Undergraduate Haredi Students Studying Computer Science: Is Their Prior Education Merely a Barrier?

Sarah Genut, Yifat Ben-David Kolikant
Interdisciplinary Journal of e-Skills and Lifelong Learning  •  Volume 13  •  2017  •  pp. 197-214

Our research focuses on a unique group a students, who study CS: ultra-orthodox Jewish men. Their previous education is based mostly on studying Talmud and hence they lacked a conventional high-school education. Our research goal was to examine whether their prior education is merely a barrier to their CS studies or whether it can be recruited to leverage academic learning.

This work is in line with the growing interest in extending the diversity of students studying computer science (CS).

We employed a mixed-methods approach. We compared the scores in CS courses of two groups of students who started their studies in the same college in 2015: 58 ultraorthodox men and 139 men with a conventional background of Israeli K-12 schooling. We also traced the solution processes of ultraorthodox men in tasks involving Logic, in which their group scored significantly better than the other group.

The main contribution of this work lies in challenging the idea that the knowledge of unique cultures is merely a barrier and in illustrating the importance of further mapping such knowledge.

The ultraorthodox group’s grades in the courses never fell below the grades of the other group for the duration of the five semesters. Due to their intensive Talmud studies (which embeds Logic), we hypothesized they would have leverage in subjects relating to Logic; however this hypothesis was refuted. Nevertheless, we found that the ultraorthodox students tended to recruit conceptual knowledge rather than merely recalling a procedure to solve the task, as novices often do.

We concluded that these students’ unique knowledge should not be viewed merely as a barrier. Rather, it can and should be considered in terms of what and how it can anchor and leverage learning; this could facilitate the education of this unique population.

This conclusion has an important implication, given the growing interest in diversifying higher education and CS in particular, to include representatives of groups in society that come from different, unique cultures.

Students’ unique previous knowledge can and should be mapped, not only to foresee weaknesses that are an outcome of “fragile knowledge” , but also in terms of possible strengths, knowledge, values, and practices that can be used to anchor and expand the new knowledge.

computer science, diversity, prior education, Talmud, logic
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