Software Schooling: The Value of Computer Science in Early Education

Squeaky chalkboards and overhead projectors have been classroom staples for decades, but the landscape of public education is quickly changing. Today, teachers seamlessly incorporate computers, smartboards, and tablets into their instruction. Yet despite the rapid rise of the digital lifestyle in the wealthiest socioeconomic bracket, less-privileged households lag behind: Almost half of the poorest Americans don’t have access to a computer or the Internet at home. Unfortunately, with a lack of technological access often comes a lack of technological skills, which is foreboding as the importance of computers increases in modern life and industry. More than 50 percent of all American jobs require some degree of technical skill, a proportion expected to rise to 77 percent over the next 10 years. In this context, basic digital literacy is becoming increasingly essential. Policymakers around the world should thus adopt more rigorous, accessible IT and computer science curricula in primary and secondary schools.

"A recent survey published by the OECD showed that almost a quarter of respondents did not know how to use a computer at all"

Algorithms aside, knowledge of how to use basic digital tools, such as Microsoft Office or Google, is essential to any white-collar job. Nonetheless, even in the US, 1 in 10 Americans do not have access to the Internet, with women, people of color, and people from rural or low-income communities disproportionately disconnected. A recent survey published by the OECD showed that almost a quarter of respondents did not know how to use a computer at all, and only five percent were able to perform tasks more complex than searching for information through a spreadsheet and emailing the data. Digital literacy has not fully transitioned from a privilege to a norm.

This shocking inequity has pushed lawmakers across the globe to legislate for technological change, particularly from within public school systems. For instance, in Estonia, every student in public schools begins to learn the basics of logic and coding at age seven, as part of a private-public partnership program called ProgeTiiger. When the Estonian government introduced this program in 2012, its goal was not to create a country of software engineers. Rather, it was to give students the skills they need to develop a smarter, more meaningful relationship with technology. In 2014, England also updated its national curriculum to include mandatory computer-based programs of study, which teach pupils to become “responsible, competent, confident, and creative users of information and communication technology.” In Finland, where mandatory computer science education takes an integrated rather than an isolated approach, programming is taught as a tool to be explored in a variety of subjects. Other nations including Italy and Singapore are also racing ahead to incorporate computer science education into all classrooms. After all, in a time when Google knows everything from your favorite cookie recipe to your mother’s birthday, it’s important that people understand how to control, rather than be controlled by, these increasingly powerful digital tools.

Teaching tech in schools may seem overly ambitious: After all, first graders scanning indecipherable lines of code doesn’t necessarily scream “well-rounded education.” However, while computer science education does involve coding, programming is only a small portion of the curricula recently implemented in Estonia, England, and Finland. Jasmine Ma, Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at NYU’s Steinhardt school, reminds people that “other aspects—engineering, production, problem solving, creative uses, and an understanding of hardware” are just as crucial in a holistic computer science education and have close ties with a variety of other subjects. Introducing a structured, mandatory computer science curriculum would bridge the computer literacy gap and may help students succeed in other areas as well.

"Even better, conceptual lessons on topics such as logic and algorithms can all be done on a chalkboard"

As the idea of computer science education spreads across the globe, the major challenge for expansion is investment. The high cost of tablets and computers makes computing classes seem unfeasible in schools with tight budgets. However, affordable options exist. The Raspberry Pi, for instance, is a fully functional computer marketed to help teach kids about programming. Each unit costs less than $30, and several schools in the UK have already begun to use these microcomputers in the classroom. Even better, conceptual lessons on topics such as logic and algorithms can all be done on a chalkboard. In fact, Finland doesn’t even need computers to teach children computer science: To learn the concept of a loop, a repeated sequence of logical steps, students in physical education can act out a series of dance moves, and those in art can gain the same understanding through knitting. For schools that lack the physical or human resources to teach isolated computer science classes, this type of integrated approach is a viable option.

On a macro level, funding computer science curricula is a smart investment for governments. The global IT sector is booming, but there is a lack of qualified personnel: The Obama White House predicted there will be over 1.4 million unfilled computer science-related jobs by 2020. In 2015, there were almost 10 times more open computing jobs in the US than there were computer science graduates. The situation is similar in the UK, where corporate representatives published a report titled “Next Gen” to address the dearth of employable computer science graduates and urge the government to put computer science on the mandatory curriculum. If businesses can fill their positions with qualified, trained professionals, countries have a major opportunity to attract worldwide investment and grow their economies.

Better computer science education is key to creating a larger, more diverse workforce. For one, women are grossly underrepresented in tech, and though the percentage of women has risen steadily in other physical sciences majors, the corresponding number has actually fallen in computer science over the past few decades, to less than 20 percent in recent years. Parents and teachers are less likely to encourage young girls to pursue tech careers; with a lack of early exposure, girls in college computer science classes often feel inferior to their male counterparts and end up dropping computer science for other fields. And the road doesn’t get any easier for the few women who are persistent enough to break into the male-dominated field. Denise Wilson, a professor of engineering at the University of Washington, notes that “there are many forms of disrespect, devaluing, demeaning, and isolating behavior” that women in tech have to endure.

A mandatory computer science curriculum, however, would be a step in the right direction. By providing an equal playing field for all children, educators would provide a safe space for girls to discover their interests in tech without feeling like they’ve already fallen behind—girls who are exposed to computer games at an early age are four times more likely to go into computer science, and those who have a female computer science teacher are 26 percent more inclined to pursue the field. Hopefully, if everyone can understand basic code, computer science will be seen less as an exclusive discipline for men and more as a subject shared by all. Challenging discrimination in tech will be difficult. A good start would be giving every child, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic background, the opportunity to seek out their passion.

Technology is shaping the world more than ever before. As Silicon Valley tycoons compete to create smarter, more powerful devices, educators must ensure that future generations are ready to engage safely and positively with these digital tools. A few European countries have recognized the importance of computer science education in primary and secondary schools, but more policymakers need to recognize that digital literacy is essential for individuals and hugely beneficial to industries and even entire nations. The digital world is racing ahead, and schools need to catch up.

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