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Learning to code vs. coding to learn

Michael Trucano's picture
hello world!
hello world!

This week over a million students around the world will participate in the Hour of Code, an annual event designed to excite interest in computer science and computer programming. This reflects a growing interest in some quarters to promote efforts within schools to broaden awareness of what it means to 'code' (i.e. write a set of step-by-step directions that instruct computers to do something) and to help students develop related skills.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many leading technology firms have been keen proponents and supporters of this educational coding 'movement'. While such support has been particularly pronounced and high profile in the United States -- many of the prominent organizations have close ties to and/or roots in Silicon Valley -- this is long past being only a North American phenomenon.

Citing the increasing importance of coding skills, and IT jobs more broadly, to their national economies, policymakers in many countries are considering national coding education efforts of various sorts – and a few education systems have already begun to implement related initiatives. From Trinidad and Tobago to Indonesia to Nigeria, 'coding' is being introduced into classrooms and curricula around the world in various ways, both informally and (increasingly) formally as well, for better and/or for worse (depending on your perspective, and the particular nature or rigor of the specific initiatives).

This phenomenon is notably observable across Europe, where, rather famously (at least within the communities of people who care about and pay attention to such things), Estonia and the United Kingdom have introduced coding curricula for students beginning in early primary grades (the UK has actually made this mandatory – as has Slovakia, for what that’s worth). Each year in October, CodeWeek.eu serves as a continental focal point and showcase for many of these sorts of national and regional efforts. A recent report from the European Schoolnet (Computer programming and coding - Priorities, school curricula and initiatives across Europe [pdf]) features results from a survey of 21 ministries of education about their current coding-related initiatives and plans for the future. To date, 16 European countries have integrated coding into their curricula at some level (with Finland and the Flemish part of Belgium expected to do so in 2016). While the focus of most of these countries has been at the upper secondary level, coding is increasingly to be found (or soon to be found) at the primary level at a majority of these countries as well. The report highlights a number of important related pedagogical questions that are emerging out of European experience:

  • How to design effectively the learning processes and outcomes involving coding?
  • Which concrete activities (and programming languages) are most appropriate for different students, according to their age, interests and capacities?
  • What are the particular merits (and limits) of adopting a cross-curricular approach to teaching coding or a discrete computer science subject?
  • How to refine assessment, in particular where coding is integrated in a cross-curricular approach in other subjects?

It also highlights many challenges related to training and support for teachers. While many of the startups developing the tools and services that make the coding movement possible are in the United States, Europe is in many the ways at the center of actual related activities in schools.

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“Coding”, it is said by some, is the “new literacy”. The ability to write and understand computer code, some contend, is increasingly fundamental to understanding how to navigate one’s way through, to say nothing of succeeding in, a modern society where more and more of our lives are enabled and/or constrained by the actions of devices and information systems that run on computer code.

I expect that few people would argue that efforts to expose some students to ‘coding’ (and to develop some related skills) is a bad thing. That said:

Should *all* students learn how to code?
All? That’s ridiculous! some would answer.
All? Absolutely! others respond.

I’ve sat in on a number of related discussions in ministries of education and at education policy forums around the world. At times, it can seem like members of these two groups are not only on different pages, but reading from totally different books. Those people just don’t get it, I’ve have heard representatives from both groups lament about each other after the conclusion of such meetings.

For what it’s worth, and in case it might be of any interest to others, here are, in no particular order, some of the most common arguments I hear made both in support of, and against, educational coding initiatives:

Complexities in utilizing free digital learning resources

Michael Trucano's picture
What do you mean, 'gratis' or 'libre'? It's 'free' and so I'm taking it!
What do you mean, 'gratis' or 'libre'?
It's
'free' and so I'm taking it!

Here's a scenario I have encountered more than a few times.

Officials at a ministry of education in ___ tell me that:

They've bought lots of computers.
They've put computer labs in their schools.
They've connected (most of) their schools.

And:

Lots of their teachers have (inexpensive) laptops.
Now their students are getting tablets.
Along the way, they've been teaching basic computer literacy.

Which leads them to ask:
 

Now what should we do?

(In my experience, this query may be a result of an evaluation that showed little or no 'impact of technology on student learning’, despite massive amounts of money that have been invested … or it may simply come about because a lot of initiatives are coming to an end and the groups involved in them are looking for stuff to do. There are other impetuses as well, but I am regularly reminded that the motivations which animate this sort of question can vary quite a bit!)

In such instances, I usually respond by first congratulating them on all of these great accomplishments. A lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people was needed to make these things happen, and no doubt lots of difficult challenges popped up along the way.

