Special Education Opinion

Forget Romance: Teach Me Ruby!

By Tom Segal — November 28, 2012 5 min read
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“Give a man* an iPad App and he will be stimulated for a day; teach a man* to code and he will be stimulated for a lifetime.”

The first time I was offered a course in a foreign language was back in 1998. I was in fifth grade, and my school year was divided into four quarters. Each quarter, my “language group” would rotate through a different course for a couple months at a time; basically just enough experience to get a taste of which language might interest us going forward. We were presented with four language options, including: Latin, Spanish, French, and “Lego Logo,” the latter of which may loosely have been described as an intro level computer programming course, but was realistically an extended exercise in building Legos and eventually flipping an on-switch (crossing fingers and praying that the wheels started spinning).

The course was, in a word, AWESOME.

Then sixth grade rolled around, and I had to choose a full time language course. To my great dismay, the pseudo computer programming I had done the previous year was no longer an option for me (apparently programming was just a tease for ten-year olds yearning to explore the depths of the 300-pound Mac sitting in front of them). So, I chose Spanish instead, took it through college, and can now safely report that I had some mediocre communications during my trip to Barcelona three years ago (what they speak there was basically a different language from the one I was taught, unfortunately). I am also pretty good at ordering tacos when I go to Texas.

By the time I graduated high school, the language program was beginning to explode. Our high school was offering languages as diverse as Ancient Greek and Farsi, and kids as young as first and second grade were being offered introductory courses in Mandarin.

And yet, computer programming was still reserved for the elite few that actively hung around the computer center, or those that dared take the leap into A.P. Comp Sci--but there seemed to be a significant resistance toward legitimate exposure of the student body to basic programming skills. I did not understand the resistance then, and I certainly don’t get it now. I can say without much hesitation that had I spent all those years learning to code instead of learning to speak Spanish, I would have gotten far more bang for my educational buck. Today, the romance languages seem a whole lot less, well, romantic.

This must change.

Not only is the language of coding being undersold to the student body at large, it is nearly nonexistent when it comes to minorities and females. Of all the troubling stats regarding the skills gap between genders and races, perhaps the most troubling is the following: No Hispanic female has scored a passing grade (3, 4, or 5) on the AP CS test in Georgia, Michigan, Indiana, South Carolina, or Alabama in the last six years.

Since our schools and districts appear content to leave the computer out of the language requirement for most schools across the country, the Ed-Tech world has begun to take it upon itself to bridge this gap and provide different routes to combat digital/programming illiteracy.

The most renowned of these programs is likely Codecademy, which has been endorsed by the likes of Michael Bloomberg and the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Codecademy is a very interesting solution for learners of any age to get a taste for the flavor of coding, as they can easily pick up where they left off on the platform from any location, and the platform itself is user-friendly and easily understood. The site has faced some criticism for its lack of pedagogy, but I look at it as a great tool to learn what goes into coding more so than a solution to turn you into the next Mark Zuckerberg.

CodeSchool offers a series of videos and challenges to help you strengthen your coding chops. Then there’s the School of Webcraft which offers Mozilla’s Open Badging Platform. Another cool new startup I have spoken with a bit is a company called Tynker (still in Alpha), which is looking to teach kids to write their own app on iOS.

Do any of these solutions truly teach a student to code? Possibly, with varying degrees of success. Mostly I think they have significant value in simply introducing kids to the idea of coding and demonstrating to them the unique opportunity to create that coding presents. My brief exposure to programming through making the wheels spin on a Lego car had me thoroughly giddy (and this was well before I understood the far-reaching implications of the internet, as most children do today). These programs (and others like them) are great at tapping into passion, and unlocking this passion may lead them to continue to pursue an interest in real coding.

Another type of solution I have recently been introduced to is that of Globaloria, a true curriculum that schools can incorporate directly into their offering without having to create a new course or department. Globaloria is a hybrid utilizing both a social and virtual learning network as well as in-person instruction to teach web-game production.

As opposed to simply going step-by-step through a set program of processes, Globaloria is a real, on-the-ground solution that teaches hard coding skills that then manifest themselves in the form of a computer game. These games are certainly more Oregon Trail than Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, but as someone that has spent roughly one thousand hours of my life shooting bucks and fording rivers, I can assure you that Oregon Trail is a darn fine standard to live up to (especially for a middle schooler).

Until the K-12 landscape wises up, gets its act together, and starts incorporating real coding into the standard curriculum (the younger the better), Ed-Tech vendors will continue to shoulder the load. Supplemental courses like Globaloria have the power to introduce legions of children to the skills that will drive the next generation workforce. Let’s hope the decision makers at districts across the country are taking note...

*This applies to ladies as well!

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