How computer science education bridges the digital divide
Amid the havoc that the pandemic wreaked on our lives, there were important lessons to be learned. It proved that people skilled with technology could navigate and succeed, and that many of the potential problems of the future could be solved by technology.
Many institutions and people who embraced technology survived–and in some cases, thrived. But for those without digital skills or access to a computer and an internet connection, it was a very different story.
During the pandemic, the term ‘homework gap’ was used to describe children without reliable or any access to the internet and appropriate digital devices and who were unable to complete their assignments. At the beginning of the pandemic, an estimated 15 million public school students in the US lacked the connectivity needed for online learning. This gap was especially pronounced in low-income, Black, and Hispanic households. As nearly every school adopted some form of online learning, students without computers and connectivity suffered. Schools worked hard to address this situation, but for others, they could only watch their students struggle and fall behind.
In an increasingly digital world, not having technology skills can drastically reduce your options in life. Computer science has the potential to level this playing field and prepare students for the future. While the easiest entry point for schools is offering programming classes, the subject encompasses a wide range of areas. We use Computer science to visualize and analyze data, design, and develop complex, yet intuitive, visual interfaces for digital tools. Ultimately, we approach the problems and ideas of life with a mind honed for computational thought; decomposing ideas into smaller steps, thinking about the problem in both specific and general forms, looking for and simplifying patterns, and ultimately creating a dynamic solution.
It seems incredible that in this context, teachers like me are still having to fight to teach computer science in their schools. It remains a subject that only half of high schools teach and just 5 percent of students study.
There are complex reasons for this. Because computer science is not mandatory in the vast majority of US states (required in only five), it demands teachers who are already passionate and educated in the subject to advocate that coding classes be taught. Not all teachers are comfortable teaching computer science if they don’t have the skills themselves. Finally, affordability is a major barrier. Between software licences and acquiring the proper hardware, teaching computer science can be very expensive.
These challenges are real, but they are not insurmountable. Indeed, our education system has no choice but to adapt. I often tell my students, “I’m not preparing you to solve the opportunities of today, I’m helping you prepare to solve the unimaginable opportunities of your tomorrow.” If we want to build the technically skilled workforce that the future demands and prepare young people to succeed, technology skills must be a top priority.
In my local Connecticut, schools are answering the call. Today, the Connecticut Computer Science Dashboard states 92 percent of Connecticut students have access to computer science courses or curricular learning opportunities and 88 percent of Connecticut districts are offering some form of computer science course.
Despite the availability of courses, only 12 percent of Connecticut students are taking them. We needed to make computer science accessible and appealing for everyone.
Teaching through game design
Like other CSTA chapters, CSTA Connecticut was established as a local computer science community. We work to connect computer science teachers, provide professional development, and share the latest best practices in K-12 computer science education.
To entice students into trying computer science, we worked with our schools to widen the range of courses available. Being a lifelong player of games, both board and electronic, I wanted to create a video game class. We now run two courses: ‘Introduction to game design’ and ‘Advanced game design.’ The first one is decidedly a ‘platformer’ course, where every student is required to figure out how to build a traditional ‘platform’ game in Construct 3. The advanced course, however, is organized like a real-world game studio. Each student chooses a role such as coder, artist, musician, game designer and producer. The game teams then work together to create whatever style of game that each team collectively chooses to make.
This intuitive way to approach game development is proving to be exceedingly beneficial to students with special educational needs and to multi-language learners. Construct 3 is simple enough for learners who are newer to coding, but holds greater functionality for advanced courses, allowing students to develop at their own speed, and to go far.
In 2022, only 24 percent of Connecticut students participating in a computer science course identified as female. Additionally, just 11 percent Identified as Black, 19 percent Hispanic, and 0.1 percent were Native American.
Students from underrepresented backgrounds need extra encouragement to try computer science and reap equal benefits from computing skills. Dispelling stereotypes has proven essential, as many students, especially girls, still believe that computer science ‘isn’t for them,’ ‘that’s for boys,’ or because ‘it’s too hard’ and ‘only involves sitting at a computer screen.’
Once students learn that computer science can also lead to a career in things like entrepreneurship, automotive design, healthcare, music journalism, fashion, or sports analysis, they may be more receptive to the career opportunities that come with computer science and offer them an escape from their current reality. Because these career opportunities are so wide, computer science can and should support greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. With the right skills, any student could almost walk out of school and into a highly lucrative career.
Introducing teachers to computer science
Considering the limited definition of computer science and its largely optional status, schools depend on teachers who are personally interested in coding. The competence of the untrained computer science teachers in our state was remarkable, and I wanted to help them take their courses to the next level. Exploring options for game development, I found Construct 3 to be the clear winner. Its intuitive user interface combines both block-based and text-based programming, so students can switch between the two as they progress. This makes it ideal for both students who have never seen a line of code and highly competent developers in upper high school grades. Its intuitive functionality means that teachers with no prior experience can also jump in and work with the students.
Our computer science courses needed to be accessible to all students, including those without connectivity or a sophisticated device. We’ve been able to bridge this digital divide by seeking an accessible platform: Construct 3 can be downloaded for use offline and can run on inexpensive Chromebooks. This helps eliminate the homework gap by giving every student the opportunity develop their skills, irrespective of their household income.
Organizations such as the National Center for Women in Technology and our own local higher education institutions are also closing these opportunity gaps through various scholarships and affordable courses.
In addition to formal academic training, many schools and libraries will be have hosted an ‘Hour of Code’ during National Computer Science Education week from December 5th. These fun and casual events give children a taste of being creative with technology. Websites like Code.org will hosted free online coding challenges and CyberStart America ran a free online cybersecurity competition for high school aged students. Our own Lt. Governor’s Computing challenge offers many levels of entry for grades 3 through 12. Participating in an Hour of Code or online competition is a brilliant way for schools to test the waters of what a computer science course can look like.
Inequality in the US will not disappear overnight. To bridge the ‘homework gap’ and give disadvantaged students an equal opportunity for success in the modern world, schools must be able to teach them computer science. Every student should finish the school knowing not just how to consume with technology, but also how to create with it. By showing students the joy of mastering tech and programming, they will enter adulthood hungry, and ready to seize all the opportunities of the digital revolution.
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