However:

As difficult (and expensive) as it may have been to achieve all of these things, in many ways they represent just table settings, and not the main course. In other words (and to adopt another metaphor, in case you didn't like that last one), they are some of the key raw materials that can be used to help do something purposeful with technology to supports learning that has real, demonstrable impact.

what a minute: where's the content?
what a minute:
where's the content?

It's about the content, not the container, after all. (That will be the last metaphor for a while, I promise.) As devices proliferate, and as better and more widespread connectivity enables connections to networks from different places using a variety of different devices, the value will decreasingly be in the devices themselves, but rather in the educational content they enable learners and teachers to access (and in the connections to communities of other people as well).

OK, they counter, if the value is indeed in the content, and not the container ... where do we get this content?

The textbooks we use do not have straightforward digital equivalents or complements.
We really haven't budgeted for any digital learning content.
We spent almost all of our money on hardware (and a little on related training).

We know that there is a lot of 'free' content available on the Internet that would be useful to teachers and students.

Can't we just use a bunch of this stuff?

And if so:

How might we go about doing this?

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Common (and uncommon) approaches to preventing the theft of computers, laptops and tablets in schools

Michael Trucano's picture
if you don't pay attention, I'll steal this tablet right out of your pocket!
if you don't pay attention,
I'll steal this tablet right out of your pocket!

Many critics of contemporary schooling practices have noted that, if a teacher from the 19th century was magically transported into a typical classroom today, she would feel very comfortable with how things look. The room itself would be very familiar.

(Whether that teacher would be comfortable with today's students is another matter entirely, given that they probably look a little different than they did 'back in the day' -- to say nothing of how they might act and some of the opinions they might have!)

Contrast this, such critics note, with the situation of a surgeon from the 19th century teleported into an operating room today -- he would be bewildered, and perhaps disoriented, by all of the technology on display.

Few would deny that, in many fundamental and obvious ways, technology has revolutionalized medicine and healthcare.

Why hasn't it done so (yet) for learning and education?

One way that critics illustrate and reinforce this question is to share pictures of 'typical' operating rooms in the 19th and 21st centuries, alongside pictures of 'typical' classrooms from both centuries. The classrooms in such examples usually do look quite the same, with a teacher standing at the front of the room and neatly lined up rows of students intently (if metaphorically) drinking from the fountain of the teacher's knowledge. The chief noticeable difference (again, apart from the students themselves -- and the teachers as well) is that there are now computing devices of some sort on display in the 'modern' classroom, sometimes (depending on the country) lots of them, although the room essentially looks and functions the same way. The arrangement and nature of these ICT devices don't fundamentally alter the architecture of the room, nor what occurs inside it. In others words, the changes are additive, not transformative.  (It is of course possible to provide pictures of some of today's 'innovative' classrooms that complicate this simple and popular narrative, as well as to ask some fundamental and important questions about what such pictures may obscure and what they illuminate, but I'll ignore such inconvenient complications here.)

Side note: Over a dozen years ago I visited the launch of a computer lab at a school in Cambodia. The headmaster had proudly transformed a room formerly used for sewing instruction into a 'technology lab', with a new PC atop each desk in place of the 'old-fashioned' technology of the sewing machine, with neat rows of students facing forward toward a teacher who was energetically shouting instructions.

Let's also put aside for a moment whether all of this technology 'makes a difference' (as well as perhaps more relevant questions about how and under what circumstances ICTs have an 'impact'). Let's ignore discussions about whether or not today's classrooms are a legacy of a 'factory model of education' that once existed but is no longer useful, or about the potential need to re-think school architecture in the age of ICT. Let's also ignore related 'big picture' issues around policymaking and planning.

Let's focus instead just on the technology itself.

Many regular readers of the EduTech blog are no doubt familiar with scenes of ICT equipment sitting unused in schools, locked away in computer labs or even still resting peacefully (and undamaged!) in unopened boxes. Often times, getting teachers and students to use such equipment, let alone to use it 'productively', can be a rather tall order, for all sorts of reasons. Nevertheless, education ministries, local educational authorities, and schools around the world are buying lots of technology: PCs, laptops, tablets, projectors, and lots of other devices and peripherals. 

What are they doing to make sure that this stuff doesn't get stolen?

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Video games, screen time and early childhood development

Michael Trucano's picture
there must be a screen here somewhere, where could it be?
there must be a screen here somewhere,
where could it be?

