Outlier Research & Evaluation conducted a study of the status of implementation and the factors affecting implementation of the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) curriculum in Spring 2015. This report describes findings from interviews with high school teachers in Code.org partner schools. The interviews focused on the teachers’ experiences implementing the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) curriculum. The interview asked about essential supports and barriers to teaching introductory computer science; the influence of the Code.org PD on their teaching of CS; student interest and engagement in CS; and how teachers modified or supplemented the ECS materials. Additionally, teachers were asked to describe how Code.org could further support their efforts to implement ECS and sustain computer science in their schools.
Sample: We interviewed 23 high school teachers in three regions (Broward County, New York City, and Chicago). All teachers had taught at least one section of ECS in the 2014-2015 school year.
A Note About Quantities: These findings are based on an interview sample of 23 high school teachers. In this report, “a few” means 3 or 4 teachers reported a finding, “several” means at least five teachers reported a finding, “many” means at least 10 teachers reported a finding, and “most” indicates that 15 or more teachers reported a finding. Not all teachers were asked all questions due to time constraints.
The teachers who were interviewed had a range of experience in teaching ECS; computer science or technology; and teaching in general. Of the teachers who reported on their ECS teaching experience (21 of 23), many had just finished their first year of ECS implementation (13 of 21). The rest (8 of 21) had 2-4 years of ECS teaching experience. That said, several first-time ECS teachers had taught other computer science or computer-related courses in the past, including programming, software (e.g., Microsoft Office), and web design. There was a broad range of computer science teaching experience represented, ranging from 0 to 30 years. However, ECS was the first CS teaching experience for several teachers, and for one teacher, the first time teaching anything.
Teachers also reported a variety of educational backgrounds. Several had computer science certifications; others had B.A.s and M.A.s in computer science; and several had neither. Other backgrounds included business, math, music, and elementary education.
Teaching ECS was a top-down decision from principals and school administrators for many teachers in this sample. In several cases, newly formed school and district partnerships with Code.org created a need for ECS teachers, and in a few cases, these teachers were the only existing computer science or technology teachers at their school, making them the default choice. Others volunteered to teach once school administrators presented the opportunity. A couple of teachers reported a more ground-up approach, where they approached their school leaders and proposed teaching the ECS curriculum. One teacher reported, “Nobody else wanted to” teach it, so he took on the course.
The Code.org/ECS in-person workshops were key supports for many of the interviewed teachers. The Code.org/ECS workshops are made up of four phases: Phase 1 is online only; Phase 2 is a week-long, in-person workshop during the summer; Phase 3 contains four one-day, in-person workshops distributed throughout the school year; and Phase 4 is another week-long, in-person summer workshop.
In general, teachers felt the in-person workshops, especially the week-long summer PD (Phase 2), were more effective and beneficial than the online Phase 1, with 11 of the 16 teachers asked preferring the in-person environment. Only 1 of the 16 teachers said she would have liked Phase 2 and 3 to be online because the online PD helped her connect more with the curriculum and share resources with others.
Teachers especially appreciated both the hands-on nature of these in-person workshops and the opportunity to connect with other ECS teachers to share experiences and resources. As one teacher noted, “having that window where I can interact with and practice some of the strategies they’ve [teachers] used…we would exchange information and I would use that information and come back to my classroom [with it].” This was especially true for newer CS teachers as the PD provided them the opportunity to work alongside more veteran CS teachers, who became critical supports for their ECS implementation.
Additionally, the workshops provided clarity into the curriculum and pedagogy of ECS, especially for teachers new to the curriculum. Teachers felt they left the PD with a better understanding of the materials and how to apply them to their classrooms, as well as the broader ECS philosophies of inquiry and equity. One teacher said that the PD “provides insight” and that this “helped out a lot” by showing teachers how concepts connect, and how to cope when “you don’t get it right off the bat.” Further, another teacher said, “I think it's mission critical that our new teachers and/or if you're going to be teaching ECS for the first time that you actually go to the PD.” Several teachers also believed that continued PD would benefit the sustainability and effectiveness of CS education.
As explained above, teachers appreciated having the opportunity to engage with and learn from other teachers at the in-person PD workshops. For teachers who were lucky enough to have others at their school teaching some type of CS, they reported varying levels of collaboration, and that they used each other as supports. As one teacher expressed, “I'm also just a beneficiary of the fact that there's other computer science teachers here at this school. There are colleagues for me to collaborate with.” For another teacher, the support came in the form of physical resources shared among CS teachers, noting, “We have shared folders, if somebody's having an issue, we have a collaboration folder … it's more of putting the resources together rather than having conversations.”
