Supporting computer science education through IT innovation
Commentary: District IT plays a critical role in successful computer science education implementation.
Ruthe FarmerChief Evangelist
Ruthe Farmer is a national advocate for gender equity and diversity in technology, and has focused her efforts on diversity in technology and engin…
Over the past several years, the movement to improve access to computer science in U.S. K-12 schools has been gaining momentum around the nation. The College Board, with support from the National Science Foundation, developed and launched AP Computer Science Principles, a second Advanced Placement computer science course aimed at appealing a greater range of students; multiple states have passed legislation around computer science access; 22 states have now adopted K-12 CS standards; and 37 states now count computer science towards core graduation requirements. Major tech employers including Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Quicken Loans and more have stepped up to demand national and local policy change in support of CS access, and they are directly investing funds and resources into K-12 teacher professional development and student outreach programs.
CS education has moved from a “nice to have” to a “must have,” and districts nationwide are grappling the challenge of implementing a new K-12 discipline in an already full school day and resource-constrained system. Fortunately, many states and districts have already launched CS education initiatives, and forged a path for others to follow, like St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado.
St. Vrain began developing a district-wide PK-12 computer science framework five years ago. Their goal was to ensure every student in the nearly 33,000-student district would receive a foundational computer science education, and that students who gravitated towards this field would have access to high-quality, advanced CS classes, as well as opportunities to pursue distinct CS pathways with industry mentorship and engagement.
This initiative was preceded by the district’s Learning Technology Plan, which ensures that every school and student has access to a wide range of instructional technologies and support for using them. In addition, St. Vrain’s District Technology Services strongly supports the CS initiative by regularly meeting with teachers and coordinators to understand learning goals as well as find solutions to those challenges which face CS teachers. For instance, in developing a cybersecurity pathway, the district’s technology team is working to balance out security and privacy concerns with core instructional objectives.
“We take a systems approach to our work in St. Vrain,” said Joe McBreen, chief technology officer. “Working in collaboration with the teachers, staff, administrators and students across all our schools, we are able to accelerate and strengthen student access and learning in this essential field.”
Achieving the ambitious goal of computer science for all students requires a district-wide team-based approach including administrators, teachers, and counselors, as well as IT leadership in designing a rigorous K-12 CS pathway, and making sure the district IT infrastructure can support and sustain it.
Pro Tips for Successful CS Education Implementation
Build a pathway, not a patchwork: It can be daunting to parse the content, programs and resource options, and the process can lead districts to rely on product-sales representatives or individual early-adopter teachers to drive content and platform choices. The first step to thinking strategically and holistically is determining how CS education fits in with your district values, and establishing a shared vision for CS that will inform the development of a K-12 CS scope and sequence that makes sense in the context your unique community. Once a shared vision is in place and you’ve mapped what is already happening in CS across the district, you can embark upon the task of selecting tools and platforms that complement the work of teachers and curriculum selected to help achieve the shared vision.
Flexibility is key: Technology tools and platforms are constantly changing, and there is a rapidly expanding supply of new products and services aimed at providing computer science, computational thinking or coding education resources for schools. To keep pace, educators must work side-by-side with district IT leaders to ensure that the CS education tools and platforms selected are compatible, and that the network is flexible enough to meet the dynamic needs of computer science classrooms. This may also mean rethinking the duration and flexibility of vendor agreements that may inhibit the ability to keep pace with emerging tools.
Balancing access and security: Imagine a teacher setting up a home server to host student programming projects to work around a restricted network, or a student being criminally prosecuted for breaching the district firewall while learning about cybersecurity. These are real examples of clashes between district IT rules and computer science education efforts. To enable students and teachers to engage in and use state-of-the-art technology development tools, districts should engage a working group of teachers, administrators, and IT staff in regular honest conversations to identify challenges and collaborative solutions This may include increasing access to online development tools, platforms and developer communities like Github, updating IT permissions and security policies, or enabling server level access for advanced classes.
Design for inclusion and accessibility: While robots and apps can be engaging and appealing, be sure to consider accessibility when choosing tools and platforms. Issues like access to broadband and up-to-date devices can impact students’ ability to complete homework assignments or engage in deeper learning outside the classroom. If these are issues facing the majority of your students, get creative. A district in Wisconsin has a no device-based homework policy for CS classes to even the playing field for low income students. Other districts have device lending libraries and Wi-Fi-enabled buses to support students that lack internet access at home. Additionally, it is critical to ensure that the tools and platforms you choose adequately accommodate students with disabilities, and provide resources to support educators in making those accommodations. School districts and other stakeholders are encouraged to sign the CSforALL Accessibility Pledge through Sept. 21, 2018, and join a cohort of organizations working on this specific challenge.
Ruthe Farmer is Chief Evangelist at CSforALL, a national nonprofit working towards rigorous, inclusive and sustainable computer science access for all US students.