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Are K-12 Computer Coding Efforts Getting it Wrong?

The drag-and-drop coding apps and tutorials that many K-12 schools use to teach students the beginnings of code may be entertaining, but they don't mimic the work that real computer scientists do, argues Idit Harel, the CEO of ed-tech company Globaloria, in a recent Quartz piece. 

Harel specifically points to "Code.org and its library of movie-branded coding apps" as examples of a "light and fluffy version of computer science" that doesn't deepen students' understanding. 

"I think of it as playing with coding apps as compared to learning to design an app using code," she writes. "Building an app takes time and requires multidimensional learning contexts, pathways, and projects. One thing is for sure, it can't be done in an hour or two, with a few simple drags, drops, and clicks."

Harel's company, it should be noted, designs and sells computer science education programs for K-12 schools, so free efforts like Code.org are in some ways her competition. According to EdSurge, Globaloria courses cost about $75 per student per year.

The CEO goes on to say that the typical coding apps teach surface-level skills rather than really delving into computer science. "In that sense, they are equivalent to the songs on today's "Top 40"—fun to listen to but offering no real insight or understanding into music literacy, meaning, or theory," she writes. "Computing and computer science is the equivalent of immersing in a thicker study of musicits origins, influences, aesthetics, applications, theories, composition, techniques, variations, and meanings. In other words, the actual foundations and experiences that change an individual's mindset."

But Hadi Partovi, a co-founder of Code.org, says this is a mischaracterization of what his organization is doing. Harel seems to be mainly focused on his group's Hour of Code effort, he says. Started in 2013, the annual campaign seeks to get students doing a one-hour introduction to coding. Over 100 million students have participated so far, the group says.

Through that effort, students practice coding using activities like the one below, which has a Star Wars theme:

hour of code star wars.JPG

"Hour of Code includes a bunch of fun coding games that last an hour, but I don't think anybody pretends you can become a software engineer after one hour of playing," Partovi said in an interview. "We use the fun campaign to build interest and that interest is translated into real education." About 85 percent of students go beyond the one-hour experience, he said.  

And Hour of Code is also just a small slice of what Code.org does, Partovi explains. The organization is partnering with districts to implement "deeper, yearlong, research-backed courses that have year-round teacher training," he said. Students participate in "rigorous computer science activities, whether they're creating apps, modeling simulations in science labs, learning about the Internet—all sorts of real computer science work."

It's true that the well-funded and celebrity-backed Hour of Code is often credited with kickstarting the "computer science for all" movement, which the president has signed on to and many states and districts are now taking seriously. Chicago, New York, and San Francisco are all planning to require that all students take computer science classes in the coming years. 

"There is a concern that people might pay lip service to this idea by teaching a little coding, having fun, and moving on," Partovi said. "That's a very real concern and we share that concern. But I don't think the facts out there support that America's schools are getting it wrong."

Even so, there is still debate regarding what exactly K-12 students should learn about computer science in school. Many time-and resource-strapped schools may decide that a one-hour introduction to coding is sufficient, given the many other basic skills students need to master. Schools that are fully committing to teaching computer science may have to make some controversial concessions to do so. (See this story about an elementary school that let go of its art teacher to start a computer science program, only to have that program die within a year.)

Interestingly, according to its website, Globaloria counts Code.org as one of its many "partners and corporate sponsors." And a press release from Globaloria touts that Code.org put the company on its short list of best educator resources for computer science. So maybe there is some hope for such organizations to put their differences aside and work together toward a common goal of giving more students the chance to learn computer science?

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