This post originally ran on LinkedIn.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York made news last month with an important promise to his city: he introduced an initiative that would systematically increase computer science education in city classrooms, with instruction to be made available in all public schools by a proposed deadline of 2026. As I recently wrote in the Hechinger Report, we at edX are in full support of this initiative but believe that it can (and must) happen much faster.
A recent Gallup study backed by Google found that public schools are severely lacking in resources to teach CS, even though demand for these classes has reached an all-time high with vocal parents and students throughout the country. There is near-universal agreement that this educational direction is needed, but schools are slow to adopt. The undeniable challenge is in training enough educators to teach computer science-related classes.
This training of our teachers is an essential piece to the larger CS education puzzle. Chicago, which has taken an admirably aggressive approach to computer science in schools, committed to making computer science courses a high school graduation requirement as early as 2018. This will require them to staff up considerably in the next two years to make sure that each of Chicago’s roughly 112,000 secondary school students has access to a CS program – and a teacher for that program – before they graduate. To make this happen, it will take more than public resources. Thankfully, technology companies like Intel, Qualcomm, Microsoft and Google have pledged support and resources to move these education initiatives forward.
The need is already so great that outside of formalized training programs some teachers have already taken action. We’ve seen educators make great use of online resources to open their students’ minds to the world of computer science. One great example comes from Cambridge Friends School, a coeducational elementary and middle school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Last spring, Keith Grove, the school’s Math Teacher and Technology Integrator, decided that his students might respond well to instruction in Scratch – a programming approach developed by MIT to help children learn to think creatively and learn coding. Using the free, online Scratch course from Harvey Mudd, Keith reviewed the course on his own, then introduced it to his class. Keith’s approach was not to be the expert, but rather to guide his students along using the existing materials. When we spoke with him following his use of Scratch in the classroom, he described the process this way:
“The students help each other more than I help them. EdX allows the students to work at their own pace. It gives them a platform for them to move and provides enough challenge to stretch kids, but not hold anyone back.”
And the students found a lot of value in what they were learning as well. More importantly, they were actively involved in helping develop the course itself. The students provided active feedback and let the instructor know how they learned best.
One seventh-grader suggested a more step-by-step approach. “What would help me is if you watched the video and then had a little homework underneath it with hints to help you along. Then, a quiz after,” she said.
Students were also able to make the most out of existing course resources, like the discussion forums – even conversations about the challenges. “I saw it as a good thing. When I looked at other people’s stuff it was an inspiration to keep going,” explained another student in the class.
It’s a model that can be duplicated most anywhere. And national organizations continue to partner and offer even more solutions that will help bring more computer science education into mainstream learning. Back in June, The College Board extended their partnership with the National Science Foundation. Together, they will offer a new course by fall of next year titled, ‘Advanced Placement (AP®) Computer Science Principles.’
In preparation for the new AP course, the College Board will endorse three programs that were developed with NSF support. One such free course is Beauty and Joy of Computing from professors at the University of California, Berkeley. Taught by Dan Garcia, Teaching Professor in the EECS Department at UC Berkeley, this exciting course serves as an introduction to computer science for high-schoolers with no coding background. Garcia is also highly active in teacher trainings all across the country. A second such free course is Mobile Computing with App Inventor – CS Principles from Professor Ralph A. Morelli of Trinity College.
Yes, it will be a significant challenge to onboard thousands of teachers and prepare them to teach computer sciences classes, but there are also more tools available now than ever before to make that process easier. Many of these tools are free and available to anyone, anywhere.
We can all pitch in – develop, find, share, and collaborate around resources. In doing so, perhaps we can make short work of Mayor de Blasio’s 2026 deadline – as well as other leaders who have proposed similar programs – and more quickly offer the instruction that our kids so desperately need.
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