Teachers who did not have CS colleagues at their schools sought out support from fellow teachers in neighboring schools, and local and national organizations. Several teachers remarked on the “ECS community,” noting that having others teaching the same curriculum, even if they are not physically present at the same school, is a critical support to their teaching practice. As one teacher expressed,
I love the fact that through ECS I’ve come in contact with a close-knit community of teachers that are teaching the same subject matter. It has allowed us to create a good working relationship where we feel comfortable sharing strategies that worked, didn’t work, things that had to be modified. All of that was wonderful this year, and I did not have that before.
Many teachers reported using online groups and forums to supplement in-person support, especially if they lacked immediate in-person resources at their school. As one teacher remarked, “For curriculum questions or just bouncing ideas off of people, I’ve got to go out to the Google groups…saying, ‘I'm struggling with this. How do you guys get around this?’ It's that broader community that I have to look to.” Several teachers reported using online groups set up through Code.org PD workshops, while others reported using non-Code.org affiliated forums. In both cases, the online environment offered teachers a broader network of resources than they had available at their schools.
More experienced teachers spoke about providing support to other through online forums. One teacher spoke about his expertise with HTML, and how “it [HTML] is not a problem for me, but other teachers are asking about how they need assistance with getting students to understand HTML.”
More than half of interviewed teachers (12 of 23) reported that a lack of material resources and infrastructure limited the extent to which they could implement ECS. Teachers lacked general resources like computers and Internet access; as well as manipulatives, including robots and lego blocks (used for some activities in ECS). Teachers reported that their school computers were outdated, or that they didn’t always have access to computers due to school testing in other subject areas. One teacher noted, “They sometimes take you out of class because they use the computer labs for testing. I think I was pulled out eight times.” Teachers reported that some students did not have access to computers at home, making it difficult for them to complete homework. Additionally, several teachers mentioned that a lack of strong Internet connectivity and school firewalls prevented them from accessing some online ECS materials. As one teacher said, “At home I was able to access everything. I came to school and the website is blocked.”
In terms of manipulatives, 5 of the 23 teachers specifically mentioned either having to modify or not use the robotics unit due to insufficient access to the robots specified in the ECS curriculum. One teacher said that even obtaining cheaper, but suitable, robots was a huge barrier, as his school provided no budget for CS classes. He remarked, “It's [not having a budget] a huge barrier. Your attitude is fantastic and all that kind of stuff, but I can't get anything through. I can’t get a screwdriver.”
Often teachers found themselves with students who either did not have much CS background or had more advanced CS backgrounds, leading them to modify the curriculum to fit the particular needs of their students. As one teacher remarked, “although there's a curriculum set that ECS has developed, because of the different diversities, learning styles, and so forth, everything doesn't just flow as well as the developers of the curriculum may think.”
Several teachers reported that the ECS curriculum was too advanced for their student population that lacked basic computer skills. This resulted in more time spent on lessons, skipping lessons all together, or teachers having to supplement the curriculum with basic skills, including touch-typing and Microsoft Word. As one teacher said, “They have to type up all these HTML documents, and they have poor to no typing skills. There's no typing class, which is another problem we have, so it takes forever for them to type things that for me it would only take a few seconds.”
Similarly, another teacher described how only 5 of his 70 students could touch type, noting, “I think that needs to be taught or reviewed before you start teaching this program, because if they're going to program at the end in computer science...If they know the keyboard, they're going a heck of a lot faster.” As one teacher further described, “We see that there are a lot of assumptions that are made for these [ECS] curriculums, and it serves as a barrier of entry for those that aren't there yet.”
On the other hand, several teachers remarked that the curriculum was too easy for their students. One teacher described how he could not teach HTML “Bold” tag for an entire lesson, noting it would take only three minutes in his class because the students were more advanced. He supplemented the lessons by delving deeper into concepts or adding more challenging activities and assignments. For example, the curriculum calls for creating a summer story in Scratch but the teacher described how she made the project more elaborate and changed it into a movie assignment. Similarly, one teacher felt that the curriculum was designed for students who do not have backgrounds or opportunities to learn CS, which is not the case at his school. Thus, the teacher skipped lessons and used his own CS knowledge “to beef up that unit [web design] and expose my kids to more stuff.”
Some teachers reported that their own lack of CS content knowledge limited their ability to implement the ECS curriculum to the level they wanted. As one teacher said, “the content…that was the hardest part for me… I do not have that computer science degree; I don’t even know if they were teaching computer science [when I went to school].” Similarly, another teacher reported how not having a CS background made it more difficult to troubleshoot lessons and concepts before presenting them to students. She even admitted, “to tell you the truth, many times I don't know exactly what to do.”
