Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Tech Companies and Computer Science Education

It’s Computer Science Education week and my social media streams (blogs, Facebook and Twitter) are full of the news. The president was part of an event at the White House yesterday and wrote a line of code for example. Some of this is actually making it to the regular news media which is nice. Apple stores and Microsoft stores are holding events. This is a regular thing for Microsoft but less common for Apple but its still good. Google has been promoting the event as well. So I have been thinking about the relationship between the tech industry and CS Education this week. CS Ed Week is a great thing and I am glad we have it BUT what about the other 51 weeks of the year?
Tech companies have a vested interest in promoting computer science education. While many people, including a lot of tech founders, learn computing on their own that is not a reliable or sufficient way to produce the growing numbers of people in the field that we need. The idea of pushing for more CS education because of jobs is not without controversy. Likewise the idea of the tech (or any) industry influencing curriculum can be contentious. (See this article on Politico – Seeking coders, tech titans turn to schools )
When I was working at Microsoft I often heard concern about the company just being in it to get more people on their platform. And of course that was part of the goal though there was, certainly on my part, a belief that the tools were good and helpful for teaching concepts.
The question becomes complex. Should tech companies be working on helping to promote and expand CS education? If so, how should they do it?
Aside from Google and Microsoft there are not many companies putting a lot of effort into supporting CS Education. Apple’s store events this week are pretty much the first and only thing I have heard from them on the topic. What are they doing?
Arguably Google is doing the most. At least the most that isn't as directly tied in to their products. Their CS4HS program provides grants to “colleges, universities, and non-profits dedicated to providing relevant, high-quality professional development opportunities for computer science teachers.” They've spent a lot of money on that.   And they have other programs for students such as made with code which is specifically aimed at girls in tech.
Google and Microsoft both support the Computer Science Teachers Association and have supported the annual CSTA Conference. Oracle is the third big tech sponsor of the CSTA BTW. Not many others which is a disappointment to me at least.
This week Microsoft announced MSFT Imagine, “for those who love to code & turn creative ideas into reality!” It looks to be mostly for the self-learner and not about CS education in schools. Their YouthSpark program similarly seems more about outside of school though it does include some inside  school programs.
The Microsoft sponsored TEALS program which places software professionals in classrooms is very impressive. I especially like that one of the goals is to prepare full-time teachers to take over teaching CS after working with the s/w professional.
On a personal level I would like to see Microsoft do more. Two years ago I wrote a post -  Advice to Microsoft Education Marketing–Computer Science – none of which do they appear to have taken. In fact one site I recommend there is no longer available in that form. So that gives you an idea of my influence there.
A lot of industry money these days is funneled though code.org. And code.org is doing some wonderful things. They have hired great people (several are personal friends of mine) and they are creating some great resources. They are also training a lot of teachers and we need a lot of training for teachers. They have built upon years of lobbying by CSTA and others and helped get CS recognized in more states in the last several years. I suspect many in the tech field would argue that funding code.org is enough. I’m not sure I would agree.
For one thing CSTA could use more support. The annual CSTA Conference.is so much more than just professional development – workshops and sessions. It is a major networking and sharing event that helps build and empower the community of computer science educators. I wish more people could attend it. Perhaps some company could fund some scholarships to make it easier for first time attendees to get to it. And that is just one way to help CSTA.
There is a saying that people should think globally and act locally. Supporting Code.org or CSTA is definitely thinking globally. But there is a lot that companies could do locally.
There seems to be a lot going on in New York City though the NYC Foundation for Computer Science Education. The venture capitalist Fred Wilson has been a huge part of getting NYC area companies involved in CS education. And companies are involved there with schools and students by supplying mentors, hosting hackathons, field trips and visits to schools.
In Massachusetts the MASSTLC EDUCATION FOUNDATION has been created to encourage computer education in the state. It’s still early but has been having and promoting events and working with non-profits such as MASSCan and CSTA in various ways. Public/private partnerships are going to be especially important until we get more public support for CS education programs.
The important thing in my opinion is for industry to work with educators and not try to dictate or replace educators. Education does not and indeed can not work the same as industry. The knowledge that educators bring to the table about teaching and what has already been tried – successfully or unsuccessfully – is important and has to be respected. Subject area knowledge, which companies often do have in abundance, is not the same as the ability to present it to different types/ages of students. Teamwork is important.

3 comments:

Chris Stephenson said...

Thanks for a great post, Alfred. Google is very proud to be a sponsor of the 2015 CSTA annual conference because we believe passionately in what it stands for...the power of the practitioner and the importance of communities of practice.

Mike Zamansky said...

I love the attention that CS Ed is getting but i'm very concerned that most of the influence I see is VERY top down while support for grass roots developed programs like mine is close to nil.

Top down education never works (see NCLB & RTTT).

I think part of the problem is that the business people and teachers think very differently and what makes a person good and successful at one doesn't necessarily translate to the other.

From above we hear about drop in curricula, turn key programs, and infinite scaling but those of us in the trenches know that the most important thing is the teacher and that education scales, but not the way a startup does.

I'm particularly leery of the groups that will have the most influence -- I for one have been particularly unimpressed with Google's forays into K12 ed.

On the other hand, when you've got a local guy like Fred who really tries to connect with what's actually going on at ground level and tries to support what's working rather than impose something on a whim, then you have a real win (full disclosure - I consider Fred a supporter and friend and while I don't agree with all the programs he's supported, I am grateful that NY has a guy like him taking up the fight for CS Ed).

In the post you referred to you mentioned Microsoft training some rock star CS teachers - I'd love to see the powers that be actually support us rock star teachers where we are and help us grow out our success.

Alfred Thompson said...

Mike, I share your concern about the top down approach. One of the things I tried to do at Microsoft was to work with and support individual teachers.
If companies look at how things spread in education they will see that bottom up tends to work better than bottom down. That is why Google Docs has a bigger following than Microsoft OneDrive in education. Google won teachers who won districts for them.
In the long run I think local champions like Fred in NYC will have a large influence because they work locally and are willing to work bottom up.
There are a lot of rock star teachers and while companies like Google, Microsoft and even Apple have programs to support them generally they don't reach well into the CS education space. Great for general education but not so great for CS education. I've seen a lot of innovation from CS teachers who are real rock stars but without help to share what they are doing (CSTA conference helps but is not enough) their ideas don't get the wide spread attention they should.