“In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill — it’s a basic skill, right along with the three ‘Rs.’” — President Obama, Jan. 30, 2016.
President Obama’s comments should not be a surprise to most of us as the abilities needed to work intelligently with computers are considered pretty essential by most employers. What is needed however is not so much an emphasis on computer science as a discipline but on a broader educational immersion in coding and application of computational skills to problems. While I think it is certainly productive to think in terms of curricular offerings at high school and even lower, I wonder if the framing of this as ‘computer science’ is really what we need if the goal is develop a skill as basic as reading and writing?
Computer Science departments face huge enrollment demands, and as a formal education it is an important degree program in many universities. However, pushing preparation down into the schools should not be confused with developing a new kind of literacy in our public educational system. If writing and reading were taught as distinct courses then I suspect we would not get very far (and yes, some would say we’ve not got far enough in our public schools in delivering these skills) and let’s not really consider how well mathematics is taught nationally (most recent data has us distinctly average in comparison to the rest of the world, to put it kindly) even though there is a real mathematics curriculum in all schools.
The challenge with basic skills is they need to be taught across a curriculum, immersed in multiple activities, not isolated as a separate course. Just as language permeates all subjects, students will deal with computers in geography, history, media studies, science and so forth. My son engages computers deeply in his video and music technology coursework, and rightly so. He has built his own computer and managed his own online video channel for years, but never took a ‘computer science’ course. No matter what career he follows, I know he’ll be immersed in computers as much as I am immersed in reading and writing, but I don’t think I ever took a ‘reading class’ after my first couple of years in school. The goal has to be immersion, dispersion and application of computers into all aspects of education across the years.
Moreover, there is a bigger challenge facing us in university education. Computer Science programs have struggled continually to recruit and retain women and minority students and faculty. This is not for lack of effort but the research I read on this by folks such as Lecia Barker suggest that subtle forces are at work in typical computer science programs that make it a greater challenge for some students to succeed and be recognized as such. Sure, a better prepared entering cohort might result from greater high school coursework in CS, but this might actually miss the main need. Computers are, as President Obama’s message suggests, such a basic part of productive living now that we need to rethink what it means to be computer literate. Not everyone needs to be a computer scientist or to quality from such a program. We need to put more effort into giving everyone basic coding skills as we do writing skills (we surely don’t imagine everyone needs to graduate with a degree in ‘writing’ now do we?). And we need to recognize that these wonderful tools are going to be immersed in our physical world as much as our social and cultural world permanently, and then to give everyone the skills and license to shape computation as they need it. Imagine a nation where coding was just like a form of arithmetic that every public school student was exposed to continually? It would be nice to see the US rank highly in that survey.
There’s so much to consider on this and the President’s initiative is a major step forward. However, the dialog on basic skills should not be overshadowed by a push to include more AP credits for computer science. Computers are far too important to be left to computer scientists.