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The Hour of Code: Activating K-12 Computer Science Education

A teacher works with students learning to code.
A teacher works with students learning to code.Photo: Chattanooga Public Library/Creative Commons License

You know that feeling when your doctor tells you that you need to get some exercise to be healthier and outwardly you nod, but inwardly you think, I have no time, I hate jogging, I feel fine? Computer science (CS) education at the K-12 level has historically been a lot like that. School leaders have increasingly realized that they should offer CS learning opportunities for their students to prepare them for the future as part of a robust Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program, but they have been limited by their preconceptions about which teachers actually teach it (thinking that it has to be someone with a programming background), wonderings of how to fit it into the school day (with the heavy focus on Math and English), and notions that they don't have the right technology or curriculum available.

Beneath the surface there have also been unconscious biases about who computer science is for and who can excel at it. These biases are based on false notions that people who are into computer science have to be "geniuses" or "hackers" or be fluent with technology, as common stereotypes found in media suggest, when in reality what is more often the factor is the preparatory leg-up of having extra resources and opportunities at home and beyond. This in turn creates a chilling effect for girls when they take traditional computer science classes, causing them to feel like they do not belong in the field or that CS is not about their interests. Data from the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) indicates that women earn only 18% of undergraduate degrees in CS, even though they earn 42% of all undergraduate Math and Statistics degrees, further perpetuating the notions of who does CS.

Many of these mental barriers to enacting CS education in K-12 schools are being chipped away at through advocacy efforts of groups like NCWIT and by individuals like Jane Margolis, author of "Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing," and the National Science Foundation work of Jan Cuny. More recently this has been accelerated by the efforts of Code.org and their Hour of Code campaign, as people see computing is "cool," as evidenced by their marketing campaign with movie stars, athletes, and others, and that both girls and boys of all races and classes are experiencing high levels of interest and engagement with the right computer science learning opportunities and want to learn more. Seeing is believing.

The Hour of Code is a global computer science (CS) education campaign that was created last year by Code.org, a national CS education non-profit backed by the likes of Microsoft, Google, and other tech titans. This backing, along with a powerful marketing campaign and highly engaging online tutorials with well recongized characters like Angry Birds and Anna and Elsa from Frozen, has led to over 50 million students participating in the Hour of Code. Hopes are for over 100 million to participate this year. With the surge of support from leaders in education, technology, media, and politics, Code.org is well positioned to reach these numbers, particularly as they have expanded the campaign to over 180 countries.

Student works on the Angry Birds tutorial on Code.org | Photo: San Jose Public Library/Creative Commons License

Beyond a global CS learning event, however, the Hour of Code has served as a powerful activator of awareness, interest, and support for K-12 CS education. According to Jake Baskin, Outreach Manager for Code.org, "We saw a huge number of teachers that started by hosting an Hour of Code and then transitioned into offering our K-5 courses to their students. I also regularly heard from districts this year that hosting an Hour of Code built the support they needed to start offering full CS courses."

One example of this impact is at Granada Hills Charter High School in Los Angeles, which had close to 4,000 students and 25 teachers participate in the Hour of Code last year. Jake Chipps, a teacher at Granada, indicates that this experience "led to the beginning of campus wide discussions about the role of CS in our school and created a path for the creation of a third computer science class on campus, introductory programming, which is a bridge between Exploring Computer Science and Advanced Placement CS. The proposal was unanimously adopted because of the newfound awareness about CS at our site."

The K-5 space in particular, which has seen a dramatic erosion of learning time for electives like arts and music in recent history, has jumped on to the wave of CS learning, in large part due to the Hour of Code. This may be in part because of the relative flexibility of the elementary school day, in that there are not periods, graduation requirements, and other constraints that the secondary levels have. In addition, many elementary schools have computer labs in which they have traditionally used the time to learn typing or computer literacy, but are seeing coding as something that may be more valuable for their students, and supportive of other Common Core State Standards types of learning experiences. Pat Yongpradit, Director of Education for Code.org, writes, "I am excited by the resurgence in teaching CS to elementary age students. Code.org itself is on track to train almost 10,000 K-5 teachers this school year... Things are moving and shaking in the world of K-12 CS."

Code.org reports that 68,000 classrooms participated in their online introductory K-8 CS course. Within the classroom, "41% of the students are girls. In our high school classrooms, 34% are girls, and 60% African American or Hispanic." While those numbers do not look that equitable, one must realize that CS has suffered for years as the least equitable STEM field both in schools and in industry. For example, for the Advanced Placement CS exam in 2013, "less than 20 percent of those students were female, about 3 percent were African American, and 8 percent were Hispanic (combined totals of Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and other Hispanic)."

Khan Academy Introduction to Java Script tutorial
Khan Academy Introduction to Java Script tutorial

Beyond the numbers of students participating, teachers receiving training, and courses being offered, student experiences with technology are shifting as a result of the Hour of Code. According to Dominic Caguoia, a Resource Specialist at Western Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, "The greatest impact of the Hour of Code on our students is their ability to now use technology and programs and applications at a more discriminating level...The Hour of Code has inspired our kids to become producers of technology and media, and not merely consumers." To support these efforts, twenty-five Western teachers have been trained on the Code.org K-5 level 1, and have implemented that course this school year. They are in the process of moving on to the level 2 course. (See here for course info.) These courses are helping students to gain an introduction to key computing concepts like sequences, loops, conditionals, and algorithms.

To continue the momentum that has emerged from the Hour of Code, Code.org and school leaders will need to continue to look for ways to develop teacher capacity at the secondary levels, especially as the learning demands increase with more advanced CS content. In particular, they will need to find ways to onramp teachers in less populated areas who do not have many in-person learning opportunities and may lack the understanding of CS concepts. The new AP Computer Science Principles course, along with courses like Exploring Computer Science (disclosure: I used to be the project director for this program) are such courses that provide an entry point for interested teachers at the high school level, and can allow them to get their feet wet in CS education.

Opportunities for teachers to gain professional development in these courses, particularly in places that are not "partnership districts" with Code.org, will need to be made to fully leverage this CS learning moment in time. These opportunities will help teachers to understand the importance of equitable and inquiry-based teaching and learning of computer science, and how they can be enacted to support the learning of all students, not just those who are already "into it." These two items are critical as they put the focus on the students and their learning, not the teacher and what they know and can do. If this is not done then there is a danger of teachers picking up a free curriculum but not implementing it with the beliefs and pedagogy needed to engage and support the learning of all students. This will make the Hour of Code a learning event that is temporary not ongoing.

The Hour of Code has activated an unprecedented CS learning movement for students and teachers alike. It is up to the larger education community to turn the "hour" into days and weeks, months, and years for all students.

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