Like many Computer Science teachers, I was very excited to read the news of President Obama’s “Computer Science for All” initiative. Right now, it’s typically an elective course and I know, from experience, that you work to encourage every student you can to choose the course. It’s not like the maths or languages or other sciences where a certain number of courses are required for graduation.
It’s puzzling, particularly in this day and age of technology everywhere, that it doesn’t have mass appeal. The reality is, I suspect, that when it comes to electives, students aren’t necessarily looking for a subject that bulks up on the work load. Students tend to really enjoy it or really hate it. Unfortunately, those that hate it are more vocal about spreading their feelings making it difficult to get more students involved. Through my work as an Ontario educator and long time involvement with the Computer Science Teachers Association in the US, I’ve seen a comparison of how the subject is treated in both systems.
In Ontario, we have an excellent series of courses under the title “Computer Studies” that are available to every school/student in the province. If the course isn’t provided at their school, they can take it online through eLearningOntario and get the same course credit. South of the border, the common threads are the Advanced Placement courses and Exploring Computer Science along with local courses at the student’s home school. In either case, students have terrific opportunities to learn.
But it’s never been a skill for all – it’s typically been a choice for all.
From my eyes, there is a need. I suspect that the secondary school student who is indeed interested in post-secondary studies has great opportunities. This doesn’t apply to everyone though. Yet, knowing how to make this inanimate object to do your bidding has never been so important a skill. Or your tablet. Or your phone. The ultimate goal isn’t that every graduate will become a computer programmer for a living any more than the graduate taking English will become the next Shakespeare. It’s the ability to have this ability to take control over your electronic world much the same as you would take control of your use of the English language.
The announcement from President Obama hasn’t been universally appreciated. An interesting opinion piece appeared in the New York Daily News. “Learning to code is overrated: An accomplished programmer would rather his kids learn to read and reason“. In many ways, my own computer programming experience paralleled that of Mr. Atwood’s. My first personal computer was a Radio Shack TRS-80 and I took delight in learning all the operating system commands, creating batch files, and learning how to program in the languages of the time.
And, I think the operative words here are “of the time”. It’s been years since I wrote something in Pascal or Fortran. There are times when I am curious to know if I even could. But the feeling soon passes.
“Because it’s 2016.”
We have much better, more powerful tools, and better experiences at our disposal. It’s not always recognized and I think that sometimes Computer Science teachers can be their own worst enemies as they debate the merits of Java versus Python versus … Let’s step back from that argument. There’s a time, place, and environment for that. It shouldn’t be part of this discussion.
Let’s focus on the “for all” part.
We’ve all heard the “girls don’t like doing this …” or “boys don’t like doing that …” as excuses for poor performance in mathematics or science or languages or pick your favourite target.
A Computer Science teacher will tell you about programming for the web and the importance of reading from the visitor to a website. Or the importance of geometry and science as you program a robot to move across the classroom floor. They understand the importance of planning, collaboration, communication, analysis, and measurement. That doesn’t need to nor should it wait for secondary school.
The “for all” part needs to be in the front of your mind. In this initiative, it’s a chance for Computer Science to reinvent itself and come back as a life skill. So seldom does education get a chance to start something from the ground floor. This is a chance and the opportunity needs to be seized. Not just by those with a Computer Science background but by those who truly understand all that a Computer Science understanding brings to the classroom.
All of this isn’t necessarily magical. It’s the result of a deep understanding and professional commitment of educators. The plan requires a serious commitment to professional learning opportunities for all educators. After all, don’t forget the “for all” part.
It can be so powerful – my advice is in the title – don’t screw it up. Education has waited for years for this opportunity.