Wednesday, September 14, 2011

PhD Working Group at ESEC/FSE 2011

The PhD Working Group at ESEC/FSE 2011 had an admirable goal: students would learn about current trends in software engineering research and summarize the results to the rest of the attendees, and throughout the process students would interact with more senior researchers. Unfortunately, it was organized in such a way as to benefit neither students nor researchers. On the plus side, none of my students took part in this fruitless exercise.

I'll summarize what I saw of the PhD Working Group and offer some suggestions that might have produced better results.

Students were split into 7 working groups, each with its own topic such as “Agile Development”. Each group was assigned to learn about this topic from conference attendees. So far, so good.

The students presented a multiple-choice survey form and collected the answers — or just asked attendees to take the survey online, but the attendee invariably forgot to do so. So, the poor students would circle like hungry sharks, asking for survey participants and even interrupting conversations, and I saw some attendees trying to avoid anyone who looked like they might ask survey questions. This made the relationship between junior and senior researchers antagonistic, which prevented rather than encouraged conversations (not to mention the time wasted with the surveys, which could have been spent on meaningful communication instead).

A multiple-choice survey that is taken by both people expert and ignorant of the topic — and the students emphasized that they wanted both types of opinions — conveys nothing of value about current and future research directions. Popularity polls may be favored by the evening news when they do not want to do real reporting, but even there I don't see any value. I would rather understand the justification for a particular conclusion than just see that 27% of people agree with it. I hope none of the students came away thinking that a public poll is a valid methodology to learn about software engineering research. As was predictable, the student presentations in a plenary session were a waste of time.

Another serious problem was ambiguous and nonsensical questions on the survey form. I completed several surveys, but for one survey I gave up in the middle. It was full of questions with answers that were non sequiturs (they had nothing to do with the question), or that omitted choices that would be preferred by any expert, or that I couldn't interpret at all. For the most successful survey I took, the student interpreted the questions and I dictated my answers, rather than me working alone ticking off the multiple choice boxes. In fact, on several occasions the student changed my answers when I remarked that the question didn't make sense — the student said that my proposed alternative question is what they had meant to say. So much for the answers meaning anything. I conclude that the only redeeming result of the entire exercise is that a bright and thoughtful student might have learned something about how not to do questionnaire design; but proper questionnaire design should have been taught from the beginning.

As I mentioned, the sentiment behind the PhD Working Group is a noble one. Here is a different way it could have been run instead, which would have avoided some of the pitfalls that befell it this time around. The organizers could have given each group a list of 5 or so researchers at the conference who were expert in that area. The students would interview those people for 30 minutes or so — no one would get interviewed on more than one topic — and the group would evaluate and synthesize the responses, including adding their own opinions or justifications. With this design, the students have meaningful interactions with senior researchers, the students learn something, they provide a summary from which others might learn something, and everyone spends less time, and is interrupted less, than with the present model. There may be flaws in this approach, too — feel free to discuss them, and how to correct them, in the comments to this blog posting.

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