It is no secret that we are in the era of rapidly expanding knowledge and technologies, problem-solving acquisition, and humankind’s peak of critical thinking in computer science. Referred to as the Information Age, with a nod to other labels such as the Digital Age, the Computer Age, or even the New Media Age, skills of a mechanical nature have taken a palpable step down to make way for the most modern lifestyle we can comprehend.
The Industrial Age is behind us, and with this evolution, the very nature of what it means to be a successful student, teacher, scientist, researcher, and member of society must also make a great shift.
Not the Only Influencers
While teachers and administrators prepare to guide our younger generations back at school this fall, it is important to remember the role we play, not just in conducting their days in the classroom, but in molding the leaders of tomorrow’s technology.
Beyond those of us who provide the best comprehensive education we can year after year, others seek to influence the honed and crafted skills of our upcoming scholars as well. There are countless surveyors of the various science curricula pumped out to young minds all across the globe, and each has a relevant interest in how the leaders of tomorrow are fairing in classrooms today.
Varying school districts, universities, internship programs, nonprofit organizations, and of course, the current leaders in our unstoppable technological fields all hope to see young students entering their various arenas primed for competence, and one-day mastery, to take ultramodern advancement to the next level.
To prepare for reliably unprecedented needs in the future of our workforce, educators, as well as commanders in current industries, aim to cultivate computer science and other STEM pathways in our student’s daily lives, creating a beneficial relationship with those who will one day step up to take our place.
When that time comes, who will our students be? What will they have learned, accomplished, and envisioned for a more promising tomorrow?
As it turns out, there are many who would like their say in how those answers will unfold.
The Changing Computer Science Curriculum
In 2014, England made a decision to take a turn away from Information and Communications Technology, replacing it instead with a new curriculum centered around computing.
Rather than the standard education in ICT, students would be taught courses guided by computer science, digital literacy, information technology, and their various overlapping concepts. CS, DL, and IT, respectively, involves studying how computers work, introducing computing to society, and applying it to our everyday lives. Generally, this took the place of the previous curriculum with wide support.
However, these changes have also tacked on a list of real apprehensions with their justifications and sustainability as the information we feed young minds evolves, not just in England but across the globe.
Most notably since the onset of the new curriculum, the push for computer science is at risk of bias as it holds the weight of the focus in computing, and runs the risk of leaning heavily toward exam preparations.
Expanding on potential biases, educators everywhere run the risk of following the lead from those with solid resources and ICT skills before the majority of our youth have caught up. From teachers to parents, to students alike, there will be groups of those predisposed to the resources and abundant surroundings that build the knowledge needed for strong engagement with STEM skills early on, and those who don’t.
Rather than assuming all children will fall under the blanket of a digital native, and therefore generalizing ICT as an unnecessary, obsolete educational and vocational path, it is critical to look beyond the lens of privilege to ensure a comprehensive scope of foundational abilities across the board in the sciences for all of our students.
ICT cannot be compared interchangeably with computing concepts such as computer science, as they are different categories of tech education that each deserves opportunities for the eager minds of young learners.
Yet, the number of hours dedicated to computing outside of exam preparations has substantially declined with this shifting curricula to encompass only a fraction of the prospective material. We see a notable difference in offerings and participation in those very exams as even fewer students climb the ladder to college prep courses and qualifications than before this new system was put forth.
Gaps in Content and Participation in Computer Science
There was a first-hand push from educators to offer a more comprehensive and diverse breadth of tech education to students at the turn of this evolution in course criteria, but a career-oriented direction was ultimately chosen as the governing standard in its place.
Thankfully, we are left with quality tech education and exam offerings, but issues arise when we start to look into the extent of presented material, and the limited students who can hope to reach for these resources. This is especially true while many are not yet old enough to understand the value these paths could hold in their futures, which would allow them to push for what they need to get there in return.
Any amount of experience we can offer upcoming scholars is useful, but to bridge the gaps in course content and participation, we must first understand where we are falling short, and where many students are being left behind.
Who is Affected
As with any unchartered territory, it is critical for fair and equitable education to examine the ways in which new methods will affect different groupings of students across varied backgrounds. While we strive to create state-of-the-art opportunities for our younger generations, we will inevitably face, and should unquestionably address, the disparities that exist within the system as education evolves throughout England and other nations.
Unsurprisingly, the rise of certain course concepts and offerings can also widen the gap of achievements between those students with and without an abundance of science capital. For the sake of our students and the society they are inheriting, it is exactly this predictability that demands our attention as we raise the leaders of future technological ventures.
