How should we spend $4 billion on computer science education? Get experts involved


Feb 3, 2016

This week, President Obama announced that he would call for a $4 billion dollar commitment in his 2017 budget to bring computer science education to K-12 schools nationwide.

If approved, the investment would mark an opportunity not only to invest in bringing a high leverage skillset to today’s students, but also to fundamentally rethink teaching and learning, with the potential to bring industry experts to bear in classrooms. This would depend, of course, on how states allocate the funding and the underlying educational models that they choose to fund.

Were these dollars spent across traditional education categories, we’d likely see most dollars go to computer labs and recruiting and training more computer science teachers (which we currently sorely lack). Although these investments might be good for students in the short term, we would miss an opportunity to use computer science as a starting point to rethink a new model for managing human capital in education. Specifically, computer science is clearly a subject where industry professionals possess a huge reservoir of up-to-date know-how from which K–12 classrooms could benefit. This does not mean developers and software engineers should all become classroom teachers. But rather than investing solely in training new teachers, we should unlock the existing computer science talent awash in our tech industry and invest in building channels that bring outside experts into classrooms to supplement what teachers are doing.

As I’ve written about before, there is currently a dearth of “slots” for outside experts to actively participate in schools. This phenomenon is a less talked about byproduct of our “factory model” of school, but one that places false constraints on the range of adult supports and expertise that students can access inside their classrooms. This is partly by design: we treat school as an incubator to prepare students—largely in isolation—for the real world. It’s also proven difficult to square initiatives to grow students’ relationships with outside working professionals with the incredible pressure that K–12 schools face to deliver standards-aligned content on a rigid schedule. Even parents who are more than willing to give their time and expertise may find it hard to squeeze into the tightly bounded curriculum in schools.

Although we’d need a broader philosophical shift to break open the entire system to welcome “outsiders,” computer science education could lead the way. Schools could do this by leveraging technology-enabled models for engaging experts in the project of educating our students. One such model is using video technology to port experts into classrooms to provide lessons, guidance, or career advice. Skype in the Classroom, for example, (owned by Microsoft) brings computer science experts into classrooms over Skype’s video technology, many of whom hail from Microsoft itself. Sandy Gady, a design and engineering teacher in Highline Public Schools, a district located outside Seattle, has used the program to introduce her students to experts and career paths that they otherwise might not be exposed to. Gady has brought in experts, primarily from Microsoft, over video to discuss their career paths, explain concepts of coding, and even help coach the school’s robotics team.

For Gady, this also means new paradigms for her own teaching. She doesn’t have the time to keep up with the rapid changes in technology, like 3-D printing and Google Glass. “I can’t possibly learn CAD, apps, all that stuff,” Gady explained. But with a resource like Skype in the Classroom, Gady says, “I don’t have to be an expert any more.” Notably, this tool does not replace Gady as an educator. Her role as a teacher still includes delivering content and creating assignments, but now it also includes curating new relationships and experiences for her students with professionals who have cutting edge industry expertise. More broadly, she’s likewise helping her students forge new networks teaching them how to seek out their own answers from adults beyond the classroom.

Using video technology to bring outside experts into the classroom can also solve for the chronic challenges that most volunteer mentoring programs face. “Most people don’t want to come into a middle school classroom and talk to us. Even with Microsoft and Amazon in our backyard, they don’t have time to come here,” Gady explained. Again, a hard-to-scale approach to human capital management in computer science education would be trying to recruit computer scientists and engineers to teaching careers or trying to bring more industry professionals in to tutor or visit with students face to face. We might get a few wins, but by and large, it would likely prove a costly endeavor. Instead, using smart technology and new classroom models, experts who can only spare an hour or two a week could become deeply involved in bringing computer science to students across the country.

President Obama has stressed that the technology community should step up to advocate for computer science education nationwide. I’d argue we should take this a step further: build a new classroom architecture that brings that talent into classrooms. Taking advantage of these strategies would mark investments not just in teaching coding and engineering, but also in wholly new approaches to education, as we know it.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

  • James E. (Jack) Pruitt

    Dear Julia,
    This is great, but we also need attention to what happens to the additional well-trained students at the end of K-12! Colleges will clamor for money to add capacity. That should be adamantly rejected.
    Colleges already have the capacity to teach 50% more students than they currently do. Employing that capacity, however, will require structural changes that faculty will strongly resist.
    But it will be worth the effort, because these additional students will cost about half as much to teach — and, the new calendar will create an opportunity for ALL students to receive’ internships!
    Details of this new structure are available upon your request.
    Most sincerely,
    Jack Pruitt
    321 773 6331