The White House wants to bring computer science to every student, and this past weekend President Obama proposed spending more than $4 billion on a new federal program to make that reality.
Too few students take computer science Advanced Placement courses, federal officials said in a conference call with reporters last Friday, and too few teachers are prepared to instruct these classes. And 22 states do not allow students to count computer science toward a diploma, according to officials in the U.S. Department of Education, even as nine out of 10 parents in a Gallup poll reported that they want their children to take these courses.
Even with the backing of the president, an ambitious-sounding title (“Computer Science for All”) and a multi-billion-dollar price tag, the White House’s plan isn’t guaranteed to succeed. First, and most practically, it’s just a proposal. Congress would have to want to spend this money as much as the White House does. And even if Congress were to agree on a plan and approve it, an important question remains. What’s the best way to do it?
Some might think technology could provide a quick fix: Just put computer science courses online and encourage people to take them. But these online classes, most of them free, are already widely available and have been for years. Students can take any number of them, including some taught by Ivy League professors. Simply offering high quality, free information doesn’t mean people will avail themselves of it. (Ask any public librarian.)
Also, research suggests that online learning alone, while it can be valuable, is not effective for every student.
A mix of technology and in-person instruction might help make computer science available to more students, if – and this is a big ‘if’ – schools can hire and train the right teachers. The problem is unlikely to be solved without extraordinary cooperation among teachers, state leaders, the federal government and the technology community. This isn’t a job for the robots.