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Archive for the ‘Computer Coding’ Category

Among the Canadian provinces Nova Scotia was an “early adopter” of incorporating coding into its Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum. Basic coding was introduced in September 2015 to all students from kindergarten to Grade 3 and Education Minister Karen Casey has been boasting that Nova Scotia is already “a national leader” in teaching computer coding to elementary school kids.  That’s a bit of political puffery because, in doing so, the province is actually following a few other educational jurisdictions, including Great Britain (2014-15) and the State of Arkansas, and only slightly ahead of British Columbia and Finland.

BeebotsNSKidsIn announcing $1-million more in 2016-17 funding for the Coding for Kids project, the Nova Scotia Department trotted out a pair of Grade 6 students to demonstrate how to program “beebots” — small, yellow-and-black robot toys shaped like bumble bees. A cleverly titled Canadian Press story on the photo op by Keith Doucette captured the moment with an ironic twist: “‘Beebots’ to teach coding in Nova Scotia classrooms.” A recent series of CBC Radio interviews featuring Ryerson Communications Technology professor Ramona Pringle merely confirmed the impression that coding was being promoted as another vehicle to advance “play learning” rather than introductory computer programming.

Teaching “coding” to young children is the latest exemplar of so-called “21st century learning” and it amounts to introducing basic “programming” in the early years, instead of waiting to offer “computer science” in the junior and senior high schools, as was the case from the 1960s to the early 1980s.  That early curriculum essentially withered and died with the arrival of mass word processing and the spread of computer applications courses.

While teaching coding is heavily promoted by the global high tech industry and local off-shoots like Code Kids.com and Brilliant Labs, the emerging coding curriculum philosophy and activities stem from other sources.  Leading advocates such as best-selling author Douglas Rushkoff, former UK coding champion Lottie Dexter, and  CBC Tech columnist Pringle see coding as a “new literacy” symbolically described as “the Three Rs plus C.”

In a summary of his 2011 book, Program or Be Programmed, Rushkoff put it succinctly: “As we come to experience more and more of our world and one another through our digital interfaces, programming amounts to basic literacy…. Once people come to see the way their technologies are programmed, they start to recognize the programs at play everywhere else – from the economy and education to politics and government.”

Introducing coding has generated a robust and enlightening debate seemingly everywhere but in Canada. The Year of Code initiative launched in 2014 in the United Kingdom drew plenty of critical fire and actually claimed a victim, its chief promoter Lottie Dexter.  After flaming-out on the British TV show Newsnight, her rather giddy performance was became fodder for skeptics who saw the coding curriculum initiative as an “elaborate publicity stunt designed to falsely inflate the UK’s tech credentials.”

CodingforKidsCoverCritics of the British coding initiative focus on the wisdom of latching onto the “latest language” and introducing it to very young students.  “Coding is seen as the new Latin,” claimed Donald Clark, the former CEO of the firm Epic Group and a self-described technology in education evangelist.  ” (Coding) is a rather stupid obsession where politicians and PR people, none of whom can code, latch onto ‘reports’ by people who have no business sense or worse, a regressive agenda.” One British technology expert, Emannuel Straschnov, goes further, claiming that today’s  coding and programming languages will likely become obsolete in the future.

Coding skeptics are clear on one key point of criticism. The early adopter educational jurisdictions suck as the U.K., Nova Scotia and Arkansas, lack enough teachers with the coding experience and relevant computer science knowledge to effectively introduce the new programs of study, across the board,  from kindergarten to high school. A frontline teacher in Bristol, England, spoke for most when he decried the “lack of support” and distinct feeling that “it wasn’t clear what was going on” with the initiative until far too late in the implementation.

Software engineer Tristan Irwin of Sioux City, Iowa, sees a deeper problem stemming from the confusion over what we are actually teaching in the schools. On an April 2011 Quora discussion thread, he drew a sharp distinction between the “programmer” and the “coder,” noting that the former was a creator, while the latter was essentially “an assembly line worker.”  As Software Engineering has become more commodified, he added, there’s less demand for programmers and more demand for coders.  His analysis strongly suggested that teaching coding may only succeed in producing a whole generation of “code grinders” in the workplace.

Prominent Mathematics educators like Barry Garelick are sharply critical of the new coding curriculum and its associated pedagogy.  In August 2016, Garelick took direct aim at the Nova Scotia initiative. He’s particularly concerned about its dumbing-down of “coding” into “pictoral symbols for commands” and the total absence of explicit instruction in the recommended teaching strategies.  Most Math teachers fear that “coding” will further erode classroom time for Math and do little or nothing to prepare students for true computer programming, AP-level Computer Science, or a STEM career.

The Nova Scotia coding curriculum, outlined in the August 2015 NS Information and Communication P-6 Guidelines, are surprisingly skimpy, especially given the dollars now allocated for “innovation and exploration kits” and tech toys for every elementary school. For P to 3, for example, the ICT guideline identifies nine “essential learning outcomes,” only two of which relate to technology productivity and operations.  The clear priority is on teaching “digital citizenship” and “computer applications” rather than on basic coding.

Making coding mandatory from K to 9 is not proving to be the preferred implementation model.  In the case of British Columbia, coding will only be compulsory from Grades 6 to 9 and supported by $4-million in teacher training and equipment/resources funds.  It is integrated into a much broader #BCTECH Strategy and will not be rolled-out until September 2018.  In Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), coding is not a stand-alone initiative but rather an integral part of the system’s K-12 STEM Strategy designed to foster collaboration, creativity and innovation.

