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CSforAll Consortium Looks to Create Conditions for Innovation

CSforAll Consortium is not about filling jobs, but creating conditions for innovation. Chief Evangelist Ruthe Farmer shares the work of CSforAll Consortium after a presidential administration change — and the true aim of the movement.

<a href=""_blank">DSC_3870 by Clark County School District via Flickr</a>
While many Obama-era innovations have come under fire since the change of administration in Washington, D.C., advocates say the push for expanded computer literacy remains strong.

“There is a lot of momentum. Computer science for all is not going away,” said Ruthe Farmer, chief evangelist at the CSforAll Consortium, a national coalition of educators, policymakers, families and business leaders that works to enhance digital opportunities for economic and social mobility.

Farmer is slated to speak at the Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (ACM SIGCSE) annual SIGCSE Technical Symposium, which runs Feb. 21-24 in Baltimore. In advance of her talk there, she said the wider adoption of CS in education needs to be a broad-based effort.

It will take a coordinated “nodes-and-networks” approach to expand access to computer science learning, she said.

“Computer science for all is not going to get done by one organization or one act of policy,” she said. “It takes activists and stakeholders across the nation working at lots of different levels. That might be a community college working with a school district in rural America, or it might be someone who is developing curriculum that is used broadly in many school districts.”

This multi-tiered approach is necessary, given the way education is organized in this country.

“The United States has one of the most distributed education systems in the world. We enjoy local control at various levels, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ for computer science education,” Farmer said. Rather, implementation has to be customized at the local level. “Rural kids without good broadband access can’t do the same kinds of programs that urban kids can do.”

Local implementation in turn will require local expertise. For wider adoption of computer science education to take hold, there needs to be a significant bump up in the number of educators with specialized knowledge to support such learning.

“We need experts,” she said. “The faculty and educators who do this full time are the experts and as computer science grows on the policy landscape, we need to know that those people are acting as partners in their local communities, to ensure that what we implement is well-grounded.”

The big picture

In advocating for wider CS literacy, Farmer notes the popular vision of the computer science agenda does not necessarily reflect the true aims of the movement.

Computer science learning often is mentioned in the same breadth with technology-related labor shortages and IT skills development. In fact, the job openings of today will be a distant memory by the time this year’s kindergartners enter the job market. Farmer says she is not looking to build an employee base, but rather to grow opportunities in a broader sense.

“This is not about filling jobs, it is about creating the conditions for innovation,” she said. “Having an informed, educated citizenry is part of that. It is also about equality and equity. All students deserve the opportunity to learn the foundational pieces of computing, just as they learn the foundational pieces of reading and writing. That is a gateway to opportunity and choice as they go through their lives.”

The CSforAll Consortium pushes that agenda on a number of fronts.

Members meet for an annual summit to compare notes and share expertise. The organization also brokers formal and informal relationships between experienced practitioners and educators new to the CS discipline.

The consortium also offers access to SCRIPT — the School CSforALL Resource & Implementation Planning Tool. “A single teacher trained in a school is not a sustainable change model. That teacher needs the support of the district, the principal, the person who writes the master schedule,” she said. “They need buy-in.”

SCRIPT offers a means to codify the CS curriculum for the long haul. “We have piloted that with more than 60 districts all over the nation and are starting to see the results coming out of that work,” Farmer said. “It’s about driving the sustainability of a computer science pathway, as opposed to teachers just doing it ad hoc.”

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.