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There’s a great divide in the technology industry: many companies have open positions job-seekers desire, but the candidates lack the skills they need to do the work.
That’s why as an education advocate and Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer science and electrical engineering professor, I applaud New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent announcement of an immense effort to increase computer science education in public school classrooms.
In moving forward with this initiative, the Mayor takes important steps toward solving a looming crisis faced by the private sector – the skills gap in technology.
Mayor de Blasio’s direction is the correct one, but it’s an answer for future pupils, not those sitting in classrooms today. Many current students will miss the computer science instruction slated to come online before 2026 – the Mayor’s proposed deadline. We mustn’t allow the responsibility to fall squarely on the shoulders of the Mayor and the school system. Until our schools ramp up – which will take considerable time – it’s up to all of us to make sure that students get the computer science instruction they need.
The skills gap is an issue we’ve been watching closely at edX. As a non-profit online learning destination with courses from all over the world, our offerings span a wide spectrum of subjects. However, it’s our computer science offerings, including coding classes at the elementary and high school levels, that consistently rank among our most popular, and we’ve heard the same from other online learning providers as well.
Some organizations are tackling this divide head-on and have already seen great success. LaunchCode uses computer science courses, including Harvard University’s free online version of Introduction to Computer Science, as an educational backbone. They take viable candidates with motivation and intelligence – but no coding experience – and quickly ready them for positions in the tech workforce. It’s not easy, but the results have been impressive in cities like St. Louis and Miami where tech talent has historically been tough to find.
To ensure that students do not struggle to catch up like these job seekers, it’s imperative that we begin today. Those of us working in education and technology have a particular responsibility to create free and open access to learning tools for computer science.
We can use the Computer Science technology geared toward our children to create the necessary tools to teach computer science, cost effectively and at scale. We must then encourage pioneering educators, along with parents and motivated students, to use those tools and build technical skills. I’ve seen, first hand, the impact this approach can have.
Earlier this year, Keith Grove, a math teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took advantage of a free online course on Scratch to introduce his seventh and eighth grade students to coding. Scratch is a fun coding language developed by MIT to help instruct young students and computer novices about the world of computer science. Although he himself had little previous coding experience, Grove was able to teach his class using the online course as a tool and guide.
The actions that Mayor de Blasio and his administration take now place New York City in good company with San Francisco and Chicago, other American cities that have implemented public school options for computer science learning.
Progress is already underway: UC Berkeley is currently working on a program to bring computing instruction to 100 New York public high school teachers using existing course materials.
Education for students needs to start this very minute. We all have a greater responsibility to get involved right now: preparing ourselves, preparing our children, and preparing for tomorrow.
Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.