By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
During the 2014 campaign, when Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s main talking point on education was teaching computer coding in schools, I thought he was playing it small.
He did have a great commercial with his granddaughter. But the big, controversial issues in education are school funding, the Common Core, testing, charter schools – not whether or not students should take a computer class.
Sometimes, small is big. As a result of legislation passed earlier this year, all public high schools in Arkansas are required to offer a computer coding class. This semester, almost 4,000 students are learning to “speak the language of the computer in order to tell the computer what to do,” as Hutchinson described to school board members Dec. 11. Arkansas students have been participating in more than 850 “Hour of Code” events, including one at the Governor’s Mansion last week, where they play around on a computer to get a feel for coding. Bentonville Superintendent Mike Poore told Hutchinson at that school board conference that one of his students, ranked 800th in a class of 1,000 academically, has learned eight computer languages this semester and will have a $50,000-a-year job waiting on him when he graduates – high school, not college.
Arkansas is the first state to require high schools to offer a coding class, and some have noticed. The influential “Wired” magazine ran an online story headlined, “So, Arkansas is leading the learn to code movement.” Hutchinson – who can’t personally code himself out of a paper bag – appeared on CNBC this summer to talk about the program.
The legislation applies only to high schools. On Dec. 4, Hutchinson announced that the Department of Education is developing computer education standards for grades K-8. Those standards would go into effect in the 2017-18 school year. Again, Arkansas would be the first state to do this.
The result of all this could be that Arkansas produces the next Bill Gates. Even if not, then at least a lot of students will be prepared for those well-paying jobs. Some no doubt will take advantage of opportunities offered elsewhere. But as Hutchinson explained Dec. 4, he noticed when visiting Silicon Valley in California, the nation’s tech industry home, the sky-high benefits companies were offering in order to attract talent. Companies will realize their costs will be lower here, leading Arkansas to become a “microhub” for the tech industry.
Even if students don’t go into coding, they’ll have a better understanding of an integral part of American life. Just as a law degree can be useful even if you don’t become a lawyer, coding skills can be useful elsewhere. If you own or manage a business, you may not code – but you’ll likely hire or contract with someone who does.
One more benefit to coding is what it does for the students while they are still in school. A generation of students raised to use computers – or often, just play with them and passively be entertained by them – is instead learning to actively program them. When you and I were in school, the end result of most learning was to answer a test question correctly. For a student in a coding class, the end result is taking charge of a computer and making it do something new. How cool is that?
Challenges? One is getting female students involved. Anthony Owen, Department of Education coordinator of computer science, said current enrollment in computer coding courses is about 74 percent male. The event at the Governor’s Mansion was targeted to girls.
The big challenge has been finding teachers, because few of them know how to code. In many high schools, students are learning the skill through the state’s online Arkansas Virtual Academy while an untrained teacher facilitator in the classroom offers whatever help they can. Kids can learn this way, but it would be better for a local classroom teacher to lead the class. The state has provided $5 million in grants for teachers to be trained in the skill. The faster that money is spent, the better.
Might some of those teachers use that training to leave the profession and become coders themselves? Probably, but every industry deals with that issue. As young thinker Max Farrell once told me, “The CEO says, ‘Why are we training all these people if they ultimately wind up leaving?’ And the vice president says to the CEO, ‘Well, what if we don’t train them and they stay?’”
Same applies to students, doesn’t it?