Ed Week at AERA 2017: ‘Knowledge to Action,’ With an Eye on Computer Science

By Benjamin Herold — April 27, 2017 4 min read
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It’s that time of year again: More than 12,000 education researchers are descending on San Antonio for the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

As always, the jargon will be thick. If you want to learn about “posthuman literacies” or onto-epistemological challenges and possibilities when theorizing hybridized spaces of inquiry, boy, is this the conference for you.

Fortunately, Education Week will be on site to find (and, when necessary, translate) the research that matters for K-12 educators, administrators, and policymakers. All of our coverage will be tagged “AERA.” You can also follow our reporters’ coverage via the Twitters:

The overall theme of this year’s conference is “Knowledge to Action: Achieving the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity.” The meeting will include more than 2,500 sessions, with more than 200 invited speakers. Among the featured speakers are Harvard University’s Sara Lightfoot-Lawrence and AERA President Vivian L. Gadsden, of the University of Pennsylvania, who will speak on the “the promise of education research and the public trust.”

Here at Digital Education, our big focus will be on a wealth of emerging research on K-12 computer-science education. From state policy to AP exams to racial and gender disparities, it’s a topic that our good friends at Curriculum Matters have covered extensively. At AERA, we’ll be focused on new research into how to best assess students’ computer science skills, whether block- or text-based coding instruction is better for K-12 students, and how computer science instruction can best fit the needs of students with disabilities.

And perhaps the most immediately useful new paper in the field comes from a trio of researchers focused on a bigger question: Why are we pushing to make computer science education universal in the first place?

“It’s not often that we add an entirely new discipline into the school day,” Sara Vogel, a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, said in a pre-conference interview with co-author Rafi Santo (Indiana University at Bloomington.)

“We’re the generation of people who get to decide what that looks like, and we should do so intentionally,” Vogel said.

Along with Dixie Ching of New York University, Santo and Vogel will be presenting their paper titled “Visions of Computer Science Education: Unpacking Arguments for and Projected Impacts of CS4All Initiatives.

To date, they write, most of the “why computer science?” conversation has focused on workforce development. A prime example: former President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address.

But through conversations with 24 New York-based computer science “stakeholders” (including educators, researchers, developers, and policymakers), Ching, Santo, and Vogel developed a far more diverse taxonomy of reasons that people on the ground cite for teaching computer science to all children.

Among the non-workforce development rationales:

  • To promote equity and social justice (e.g., by cultivating the creation of technologies that can support social movements)
  • To support the development of broadly valuable “competencies,” such as computational thinking or the ability to analyze and understand complex systems
  • To prepare youth for political participation and prepare youth to understand how a technology-driven world works
  • Fun!

For district leaders and front-line educators, understanding the reasons why you’re introducing computer science into your school matter in a host of ways, Vogel and Santo said.

Most important, Vogel said, is that “vision shapes pedagogy.”

Does a workforce development lens make sense for 3rd graders?

How might an industry-oriented approach focused on hard IT skills differ in the classroom from an approach more geared towards engaging students in the idea that computer science is a tool to solve both local problems and global challenges, such as climate change?

What about programming as a vehicle for personal expression, instead of finding a career?

“I think advocates of computer-science education need to be careful, because there’s not going to be a job waiting on the other side for every kid,” Santo said. “Right now, this is getting institutionalized on the basis of rhetoric that is going to be pretty much impossible to deliver on.”

On any number of issues, policymakers, district leaders, and front-line educators often—understandably—end up focused on the here-and-now challenges of implementation. How will we find and train teachers? Do we have the necessary infrastructure? What curricula will we use?

One big value of educational research is that it can provide a basis to take a step back and ask some bigger questions. That’s as true for computer-science education as it will be for dozens of other topics at this year’s AERA.

Because at the end of the day, as Ching, Santo, and Vogel write, K-12 leaders don’t want their schools to be “ships without compasses, setting sail without knowing where they’re going.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.