opinion

Learning to Code: New Possibilities Through Collaboration at School

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Image credit: racom for Shutterstock

It's shaping up to be the year of coding! Code, the language of our digital world, is used to build all the websites, computer software, and smartphone apps that benefit practically every industry and occupation. Earlier this year, the White House unveiled the “CS for All” initiative, which provides over $4 billion in funding to expand and support K-12 computer science education. There is also a push in state legislatures across the country to reclassify programming languages as world languages, and for good reason: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there will be more than 1.3 million job openings in computer and mathematical occupations by 2022. No wonder it seems like everyone is talking about coding these days.

The Challenge for Schools

The story looks different when you drill down to the school level, where only one in four schools in the United States teach computer science. For some school districts the resources are simply stretched too thin. And while there are websites that offer coding tutorials, many of which are free, some teachers may also be unaware that so many resources exist for their students. In other districts, the resources may be available but there is still a desire to find new opportunities for students to interact with technology professionals. 

Students at DCPS’ Burrville Elementary School complete an Hour of Code session.

The Benefits of Collaboration

One way to overcome these hurdles is for school districts to collaborate with outside organizations and companies, many of whom are thrilled to provide volunteers and support. This can be accomplished by looking to organizations and companies in your local community and/or best in industry, and reaching out to them to see if they would be interested in working with your school. Additionally, seek out and learn from colleagues in other school districts who have fostered these relationships, with a focus on best practices and collaborations that were particularly successful.

Computer Science Education Week in December is especially conducive to collaborating, when millions of students across the United States and around the world learn to code by participating in Hour of Code. This global movement, pioneered by the nonprofit organization Code.org, and backed by some of the world’s biggest tech companies, fosters the idea that anyone can learn to code regardless of their age or background. Code.org,Khan Academy, Codeacademy, and other educational organizations and companies feature special Hour of Code tutorials on their sites.

Also, there are many volunteers from tech companies and organizations who are interested in helping students learn to code during this week. One recent example is the collaboration between DC Public Schools and Microsoft, which had the goal of generating excitement for coding in the classroom and increasing the number of students participating in Hour of Code. DCPS K-12 teachers and technology coaches were invited to a training session at the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center in DC, where Microsoft volunteers provided guidance on how to facilitate a coding session in the classroom. The teachers then tried the Hour of Code themselves; more than two-thirds had never coded before, but by the end of the session each teacher had completed all 14 levels of the new Minecraft tutorial!

Afterwards, the teachers and volunteers sat in a circle and provided feedback about their experience. Many teachers were thrilled that the tutorials were so accessible, and shared their vision for bringing the Hour of Code into their classrooms. During Computer Science Education Week, volunteers from Microsoft offices around the Washington Metropolitan Area conducted school visits and workshops, reconnecting with the same teachers and empowering more than 300 students to learn how to code.

A “Win-Win-Win”

For Microsoft, the collaboration presented staff with the opportunity to bring their skills and knowledge into a public school classroom and see the impact firsthand. “The Hour of Code with DCPS definitely was a win-win-win,” said Allyson Knox, Director of Education Policy and Programs at Microsoft. “First, our employees learned about what it's like to teach or facilitate a classroom activity with real students. Second, teachers got a chance to coach our employees as well as experiment with coding.”

But the best “win” of all? According to Knox: “Watching how much the students loved coding. They were part of the global computer science movement that week and learned the basic coding skills needed for many of the jobs of the future. It was great!”

DCPS teachers were equally enthusiastic about the collaboration. “How cool to build my understanding and skills for hosting the Hour of Code at my own school!” said Cassandra Davenport, a technology coach at Powell Elementary School.

But the best win was indeed for the students, many of whom had never coded before: “I learned that coding is something you can actually enjoy,” said Daniel, a fourth grade student at Hyde-Addison Elementary School.

The biggest hurdle with any new initiative is keeping up the momentum, especially in the months following Computer Science Education Week. However, Davenport observed that the enthusiasm for coding was still going strong for her students at Powell: “The students loved their introduction to coding and have continued to learn more on their own since the event.” For this reason, both DCPS and Microsoft have expressed interest in continuing this collaboration and expanding it to include more schools and increased offerings for teachers and students. “DCPS values collaboration and understands how it can help provide additional resources for our students,” said David Rose, Deputy Chief of Educational Technology and Library Programs.

Microsoft and DCPS staff join visiting game developers from Radiant Games at Cardozo Education Campus.

The Need for More Collaboration

Despite increased internet access and free online coding tutorials, many students still do not have the opportunity to hone the computer science skills necessary for the careers of the future. When resources are stretched too thin, or even when simply looking for new opportunities to introduce coding to classrooms, school districts should consider the possibilities of collaborating with outside companies and organizations. Such collaborations not only provide a rewarding experience for the volunteers, but their energy and enthusiasm helps teachers and students discover that anyone can learn to code. Deputy Chief Rose agrees: “Strengthening our collaboration with Microsoft has allowed us to increase student participation in Hour of Code this year. We look forward to continuing to provide these experiences for our students.”

Jonathan Lewis is the Coordinator for Educational Technology and Library Programs at DC Public Schools. He is also a storyteller for Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, an initiative directed by Digital Promise.

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