03/15/2016 12:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Computer Science Education in the Age of CS for All


By Mark Nelson
Executive Director
Computer Science Teachers Association

As the U.S. enters a new period of educational reform, there have been a string of developments designed to bring CS education into every primary and secondary school in the country. From the Every Student Succeeds Act through the President's State of the Union Address, CS repeatedly surfaces as a national priority. The White House unveiling of CS for All further cements CS into the future educational landscape.

But what exactly is CS? Is it learning to keyboard and use computer applications? Is it all just about coding or computer programming? Is it really about computational thinking? What is this thing that we want all children to learn, and what are the appropriate concepts to teach each grade level?

Unfortunately, those are perhaps the easiest questions. Will the content be integrated with other courses, or taught separately? Who will teach CS? What credentials should be required to teach CS, if any? How will student learning be assessed? How will CS education be adapted for kids with learning, mental, or physical disabilities? How will access to CS education be provided within schools where budgets are already being cut? Will CS count toward graduation requirements? Will it eventually be required to graduate? Will more colleges and universities start accepting CS courses toward admissions requirements? Should CS count as math or not? Who should decide the answers to these and the other questions ahead for CS education?

One of my favorite definitions for primary and secondary CS education is the statement adopted by the UK Department of Education as part of their national curriculum. It reads:

A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world. Computing has deep links with mathematics, science and design and technology, and provides insights into both natural and artificial systems. The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work and how to put this knowledge to use through programming. Building on this knowledge and understanding, pupils are equipped to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of content. Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate--able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through information and communication technology--at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.

I like this statement for several reasons. It balances the theoretical aspects of CS with the applied dimensions. It captures the broader essence of CS as something both creative and integrated with other bodies of knowledge. It reflects that CS is more than just programming, and involves both communication and information--linking CS to other disciplines such as data and information science. As a position statement, it recognizes that understanding and access to CS is fundamental to future prosperity and participation in society.

If we can reach agreement on what CS is, and agree that access to a quality education that includes CS should be available to all students, then there is a secondary set of challenges that we must begin to solve. These challenges relate to a simple observation: in today's world, enabling access to quality CS education depends on teachers who are prepared and supported to provide that education. The lack of a robust pipeline for CS teachers creates an unusually diverse mix of teacher background requirements and professional development needs unlike most primary and secondary academic disciplines. Unfortunately, whether in the U.S. or other countries, teacher preparation for CS is an unusually complex problem with many facets.

For many individuals and organizations, having CS education raised to the level of being a national priority is a dream come true. To quote a colleague, CS education is currently a "blue sky of possibility." It brings potential attention and resources to a space where we do not have a history of doing things in a particular way. It provides new opportunities for educational reform that could go beyond CS.

As we consider this great blue sky of possibility, I would ask for just one thing: that we think about the future of CS education and design solutions by working with teachers. We often think that because we all went to school, or because we have children in school, that we are all experts in education. Teachers in the U.S. in particular are frequently afforded less respect than most other professions, and we often talk in terms of doing things "to" education, or "for" teachers. CS for All is an opportunity for us to work "with" teachers, and recognize that for at least a foreseeable future, they will be the ones to make CS for All a reality.