At 9:00 am this past Monday morning, almost 30 people crammed into a small conference room at the World Bank in DC to talk about ... videogames. (A good number more were queued up online to join in, but unfortunately technical snafus prevented them from participating -- our continued apologies if you count yourself among that group.) The featured presenter at this discussion, my colleague Mariam Adil ("Meet the Woman Who's Shaking Up Pakistan's Social Gaming Industry"), the founder of GRID (Gaming Revolution for International Development), shared some of the interesting and innovative things she has been doing to help create and roll out a number of educational mobile apps, as a contribution to broader discussions on topics related to 'early childhood development' (ECD).

Providing children and their caregivers with access to quality pre-school education opportunities is a primary activity of the World Bank's work related to early childhood development. No one who participated in Monday's discussion expressed the view that 'technology is the answer to the challenges of ECD'. That said:

Are there approaches and activities related to early childhood development worth pursuing that can be complemented, and in some cases helpfully enabled by, new technologies?

As the related World Bank strategy states, "Investing in young children through ECD programs—ensuring they have the right stimulation, nurturing and nutrition—is one of the smartest investments a country can make to address inequality, break the cycle of poverty, and improve outcomes later in life."

Given the proliferation of mobile phones in communities around the world, there can be no denying that such things are increasingly in the hands of parents and caregivers (and, for better or worse in the hands of children as well, both briefly and for extended periods of time).

What are we learning about what is possible, and what is useful, to do with these devices that can complement and extend many ECD activities and programs?

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Surveying ICT use in education in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture
I have a better sense of where things stand today, but the more important question is: Where are things headed?
I have a better sense of where things are today,
but the more important question is:
Where are things headed?
I began my career exploring the uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education in Ghana, Uganda and a number of other places in Africa in the late 1990s, and have continued to stay engaged with lots of passionate and innovative groups and people working with ICTs in various ways to help meet a variety of challenges related to education across the continent. Because of this history, and continued connections to lots of folks doing related cool stuff, I am from time to time asked:
 
"So, what's happening with technology use in education in Africa these days?"

 
Periodically one comes across press reports asking general questions of this sort, such as this one from Germany's Deutsche Welle news service: Can tech help solve some of Africa's education problems? Of course, 'Africa' is a rather large place. Related generalizations (while catnip for headline writers, especially those outside the continent) obviously can obscure as much as they illuminate, perpetuating certain stereotypes of Africa as a single, monolithic place with certain common characteristics.(Binyavanga Wainaina's satirical How To Write About Africa remains sadly spot on in too many instances.)

That said, while the impulse from some corners to refer to 'Africa' may be both unfortunate but nevertheless predictable, being asked this sort of question at least provides an opportunity to unpack this question in ways that are (hopefully) useful and interesting. The EduTech blog was conceived in part, and in a decidedly modest way, to help direct the gaze of some folks to some of the interesting questions and challenges being addressed in different ways in different communities in Africa related to ICT use in education by groups who are, along the way, coming up with some interesting answers and solutions.

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The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), the arm of the United Nations charged with collecting global data related to education (and some other sectors as well), recently came out with a report that provides some useful data that collectively can help outline the general shape of some of what is happening across the African continent when it comes to the availability and use of educational technologies. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Basic e-Readiness in Schools is certainly not the first such report that has taken a continent-wide perspective, but it is notable in a number of regards -- not only because it is the most recent such effort, but also because it is intended as a precursor to more regular data, systematic data collection efforts going forward.
 
Written by Peter Wallet (with the assistance of Beatriz Valdes Melgar), the report presents data and related analysis from a survey co-sponsored by UIS, the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS) and the Brazilian Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society (CETIC.br -- the group responsible for the annual Survey of ICT and Education in Brazil). The report notes that, unfortunately, "data on ICT in education in the region are sparse. Collecting more and better quality statistics will be a priority in the post-2015 development agenda given the growing role of ICT in education. In response, the UIS is working with countries to establish appropriate mechanisms to process and report data, and to better measure the impact of technology on the quality of education." With that caveat and announcement out of the way, the report then utilizes the UIS Guide to Measuring Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Education as a framework with which to examine what could be discovered about the existence of related national policies, data about learner-computer ratios, school electrification and connectivity, and ICT-related instruction and curricula in ways consistent with other regional reports that the UIS has published on Asia, Latin America and a number of Arab countries. (Here's a list of international surveys of this sort from UIS and others for anyone who might be interested, as well as some general information about efforts of this sort.)
 
Some selected highlights:

New landmark OECD PISA study on 'Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection'

Michael Trucano's picture
OK, I think I'm developing the outline of something pretty interesting here
OK, I think I'm developing the outline of
something pretty interesting here
The OECD today released a landmark report on students, technology and learning based on data from PISA, the international assessment of 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. This new publication presents the most detailed set of data and analysis to date on student access to computers, their use of computers, and learning outcomes (as measured by PISA).
 
