COMPSCI 105: Computer Literacy

William T. Verts


General Education Statement

COMPSCI 105 is an "R2" General Education course, fulfilling one of the graduation requirements for any bachelors degree at UMass. As part of the university's supervision of General Education, departments are required to renew each course's gen-ed designation every five years. Part of this process is to explain how the course fulfills the goals set out by the General Education Council. Instructors are required to address this question in their syllabus for the course, explaining the associated learning goals and how those goals are to be met.

All General Education courses are expected to emphasize critical thinking, commensurate with problem solving and writing. Development of analytical skills, including quantitative (numerical and computational) thinking, is a fundamental part of this process.


Learning Goals for COMPSCI 105

COMPSCI 105 is an introductory course in computer literacy. Many students entering the course have some background with computing, but few have sufficient sophistication, either mathematical or procedural, to use computers effectively.

As a result of taking this course, students are expected to have developed their skills in the following areas:

  1. General Mathematics as Represented on a Computer

    Understand the differences between integer, rational, real, and complex numbers, and how each may be represented using "bits" on a computer. Part of this is to develop an understanding of the limitations of computers, why numbers have upper and lower bounds, and why round-off errors can affect computations. Conversion of numbers between different bases is emphasized, and many examples of why this is necessary are covered in detail. Algebraic formulæ and units conversion (dimensional analysis) are also covered, primarily in the context of spreadsheets.

  2. Web Design

    Understand how the Web and the Internet work, how Web pages are created and deployed, and how to extend Web pages with graphics. Color models are extensively explored. Students gain a foundation in creating and debugging HTML, CSS, and SVG files, and learn to use the UNIX operating system. Tools for remotely accessing a computer, or for transferring files between remote computers, are also covered.

  3. Word Processing

    Understand the basics of word processing, including document settings (margins, pagination, headers and footers), paragraph settings (justification, spacing, indentation), and character settings (fonts and typefaces, boldface, italics, etc.). Students are introduced to the concepts of styles and style sheets, importation of graphics, and mail merge.

  4. Spreadsheets

    Understand the basic philosophies of electronic spreadsheets, including but not limited to spreadsheet layout, formula creation, automatic recalculation, and the distinctions between formulæ, value, and format. How a formula changes when it is copied is covered in detail. Other topics include multipage notebooks, functions, charting, and issues in numerical precision and round-off error.

  5. Databases

    Understand how electronic databases work, including the creation and editing of tables, queries, and reports. Special queries that combine two or more tables ("join" queries) are covered in detail. Sorting and indexing are also covered, along with the mathematical basis of how the speed of a query can be measured depending on whether or not it is indexed. The various types of possible table relationships are explored. Finally, differences between spreadsheets and databases are covered, along with the potential penalties for using the "wrong" package for a particular problem.

The required work for COMPSCI 105 is broken down into four categories: homework, quizzes, exams, and laboratory exercises. Each contributes its own unique signature to the overall learning goals of this course.

  1. Homework

    Homework assignments in this course are handled using an on-line grading and recording system. Students enter their answers into a Web form, which are then submitted to the grading system. Their answers are automatically scored, the grades are recorded, and the recorded grades are sent back to the submitters immediately. Students are allowed to submit the homework assignments as many times as they wish during the period that the homework is active on-line, in order to maximize their grade. Late penalties are assessed automatically.

  2. Quizzes

    In-class quizzes are handled initially in a "traditional" format: questions are posted and students have 10 minutes to work quietly on their answers. They may use their books and notes. After the initial period, students are allowed to collaborate on their answers with adjacent students. In general, this increases the learning goals of the quiz by having students explain their answers to one another, as well as gain insights into the material by doing so.

  3. Exams

    There is one midterm exam and one final exam. Both are open-book, open-notes to accurately reflect real-world scenarios where people have their reference materials available when solving problems (however, calculators and other electronics are not allowed on exams as they may provide students avenues to answers without incurring any understanding). Exams are written on paper (not op-scan or multiple choice), and involve computational questions, short answer questions (requiring one or two sentences), coding questions (requiring students to write out HTML or CSS code, or Excel formulæ), and simulated data-entry questions using screenshots of the appropriate software. Exams in this format must be graded by hand by experts (teaching assistants), and partial credit for answers that are incomplete or slightly in error is assigned appropriately.

  4. Laboratory Assignments

    There are ten laboratory assignments for this course. Students are allowed to use their own computers, either Microsoft Windows or Apple Macintosh (except for two assignments that cannot be performed on a Mac). Students without the proper hardware or software, or needing extra help, have evening lab sessions available, staffed by Teaching Assistants assigned to 105. Students are allowed to discuss the assignments among themselves, but are not allowed to share files or turn in group efforts. Laboratory projects for COMPSCI 105 include the following:


Overall General Education Goals

There are a number of learning goals specified by the General Education Council for all General Education courses. Several are directly applicable to COMPSCI 105.

  1. Fundamental questions, ideas, and methods

    COMPSCI 105 is an introduction to the thinking processes involved both in using computers and in creating computing technology. Students learn what data are, how data are stored in computers, and how computers manipulate them. Through the examples of web page design, word processing, spreadsheets, and database utilities, the students see how computer software is used, get an idea of what it can and cannot do, and become more effective users of it.

  2. Application to real-world problems and contexts

    The specific skills with specific systems that are taught are directly applicable to real-world situations. After COMPSCI 105 a student is better able to manage a budget with a spreadsheet, or maintain a database. They also learn about what others do with these utilities.

  3. Information Literacy

    This is nearly the title of the course, and might even be a more accurate title because the students are as concerned with the information being processed as with the machines that process it. By increasing their background knowledge about how computers process information, and by having them experience information processing in a hands-on way, the course enables the students to better communicate about information processing.

  4. Technological Literacy

    In developing information literacy, students are also learning to communicate better about the technologies that manipulate information. The electronic computer is one of the major technological artifacts of our age, and a technologically literate person should know roughly how one works, the nature of the data it acts upon, and the range of tasks it might do. COMPSCI 105 deals closely with all these topics, including hands-on experience with using computers to solve real-world tasks.


Specific Goals for the R2 Designation

The Council has set out specific goals for the Analytic Reasoning courses within General Education, which COMPSCI 105 addresses as follows:

  1. Advance a student's formal or mathematical reasoning skills

    Students learn how mathematical systems are represented on a computer. They learn how to apply existing software to mathematical problems, how to manipulate that software for different goals, and how to interpret the results.

  2. Increase the student's sophistication as a consumer of numerical information

    Students are required to think mathematically about all of the areas presented in this course, even in those areas not traditionally thought to be inherently numerical. They must reason about both the methods of entering information into a computer and the methods of extracting results from one.

  3. Provide computer literacy

    This is the overt goal of the course. The software tools that they are taught are largely those same tools found in common real-world applications.

  4. Indicate the limits of formal, numerical, quantitative, or analytical reasoning

    The limits of the computations performed by modern computers is not well-known by the general public; those limits are addressed in some detail, particularly in the context of electronic spreadsheets (upper and lower bounds on numbers, round-off errors, etc.).


Current Syllabus