CS for All? Where Are We Going to Fit It In?

Last November, Virginia became the first state in the US to require computer science instruction – specifically “computer science and computational thinking, including computer coding” – at all levels K-12. For elementary students, teachers will be expected to integrate the concepts into the rest of their instruction. In middle and high school, students can choose elective courses in computer science but will not be required to take one.

Is this a good thing?

Lots of politicians, business folks, and other education “experts” have declared that CS for all students is necessary. Some say that the economic future of the country depends on training many more computer programmers, although the case for that is rather shaky (like that for the emphasis on STEM). Others seem to believe that CS would be beneficial to every high school graduate for a variety of rather murky reasons.

I certainly believe that everyone should have a fundamental understanding of how the hardware and software they use every day works. If we’re going to depend on computers to run our lives and the rest of the world, we should at least know a little about what’s happening.

However, I’m not sure these new requirements from the department of education will ever get that job done.

For one thing, these new Standards of Learning will not be tested which means it’s quite likely that, in most classrooms, the content will be added in when time allows. I also suspect that many teachers will be given the requirements with little or no help implementing them. Professional development of any kind is not given a big priority in most districts, especially for something not tested.

All of which points to a larger problem for not only CS for all, but also for STEM, the maker movement, design thinking, project-based learning, and the other “reform” ideas we have been pouring into schools in the past decade or two: there’s no room for them in the “normal” school day.

Coding is done in an hour. STEM lessons are done in after-school programs. Students go to maker spaces for special activities, in they same way they used to go to the computer lab. We bring out the projects after the “regular” work is complete.

If computer science and the rest of this is really important, it needs to be part of the standard curriculum. Every day for all students, not just on special occasions for the kids we know will pass the standardized tests.

Fitting it in shouldn’t be hard since much of the mathematics and science curriculums used in schools is crap and could easily be trashed (or at least minimized).

Replacing the classical, college-prep academic training that begins early in elementary grades with curiosity-driven, hands-on activities would not only allow plenty of time for CS and the rest, it would also make school more meaningful and interesting for students.

A win for everyone.

The Magic Number

Around this time every year, the school board for our overly large school district approves the calendar for the next academic year. The process involves working around inviolable holidays, setting teacher workdays, finding room for professional development days, and so on.

And somebody on the board staff calculates everything so that the calendar includes at least 990 hours of class time.

Why 990 hours? Because the state of Virginia says so.

Why did the wise folks in Richmond settle on 990 hours? No clue.

A search for that number on the DOE site finds more than 500 documents, mostly relating to forms that must be filed and what happens if a district misses that target (it seems to start with a loss of cash).

Nothing about why 990 hours.1 No references to research showing that to be the ideal amount of time for student classroom learning in a 12 month period.

The 990 number doesn’t even seem to stem from the traditional 180 days in a school year. Or to the 120 hours of “contact time” in a traditional Carnegie Unit for high school courses. It just seems to be the number that everyone has agreed on.

And no one, least of all our school board, wants to tempt the consequences resulting from kids having one less minute of that magic seat time.

More On Virtual Learning

Following up on my previous post, it seems the phrase of the week around here is “virtual learning”. Today the Post reports that our overly-large school district is considering creating “virtual public high school that would allow students to take all their classes from a computer at home”.

I have no clue if any of this is going to happen, and the same seems to be true of the administrators who announced the proposal, acknowledging that the idea is so new that there are “many unanswered questions” related to costs, enrollment and more.

But I also have a few questions they probably didn’t ask.  Like… why?

Is there really a need or demand for this concept? Other than the fact that “dozens of younger students have left” the system for the Virginia Virtual Academy, a statewide program run by K12, Inc., the “largest operator of public virtual schools” – and a company with a rather sketchy history in the area of charter/for-profit education.

I also wonder if this is a good use of increasingly scarce resources, especially considering there is very little evidence that virtual schools are effective learning environments for more than small percentage of students. Or whether an online course will cost less to operate than a physical classroom, as I’m sure some of the supporters on our school board are thinking.

Instead of putting money into developing a full virtual academy, it makes more sense to create hybrid courses, ones with an online component but still including the interaction with educators and other students that should be a core part of a high school experience.

Let’s rethink what K12 learning should be and use the many virtual tools available to enhance that new vision, rather than trying to replicate the current traditional instructional program pushed through a computer screen (which is what most virtual course do).

Learning to Work Online

Last week our governor signed a bill requiring high school students in the state to take at least one online course to graduate, beginning with the class of 2017.

I’m still not sure why.

A spokesperson for the governor says new requirement will “better prepare students for the job market of the 21st century”*.

I don’t understand how.

I’ve been facilitating online course for adults off and on for more than ten years. I took my first virtual class back in the days of the dial-up modem when the content was little different from correspondence courses that were snail mailed to your home.

That certainly doesn’t make me an expert on the matter, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about online learning is that it’s not the right solution for everyone. Some people don’t work well detached from the human contact that comes with a face-to-face situation.

Supporters of this idea argue that kids need to learn to work online because jobs increasingly demand those skills (now that we’re more than 10% of the way into the 21st century).

I agree. But is a formal course, especially one that is likely to be a virtual replica of a face-to-face class, necessarily the best solution?

More important than learning to take an online course – a somewhat narrow skill set that really only benefits the growing post-secondary education business – we should be helping students understand how to present themselves online. Allowing them to practice crafting messages for different audiences using a variety of delivery tools as part of their “standard” curriculum.

If you look carefully at that “job market” of the 21st century (which is now), workers increasingly need to know how to market themselves and learn new skills (often on the fly) to adapt for an ever changing employment landscape.

Is taking a canned online course going to help with any of that? I doubt it.


*Has anyone else noticed that we are already more than 10% into the 21st century and still our “leaders” discuss it as if it’s still in the distant future?