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Qualify Your Quantifiers...or, Exactly Who All Is CS4?

By Kathi Fisler, Shriram Krishnamurthi, and Emmanuel Schanzer

April 8, 2016

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In the U.S., computing education in schools has received a tremendous boost lately. At the local, state and national level, there are new initiatives that want to bring computing to all. There has never been a better time to be active in the field, and providers, politicians, researchers, and teachers alike have united under the banner of "CS4All."

Unfortunately, there’s a critical vagueness to that slogan. We want to bring computing to all, but which all do we mean? There’s one natural interpretation—probably the one imagined by most of the general public—which is that "all" means "all students." Unfortunately, there is another interpretation, which is explicit in some cases and implicit in others: "all schools." (We have even been present at events where, in the space of a few sentences, a speaker shifts between the two meanings, perhaps not even aware that they are doing so.) Institutions will optimize towards the targets they are set. The difference between these two targets is vast, and conflating them will have serious impacts on our field and the students we serve. If we want CS4All Students, we will need to solve for equity and scale. There are many initiatives that are designed for one, but not the other.

CS4All Schools—but not all students

The goal of computing in every school is much more easily met (especially since these efforts rarely dictate what it even means to have taught computing). Compared to "CS4All Students," it’s relatively easy to put an elective or after-school program in every school. As long as students must self-select into these programs, we will only exacerbate the field’s already broad inequalities in gender, race, and poverty. Optional computer science (CS) classes must compete against optional classes for every other interest, meaning the students who choose the CS activities are by definition already highly motivated to learn CS. By setting our sights narrowly on CS4All Schools, we sacrifice equity in the name of a specific definition of scale.

Even without considering equity, we need to qualify what kind of scale we desire. Setting up coding clubs at every school in Los Angeles may sound like a tremendous achievement, but what if each club only has 2 students? Scaling access is quite different from scaling exposure.

CS4All Students—but not all schools

Mandating every child take a computing class is a great way to ensure everyone takes CS, but very few states, cities, or even school districts are in a position to hire enough dedicated CS teachers or offer dedicated CS classes to reach every child. Recent declarations from several major districts that "every child will learn to code" often place impossible burdens on schools. Similarly, few schools can afford to offer CS programs that require cutting-edge computers, expensive consumables, or technology that requires significant maintenance.

To truly achieve CS4All Students in a sustainable way, equity and scale are issues that must be built in by design. Similarly, initiatives have to think about differently-abled users from scratch, not just bolt them on as an afterthought. Accessibility needs to be designed into software, curriculum, and pedagogy from the earliest stages.

The "move fast and break things" culture of computing is no help here. Right now, computing education has enormous attention. That day will pass. By the time we get around to focusing on equity, we may have depleted the energy left to overhaul computing curricula. Instead, we have to think this through at the very outset. Another computing principle is that products typically get one shot at gaining users’ attention. For the foreseeable future, this is that one shot for computing education.

Kathi Fisler, Shriram Krishnamurthi, and Emmanuel Schanzer are co-directors of Bootstrap, a family of middle- and high-school curricula that focus on equity and scale issues alongside curricular ones. In addition, Fisler and Krishnamurthi are professors of computer science at WPI and Brown University, respectively.


Joshua Sheldon

Thank you for this thoughtful article shining light on the impact of this initiative. As might be expected, CS4All is sure to run head on into the questions of school reform and equity of such that have been around for ages. Hopefully this will end differently than past efforts, but I'm not particularly optimistic. (especially as long as property tax funding model is so prevalent).

Jan Vitek

This is indeed a crucial distinction, CS4All Students should be the goal. We may fall short, but at least we should strive to do the right thing.

Richard Ladner

Thanks for your comment. Students with identified disabilities comprise about 15% of the K-12 school population. Will they be forgotten in the CS4All initiative? I hope not. It will take more accessible tools and inclusive pedagogy to make sure they are included.

Alan Kay

I think there is an important analogy to "publicly taught reading and writing" that needs to be heeded and defined. There are important obligatory connections to citizenship, "richness of life and understanding", other subjects, practical matters, and for a relatively small subset: a profession.

For "computing" mere "coding" doesn't come close, for any of these connections. What transpires right now is a bit like the "three chord" theory of "Guitar4All" (or perhaps more aptly "GuitarHero4All"). It is a kind of pop culture magic that "touching something that is like something, is the same as touching the thing". A kind of fantasy sports.

In many respects, one of the fatal flaws in so many of the current efforts comes from the advocates being too close not just to shadows of computing, but to a quite trivial keyhole view of computing. The other fatal flaw is common to public education these days: the separation of desire and need for "success" from actual content and thresholds of fluency, so that even a "perfect" result mostly produces credentialed illiterates.

I think "All" is really an important idea, and an important commitment. But we must also commit to "RealContent4All"

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