Computer science has evolved from an elective experience to a foundational element of K-12 education for many American students in less than a generation. But decisions about how and when students learn about this topic mostly rest with local and state education leaders.
The pandemic reshaped ideas and practices for how elementary, middle and high school students — and their teachers — learned and taught computer science (CS for short).
Kim Wilkens is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia. She's studying K-8 computer science education. Wilkens also is the founder of Charlottesville Women in Tech and the nonprofit Tech-Girls.
Wilkens told ZDNet that the method and practice of teaching K-12 computer science are shifting.
"In K-12 environments, the emphasis is changing from taking computer science as an elective in high school to prepare for college-level coursework to seeing computer science as a literacy skill that all students need to learn across their K-12 experience to help them take control of how technologies will affect their lives, their culture, and their future," said Wilkens.
Challenges and opportunities in K-8 computer science education
One of the biggest challenges unique to teaching younger students computer science "is that K-8 teachers do not receive much in the way of preparation to teach CS through their formal education," said Wilkens. "CS is expected to be taught across US schools, but is not a standard part of teacher preparation programs."
In addition, "there are many stereotypes and misconceptions about computer science that have a negative impact on students self-selecting into stand-alone classes," Wilkens said. "Integrating computer science into the curriculum, especially in K-8 grades, means that every student has the opportunity to learn computer science concepts and skills."
"An underlying theme behind raising the profile of CS K-12 education is addressing the persistent and pervasive gender and racial gaps that exist in CS education and technology fields. Interest in and knowledge of CS is still relatively low for students who identify as female, Black, and/or Latinx," Wilkens said.
A 2021 report confirms that girls and students of color are underrepresented in computer science, even at younger ages.
According to the report, authored by The Code.org Advocacy Coalition, Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), and the Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) Alliance, nearly half of elementary students enrolled in computer science were girls.
By middle school, that dropped to 44% and by high school, just 31% of girls were enrolled in foundational computer science.
And Hispanic high school students are 1.4 times less likely to enroll in foundational computer science than their White or Asian peers, even when they attend a school offering it. Fifty-one percent of high schools offer computer science. That's up from 35% of schools in 2018.
If you were born in the 21st century, iPads and Chromebooks in school are a familiar sight.
But for older Millennials and earlier generations, computers in school often were desktop machines. They stayed in dedicated spaces. If you were lucky, your school might have had multiple computer labs or a couple of computers in each classroom.
Consider this. The iPhone, iPad, and Chromebook debuted in 2007, 2010, and 2011, respectively. Since then, they have played a major role in shaping education and continue to do so, according to Todd Cherner.
He's director of the Master of Arts in Educational Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Cherner focuses on the use of digital tools and technologies for teaching and learning. He worked as a high school English teacher before moving into higher education.
"I became a teacher in like '03 or '04 and I had broadband," said Cherner.
Two decades ago, simply having broadband internet in a K-12 classroom was "legit." Cherner even had three computers in his room. Back then, that was something special.
"Now, if you look at that, you'd be like, 'That's an underserved classroom,'" Cherner said.
According to one report, most US school systems have achieved the 1:1 device goal. In March 2021, 90% of public school leaders said that every middle and high school student had a device. They also said 84% of elementary school students had their own device, according to an Education Week report.
"As I think about what has changed," Cherner continued, "the last time I taught a class where everyone came in and no one had a computer was like in 2010. And now, to go into a classroom and everyone doesn't have a computer on their desk, I have to ask, 'Do you need a computer?'"
Nearly 50 million students attended public school from pre-K through 12th grade, according to federal statistics. About 34 million of them were in grades pre-K through eight. An additional cohort of nearly 5 million K-12 students will likely return to private schools in the coming weeks.
Although most students have access to a device, connectivity may present an issue.
"Over the pandemic, most school districts achieved the goal of having a device for every student … which has been fantastic in terms of access," said Kevin Good, assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Mary Washington. "However, online access outside of school remains a challenge for many."
Although students may have a device for their exclusive academic use, they might not have access to high-speed wi-fi outside of school. Or their family may not have the means to pay for it.
"This means that many students are confined to engaging with many of the things we utilize to teach computer science to the school building, which is not productive for students' learning," Good said.
A focus on integrated educational experiences
If students can get connected, Good said they have access to apps beyond the academic experiences that their teachers may have selected for them. They include coding platforms like Google CS First and Apple Swift.
Also, Good said, many students are comfortable with technology and "excited to pick up a device and explore. They may not have a full understanding of apps, programming hardware, etc. (that is where the teaching comes in), but they are intrigued to learn."
