SIGCSE Day 2, Keynote 2, “Transforming US Education with Computer Science”, (#SIGCSE2014)

Today’s keynote, “Transforming US Education with Computer Science”, is being given by Hadi Partovi from Code.org. (Claudia and I already have our Code.org swag stickers.)

There are 1257 registered attendees so far, which gives you some idea of the scale of SIGCSE. This room is pretty full and it’s got a great vibe. (Yeah, yeah, I know, ‘vibe’. If that’s the worst phrase I use today, consider yourself lucky, D00dz.) The introductory talk included a discussion of the SIGCSE Special Projects small grant program (to US$5,000). They have two rounds a year so go to SIGCSE’s website and follow the links to see more. (Someone remind me that it’s daylight saving time on Saunday morning, the dreaded Spring forward, so that I don’t miss my flight!)

SIGCSE 2015 is going to be in Kansas City, by the way, and I’ve heard great things about KC BBQ – and they have a replica of the Arch de Triomphe so… yes. (For those who don’t know, Kansas City is in Missouri. It’s name after the river which flows through it, which is named after the local Kansa tribe. Or that’s what this page says. I say it’s just contrariness.) I’ve never been to Missouri, or Kansas for that matter, so I could tick off two states in the one trip… of course, then I’d have to go to Topeka, well just because, but you know that I love driving.

We started the actual keynote with the Hour of Code advertising movie. I did some of the Hour of Code stuff from the iOS app and found it interesting (I’m probably being a little over-critical in that half-hearted endorsement. It’s a great idea. Chill out, Nick!)

Hadi started off referring to last year’s keynote, which questioned the value of code.org, which started as a hobby. He decided to build a larger organisation to try and realise the potential of transforming the untapped resource into a large crop of new computer scientists.

Who.what is Code.org?

  • A marketing organisation to make videos with celebrities?
  • A coalition of tech companies looking for employees?
  • A political advocacy group of educations and technologies?
  • Hour of code organisers?
  • An SE house that makes tutorials
  • Curriculum organisers?
  • PD organisation?
  • Grass roots movement?

It’s all of the above. Their vision is that every school should teach it to every student or at least give them the opportunity. Why CS? Three reasons: job gap, under-represented students and CS is foundational for every student in the 21st Century. Every job uses it.

Some common myths about code.org:

  • It’s all hype and Hour of Code – actually, there are many employees and 15 of them are here today.
  • They want to go it alone – they have about 100 partners who are working with the,
  • They are only about coding and learning to code – (well, the name doesn’t help) they’re actually about teaching fundamentals of Computer Science
  • This is about the software industry coming in to tell schools how to do their jobs – no, software firms fund it but they don’t run the org, which is focused on education, down to the pre-school level

Hmm, the word “disrupt” has now been used. I don’t regard myself as a disruptive innovator, I’m more of a seductive innovator – make something awesome and you’ll seduce people across to it, without having to set fire to anything. (That’s just me, though.)

Principle goals of Code.org start with “Educate K-12 students in CS throughout the US”. That’s their biggest job. (No surprise!) Next one is to Advocate to remove legislative barriers and the final pillar is to Celebrate CS and change perceptions.

Summary of first year – hour of code, 28 million students in 35,000 classrooms with 48% girls (applause form the audience), in 30 languages over 170 countries. 97% positive ratings of the teacher experience versus 0.2% negative. In their 20 hour K-8 Intro Course, 800,000 students in 13,000 students, 40% girls. In school district partnerships they have 23 districts with PD workshops for about 500 teachers for K-12. In their state advocacy role, they’ve changed policy in 5 states. Their team is still pretty lean with only 20 people but they’re working pretty hard with partnerships across industry, nonprofit and government. Hadi also greatly appreciated the efforts of the teachers who had put in the extra work to make this all happen in the classroom.

They’re working on a full curriculum with 20 hour modules all the way up to middle school, aligned with common core. From high school up, they go into semester courses. These course are Computer Science or leverage CS to teach other things, like maths. (Obviously, my ears pricked up because of our project with the Digital Technologies National Curriculum project in Australia.)

The models of growth include an online model, direct to teachers, students and parents (crucial), fuelled by viral marketing, word-of-mouth, volunteers, some A/B testing, best fit for elementary school and cost effectiveness. (On the A/B testing side, there was a huge difference in responses between a button labelled “Start” and a button labelled “Get started”. Start is much more successful! Who knew?) Attacking the problem earlier, it’s easy to get more stuff into the earlier years because they are less constrained in requirements to teach specific content.

