COVID 19 and Computer Science

Pandemic Revealed How and Why We Need (More) Computer Science

My son will graduate from kindergarten this month. Thanks to his age and the response of his school, he doesn’t really know what he missed from not having a normal school year. Unfortunately, too many students have deeply felt what they’ve missed. And, as painful as it’s been for these young people, I believe it has been more frustrating for the teachers who care about them.

So how do we ensure this never happens again?

I’m not talking about preventing another infectious disease. I’m talking about making sure the conditions that made one school’s pandemic experience positive are applied to the schools where teachers and students struggled.

For me, this is one of the most important educational lessons from the pandemic: The digital divide has serious and detrimental repercussions for our young people. It must go away.

The Gaping Digital Divide has Grown

As the Director of Educator Success for Nextech, I create content and conduct professional development workshops to help teachers bring technology and computer science to their classrooms. As both a mom and a tech professional, this school year has been a devastatingly fascinating time.

As the mother of a 5-year-old, I had talked up kindergarten all summer to get my son ready, and by the fall he was super excited to be in school. When we realized the pandemic would keep him out of the physical classroom, we talked that up, too. It would be great!

And it mostly has been. The novelty wore off for him after a couple of months, but in reality, the systems his school district put in place worked: the consistent schedule, the tools for online learning, the teacher, everything.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a walk in the park, but because of technology, he’s ready to start first grade this fall.  Unfortunately, not every student had the same experience as my son and his classmates. His family, his school and his teachers had the technological tools and support they needed to make his school year as much of a success as possible.

I’m so sad that not everyone was in the same boat. I’m especially troubled about the obstacles that got in the way of so many teachers being able to do what they do best.

Through the teachers I’ve met this past year facilitating virtual workshops for Nextech, and in my personal experience, what I’ve learned is that remote teaching can highlight a teacher’s strengths and exacerbate weaknesses. Without an adequate support structure, someone who is an excellent and beloved teacher in person can really struggle with all the distractions and stresses that come with teaching online.

A Day in a Teacher’s Online Life

Remember, it’s not just the lesson plans and all the distractions happening on their side of the camera that teachers must deal with when teaching remotely. Plenty of impediments are arising on each student’s side of the camera, too.

In the past year, I heard about kids who could attend class online in the privacy of their own bedrooms while others in the same class sat at a busy kitchen table with siblings also remote learning. One teacher described a day when every time she asked a student to unmute themselves, all she got back were dogs barking, siblings playing, TVs blaring and parents yelling on the phone. An elementary-school art teacher shared how she noticed a student had signed into her virtual class one day from inside a parent’s car. Without thinking, the teacher said something the whole class could hear along the lines of, ‘Billy! I don’t know how you expect to do art class in your car today.’ Of course, she was just frustrated; it wasn’t the student’s choice to be in the car during art class. But in normal times, what teacher has to think about how a child can make something with scissors and glue while they’re buckled up in the back of a Buick?

Amid the distractions, of course, have been plenty of technical challenges.

Teachers had to learn new systems. Some were thrown into virtual teaching with few tools; if they were lucky, they could call on an overworked IT staff for support. Where classes were held in person, some schools designated individuals as solely virtual teachers or in-person teachers; others were asked to teach in a hybrid system, requiring them to split their attention between students right in front of them and students digitally connected.

Some schools and teachers also had to figure out how to reach students who did not have Internet access or computer equipment at home, and how to help families navigate the unfamiliar process of the applications their district had chosen for virtual learning. Many students didn’t have access to a stable Internet connection or any connectivity at all at home. For students whose schools didn’t provide devices, their teachers were left to figure out how to support these students as equitably as possible with those who did have devices.

All these issues have been caused not by the pandemic, but by the digital divide that keeps some students on one side, where technology keeps their education flowing, and some students on the other.

What can we do? Wait, let me rephrase that: What must we do?

We Can Eliminate the Digital Divide

In the world of computer science, equitable access to technology is a hot topic. Nextech believes that all young people – regardless of family income or social background – should have the education and training they need to thrive in the Information Age.

However, many schools treat technology and computer science as things that are nice to have, but not required. The pandemic has clearly revealed the downfalls of this attitude.

To begin to close the enormous gap in technology, we need to revise our thinking about tech equity. Access is no longer enough. Education in computer science must be mandatory.

How do we get there?

Computer science education must be required.

Nextech has never believed that computer science should be an elective or something that’s taught when part of the class is out of the room. When computer science is taught at the same time as band or Spanish or sociology, or the teacher covers a technology subject when students with special needs are taken elsewhere, too many young people miss out on information they need to navigate life in the 21st century. Computer science is about creative problem solving and is just as important as reading and math.

Teachers must be supported with training and tools specifically to teach computer science.

We talk to so many teachers who end up being computer science instructors because they were business majors or because “there was no one else to do it.” In Indiana, Nextech offers comprehensive computer science training at no cost to the schools or teachers (and, in fact, pays teachers a stipend for select offerings). It’s a partnership worth exploring for every school.

Technology instruction must go beyond computer literacy.

While it is true that everyone should know how to use a computer, the Internet, and a smartphone, computer science for the 21st century is about creating, building, innovating and solving problems with those technologies.

Schools must meet a minimum standard for student devices.

Not every school can offer devices to help students access the Internet or participate in virtual learning, and not every school can offer the same quality. For example, I heard about a small private school that claims to have a 1:1 device-to-student ratio, but in actuality some of those devices are a parent’s cell phone they borrow for school or an old Chromebook with a couple of broken keys they found in a closet.

Every state’s infrastructure must include Internet capabilities for all.

America’s infrastructure is not keeping pace with its technology needs. As the Pew Research Center states, “The proportion of American adults with high-speed broadband service at home increased rapidly between 2000 and 2010. In recent years, however, broadband adoption growth has been much more sporadic. Today, roughly three-quarters of American adults have broadband internet service at home. … [Moreover,] Racial minorities and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home.” Students should not be left out of educational opportunities because their community’s decision makers choose to ignore their area’s Internet deficiencies.

Indiana has done an incredible job at the state level recognizing that computer science education is important. Now, it’s up to each one of us to initiate change in our classrooms, schools, school districts, and communities. Each of us has the ability to improve access to computer science education for young Hoosiers.

About Jenna

Jenna Garcia is a mother of three young children who majored in computer science and has spent time in the tech industry, the classroom as a High School CS and math teacher, and at CS Education non-profits.  Because of this, Jenna has a unique understanding of Nextech’s mission as well as how to best tailor opportunities for Indiana’s educators looking to bring computer science to their students and schools. Some of her favorite resources are the Resource Hubs that she has created to support Indiana educators teaching computer science using curriculum from and other leading providers (Elementary Resource Hub, Middle School Resource Hub, High School Resource Hub). To join Jenna and the Nextech team of facilitators at a workshop, please visit our professional development page!

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