While all teachers at a base level said they understood the notions of inquiry and equity, several teachers encountered difficulties implementing these teaching approaches. With inquiry in particular, several teachers remarked that the process took a lot longer, especially when students were unfamiliar with the inquiry process to being with. One teacher said,
They're [students] accustomed to the old standard way of teaching, just taking notes, listening, and regurgitating it for a test. I think they aren't accustomed to the thinking outside the box and the exploring and seeing what will happen and developing a perception and defending their persecution.
Yet even teachers who struggled with implementing inquiry and equity saw the value of inquiry in the learning process, with one teacher noting: “It takes more class time for students to come up with something themselves than it would for me to state it in five minutes, but the retention is so much great[er]. The impact on their other learning is so much greater.”
In terms of equitable teaching practices in the classroom, teachers struggled with adapting the material to accommodate all levels of students. For example, one teacher noted, “it's hard to figure out what to do with the kids with very different academic levels of achievement…I haven't learned anything from the ECS curriculum that helps me with that.” As with inquiry, one teacher remarked that consistently ensuring that she used equitable teaching practices took significant time.
Another teacher reported that while he believes in equity, he struggles with implementing it when some students are genuinely not interested in computer science. He described reconciling feelings of failure with the understanding that it may not be possible to reach all students equally.
While several teachers used supplemental materials, such as YouTube videos, TEDX talks, and CS Unplugged activities to help clarify specific CS concepts, many teachers described supplementing the curriculum with real-world examples of CS in practice to provide a broader context of CS outside of the course. Several teachers reported using news articles and current events as a way to make CS relevant. One teacher described using articles about the lack of computer scientists in the US as a way to get students interested, while another used media to display inequity in CS.
Another teacher described taking students outside of the classroom on field trips to familiar companies like Google “so that they [students] could see first-hand that environment.” While this teacher was unique in this sample in that he had access to those resources for extended learning opportunities, other teachers also drew on outside resources to enhance the applicability of the curriculum to students. For example, one teacher regularly brought in news articles about data visualization, human-computer interaction, and examples of minorities in computing careers to her classroom. Another teacher worked with the App Inventor program instead of using robotics for some lessons. Several teachers reported adding Microsoft Office because they felt it would help students toward their software certifications as well as help them in other subjects where they would need to use word processing and spreadsheets.
In many schools, ECS was an elective, and teachers explained that students selected the course based on individual interest. In a few cases, students were placed in the class because their state test scores determine their core classes, and electives are filled in around those requirements. In other cases, teachers said ECS was a requirement, primarily in technical or vocational high schools, where ECS served as an introductory course for students on the technology track.
The range of ways students ended up in ECS classes means students were not always particularly interested in CS. As one teacher explained for his particular course, “Maybe 10% have some true interest in CS…then there's probably 20% who just tell me every day, ‘I'm not good with computers.’”
Though students come to ECS from a range of experience levels and interest, several teachers believed that all students would benefit from taking CS. One teacher explained that while he highly encourages students who already have an interest in STEM and computer science to take ECS, he “strongly believe[s] that everyone should have an experience in computing in high school” and encourages everyone to take a CS course. Similarly, another teacher noted that ECS provides a “clean slate” since many students have never taken a formal CS course prior to high school. Unlike core subjects where many students have already passed judgment on whether or not they like math or are good at reading, this teacher thought that ECS offered students a chance to explore a new subject area and decide for themselves if they wanted to pursue it further.
Many teachers felt that the programming units, especially those that included emphasis on HTML and Scratch, were of the greatest interest to students. Teachers felt that programming allowed students to “just try things out, make mistakes, explore things.” Several teachers described how the opportunity to create things engaged students, with one teacher noting, “What got them all excited was being able to create in HTML, in Scratch, in making a robot do something.”
On the other hand, teachers consistently reported that students were not as interested in the initial work in Units 1 and 2. Several teachers remarked that students were frustrated because they were not doing what they thought of as “real” computer science. As one teacher said, “I heard more than a few times early on in the year, ‘Isn't this a computer science class? Where are the computers?’ That's part of the ECS shtick. You can kind of play it off and explain it away, but when it comes down to it I also agree with them.’”
In general, teachers were open to and excited about the possibility of working with industry partners in myriad ways, believing such partnerships could enhance the frequency and quality of computer science education for their students. Several teachers mentioned how industry partners could help make CS more relevant to their students by providing real-world examples of CS in action. Teachers suggested having computer scientists come speak to their class about what their job entails and what it takes to be a computer scientist, as well as offer demonstrations of how CS is relevant to every day life.
Others described having industry partners put on workshops and events, and host interns as a way to extend computer science learning beyond the confines of the school day. Several teachers also mentioned desiring financial support from partners to buy sufficient computer hardware and materials, like robots, to better implement the ECS program.