, The Cult of Personality and Origins; and the creator of the… See Archive