Pushing coding into classrooms

Pushing coding into classrooms

Pushing coding into classrooms
At a recent White House gathering of tech titans, Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, delivered a blunt message to President Donald Trump on how public schools could better serve the nation’s needs. To help solve a “huge deficit in the skills that we need today,” Cook said, the government should do its part to make sure students learn computer programming. “Coding,” Cook told Trump, “should be a requirement in every public school.”

The Apple chief’s education mandate was just the latest tech company push for coding courses in schools. But even without Trump’s support, Silicon Valley is already advancing that agenda — thanks largely to the marketing prowess of Code.org, an industry-backed non-profit group.

Code.org was founded in 2012 by Hadi Partovi, an early investor in Facebook and Airbnb, and his twin brother, Ali Partovi, himself an early investor in Zappos and Dropbox. The group first gained renown by using a viral video to stir up mass demand for coding lessons.

Now Code.org’s goal is to get every public school in the United States to teach computer science. In our tech-driven world, Hadi Partovi argues, computer science has become as essential for students as reading, writing and math. “Encryption is at least as foundational as photosynthesis,” he said.

Computer science is also essential to US tech companies, which have become heavily reliant on foreign engineers. Trump’s efforts to limit immigration make Code.org’s teach-Americans-to-code agenda even more attractive to the industry. In a few short years, Code.org has raised more than $60 million from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Salesforce, along with individual tech executives and foundations.

It has helped persuade two dozen states to change their education policies and laws, Partovi said, while creating free introductory coding lessons, called Hour of Code, which more than 100 million students worldwide have tried.

Along the way, Code.org has emerged as a new prototype for Silicon Valley education reform: a social-media-savvy entity that pushes for education policy changes, develops curriculums, offers online coding lessons and trains teachers — touching nearly every facet of the education supply chain. But Code.org’s multilevel influence machine also raises the question of whether Silicon Valley is swaying public sch­ools to serve its own interests (in this case, its need for software engineers) with little scrutiny.

Partovi, 44, said he simply wanted to give students the opportunity to develop the same skills that helped him and his backers succeed. He immigrated as a child to the US from Iran with his family, went on to study computer science at Harvard, and later sold a voice-recognition startup he had co-founded, to Microsoft for a reported $800 million. He acknowledged some industry self-interest.

Code.org is now one of the largest providers of free online coding lessons and more comprehensive computer science curriculums. It has also provided training workshops to more than 57,000 teachers, Partovi said. The rise of Code.org coincides with a larger tech-industry push to remake US primary and secondary schools with computers and learning apps, a market estimated to reach $21 billion by 2020.

Before Code.org emerged, the National Science Foundation, industry, and education experts worked for years to develop and spread computer science instruction in schools.

Then Partovi came along with the idea of using a viral video to spark mass demand for the courses. He began by persuading Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, to appear in a short film promoting coding to students. In its first week on YouTube, the video, called “What Most Schools Don’t Teach,” racked up roughly nine million views. Within two weeks, Partovi said, about 20,000 teachers contacted him.

Partovi compared Code.org’s approach to those of startups like Airbnb and Uber. “Airbnb is disrupting the travel space, but they don’t own the hotels,” he said. “We are in a similar model, disrupting education. But we are not running the school and we don’t hire the teachers.”

Partovi’s elite connections didn’t hurt. In early 2013, he bumped into his neighbour, Bradford Smith, then a senior Microsoft executive, in a driveway outside their homes in Bellevue, Washington. Smith had recently published a Microsoft report calling for a federal plan to better prepare students for careers in computer science and engineering. Partovi promptly invited Smith over to preview his celebrity coders video. Microsoft soon became Code.org’s largest donor.

Together with local groups, Partovi said, Code.org and Microsoft have helped persuade 24 states to allow computer science to count toward math or science credits required for high school graduation. Along with groups like Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code and Latina Girls Code, Code.org has worked to make the subject accessible to a diverse group of students. But the movement has also supported legislation that could give companies enormous sway in public schools, starting with kindergarten.

Students’ interests

Last year, Microsoft and Code.org helped push for a career-education bill in Idaho that, education researchers warned, could prioritise industry demands over students’ interests. Among other things, they said, it could sway schools to teach specific computer programming languages that certain companies needed, rather than broader problem-solving approaches that students might use throughout their lives.

“It gets very problematic when industry is deciding the content and direction of public education,” said Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Idaho bill read, in part, “It is essential that efforts to increase computer science instruction, kindergarten through career, be driven by the needs of industry and be developed in partnership with industry.”

When a reporter apprised him of the bill’s language, Smith of Microsoft seemed taken ab­ack, saying he had not endorsed it. “Broad public education should not be grounded first and foremost in the needs of any particular industry — or in the needs of industry as a whole,” he said.

Partovi noted that Code.org had opposed a “more extreme” coding bill in Florida that would have required students to obtain industry certification. Still, Partovi added, “We do think that tech companies have a role to play.”

The Idaho law took effect last year. One of its first results was a new programme, developed with Oracle, to train public-school teachers how to teach Java, Oracle’s popular coding language. Other companies, including the chip maker Micron Technology, were invited to help develop computer science standards for Idaho schools.

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