Opinion
Federal Commentary

Teaching Computer Science Is Great, But It’s Not Enough

By Florence R. Sullivan & Jill Denner — June 20, 2017 4 min read

Self-driving cars, robot-assisted surgery, automated news writing, a huggable, humanoid Mickey Mouse character at Disney World—these are just a few examples of the many ways computer science is changing the way we live, work, learn, and play. This push toward the automation of tasks and jobs, and the creation of more intelligent technologies that can simulate human decisions and emotions, has substantial benefits for society. Many technological innovations are advancing health care, public safety, communication, education, and science, and are improving the quality of life for those who have access to them.

There is no one better to access these tools than the students who will shape the technology of our future. In recent years, the dizzying pace of technological innovation has motivated a surge of interest in creating quality computer-science-education experiences for all K-12 students in the United States. In early 2016, President Barack Obama announced the Computer Science for All initiative, which called for more than $4 billion in federal funding to expand computer science in elementary, middle, and high school.

Education Should Threaten Tech's Status Quo How to teach students to question the role of technology

Though Congress never set aside the proposed $4 billion, the initiative set in motion a new focus on computer science, triggering change across the country. Some states, including Arkansas, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia, now require all high schools to teach computer science, while districts such as San Francisco are teaching computer science at all grade levels. And we are both members of the CSforAll Consortium, a hub for the initiative, which is made up of more than 230 organizations that are continuing to connect schools, funders, and researchers together.

There is still much work to do, however. In an ongoing, multiyear study on computer science education conducted by Google and Gallup, researchers found that although students, parents, teachers, and school administrators value computer science, it is still not offered in many schools. This is because of a lack of time, funding, and qualified teachers. Only 25 percent of schools nationwide reported offering a computer science class in 2014-15, and while that number rose to 40 percent in 2015-16, we are still years away from providing sufficient computer science education in all schools.

As educational researchers focused on computer science learning, we welcome the push by more districts to teach the discipline to students. But we believe that our nation’s current conception of computer science education does not go far enough. It is not sufficient to simply give more students access. As computer science continues to expand, we advocate for educators to teach functional computer science literacy, just as the field of science education has spent decades refining an approach to teaching socio-scientific reasoning (which integrates learning science content in the context of real-world issues).

We must teach children not just to think about how to design and program a particular technology."

In fact, Kamau Bobb, a program officer for the National Science Foundation, raised a red flag last year that without critical analysis and redress of existing educational inequities, Obama’s computer science initiative might result in more for the “haves” and less for the “have-nots,” and may actually undermine equity and inclusion in computing fields. This concern is palpable when one considers the fact that in 2014, according to Fortune, the leadership teams of nine powerhouse technology companies in the United States were overwhelmingly male (about 70 percent to 90 percent) and overwhelmingly white (about 65 percent to 85 percent). Greater attention must be paid to the disproportionate influence that a small group of people have over how the rest of us think, feel, and behave. We have an urgent need for an educated populace that will question, push back, and transform these technological innovations toward equitable and ethical uses in society.

Because of this, we must teach children not just to think about how to design and program a particular technology, but to consider its potential role and impact on society. Schools have a strong need to infuse critical thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of using technological innovations. Computer science educators should prepare students not only to learn computer science concepts and practices, but also how to deal with pressing ethical questions related to the capabilities of technology—including mass surveillance, the spreading of fake news through social media, malicious hacking, and the loss of jobs to automation.

They should also help students think about the ethical implications of creating technologies from few perspectives versus multiple perspectives, of using communications technologies to watch people versus reach out to people, and of using algorithmic trading to amass fortune versus investing in companies that provide a product or service useful to society.

Consideration of the ethical and social issues related to computer science should be woven throughout a computer science curriculum. And the teaching of ethics should be rooted in our shared democratic values of participation, representation, and justice. Fulfilling the promise laid out by Obama’s initiative to truly make computer science education a priority should continue to be the work of states and districts around the country. But without addressing the ethical issues engendered by our technological innovations, computer science for K-12 students will not live up to its full potential.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as Why Don’t We Do a Better Job of Teaching Computer Science?

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