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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013

A Hack Education Project

Coding and "Making"

This post originally appeared on Hack Education on December 4, 2013. Part 5 of my Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2013 series.

In memory of Jeffrey McManus, founder of CodeLesson and friend

As with all of the trends I’m covering in my year-end review, neither the “Learn to Code” nor the “Maker Movement” are new. I’ll say it again: read Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms, published in 1980.

Last year, I wrote about “Learning to Code” and “The Maker Movement” in two separate trends post. This year, I’m combining the two. This decision shouldn’t be seen as an indication that interest in either has diminished. To the contrary.

There’s certainly been a surge this year in the number of organizations, companies, and initiatives trying to stir up and serve that interest. An abbreviated list of those in the news this year: Mozilla (which has continued to expand its Web literacy efforts, developing standards to help conceptualize and promote a better understanding of the Web); littleBits (which I chose as one of my favorite ed-tech startups in 2011 and which raised $11 million in investment this year); Raspberry Pi (another one of my favorite startups from 2011 which was used in a number of interesting projects and partnerships and which recently announced it has sold 2 million units); the Imagine Cup (Microsoft’s college-level programming competition, which expanded to younger students); Starter League (formerly known as Code Academy, which partnered with the Chicago Public Schools in order to teach teachers Web development); Thinkful (a tutoring startup for those learning programming); CodeHS (which won the Innovation Challenge at NBC’s Education Nation event); Robot Turtles (a board game which ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25K and ended up with over $600K); Goldieblox (which made a viral, then controversial, video; Codelearn (which raised $150,000); Skillshare (which offers a variety of classes, not just programming ones – offline and now online – and raised $1 million in funding); CodeNow (a non-profit that offers tech education to high school students and which expanded to the Bay Area this year); Hopscotch (a visual programming language for iPad); Treehouse (which raised $7 million in a Series B round); Hakitzu (an iOS game that teaches Javascript); Tynker (which raised $3.25 million); Bitmaker Labs (which had a nice write-up in the Globe and Mail, prompting an investigation by the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, which then led the startup to briefly shut down); Black Girls Code (which expanded its program to new cities); Lego Mindstorms (which launched its latest version and which I still need to review); Tinkercad (which was rescued from closure by getting acquired by Autodesk); play-i (learn-to-code robots created by former Google and Apple engineers); Hacker Scouts (which had to change its name because the Boy Scouts of America sent them a cease-and-desist letter); Caine’s Arcade (which has encouraged a lot of cardboard-based building and will continue to do so even though Caine himself “retired”); Codecademy (which launched to a lot of learn-to-code hoopla, but was fairly quiet this year save an appearance on the Colbert Report); MOOCs galore; MakerBot (which was acquired by Stratasys and launched MakerBot Academy with “a mission to put a MakerBot Desktop 3D Printer in every school in the United States of America”); MAKE (which spun out of O’Reilly Media in January and at the White House Science Fair announced the MakerCorps, a program which helps build out a network of youth maker mentors across 19 states and 34 host sites); and of course MIT’s Scratch (still among the very best ways to introduce kids to programming and which launched version 2.0 – a web-based version – in 2013).

CS in Schools

Despite the proliferation of these learn-to-code efforts, computer science is still not taught in the vast majority of K–12 schools, making home, college, after-school programs, and/or libraries places where students are more likely to be first exposed to the field.

There are many barriers to expanding CS education, least of which is that the curriculum is already pretty damn full. If we add more computer science, do we cut something else out? Or is CS simply another elective? To address this particular issue, the state of Washington did pass a bill this year that makes CS classes count as a math or science requirement towards high school graduation. Should computer science – specifically computer science – be required to graduate? In a Google Hangout in February, President Obama said that that “made sense.” In the UK, computing became part of the national curriculum.

While many argue that efforts to expand computer science instruction in schools have been insufficient, it’s worth noting that the number of students who took the AP exam in Computer Science did jump up 19% this year. (The NSF also gave the College Board a $5.2 million grant to develop a new Computer Science AP course and exam.)

There are numerous groups who’ve been long working to improve CS education in the US (such as CSTA), but it was with typical Silicon Valley fanfare that Code.org launched this year. Founded by brothers Hadi Partovi and Ali Partovi (the former was on the founding teams of iLike and Tellme), the non-profit promised to “help make computer programming accessible to everyone.” Code.org kicked off with a video designed to “go viral,” produced by Lesley Chilcott of Waiting for Superman fame and featuring tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

In addition to its video, Code.org has orchestrated a sweeping PR campaign about the need to teach programming Hadi Partovi even got Ryan Seacrest to learn a little code in a Today Show segment. The organization is running an “Hour of Code” during Computer Science Education Week (December 9 - 15). This involves sending kits and promotional materials to interested schools and teachers, offering them hour-long lessons to help introduce computer science to students.