However, Cherner cautioned against the assumption that every young person is a digital native.
Because even though people did grow up with technology, that doesn't mean that they're using technology for academic purposes. ... These are still critical skills that must be taught, in my mind, in that K-8 space, especially early, because you need to be conscientious of your digital footprint and things of that nature.
He shared a firsthand example of how he fell victim to the digital native myth.
Last year, Cherner received a grant for virtual reality headsets. He created an online course that used 360-degree videos to focus on and study UNC's business aspects, revenue streams, operational costs, and value propositions.
"I gave all my students VR headsets and I was like, so I want you to go into the browser of the VR headset and go here, access this here, and this is how it all works," he recalled.
But many students — most of them in their mid-20s — raised their hands and told him that this was the first time they'd ever used a VR headset.
What that experience showed, Cherner said, "is we can't make assumptions about what students know and don't know just because of their age, especially when it comes to technology."
Good pointed out another generational difference: The integration of computer science across all subjects is now much more common.
For example, "In Virginia, computer science standards that are focused on the K-8 experience — not just the career/technical computer science courses of the previous generation," Good said.
As a result, "deep integration" of computer science "is now becoming a common conversation, which only stands to benefit our students and also produce innovative thinkers," according to Good.
Cherner agreed with that perspective. He suggested a new focus as part of conversations on how computer science is incorporated into the overall learning experience.
In academia, "there's something called disciplinary literacy, which is how we read and write in the subject areas," Cherner said. "I would argue very hard that there should be something called digital disciplinary literacy — how do we use technology to access and respond to the information that is comprised of our subject areas? When we think about education, I think those skills have to be taught in every classroom and they are content specific. And that's just where we are now."
Although there's strategic direction, funding, and initiatives at the federal level, from the U.S. Department of Education for STEM initiatives, Cherner noted that "education is not in the Constitution, which makes it a state right by default."
That means that states and local leaders have a substantial influence on the issue of CS education.
State-level policy recommendations and implementation
Wilkens noted that the Code.org Advocacy Coalition, CSTA, and the ECEP Alliance identified nine computer science education policy recommendations in 2018. The policy recommendations are:
Create a state plan for K-12 computer science.
Define computer science and establish rigorous K-12 computer science standards.
Allocate funding for computer science teacher professional learning.
Create pre-service programs in computer science at higher education institutions.
Establish computer science supervisor positions in education agencies.
Require that all high schools offer computer science.
Allow a computer science credit to satisfy a core graduation requirement.
Allow computer science to satisfy a higher education admission requirement.
"One of the recommendations is to adopt K-12 computer science standards, and in 2021, 39 states reported that they had done so," Wilkens said. "While the standards are state-mandated, they are not usually part of test-based accountability measurements."
Six states have adopted all nine policies:
Thirteen states have adopted seven or eight policies, and all 50 states plus the District of Columbia now allow computer science to count toward a graduation requirement. Arkansas, South Carolina, and Nevada require all students to take a computer science course to graduate.
"More recently, there is a call across computer science education to move from focusing primarily on developing technical skills toward an understanding of the role computer science plays in maintaining and perpetuating systemic injustices," Wilkens said.
When high school graduates with computer science literacy and skills walk out of their graduation ceremonies, they may find themselves more able to step into a tech-focused higher education experience and, eventually, into a full-time career.
Good said he anticipates educators and lawmakers will focus on policy issues related to setting and achieving computer science education standards for K-8 students. He also said there will also need to be cooperation and consensus on other issues, like funding and teacher training standards.
"But I believe that at the core, most policy issues will focus on equity and inclusion," Good said.
Wilkens said advocacy work by organizations like Code.org, CSTA, and the ECEP Alliance has raised the national profile of computer science education. Advocacy has also prompted states to enact policies expanding funding and resources for elementary and middle school computer science education.
"I think one thing we will see is that implementation of CS education requires grassroots efforts like those that happen in research-practice partnerships," Wilkens said.
She pointed to one example of this happening at UVA.
The university's School of Education is exploring ways to bridge opportunity gaps by participating in research-practice partnerships with school districts and K-8 teachers. The goal is to create high-quality computer science curriculum resources and professional development focused on creating equitable computer science environments in classrooms.
Wilkens said it's important to maintain a perspective of how the worlds of technology and education intersect.
"Computer science education is a relatively new discipline, and we are just beginning to understand through experience and research what works and what still needs to be done to ensure all K-8 students experience and benefit from CS education," she said.