It's CS Education Week and a host of tech leaders are using the occasion to highlight and advance efforts to ensure more kids get a chance to learn to code. It's feel good work that paints tech companies and their leaders in a (currently much needed) rosy light. Who could possibly be against providing more kids with more opportunity?

The answer is quite a few education researchers.  

It's really hard to argue with the idea that teaching computer literacy in school is a good thing. We can all see that the world is becoming increasingly saturated with technology and that the right sort of computer skills are necessary for many good jobs. Plus, there are all those warnings about robots coming for our jobs ringing in our ears.

But as Kate M. Miltner points on The Conversation recently, those who have actually studied decades of initiatives to put more tech in schools actually question who derives more benefit from many of these efforts - students or the tech companies themselves.

The long, checkered history of pushing computer education

In the post Milther traces the origin of these CS education drives all the way back to Apple's "Kids Can't Wait" program in 1982, which had Steve Jobs personally lobbying Congress to let tech companies write off a portion of the hardware they donated to schools. The initiative failed nationally but was adopted in California.

"The bill was clearly a corporate tax break," Miltner points out, but that could be forgiven if the results were more computer-savvy kids who were better prepared for meaningful, lucrative work. But it's unclear whether this initiative - and the great many subsequent efforts to get more tech in kids' hands - had real benefits. Miltner explains:

While technology is often framed as the solution for success in a globalized labor market, the evidence is less clear. In his 2003 book Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, education researcher Larry Cuban warned that technology on its own would not solve "education's age-old problems," such as inequitable funding, inadequate facilities and overworked teachers.

Cuban found that some educational technology initiatives from the 1990s did help students get access to computers and learn basic skills. But that didn't necessarily translate into higher-wage jobs when those students entered the workforce. However, the equipment and software needed to teach them brought large windfalls for tech companies.

This combination of limited gains for students and obvious benefits for tech companies (who some suggest are also out to boost their own hiring pool and reduce wages) continues to the present day.

"In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District planned to give Apple iPads to every student in every school - at a cost of $1.3 billion. The program was a fiasco: The iPads had technical problems and incomplete software that made them essentially useless. The fallout included investigations by the FBI and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and a legal settlement in which Apple and its partners repaid the school district $6.4 million," reports Miltner.

She doesn't mention it in the article but it's also probably worth highlighting that many tech leaders themselves, including icons like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, severely restricted their own kids' tech use and that many tech executives opt to send their children to tech-free Waldorf schools. Apparently, when it comes to their own kids, tech leaders are less sure of the value of an iPad at every desk.

Learning to code is still awesome, but...

All of which isn't to say that ensuring any kid with a passion for tech has access to the tools and instruction she needs to build on that interest isn't an all around fabulous idea. More support and options to help young people develop their talents is something, I think, pretty much everyone supports.

What's being called into question here are efforts to use the very real need to beef up CS offerings as a pretext to sell schools more tech than they actually need, and more tech than is probably good for students. Yes, preparing kids for the jobs of the future is an admirable goal, but just enriching tech companies by putting an iPad (or other device) in every little hand might not be the best way to go about it.

First, because that technology is often poorly deployed as an educational tool. And second, because it's unclear if simply increasing screen time is the right way to build the creativity, empathy, comfort with change, and analytical skills that kids will need to thrive in a tech-filled tomorrow. What is certain is that tech companies will make a ton of money off these initiatives. It's a good idea to at least give their motives a hard look before we get too carried away with CS Education initiatives.

Published on: Dec 8, 2017
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