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December 10, 2014

What computer science education can tell us about the future of schools

by Julia Freeland Fisher

This week marks National Computer Science Education Week. Not only are K–12 schools, parents, and leaders around the country engaged in activities like the Hour of Code, but the week is also a chance for advocacy groups like code.org to highlight the beleaguered state of computer science education in America. For example, currently only around five to 10 percent of schools offer AP computer science, and 25 states still don’t allow students to count computer science courses toward high school graduation.

Given the demand for software skills in the labor market, there’s been a lot of fanfare in recent years around seeding opportunities to boost young people’s computer science skills—the Hour of Code, the emergence of numerous coding boot camps, and edX’s very popular Harvard MOOC, CS50, to name a few. I’ve found that most stories about computer science education focus on the skills gap that new programs stand to fill; they talk about coding as a new language that students will need to learn in order to navigate the 21st century world.

Although this is a compelling narrative, there’s a much less frequently cited reason why we should all be paying attention to developments in computer science education: these new programs may tell us how instruction across all subjects stands to evolve in the future. In K–12 schools and even for some adults who never took coding courses in college, computer science coursework represents a significant pocket of nonconsumption among learners. Areas of nonconsumption in education—not exclusively computer science and coding, but also a number of honors, foreign language, AP and elective courses unavailable to many students—are ripe footholds for disruptive models of teaching and learning because they don’t face competition against any existing paradigm. Therefore, some of the pedagogical models we see emerging in computer science may be a harbinger of not just what we need to teach in the 21st century, but how we may come to teach it.

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, (which is owned by Microsoft) brings 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 outside of Seattle, Wash., has used the program to introduce her students to experts and career paths that they otherwise might not be exposed to. In Gady’s estimation, part of her job as a teacher is to “allow kids [in Highline] to be on equal par with richer school districts,” and that comes down to exposure to resources beyond their classrooms and neighborhoods.

“Skype has always had my interest,” Gady said. “It allows you to connect with people around the world. 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. To fill this gap, Gady has brought in experts over video, primarily from Microsoft, 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.” Her role as a teacher still includes delivering content and creating assignments, but now it also includes helping students connect to experts and teaching them how to seek out their own answers from adults beyond the classroom.

Ross Smith is the director of test for Skype and participates as one such expert in the program. “Everybody starts somewhere and sometimes you just need someone to start you on the right path,” Smith explained. “I find it incredibly satisfying to help jump-start students into the world of computer science from the comfort of my office thanks to Skype.” For Smith, this is also a dramatic change from when he attended school. “Back when I was in school, there was nothing like Skype in the Classroom. Access to experts was limited to an occasional ‘Bring Your Parent to School Day.’”

Indeed, Smith is poised to offer students real-time input and advice on coding and computer science and on career paths in the software industry. But more broadly, even, Smith is a human capital resource that Gady is able to tap into. As such, these early experiments in video technology are not about new fangled tools in classrooms, but about radically expanding access to human capital in education.

I’ve written about other efforts like this before, including organizations like Nepris and Educurious, which likewise pair teachers and classrooms with experts across various industries using video technology. Of course, for all of these efforts, scale and effectiveness depends not only on teachers like Gady embracing outside experts but also on sourcing reliable experts who are willing to give there time. Michael Golden, the CEO of Educurious wisely points out that this task requires differentiation across experts’ needs: “[M[uch like we are moving away from thinking of all students being the same, motivation for experts will vary widely,” he explained. Although Skype employee Ross Smith is clearly motivated by sharing his passion with students, other experts might be motivated by working with students in high-need schools or by company incentives to participate in the program. Structuring a product that attracts students, teachers, and experts will be the challenge of scaling the promise of video technology like these.

My hypothesis is that we’ll see these models grow more rapidly in subject areas that are hard to offer or not offered at all—not just computer science, but also foreign languages (which video-based tutoring services like Fluentlee aim to target), elaborate project-based curriculum (which Educurious produces), or STEM coursework in general (which Nepris and Skype in the Classroom are poised to address). This marks a similar trajectory to the path that early online-learning programs took, by offering courses in credit recovery or Advanced Placement, where schools had limited or no offerings.

This week, as we celebrate the new rise of computer science education, we shouldn’t forget how some these efforts might also offer a glimpse into new models for expanding students’ access to industry experts across subject areas.

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