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The Role of Tech Firms in Computing Education


Mark Guzdial

The Code.org site (see here) describes some of the successes of CSEd Week. Over 81 million people tried the Hour of Code. President Obama became the first US President to program (see Forbes piece).

During CSEd Week, Politico magazine ran an article (see here), "Seeking coders, tech titans turn to schools." The article critically described the role that tech companies are playing in the push to get computing education into US schools, with much of that effort channeled through the non-profit Code.org.

The $30 million campaign to promote computer science education has been financed by the tech industry, led by Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, with corporate contributions from Microsoft, Google, Amazon and other giants. It’s been a smash success: So many students opened up a free coding tutorial on Monday that the host website crashed.

But the campaign has also stirred unease from some educators concerned about the growing influence of corporations in public schools.

I was interviewed for the article, and I’m quoted here:

"The values of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are not necessarily the ones we want to pervade computer science education in the U.S. going forward," said Mark Guzdial, a computer science professor at Georgia Institute of Technology…Those qualms aside, however, Guzdial said he can’t help but be excited that the industry has created such a buzz around coding. "Even if it’s not the very best curriculum, it’s something. There’s interest, there’s action and that’s great," Guzdial said. "We’re so far behind and there’s so much we need to do."

Stephanie Simon (the author of the Politico article) has a point. There’s reason to be concerned about using schools as vocational education for the tech industry, if that’s what’s going on. On the other hand, if we think about how long it’s going to take to get access to computing education for everyone, more attention on CS helps us make progress.

It’s Not About Jobs

You can see where Stephanie and others get the idea that it’s all about getting more coders. Code.org’s promotional materials (see here) start with "Computer science drivs innovation in the US economy and society. Despite growing demand for jobs in the field, it remains marginalized throughout the US K-12 education system." The first graphic on the page says pretty clearly, "It’s about jobs."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s not the argument that most of the world is making for computing education. The UK’s "Computing at School" effort starts their argument (see white paper) with:

We see Computing as a rich and deep discipline in its own right, like physics or mathematics. Like those subjects, computing explores foundational principles and ideas, rather than training students in skills related to particular artefacts.

There are similar arguments being made in Denmark, Germany, and New Zealand. Students need to know about computing because it’s fundamental to their world. The jobs-first argument makes it especially hard to argue for pre-high-school CS Ed, especially when there is so little computer science in American high schools (< 10% of high schools). What can you possibly teach about CS to an 8 year old who will probably not see CS again for another 10 years that will make it more likely that she’ll go into computer science when she graduates from college?

That’s the part that Stephanie got right. A focus on jobs for the tech industry is the wrong way to push computing education in schools. But the reality is that most of Code.org is not about jobs. Code.org’s achievements include preparing 3,000 new teachers and influencing over 60 districts in the United States, including the seven largest.

It is All About School

If your goal is to get more students access to computer science, access that they don’t have already, schools are the way to do it. Informal education is surprisingly ineffective at reaching students who would otherwise have no access to CS education. Deborah Fields and colleagues published a paper in November at the WiPSCE conference (see link to ACM DL here) showing that the Scratch website in early 2012 mostly drew male programmers. Leah Buechley has been showing that the Maker movement is mostly "rich white guys" (see video of her talk here). If we want women and under-represented minorities to get access to computing education, we need computing education in schools.

That’s where the tech industry’s push for CS Ed, and specifically, Code.org is helping a lot. First, you have to realize just how far behind we are in the United States. CAS-Scotland just released a report (see discussion here) showing that the number of schools not teaching CS is rising — it’s up to 12%. There are far less than 12% of US high schools offering CS. I argued in January (see article here) that we may be 100 years behind other STEM fields in getting everyone access to computing education. What computing education we have is mostly in rich communities (see discussion here).

Then you realize that nothing that we’re putting into schools now is likely to be around when we reach all schools. Code.org is by far the largest effort to get intro CS curriculum into schools, and they’re reaching 3M students. There are about 50M students in the US (see stats here). We’re just starting. Whatever we learn from what we’re doing with those 3M will influence what happens as we change and grow CS Ed to reach 50M. The point is that we have to get things out there, and we have to learn from them. We can’t figure out what will work with 50M until we learn what will work with 3M.

During CSEdWeek, we got a great announcement in Georgia: Math and science teachers can now teach CS classes (see discussion here). Previously, only business teachers could teach CS in Georgia (and that, without taking any CS classes). I have been involved in some of the discussions leading up to this change, and I am absolutely certain that it would not have happened if Code.org didn’t exist. The Hour of Code has attracted attention. Policy makers are aware that we should be teaching kids CS and we have to make it more accessible.

The Politico article has valid concerns, but misses the long term view. We might quibble over details of what Code.org is doing. I completely agree that CS Ed in schools shouldn’t be about getting more coders into jobs in the tech industry. But getting more interest, trying more things in more places, and increasing attention about the importance of CS ed is necessary to achieve our goal of computing education that is accessible to everyone.


Comments


Cassidy Alan

Educators concerned about corporate influence in schools should be more concerned about the existing government de-facto Microsoft-type monopoly in schools. Indoctrination centers to turn the little ones into good little obedient citizens with loyalty to ever-increasing government intervention in computing and everything else. Liberate the pupils! Separation of schools from government!


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