The second model of growth is in district partnerships, where the district provides teachers, classrooms and computers. Code.org provide stipends, curriculum, marketing. Managing costs for scale requires then to aim for US$5-10K per High School, which isn’t 5c but is manageable.

The final option for growth is about certification exams, incentives, scholarships and schools of Ed.

Hadi went on to discuss the Curriculum, based on blockly, modified and extended. His thoughts on blended learning were that they achieved making learning feel like a game with blended learning (The ability to code Angry Birds is one of the extensions they developed for blackly) On-line and blended learning also makes a positive difference to teachers. On-line resources most definitely don’t have to remove teachers, instead, done properly, they support teachers in their ongoing job. Another good thing is to make everything web-based, cross-browser, which reduces the local IT hassle for CS teachers. Rather than having to install everything locally, you can just run it over the web. (Anyone who has ever had to run a lab knows the problem I’m talking about. If you don’t know, go and hug your sys admin.) But they still have a lot to learn: about birding game design and traditional curriculum, however they have a lot of collaborations going on. Evaluation is, as always, tricky and may combine traditional evaluation and large-scale web analytics. But there are amazing new opportunities because of the wealth of data and the usage patterns available.

He then showed three demos, which are available on-line, “Building New Tutorial Levels”, new tutorials that show you how to create puzzles rather than just levels through the addition of event handing (with Flappy Bird as the example), and the final tutorial is on giving hints to students. (Shout outs to all of the clear labelling of subgoals and step achievement…) That last point is great because you can say “You’re using all the pieces but in the wrong way” but with enough detail to guide a student, adding a hint for a specific error. There are about 11,000,000 submissions for providing feedback on code – 2,000,000 for correct, 9,000,000 for erroneous. (Code.org/hints)

So how can you help Code.org?

If tour in a Uni, bring a CS principles course to the Uni, partner with your school of Ed to bring more CS into the Ed program (ideally a teaching methods course). Finally, help code. org scale by offering K-5 workshops for them. You can e-mail univ@code.org if you’re interested. (Don’t know if this applies in Australia. Will check.) This idea is about 5 weeks old so write in but don’t expect immediate action, they’re still working it out.

If you’re just anyone, Uni or not? Convince your school district to teach CS. Code.org will move to your region in if 30+ high schools are on board. Plus you can leap into and give feedback on the curriculum or add hints to their database. There are roughly a million students a week doing Hour of Code stuff so there’s a big resource out there.

Hadi moved on to the Advocate pillar. Their overall vision is that CS is foundational – a core offering one very school rather than a vocational specialisation for a small community. The broad approach is to change state policy. (A colleague near me muttered “Be careful what you wish for” because that kind of widespread success would swamp us if we weren’t prepared. Always prepare for outrageous success!)

At the national level, there is a CS Education Act with bi-partisan sponsors in both house, to support STEM funding to be used as CS, currently before the house. In the NCAA, there’s a new policy published from an idea spawned at SIGCSE, apparently by Mark! CS can now count as an NCAA scholarship, which is great progress. At the state level, Allowing CS to satisfy existing high school math/science graduation requirements but this has to be finalised with the new requirement for Universities to allow CS to meet their math/science requirements as well! In states where CS counts, CS enrolment is 50% higher (Calc numbers are unchanged), with 37% more minority representation. The states with recent policy changed are are small but growing. Basically, you can help. Contact Code.org if your state or district has issues recognising CS. There’s also a petition on the code.org site which is state specific for the US, which you can check out if you want to help. (The petition is to seek recognition that everyone in the US should have the opportunity to learn Computer Science.)

Finally, on the Celebrate pillar, they’ve come a long way from one cool video, to Hour of Code. Tumblr took 3.5 years to reach 15,000,000, Facebook took 3 years, Hour of Code took 5 days, which is very rapid adoption. More girls participated in CS in US schools in one week than in the previous 70 years. (Hooray!) And they’re  doing it again in CSEd Week from December 8-14. Their goal is to get 100  million students to try the Hour of Code. See if you can get it on the Calendar now – and advertise with swag. 🙂

In closing, Hadi believes that CS is at an incredible inflection pint, with lots of opportunities, so now is the time to try stuff or, if it didn’t work before, try it again because there’s a lot of momentum and it’s a lot easier to do now. We have growing and large numbers. When we work together towards a shared goal, anything is possible.

Great talk, thanks, Hadi!



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