Computing Applications Education

Making Computer Science Count

Combining efforts and expertise, ACM and Code.org are partnering to address a rapidly changing education landscape.
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It is amazing how the discussion around computer science education at the K–12 level (primary and secondary schools) continues to evolve. In the U.S. and around the world, we have shifted from simply discussing exposing more students to computer science to actually doing it. Education and political leaders, major corporations, and even average citizens realize the ubiquity of computing in our everyday lives creates a big unanswered question: Who is going to write all the software we need for the digital age? And as computer science evolves to support all fields, how are we going to expose students to a fundamental new literacy? Those are big questions. And one clear answer is that education systems—particularly at the K–12 level—must change and adapt to the new reality of the digital age.

In the U.S., the education system has the unique characteristics of being both monolithic (big and clunky) and highly diverse (highly distributed decision making). Change does not come quickly, and when it does it is often only in pockets of reform. In general, the existing U.S. education system considers computer science education as something for the few, not a fundamental need for all. So how are we going to change this system to ensure rigorous and engaging computer science education is something all students have access to? A new effort led by Code.org in partnership with ACM, the National Science Foundation, and a number of other corporate and non-profit stakeholders is now working to provide the answer for the U.S.

ACM has been deeply involved in leading and partnering in many of the community efforts to see rigorous and engaging K–12 computer science education introduced into U.S. schools. Almost 10 years ago, ACM created the Computer Science Teachers Association to bring a professional body focused solely on understanding the issues and needs of computer science educators from around the globe. It also founded an Education Policy Committee and published a landmark study, Running on Empty, examining the state of K–12 computer science education. When the National Science Foundation started to build a new AP Computer Science Principles course, ACM partnered with NSF and evangelized the new course in the community. And ACM led the foundation of Computing in the Core—the community’s multi-stakeholder (corporate and non-profit) coalition to advocate for K–12 computer science education. It is gratifying to see these efforts bear fruit into a new undertaking led by Code.org with substantial community and industry backing to build off these efforts.

Education systems must change and adapt to the new reality of the digital age.

Code.org is a relatively new organization that burst onto the education scene in February 2013 driving massive consumer awareness through videos of tech luminaries speaking about how students should get exposure to coding in grade school. Since then, its founder and CEO, Hadi Partovi, and I have been working in partnership with ACM, the National Science Foundation, the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), the National Center for Women and Information Technology, Microsoft, and Google on developing a new strategy that leverages this consumer awareness while building upon years of efforts by the computing community.

Code.org‘s vision is that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science. Our plan emphasizes scaling cost-effectively and sustainably, using online curriculum to ensure consistent quality of education, and growing participation in CS among students from underrepresented groups (women, people of color, and low-income). To accomplish this, we have developed a three-pronged approach to these areas:

  • Educate: the heavy lifting of bringing CS into schools: this involves vetting third-party curriculum, developing our own curriculum, and preparing teachers to teach these approaches.
  • Advocate: changing policies in states so computer science courses can satisfy graduation requirements and can access the same funding sources as other "core" courses and addressing other policy-related issues.
  • Celebrate: inspiring students, parents, and schools through high-level marketing (videos, events, and celebrities), providing very high impact for relatively low cost.

As of this writing, Code.org‘s education pillar is still under development. Our other areas, however, are well under way and are ready for the computing community to engage in immediately.

In the U.S., the "advocate" pillar has largely been handled by the multi-stakeholder, non-partisan advocacy coalition Computing in the Core, which, with the support of ACM, is merging with Code.org. As part of that merger, Computing in the Core and Code.org‘s agenda is shifting more toward state policy, where most education decision making is vested. Our headline goal is to "make computer science count," which means allowing existing courses to satisfy a core math or science.

There are three key reasons why this is important. First, Advanced Placement Computer Science courses are about 50% larger in states that "count" AP CS compared to ones that do not. Second, participation by students of color is 37% higher in states where computer science "counts." In fact, CSTA released a recent study that shows a key driver for whether underrepresented groups participate in computing courses (females and students of color) is whether the CS course they are taking counts toward a graduation credit or not. Third, this policy can leverage other policies to increase access.

The most notable example of this is a recent change the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) made to eligibility requirements for incoming student athletes. If a CS course contains significant programming elements and counts toward a mathematics and/or science credit in a school district, it will automatically meet NCAA student-athlete entrance requirements. This change updates the NCAA’s previous policy where CS courses did not count toward these requirements.

We need to shift students from being simply consumers of the technology to creators of it.

And the "make CS count" campaign can extend to four-year institutions. If you are faculty, you can reach out to your admissions office to see about allowing computer science courses count toward admission requirements for incoming students. As increasing numbers of school districts start treating rigorous computer science as a math or science course, the lift of shifting admission requirements should be easier.

Our work at the state level can also be supplemented at the local level by asking your local school board to make computer science count toward a math or science credit. In many areas of the country, such decisions are local. Computing in the Core (http://computinginthecore.org) has tools under its "get involved" page for making this happen, and we are developing even more online petitioning tools that will help parents and professionals that want to bring this issue to their local community.

When courses are taught in this area or are part of the curriculum, they are too often focused on teaching students simply how to use technology (basic technology literacy) instead of how to create technologies. To answer the big questions noted earlier in this column, we need to shift students from being simply consumers of the technology to creators of it. Imparting students with these computational thinking skills starts with ensuring access to engaging and rigorous K–12 computer science education. This is the goal of numerous efforts that have gained new momentum in 2013.

Under its "celebrate" pillar, Code.org along with Computing in the Core’s partners and many others are planning to make Computer Science Education Week, Dec. 8–14, (see http://csedweek.org) much bigger this year. Code.org is organizing a massive "Hour of Code" campaign during CSEdWeek. Our goal is to recruit 10 million students or adults to take an Hour of Code. This will be a self-guided online tutorial anybody can do, with just a Web browser or smartphone. No experience is needed as the content will target students from third grade and up. There will also be offline and third-party approaches hosted on the CSEdWeek website.

You can help by recruiting teachers, schools, and students to participate in the Hour of Code. Or you can promote the Hour of Code yourself through social media or on campus at your organization or institution. If you are an employer you can have employees participate in the Hour of Code, and if you are an employee you can organize others to participate with you as a social experience.

This new vision comes with a clear opportunity. All of our efforts have generated broad awareness with education decision makers that education systems must change to allow for more computer science instruction. The question is what will we, as a community, do to help shape a new landscape where computer science is something all students have access to and are expected to learn. 2013 should be seen as the start of something big—where K-12 computer science education went from something for the few, to access for all. My hope is that this is a broad engagement across numerous actors throughout our community. And you can be a part of this massive effort by engaging locally with your school boards and four-year systems with the simple message of ensuring computer science courses count toward core credits or entrance requirements.

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