Meet Alex Repenning

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CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.

Alex Repenning is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Colorado at Bounder and a member of UC’s Center of LifeLong Learning & Design.

How did you get started in Cyberlearning?

About 20 years ago, I remember asking a student: “What do you think about programming?” The student said “It’s hard and boring.” That has become the central challenge in all my work: How could we address the cognitive factors and the affective factors, so that learning programming becomes easy and exciting? The initial insight was that graphical program languages could make it easier and that students find making their own games exciting, but over time we have learned that there is SO much more work to truly broaden participation in computing.

What does scaling up look like to you?

Well, in our 2008 ITest project, we proposed that we would work with 1300 students. We actually ended up with over 10,000. We have just received a new award for Scalable Game Design that will let us prepare to engage whole school districts nationwide. Teacher professional development is a big challenge, but so is going from an after school program to part of the curriculum, and from working with a self-selecting group of students to working with all students in school. It’s not just going to more students; it’s going from a technology to a robust model.

What would you want policy makers (e.g. Congress) to know?

We can’t teach programming when every kid is just one semi-colon away from total disaster. But we definitely can teach every middle school student in America computational thinking by emphasizing visual programming and game design. And when we teach computational thinking in the right way, what students learn transfers into better science learning. For example, a teacher can help students conceptualize “collisions” in space invaders in a way that better prepares them to think about collisions in physics and engineering. It’s these synergies between computational thinking and STEM learning that will motivate change in districts nationwide.

What do you wish the Cyberlearning community could do?

It’s an exciting moment for collaboration among computer scientists, learning scientists, and educators. It’s very necessary, but it’s also still hard. A common understanding of the barriers and how to overcome them would be valuable. I’d like to be able to send a member of my project to be “embedded” in someone else’s multidisciplinary team for a month, and host another project’s graduate student in mine so we can learn more about how people work together to build robust cyberlearning models.

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