Like many shifts in education reform, there is a connection with and influence on underrepresented groups, dependent on gender, ethnicity, social class, special educational needs (or SEN) as well as other psychological and sociological limitations in our current societal structure. Certain students will have a far easier experience than others grasping for exposure, participation, and success in digital education and its subsequent career opportunities.
Uneven Availability in Computer Science
We see the same patterns developing throughout the new course curriculum in England that we see in other areas of the world: those students who are female, of ethnic minorities, and/or those of lower economic status are provided less course content and examination, or qualification, offerings than their peers from the beginning, and it is of critical importance that we analyze where and why this inequity presents itself.
Under the previous English curriculum centered around ICT, boys and girls performed fairly equally in their achievements. Under the new set of standards, however, males can be seen pulling ahead with their opportunities as well as accomplishments, particularly in computer science. There is an uneven distribution of availability as schools for boys are offered this material and testing consistently more often than schools for girls and with more from the latter being dropped all the time.
While boys go on to reach further heights, participation from their female peers has and continues to decline due to lack of staffing, funding, and even acceptance as girls actively battle the stereotypes against their success in these fields. Yet despite these disadvantages, trends indicate that girls often outperform boys in computer science, and many other subjects as well.
The same disparity pattern can be expanded upon when we consider ethnicity. With the shift in educational criteria, a lack of access to materials in STEM fields has followed suit most aggressively for black students in the same way it does for females, migrating from similar opportunities and participation in ICT to a notable decline in CS and other computing representation.
Students participated in ICT education fairly equally regardless of gender, ethnicity, or increased poverty, with the exception being black students and especially black females falling off as poverty increases. Now, we see other ethnic groups and even males becoming less likely to engage with computer science pathways as poverty levels increase.
Specialized schools like grammar schools tend to have a higher rate of computing education offerings for their students. While girls also benefit from this increased exposure, they still come up short of the opportunities and rich, comprehensive course availability the boys are provided.
Exclusion by Default
These schools shed further light on discrimination issues when we consider the students whose families are not only unable to afford more prestigious school attendance, but who cannot afford tutoring for acceptance into these schools, or who live in communities without them altogether. The more affluent the school, the greater a student’s chance of being exposed to computer science, limiting those who have interest, or who might have interest if given the opportunity.
The many categories of SEN have also taken a hit in most computing subsets. Not only is it becoming more difficult to officially identify as having special needs in countries like England, such as autism spectrum disorder, mobility limitations, and visual impairments, but this decline in digital education for these students can be seen across the board, again with the exception of computer science.
Expanding on the idea of combating stereotypes from the time students step into their first year of grade school, dropping time spent on ICT concepts widens the gap of acceptance and ambition for students of different backgrounds as they fall behind the kids who already benefit from an abundance of digital literacy.
Yet, this idea doesn’t end with the shift from ICT to computing. It is all too easy to be discouraged from certain aspirations when identities, interests, and strengths are assumed for you, and common media tends to present many stereotypes to squash: males are scientific and technical, females are artistic and creative, mathletes are as equally adept at computer science, and so on.
This is deeply solidified as a student looks to their left, to their right, and in the given media only to discover that no one else looks like them. If it is a challenge to feel like one fits in with those excelling in STEM, it will be a challenge to continue on a path portrayed as inconsistent with the rest of what makes you, you.
Without a healthy foundation of self-efficacy or the belief in one’s ability to execute sufficient actions and achieve one’s goals, students face greater obstacles reaching for and attaining high performance in subject matter and at exam levels. Social inequalities, leaking into education, community, career building, etc, portray certain paths as prudent and attainable only for those of certain identities. This misguides students, families, and even entire communities away from a future in scientific endeavors, regardless of the raw potential and interest lying dormant among our young scholars.
What we are left with is a clearly defined disparity between students who excel in computing, students who merely obtain information to pass exams, and those who will never be given the opportunity for access to either. This imbalance creates an enormous and important issue to be addressed, not only for educators invested in course curricula but for the tech industry’s deeply vested interest as well.
The Computer Science Industry Push
Among the top concerns for the evolution of educational criteria is the controversy of the industry’s influence in the classroom. The needs of the workforce are an indisputable reality that we hope to prepare our students for as they inch closer to entering the real world, but to what extent do we accept this as the governing factor behind our taught subjects, lesson plans, and heavily weighted qualifications?
As educators, we are placed front and center to observe and navigate the needs of our students down to the roots. Far beyond career preparation alone, we become personally familiar with the young people in our classrooms, including but not limited to their personalities, strengths, interests, home life, safety, and community engagement.