Students, Computers and Learning:
Making the Connection
 

 principal author: Francesco Avvisati
Paris: OECD, 2015
 
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of a related blog post by the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher:
 
"Totally wired. That’s our image of most 15-year-olds and the world they inhabit. But a new, ground-breaking report on students’ digital skills and the learning environments designed to develop those skills, paints a very different picture. Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection finds that, despite the pervasiveness of information and communication technologies (ICT) in our daily lives, these technologies have not yet been as widely adopted in formal education. And where they are used in the classroom, their impact on student performance is mixed, at best."
 
Press reports today have (unsurprisingly) not been terribly nuanced or sophisticated in their understanding or analysis of what the OECD report actually says. Witness the Irish Times: "Ireland has one of the lowest rates of internet use in schools in the world but, ironically, it may be doing students more good than harm, according to a global study published on Tuesday" or the BBC: "Computers 'do not improve' pupil results, says OECD". The Register concludes that the main message is "Don't bother buying computers for schools, says OECD report". More sophisticated and substantive takes on these findings will hopefully emerge in the coming weeks. (I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that a more relevant, and practical, directive might be to figure out how to make good use of all of this technology rather than simply to avoid it entirely, but maybe I am a biased observer here.)
 
My very quick summary take on a few of the key findings, for what it might be worth:

Innovative educational technology programs in low- and middle-income countries

Michael Trucano's picture
so many ideas ... are any 'out-of-the-box'?
so many ideas ...
are any 'out-of-the-box'?

Much is made of the need for 'innovation' in education. Bullet points containing words like 'disruption' and 'transformation' increasingly characterize presentations at big education gatherings -- especially in North America, and especially where educational entrepreneurs and 'Silicon Valley-types' are to be found. The popular press is replete with (sometimes breathless) articles about the 'revolutionary' potential of some new technology to impact teaching and learning in ways that are often quite exciting. Indeed: There can be little doubt that the increased diffusion of low(er) cost, (more) powerful, connected IT devices across and within communities offers exciting possibilities and potential to do things differently -- potentially in a good way.

For many people, the use of technology in education constitutes a de facto 'innovation'. Whether or not this belief is actually accurate, or useful, is a legitimate question for discussion. That said, there is no denying that many of the educational innovations celebrated (or at least touted) today are enabled by the use of such technologies in some way.

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Around the world, there few more conservative and traditional sectors than those related to public education. In many ways this is totally understandable, and appropriate. Investments in education represent investments in the future -- of our children, of our future citizens and workers and leaders and community members. We don't want to gamble with or experiment with the way we educate our children and try out too many new things, or so goes one line of thinking. The potential downside, or failure, carries with it consequences that are just too great.

And yet: We know that, for millions children around the world, the education they are getting today isn't actually all that great. Some frightening stats from just one page of the latest Global Monitoring Report [pdf], drawing on recent research from RTI:

  • In Nicaragua in 2011, around 60% of second-graders could not identify numbers correctly and more than 90% were unable to answer a subtraction question.
  • In Malawi, 94% of second-graders could not respond correctly to a single question about a story they read in Chichewa, the national language.
  • In Iraq, 25% of third-graders were unable to tell the sound of a letter in Arabic.

And if you think that the situations in certain education systems are bad: Around the world, many children and adolescents -- 124 million, according to the latest figures from UNESCO -- are out of school and not getting any formal education at all.

In many cases then -- too many -- education systems aren't actually working all that well. In others -- like the global 'high performers' that are regularly held up as 'best practice' examples for other countries to emulate (Finland, Shanghai, Korea, Singapore) -- there is the danger that what worked well in the past (or what appears to be working well now) might not work so well in the future. The future is changing -- shouldn't we change the way we prepare for it? The riskiest course of action might well be one where people and institutions don't take risks.

Where business as usual is decidedly not working today,
or where it is feared that business as usual may not work tomorrow ...
what are some examples of business unusual from which
we might draw inspiration -- as well as practical insight?

Many good examples of this sort are regularly cited from experiences in highly developed, industrialized economies of North America, Europe and East Asia. No doubt much can be, and will be, profitably learned from what is happening such places. That said, the challenges facing education systems and families around the world are particularly acute where the needs are greatest: in many low- and middle-income countries, and especially within remote communities and traditionally disadvantaged populations.

