The three “R”s – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – have long been the bedrock of the American education system.
But in the technology-driven 21st Century, these building blocks of education are no longer enough to prepare students for the global economy, says Quinn Burke, assistant professor of education technology in the Department of Teacher Education at the College of Charleston and co-author of a new book titled “Connected Code: Why Children Need to Learn Programming.”
Due to be published by MIT Press on July 18, 2014, the book is co-authored by Yasmin Kafai, a professor of learning sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Coding is actually a literacy,” says Burke. “With the overwhelming prevalence of web-based media, it is a new form of communication.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.4 million new computer science jobs will be created by 2020. Yet, the U.S. will have produced only 400,000 computer science students by then. You don’t need a computer to do that math.
The College of Charleston has a first-rate computer science program. But unless students have been exposed to computer programming before college, they are unlikely to consider computer science as a major or a career, says Burke.
The solution is to get children, especially girls, interested in programming much earlier. “Even high school is too late,” says Burke, a former schoolteacher. “It needs to start in elementary school when kids are first becoming excited about learning.”
That’s a tall order when the vast majority of public schools currently don’t offer computer science instruction. Those that do, typically treat it as an elective course.
Coding for the Masses
Once perceived as the exclusive domain of geeks and recluses, computer programming has become mainstream in recent years thanks to a growing number of online academies, summer camps and after-school programs.
Burke says these Internet sites are particularly important because they offer online communities in which their users can share and discuss their ideas and creations. Instead of merely consuming content, young people are creating and sharing content. “The result is that coding becomes this other way of connecting with people,” says Burke.
Another promising initiative is Google’s CS First program, a pilot program focused on increasing student access and exposure to computer science education through after school and summer programs. Launched in August 2013, the program partners with K-12 schools in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
They key to improving programming literacy, Burke says, is to duplicate the work that’s occurring in online communities and in special programs like Google’s in the daytime school curriculum.
It’s not that every child must aspire to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, says Burke. Learning the basic principles of computer programming can benefit students in a wide range of subjects.
Computer scientists are taught to break down problems into parts, identify and analyze relationships and reconstruct. Using this so-called “computational thinking” to address tasks and problems outside the digital realm can bring totally new perspectives to complex issues. More importantly, these problem-solving skills can benefit any child, no matter their interests, says Burke.
Programming can enrich the learning experience in core subjects like history, English and math, whether it’s using technology to bring an essay assignment to life with multimedia or tackling math problems by building a computer game.
But K-12 teachers can’t infuse their instruction with more digital tools if they themselves lack the know-how. Burke says teachers need more professional development opportunities to attend training and acquire new certifications that will enable them to bring more technology into their classrooms.
Universities that educate future teachers, such as the College of Charleston, are ideally situated to introduce more computer science instruction into the education system.
And Charleston, with its burgeoning technology sector, is an ideal city in which to seed these long-overdue changes. “There’s a momentum now,” Burke says. “Charleston has an incredible opportunity to attract a lot more smart, talented people.”