While the professional world sits behind the wheel, educators become key champions for our children’s well-being outside of the career scope. Holding space and balance for the whole student’s needs is especially important as industry leaders advocate to fill the gaps in their workforce on a national level, escalating course content into the realm of politics.
Leaders not Followers
The drive for influence from industry leaders in various fields erupts from a massive workforce disparity in and of itself. In the UK alone, it’s estimated that a quarter of a million students are needed on a computer science track with appropriate qualifications met annually, yet we see less than a third of this target currently being reached. Government involvement is meant to aid in this massive gap, but additional criteria for a comprehensive, successful education must not be left behind.
Raising children to be employees, rather than strongholds for their full potential in all categories of life, often emphasizes the new curriculum in the vein of computer science alone. While immensely critical, the scope of material found in other areas of computing and IT also provide a significant foundation, a support beam for CS and the entire field of technological advancement as a society.
While we teach high-level, complex concepts to upcoming generations, we also need to ensure that students feel confident in the basics that precede the mastery of their newfound skills. Data analysis and representation, spreadsheet efficiency, animation and graphics, and many more tools are being phased out of standard educational pathways under the guise of teaching digital natives alone, which we know to be insufficient for students without sufficient science capital.
Adequate coverage of these core principles in tech education, as well as soft skills necessary for any work environment such as leadership, teamwork, and communication, secures a future for students that they can build on and even improve for the generations that follow.
What Educators Can Do
As teachers, administrators, volunteers, and members of our students’ communities, our roles both encompass and exceed the needs of industry leaders and other influences. While more research is conducted to address the disparities still looming over future scholars, both in social dynamics and in the workforce, we must proceed in a way that greatly benefits our students and their part in the societal standards ahead.
Through various processes in the UK and beyond, there are schools that lie outside of obligation to follow a recognized curriculum beyond a certain age, schools without sufficiently trained teachers, and areas without adequate staffing in general. In these circumstances and more, computing becomes at risk of being dropped altogether. This demands that we take the roles we inherit seriously: to minimize assumptions of what skills students have been exposed to and what material they may acquire in their education, as well as address areas of improvement where a clear composition of instruction is lacking.
To achieve this, teachers, schools, and even entire districts can employ strategies and innovative ideas that will create a more inclusive environment and support the engagement of computing concepts for all groups, including those who are underrepresented. We are major supporting players in students’ subject choices and career goals, the attainment of information that will set them up for the future acquisition of advanced material, and the varying approaches to cover topics that are relatable and achievable for students of different backgrounds.
Our Own Growth Matters
While we work toward these brimming goals, it is imperative that we also engage in learning and exchanging informative strategies within our own circles as educators, in STEM, and across the board. Through collaborative efforts, projects, training, and briefings led by our own colleagues and other peers, we can continue to expand upon our ability to teach computing and digital literacy in a more effective way. Online learning platforms, video graphics lesson plans, virtual forms for exams, and other methods of utilizing computing across all subjects help both students and staff develop a deeper understanding of IT competencies.
This brings our goals beyond teaching excel, flash, and other specific current technologies, to understanding techniques, formulas, and programming, as well as basics, being left behind, such as efficient typing, data entry, and organizational skills. These will be key in establishing the bedrock of success for our students in various school subjects, university concentrations, career choices, and life development, providing an overall comprehensive scope and the ultimate learning experience for students everywhere.
The lessons we are passing on to our younger generations go beyond coding and other IT endeavors and bring about a broad scope of understanding in all areas of career development, and in life. Computer science is not merely a study of computational devices for exams or the industries at hand, but a building block for problem-solving, critical thinking, application for unique objectives, and other key skills that will successfully carry our students to their greatest heights.
As we prepare to jump into another school year ahead, perhaps one with more variance in challenges than we have ever seen in our teaching careers, we must keep pushing for the equality and comprehensive education that will allow our students to succeed and thrive in the sciences and beyond.
These children will grow to become the graduates, scholars, and innovators of our future world, and to raise them as the leaders we know they can be, requires an understanding of where they are starting from, and how they will be influenced along the way.
Our students’ skills, achievements, and dreams for the future have already begun. Who will they be as they step out into a world eager for their talents? The Information Age is ready for them to succeed, and we need only guide their path as the ground beneath them continues to shift, making way for even more advancements that, as commanders of tomorrow’s technology, we can be confident they will grab hold of and run within remarkable new ways.