For those of you who have been around instructional technology for a while, this may offer some warm, fuzzy nostalgia: the classic game Oregon Trail recently celebrated it’s 50th birthday.
Last week we celebrated Computer Science Education Week, with many schools offering it’s very popular Hour of Code activities to their students. And we heard from many politicians, business people, and ed leaders calling for all students to study coding as part of their regular school program.
But is that necessary? Or even a good idea?
The Guardian news site evaluated exactly that issue when they asked Should Kids Learn to Code? Their question is prompted by the fact that the UK government has added computer programming to the curriculum for students in all their schools beginning next fall.
In Great Britain, as well as in the US, one of the primary arguments for having kids learn to code is economic. They are trying to grow their tech industries, something, of course, many states on this side of the Atlantic would like to do. New York City has announced that “computer science will be compulsory in the city’s schools within the decade” and other areas are looking seriously at similar requirements.
However, as with the many exaggerated claims for the number of STEM jobs that go unfilled due to a lack of trained graduates, you have to wonder how many programmers will be needed in either country.
Excitable industry claims about creating millions of new jobs by 2020 (tactfully described by one well-placed industry source as “more a campaigning tool” than anything) may not hold water, but the UK Commission for Employment and Skills still estimates that another 300,000 digital jobs could be created by 2020.
Certainly the number of students learning to code in the UK by 2020 will far exceed the number of “digital jobs” available, which is likely an exaggerated number from that “excitable industry” anyway.
Then there is the other major justification to have computer science training for all students: to help them understand how our increasingly software-driven world works (or fails to work in some instances). That is a rationalization I can actually support – but not if the approach taken is the same as for teaching mathematics in most American high schools.
Just as there are no good reasons, academic or economic, for every student to follow the standard path from Algebra I through Calculus, the standard computer programming curriculum is not appropriate for helping future adults understand the digital world.
In any case, I also wonder about the impact of all the Hour of Code events from last week. And last year and the year before. In the schools around here (and I suspect elsewhere), the kids get their hour playing with Scratch or robots or Star Wars-based tutorials and then return to the normal school program.
If the people who believe kids should learn the concepts of code are serious, it’s going to take more than an hour a year. But it also needs to be part of a major overhaul to the standard K12 curriculum.
Kevin Hoctor, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer for a small software company (actually founder and lead developer), has this advice for young people who want to make apps.
Find something in your life that is broken and build software around that. Don’t just build an app for money, you won’t enjoy maintaining it. Instead, create apps that you are passionate about and strive to make the experience using your apps delightful for your customers.
We should take that same advice in creating schools.
Incidentally, this interview is part of the App Camp for Girls project now asking for help on the Indiegogo site. They are “a non-profit organization that seeks to address the gender imbalance among software developers by giving girls the chance to learn how to build apps, to be inspired by women instructors, and to get exposure to software development as a career.”
The group has already met their original target (including, full disclosure, a relatively small amount from me) and has some great stretch goals to expand the project to other areas of the country and reach even more kids. Go read about them and kick in a few bucks if you are so inclined.
As mentioned in a previous rant, we’re trying to define “digital learning” here in the overly-large school district. Assuming the term has any meaning at all. The jury is still out on that part.
Anyway, at one of our community meetings this week, a parent told me an interesting story about digital learning, or the lack thereof.
His son is taking the beginning computer science class at one of our secondary schools (middle and high in one building), a course in which students traditionally learn the basics of programming hands-on, by actually writing, testing and debugging applications.
At the beginning of the year, they were told that all of their projects had to be completed by the first of May, which is about seven weeks prior to the end of our school year.
Why so early?
For the month of May into early June in this school, and pretty much every other one in the system, every student computer is conscripted for online standardized testing.
Thus, for roughly six weeks out of a 36 week school year learning for these students will come to a halt.
But then the same would be true for just about anything you might include in that definition of “digital learning”.