Examples of 'innovation in education' from such places might just be more relevant to policymakers in Phnom Penh or Quito than are ones which originate in, say Palo Alto or Cambridge. (And, it is perhaps worth noting, that, if you believe that innovation often arises 'at the edges', where constraints compel people to be inventive in their approaches to solving problems in ways that folks in more resource-rich environments may never consider, it may just be that policymakers in Paris and Canberra may learn something to learn from what's happening in 'developing countries' as well.)

What examples do we have of innovative uses of educational technologies in such places?

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Tablets in education

Michael Trucano's picture
tablets: the cure for what ails education?
tablets: the cure for
what ails education?

While it can sometimes be difficult to understand just what exactly the related question or challenge is, in many education systems around the world, the 'answer' or 'solution' put forward is increasing the same:

'Tablets!'

Indeed, it seems that, over the past few years, not a week has gone by without some sort of high profile announcement about a new educational tablet initiative somewhere -- or about changes to an existing such project.

Excitement about the promise and potential of information and communication technology (ICT) devices for use in teaching and learning has been around for a few decades, but only recently has this been translated into large scale purchases of such devices for use in schools outside of industrialized, 'highly developed' countries. What's happening where, you ask?

Here are some random, but fairly representative, reports from recent years about this undeniable trend:

Not all the news is about tablets going *out* to schools; devices can flow in the reverse direction as well:

It's true that not everything that is announced actually comes to pass. Timelines are often a moving target, and the scope and/or scale of a project as initially conceived can change radically. But the trend is clear.

Why are educational policymakers authorizing the purchases of so many tablets in so many education systems around the world?

Banning and unbanning phones in schools

Michael Trucano's picture
forbidden ... or encouraged?
forbidden ... or encouraged?
When planning for new initiatives that will introduce and/or utilize information and communications technologies (ICTs) in some way, a simple general rule of thumb is worth considering:

The best technology is often the one you already have, know how to (and do) use, and can afford. In many places around the world, this technology is the mobile phone.

This is not to contend that 'new' technology devices should not be considered -- far from it! Rather, this general guidance is meant to serve as a reminder for planners and decisionmakers to consider how it might be possible to take advantage of and leverage *existing* technologies, and the activities and processes these technologies enable, before committing to introduce totally new (or foreign) technology tools into a given environment. Just because something is new doesn't mean that it is automatically better. Of course: It doesn't mean that it is worse, either.

At a conceptual level, when considering what technology devices are to be utilized as part of a given project or activity, mobile phones may often be the 'best' technology. But: Does that make the mobile phone an appropriate or practical technology choice for use in schools, and/or by students and teachers?

It depends.

When it comes to mobile phones and the education sector, things aren't so simple, and answers vary considerably by place -- and are changing. In some countries and schools, mobile phones are not allowed at all for students (and in some cases for teachers as well) and/or their use is limited to certain circumstances inside (and in some instances even outside) of school. In other places, phones are allowed with few restrictions. In yet other places, long time bans on phones are being reversed. Even where bans are in place, phones are still to be found in schools, for better and for worse, and they are used for a variety of purposes (again, for better and for worse).
 
What are some current perspectives and practices related to
the use of mobile phones in schools and education systems around the world?

Lessons from the drafting of national educational technology policies

Michael Trucano's picture
let me make sure to press the right levers in the right order so that I’m in harmony with everyone else
let me make sure to press the
right levers in the right order so that I’m
in harmony with everyone else

Begun in 2004 by the ICT/education team at UNESCO-Bangkok, who were later joined by AED, Knowledge Enterprise and the infoDev program of the World Bank (where I worked), the ICT in Education Toolkit for Policy Makers, Planners and Practitioners was utilized as part of policy planning and review processes in over thirty middle and low counties in the course of the following decade.

In support of face-to-face and online interactions that typically lasted for many months (and in a few cases, years), mainly in countries in East Asia and the Pacific, the Toolkit provided interactive instruments and step-by-step guidelines to assist education policy makers, planners and practitioners in the process of 'harnessing the potential of ICTs to meet educational goals and targets efficiently and effectively'.

The toolkit was designed with the needs of two specific groups in mind: (1) Key decisionmakers in countries and educational institutions as they struggled with the challenge of introducing and integrating ICTs into education; and (2) program officers and specialists in international development agencies as they identified, prepared and appraised ICT-in-education projects or ICT components of education projects.

The ICT in Education Toolkit itself is no longer in use -- with the great changes in technology over the past ten years, maintaining an online toolkit of this sort proved to be too difficult. That said, a number of key lessons emerged from this effort which might be quite relevant to policymakers going forward who are seeking to provide policy guidance, direction and oversight on issues related to the use of new technologies in education systems.

Here are some of them:

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