Q&A: Leila Nuland on How to Build Equitable Computer Science Curricula

As workforce forecasts emphasize the importance of developing computer science skills early, researchers are working to create best practices for equitable curricula.

An increasing number of K–12 schools are starting to bring computer science modules into their curricula as more research comes out on the importance of computational thinking and computer science skills for the future workforce. 

While some teachers have already started to come up with creative ways to inject computer science into their programs, others may still be lost on how to introduce the concepts into the classroom. 

A recent study from Hanover research has identified the key aspects of computer science in K–12, including what technology to use and when, as well as some of the concerns around current practices in schools. Edtech spoke with Leila Nuland, managing research director for K-12 at Hanover research to discuss some of the trends surrounding computer science in K–12 and how to overcome issues of accessibility and underrepresentation in certain populations.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how K–12 schools are incorpoarting computer science into their programs!

EDTECH: What interest have you seen from educators on including computer science in curricula?

NULAND: We're definitely seeing a bit of an uptick in requests related to computer science programming. So, it is top of mind for district leaders. When we did this research, we were looking to figure out what are best practices for creating a computer science program at the elementary level. 

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Leila Nuland, managing research director for K-12, Hanover research. Photo courtesy of Hanover research.

Oftentimes, the superintendents and other district leaders that we work with will commission us to do some custom literature reviews, best practice reports, so that they can ensure that their decision-making and program development is grounded in best practices.

EDTECH: There is some debate on including computer science skills within curricula versus having its own designated classes. Has there been any development on which is better?

NULAND: Currently, there just isn't enough programming in place or that has been in place long enough for folks to say, "This model is better than the other model." However, when you take skill instruction out of context, that generally doesn't have the same impact on learning as it does if you embed skill instruction in the content areas. 

So, I would venture to guess that what we're going to see down the road, when there is enough research, is that we're going to want contextualized instruction of computer programming skills. 

So, if you're teaching things decontextualized and they don't necessarily have that schema, it's not within content, that's harder to learn. It's not going to stick the same way that it would if it's immersed in the content areas.

As the research space grows on this, I think that's what we'll find. Like I said, this is just grounded in other literature on other types of skills. Perhaps we find computer skills are different and that's not necessarily true. But my speculation is that, from the literature available, it seems if you have it embedded in the classroom, then students are going to interact with it and have more time with that content.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how library grants are helping K–12 schools boost computer science programs!

EDTECH: Where can schools start to invest to help include more underrepresented students?

NULAND: I think the hardware's easier in my mind, for me at least. When I think about what you need to be investing in, it's a matter of making sure that you have that accessibility. So, first and foremost, you shouldn't adopt any programming that isn't going to be accessible to your students. 

We see that across the board with all types of different programs in districts. A key question that we have to answer for districts often is, "How equitable is my programming?" 

So, I think as a superintendent or a district leader, before you adopt a program like this, make sure that you've thought about whether or not this is accessible, because if we go into it and we know what the emerging research suggests, that this is another area that's creating an inequity; we don't want to add to it. There are enough challenges with equitable access.

EDTECH: In Google’s accessibility policy solutions included in Hanover’s research, it mentions personal devices as a possible solution to accessibility. Have you seen evidence that one-to-one device programs could help bridge the gap?

NULAND: Overall, schools need to make sure that, if they're in the planning phases for adopting or exploring the adoption of a computer science program, they are making sure they've asked themselves the right questions in terms of accessibility of the programming. 

What I can tell you anecdotally from the work that we've done here at Hanover is that, even with a BYOD program, there's still equity challenges with that because not every student has a mobile device to bring. 

So, then the onus is on the school to provide those devices. A lot of schools will get grants through Google and other tech firms, or organizations like the Gates Foundation. There are foundations that are heavily investing in education to try to level the accessibility to resources, but that still isn't taking care of everything in every school district. 

So, I think it's a step closer, but there's still those challenges that everyone needs to be mindful of. We can't lose sight of the fact that not everybody has the resources to give their child a mobile device to bring to school. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: K-12 schools are improving classroom equity through education technology integration!

EDTECH: What should educators be asking themselves when developing a computer science program?

NULAND: What does it mean to have equitable computer science programming? Do we have the resources that we need to support the programming that we envision, so that it’s an equitable vision? How are we going to monitor implementation and adoption of the programming? And then, alongside the monitoring, how are you going to evaluate the impact and effectiveness? Because this does require resources. 

I will say that, in the work that we do every day, when districts make major financial investments at some point down the road, it's usually a few years into the education initiative. And board of education members and the parent community want to know what impact that programming is having. 

So, is that investment in computer science programming having the intended outcome? If you're planning all of this at the onset, you should know what is it that you hope to achieve. This means asking what outcome you anticipate from an elementary computer science program.

Does that mean that you want to see more students enrolling in science and math in high school, for example? Obviously, in the long term, you want students who are college and career ready, but what does that mean? How are you going to measure that down the road, once they're 10, 13 years out from their elementary school program?

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Oct 11 2018