On Wednesday, September 25, 2013, authors of the Building an Operating System report presented their findings in a special webinar.
Watch that webinar here.
Building an operating system for
Computer Science Education
Five Challenges and Call to Action
The “Building an Operating System for Computer Science” (OS4CS) study
was designed as a collaborative research and communication effort to establish a more comprehensive understanding of our nation’s current high school computer science (CS) teaching population, the support they have, and contexts in which they teach. The OS4CS study has five major components: (1) the Professional Development (PD) Landscape Study; (2) the Teacher Capacity Study; (3) Stories from the Field; (4) the CS in Schools Study; and (5) the Design Studio. While each component of the study can be examined independently, when considered together they complement each other, providing a broad view of the issues affecting CS education as viewed through the lenses of different stakeholders. The study includes perspectives from teachers, PD providers, school administrators, community leaders, and others.
This section highlights five major challenges that repeatedly surfaced across the five study components. The order of the challenges presented below is not an indication of importance or priority; all are important to consider in efforts to improve the state of K-12 CS education.
There is no shared understanding of what computer science is
Computer science has no commonly accepted definition; teachers, students, school leaders, and PD providers, interpret it in different ways. Some view computer science as computer applications; others consider it programming; and still others describe it as logic, modeling, and problem-solving. These different points of view contribute to a lack of coherence in the instructional resources and supports provided for teachers, and inconsistency in instruction, the information communicated to parents, and policy decisions made by school administrators. These different points of view make it challenging to set the goals and metrics necessary to spread CS teaching, learning, and leading with intentionality and clarity.
Recommendation: The CS education community needs to come to agreement on what is worth knowing in CS and when it should be learned in a student’s academic career. It should invest in the development of robust measures of student learning, and use these to help describe what quality CS teaching and learning looks like. While there have been efforts to establish some standards in K-12 CS education, they have not been widely embraced — and standards are only one piece of what’s needed. To build the foundation, the CS education community needs to develop widely agreed upon standards for student CS learning and ways to measure them. This would guide CS educators toward quality curricula, assessments, professional development, and teaching practices, and in turn enable them to clearly communicate about and advocate for CS education.
More comprehensive, quality, instructional resources are needed
“Instructional resources” refers to coherent sets of curricula and pedagogical resources to inform instruction and teachers’ knowledge of student progress. CS teachers do not have access to the range of quality instructional resources that teachers of other subjects enjoy.
Recommendation: Support development of comprehensive instructional materials. Like other subjects and in many cases even more so, students entering CS courses typically bring with them vastly different backgrounds and levels of experience. A variety of instructional resources will support schools and teachers in making decisions about how best to meet the needs of their CS students. These instructional materials should reflect the growing knowledge about how students learn and be informed by knowledge about design and implementation of instructional resources on a large scale, though more research is needed about CS-specific aspects of these. In other disciplines, well-designed instructional materials not only help students learn, but also help teachers improve their practice. Instructional materials will support more specific, job-embedded teacher professional development and provide teachers with assessment tools that can inform their teaching on a daily basis.
Computer science is not prioritized in schools
There is little incentive for schools and districts to include CS courses. There are no requirements at the college level, few state requirements, and the basic course materials (computers) are expensive to purchase and maintain. The decision to include CS courses falls to individuals at the school or district level. Coupled with the lack of instructional materials, this can result in vastly different experiences for students across the country. CS courses also tend to be ephemeral, leaving schools if funding is reduced or if CS teachers leave the school, a phenomenon directly tied to CS courses’ lack of priority.
Recommendation: Establish policies that enable schools and districts to prioritize CS coursework so that all students have access to quality CS education. These policies should be developed with careful consideration of other student learning requirements and students’ schedules, and pay careful attention to the change management issues that will arise within schools as a result of their implementation.
There is a need for more computer science teachers
There are few pathways to become a CS teacher. Furthermore, there is little incentive for pre-service teachers to commit to teaching CS, as schools and districts generally don’t prioritize CS coursework. Individuals with CS experience have many career options other than teaching. Those with an interest in teaching will find more resources, education leading to certification, and support in other related subjects such as mathematics.
Recommendation: In the short and medium term, develop and deploy strategies to help existing teachers become excellent CS teachers. In the long term, one can expect that when CS courses are prioritized and accompanied by robust standards, curricula, and teacher professional development, CS teaching will emerge as a viable path. These changes may increase the number of teachers entering into CS teaching careers.
Computer science teachers are isolated
CS teachers don’t have colleagues close by to share ideas, information about the discipline, or provide instructional support and coaching. The lack of colleagues as collaborators and sources of new information about CS instruction is then compounded by the low prioritization of CS in schools, the lack of instructional materials, and the lack of criteria for quality CS instruction. This makes improving their instruction more difficult and can affect motivation.
Recommendation: Dedicate resources to build and sustain online and face-to-face networks for CS teaching, learning, and leading, including teachers, schools, and PD providers. If well designed, such networks have the potential to support improvement across school, district, and state lines.
To the Computer Science Education Community:
It has been a privilege and pleasure to engage with the computer science community developing the components of our study: “Building an Operating System for Computer Science Education.” This community is strikingly thoughtful, committed, and seemingly tireless in efforts to bring quality computer science education to all students. We are hopeful that the work we have done will create a foundation for next steps and that we can continue to work within the community to realize that goal.
We came to this work with collective decades of experience with mathematics and science education, teaching, research, evaluation, administration, policy-making, and scientific research, but with little knowledge of computer science education and the computer science education community. We deeply appreciate the community’s willingness to orient us to key information, issues, and concerns, to get us back on track when we strayed, and to be so forthcoming with knowledge and experience that was essential to ensuring that our efforts would be valuable. This kind of collaboration and openness is not to be taken for granted and we appreciate the support the community provided.
As we reflect on this particular piece of work as it comes to a close, we look forward to continuing to work with this inspiring community. Over the next few months and years, we hope all of us can keep the following in mind:
Coherence is Essential: History shows that destructive debates about the content and pedagogy of mathematics teaching and learning stifled progress for schools and students. Likewise, science education has suffered from a lack of prioritization and insufficient clarity of purpose. The computer science community can avoid a similar history by bringing clear, coherent, committed messages about computer science education to policy makers, the public, and other decision makers. A unified voice and aligned actions from all aspects of the community — practicing scientists, researchers, university faculty, teachers, foundations, and corporate interests — is essential.
Attention Doesn’t Guarantee Quality: Computer science education is beginning to take off, benefitting from a population enamored with parts of the technology industry — much like science education was moved into the public consciousness with Sputnik. With this support, it may be easier to convince districts and states to give computer science education more attention. More attention, however, does not equal higher quality — and sometimes works against it. It’s essential to define what quality computer science education looks like, shared ways to measure it, and develop a common language to communicate about it. Without that clarity, others will bring their own meanings and agendas to the discussion.
Now is the Time: There is a groundswell of energy, commitment and momentum for computer science teaching, learning, and leading. Having watched trends come and go in other disciplines, we see this as an unprecedented opportunity to establish norms for computer science education for all. Given the newness of the discipline, setting the right foundation now will pave the way for tremendous gains in the future — something that the contemporary mathematics and science education communities never had the opportunity to do.
Our hope is that this research is useful to the community. We welcome comments and questions at any time and look forward to continuing to work with you to move the computer science education agenda forward.