Why the rush to introduce coding in the early grades — and what will it supplant in the crowded curriculum?  Is the current version of coding just another example of teaching “discovery learning” with simplified coding and high tech toys? Where are the teachers coming from to deliver the more challenging Mathematics-based aspects of computer science?  How much sense does it make to introduce elementary level coding without a broader commitment to preparing students for careers in STEM or related technical fields?

 

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Introducing computer coding in the early grades is now emerging as the favoured strategy for ‘seeding’ entrepreneurial skills in the schools. Since former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed in his famous 2012 New Year’s resolution to learn code, digital industry leaders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have rallied around Code.org, a movement to get school children to learn about programming. Every year since, in early December, millions of students world-wide have participated in Code.org’s Hour of Code, a week-long event designed to promote the renewal of computer science education.

CodingKidsInitiativeThe so-called CodeKids movement, inspired largely by Microsoft-funded Code.org, is spreading like wildfire in and around North American school systems. Acadia University president Ray Ivany’s 2014 Now or Never report, effectively declared the Maritime province of Nova Scotia an economic ‘basket case” and called for urgent action to stoke-up “entrepreneurship” and implant it in the rising generation. It then emerged as one of six major “action points” branded as “our ICT Momentum” hoisted up by the subsequent One Nova Scotia Coalition as key strategies to revitalize the province’s struggling economy.

Computer coding for students is seen by One Nova Scotia zealots as a critical part of the teaching entrepreneurship agenda. With the support of New Brunswick CodeKids champion David Alston, younger Nova Scotians such as Jevon MacDonald of Volta Labs, succeeded in September 2015 in bringing “Brilliant Labs” promoting STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) to a first cohort of pilot schools. In late October 2015, Nova Scotia Education minister Karen Casey went one step further, announcing that “mandatory coding” would be taught in every grade from Primary to Grade 12 in the province’s 400 public schools.

The Nova Scotia curriculum initiative, purportedly the first in Canada, presented “coding” as the primary means of implanting entrepeneurial skills. “We know that coding promotes problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, innovation and creativity,” Casey claimed. “And we know that these skills are directly related to industries like computer programming, manufacturing, communications and more.”

Education Minister Casey’s implementation plan proved less convincing.  Mandatory coding courses would start in a few months, September 2016, and be implemented by existing teachers retooled to teach introductory computer science. That professional development training, she added, would be provided by staff from IBM and Google brought in to instruct the prospective teachers.

However laudable the initiative, the Nova Scotia implementation strategy left a lot to be desired. No specific reference was made to the existing Brilliant Labs pilot project, to the current competencies of teachers, the state of the school-level technology infrastructure, or the potential for ongoing business partnerships. While the plan was lauded by Nova Scotia’s relatively small private business class, including Jordi Morgan and the CFIB Atlantic, it was presented as yet another ‘inside the system’ project.

Many national and local businesses actively promote technology education and specifically programming in the schools.  Most promoters of teaching code are convinced that ICT (Information Communications Technology) is not only the wave of the future but the gateway to most jobs for today’s students. Mesmerized by the Internet revolution, they see an urgent need for teachers and their schools to finally get on board.

Nova Scotia is in economic decline and ripe for urgent action. In the province, ICT accounts for 8.2 per cent of the business sector and is considered a potential future growth sector. To retain young Nova Scotians, the province is scrambling to support its fledgling, mostly grant-funded “start-up” community, seeing them as sources of future employment. The strategy is one of necessity, given the slow decline of traditional private sector employment industries like pulp and paper, fishing, and resource development.

Computer coding may be a rather narrow base upon which to launch the needed entrepreneurial transformation. Computer Science died out as a credit subject in Nova Scotia schools over the past two decades, as it did in most other provincial school systems. It was approached as a branch of Mathematics where students were barred from entering without first acquiring higher level Math competencies. Faculties of education stopped training Computer Science teachers because demand dried up while industry and commerce was becoming more and more driven by the latest technology. Students resorted to learning programming on their own or later in the changing workplace.

Technology is here to stay but as a tool to unlock new knowledge not an end in itself.  Current teachers “assigned” to teach computer coding may not be the best ones to actually deliver the new program. Judging from the Ontario SNOW program, focusing on providing Special Education teachers with the latest assistive learning technology, employing technology tends to introduce new challenges in class management. Planning for successful implementation will involve supporting teachers in new and unfamiliar pedagogical terrain outside their normal teaching comfort zones.

The private business sector has been crying, in recent decades, for more graduates with computer science knowledge or higher level technological competencies.  Former teachers like Halifax technology expert Ari Najarian have been sounding alarm bells and even presenting new curriculum for junior and senior high schools. It was next-to-impossible to get those inside the system to pay much attention until Gates, Zuckerberg and Alston forced their way onto the public agenda.

The American promoters at Code.org and the annual Hour of Code attracted millions of students and thousands of teacher converts. In Nova Scotia, it took the “shock treatment” administered by Ray Ivany’s dire economic forecast.

Will introducing mandatory computer coding at all grade levels drive the change? Are school systems awakening to the need to fully embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in slow growth regions? Where will the capable, qualified teachers of computer science come from? Will the focus on developing fundamental reading and numeracy skills be helped or hurt by the ICT initiative? How long will it take to produce a new generation of computer savvy, technologically proficient graduates?

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