Code.org plans to compile a database of all sites that offer programming instruction and will also offer professional development and CS curriculum to teachers. To receive the latter, teachers and schools must sign a contract and commit to two years’ participation as well as hand over students’ achievement data. (“Handing over student data” is yet another ed-tech trend I’ll cover in a subsequent post.)

Also making the rounds encouraging “making” in schools, two of my favorite educators: Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager. Their book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, was published this year and has received great reviews. (I believe I called it “the most important education published this year.” Bonus: no contract required to implement their ideas in your classroom.

“Everyone* Needs to Learn to Code”

* Some restrictions may apply

“Everyone needs to learn to code” – that assertion has spun out a genre, of sorts, of blog posts and articles arguing that (some) programming knowledge is mandatory. For example: this one or this one. Arguably there’s a genre too in the “not everyone needs to learn to code” responses. For example: this one or this one. The worst, THE WORST: “Finding the unjustly homeless and teaching them to code.”

But at the same time that we hear the “everyone should learn to code” chant, it remains clear that not everyone is welcome in tech. There are so many examples I could point to: bias and discrimination based on accent, race, gender, and so on. Violence and intimidation (the reason I took comments off my blog, for example.)

And probably not THE WORST, but pretty mind-blowingly awful: Titstare, an app demoed on stage at Techcrunch Disrupt, in front of Adria Richards (fired earlier this year after she tweeted about two men’s inappropriate comments during a tech conference), hackers from Black Girls Code, and other young girls who were on stage or in the audience.

The messages about who’s welcome in tech start early. They can start in the media or they can start in school. (Incidentally, according to a survey conducted by CSTA this year, the average computer science teacher is “a white male who has been teaching for more than 15 years and has been teaching Computer Science for about 13 years.”) The messages can be subtle or overt – like expelling a young black girl from school and charging her with a felony when a science experiment she conducts causes a minor explosion.

As Mimi Ito wrote in an op-ed in Wired,

Recruitment into the life of a coder happens well before kids walk into the classroom. The peer groups that young geeks form are as critical to their learning and development as tech experts. Kids become coders because they are friends with other coders or are born into coder families, which is why the networks can become exclusionary even when there is no explicit racism and sexism involved. It’s about cultural identity and social networks as much as it’s about school offerings or career opportunities. Kids need to play and tinker with computers, have friends who hack and code together, and tackle challenging and new problems that are part of their everyday lives and relationships.

We know that the more diverse the ecosystem of talent, the more innovative are the solutions that result. If we really care about the talent gap in high tech, innovation, and entrepreneurism, we need to do more than look overseas, or push classes and school requirements at kids. We need to build a sense of relevance and social connection into what it means to be a coder for a wide diversity of kids.

Manufacturing a STEM Crisis

The “everyone needs to learn to code” narrative dovetails nicely with the “there’s a shortage of STEM workers” story: that is, we simply aren’t training people with the necessary high-tech skills to fill job vacancies — now or in the future. Both of these also work well with the “schools are broken” narrative.

In an August article in IEEE Spectrum, Robert Charette smashes “the myth of the STEM crisis,” arguing that there has long been a cycle of “alarm, boom, and bust” in claims about a shortage of scientists and engineers.

Clearly, powerful forces must be at work to perpetuate the cycle. One is obvious: the bottom line. Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job, or guarantee them decades of stable employment. So having an oversupply of workers, whether domestically educated or imported, is to their benefit. It gives employers a larger pool from which they can pick the “best and the brightest,” and it helps keep wages in check. No less an authority than Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said as much when in 2007 he advocated boosting the number of skilled immigrants entering the United States so as to “suppress” the wages of their U.S. counterparts, which he considered too high.

It's worth asking, I think, who benefits from this crisis rhetoric about a shortage of programmers and programming classes. (Clearly as I outline at the beginning of this post, the latter's a booming industry; and as such I don't think it's surprising that the learn-to-code movement has sort of subsumed the maker movement, which is not as maniacally focused on "jobs" and "skills" as much as it is on inquiry and creativity.)

Charette concludes that while there isn't a STEM worker shortage, there is a STEM knowledge shortage. “Rather than spending our scarce resources on ending a mythical STEM shortage,” he writes, “we should figure out how to make all children literate in the sciences, technology, and the arts to give them the best foundation to pursue a career and then transition to new ones. ”

Some ways to do that: more project-based learning, more hands-on experimentation, more tinkering, more “making" - things that are still too often pushed aside in the classroom for more lecturing and more standardized testing.

Some other ways to do that: cut the "it's a meritocracy" bullshit.