Reading Lijun Ni

I recently read the dissertation of a graduate from Mark Guzdial’s lab – Lijun Ni. Her work was titled Building Professional Identity as Computer Science Teachers: Supporting Teachers through Reflection and Community Building. In her dissertation, she tackled three major research questions, which I have included below:

  1. What kind of professional identities do secondary computer science (CS) teachers bring into their teaching practice?
  2. What influences teachers’ sense of identity as a CS teacher?
  3. How does the participation with a focus on reflection within a local CS teachers’ community (DCCE) influence CS teachers’ perceptions of their

In order to answer these questions, she conducted two major studies. The first attempted to understand CS teacher identity, while the second looked at how to support teach identity development.

Perhaps at this point, a definition of teaching identity would be useful. When she talks about a teaching identity, Ni refers to how a teacher views herself. This identity is composed of a teachers attitudes and values, motivation and commitment, and their belonging or affiliation to a field or community.

In the first study, Ni interviewed teachers about their identity in order to establish what strengths and weaknesses are common in high school computer science teachers. She found that the teaching identity of computer science teachers is largely underdeveloped compared to teachers in other fields, and that often computer science teachers prefer to identify as a math teacher or a business teacher, rather than a computer science teacher.

She also noticed a distressing lack of education (or certification) in computer science teachers, because the subject is generally grouped as an elective with math or business departments. None of the teachers she interviewed had a computer science degree. Further, many of them did not even teach programming in their “computer science” class, but instead taught basic skills for using a computer, like word processing and working with spreadsheets.

Further, she found that high school computer science teachers generally do not have any sort of teaching support community to turn to, because they are often the only computer science teacher at their school.

All of these problems combine to keep computer science teachers from developing a strong teaching identity centered in the computer science field. Instead, we have teachers with low commitment levels to the field training our next generation of programmers in basic computing skills that are generally unrelated to the field of computer science itself.

Li’s second study attempted to remedy this problem by implementing a support program for a group of computer science teachers, which she calls Disciplinary Commons for Computing Educators (DCCE). This program seeks to help teachers by offering peer group meetings and requiring incremental portfolio development. DCCE seeks to provoke reflection in its participants about their teaching material, style, and values.

After running a trial year of DCCE, Li interviewed the participants to evaluate its effectiveness is addressing the problems found in Study 1. She noted that DCCE significantly increased both teacher peer networking groups and the number of students enrolled in AP Computer Science after a its trial year. Further, the affinity portion of the participants teaching identity was strengthened in regard to the field of computer science. The institutional identity (the part which refers to a teacher’s certification, role in the department, and other administrative aspects that DCCE did not target), however, was not affected by involvement in DCCE. With Study 2, Li is able to claim that DCCE is a successful change model.

Li also suggests some future work ideas which caught my eye:

  1. another, more pointed study to characterize CS teaching identity formulated with knowledge from Study 1
  2. interview about teaching identity from a gender point-of-view
  3. expand DCCE to mentor new CS teachers with the experience of the previous participants
  4. move DCCE online to help reduce time commitment required of teachers


Reflection and Thoughts on Li’s Dissertation

Li’s work appear to me to be less computer science that I would like to be doing for my dissertation. She didn’t have the opportunity to program at all. That is appropriate, though, because I think her degree is psychology related. I need to find a way to do a similar sort of culturally impactful dissertation, while still employing my programming skills.


 Ideas of Projects, Inspired by Li’s Work:

  1. similar interviews in Michigan, since this work is Georgia-specific
  2. similar interviews of professors in introductory CS in universities



  1. How do you know which questions to ask people you are interviewing?
  2. Would a psychology class teach me this information, or where else would I learn it?
  3. What happens if your interview doesn’t yield anything useful, like the CS 1 interviews about mental models this summer?
  4. How can I take this dissertation and apply its format/progression to the mental models that we are looking into for CS 1 at MSU? Could we interview, find a problem, write something to try to correct the problem, test the solution we design, and then I would write about it?
  5. What sort of remedies would exist for false mental models that students bring into the classroom of CS 1? Could we target their misconceptions with technology that they know and understand – like how an iPhone works – rather than abstractly in Python code on a computer they are unfamiliar with?

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