Code.org has launched a meaningful attempt at education reform. Let’s hope the star-power helps
Of all places, the a-ha moment comes from Chris Bosh.
Bosh, the gangly all-star center of the Miami Heat, is featured in a new video released today as part of the launch of Code.org, a nonprofit with the goal of advancing computer science education for students before the college level.
No disrespect to Bosh, but in the video he speaks alongside the greatest tech luminaries of a generation (and a generation before that), waxing poetic on the importance of knowing how to code. Mark Zuckerberg’s tells a nice story, and so does Bill Gates. Ditto Drew Houston and Jack Dorsey. But Bosh – recalling how he was picked on for being part of an afterschool program called the Wiz Kids – really speaks truth: “And I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t care. I think it’s cool, and I’m learning a lot. And some of my friends have jobs.’ [DUH look]”
That’s the crux of the matter for Code.org cofounders Hadi and Ali Partovi, who believe it’s a social issue that kids from nine out of 10 schools aren’t taught the tools that run today’s information economy. Code.org’s goal is to make sure computer science is taught at every school in the country. The two twin brothers have put in $1 million each of their own money to help the cause.
The video is just one component of the star-studded launch. The nonprofit also compiled a list of more than 70 original quotes on the power of coding skills, from the likes of Bill Clinton, Marco Rubio and Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America. More concretely, the team has also compiled resources to assist schools and organizers in launching coding programs. For example, there’s a guide to putting together a curriculum, and interested schools can fill out a form asking Code.org for help starting a program. The organization also built a database of every school and community program in the country that teaches coding.
Hadi and Ali’s money will go toward actually bringing new programs to bear, from helping to fund teacher training for qualified CS instructors to making sure programs have the equipment they need.
The brothers are Valley veterans who, between them, have advised or invested in Dropbox, Facebook, Airbnb, and Zappos among others. So it was just a matter of going through their contacts lists to drum up support in high places. But Ali Partovi says the importance of the issue made it easy to get people onboard, regardless of who was asking. “I don’t think there is anyone we asked who said no,” he says.
Atrocious celebrity endorsements, from Airtime to BlackBerry, have put a bad taste in people’s mouths. And while this launch is heavily relying on star power – most launches don’t really make a video the centerpiece – these endorsements are coming from people who know the tech industry or education landscape intimately. (The video was made by Lesley Chilcott, who produced “Waiting for Superman” and “An Inconvenient Truth.”) Will.i.am, Ashton Kutcher and Chris Bosh are the only entertainment types, and Bosh is the only one that feels really out of the blue.
Regardless of attention-grabbing tactics, the situation around coding in America is worth exploring. Only 9 states in the country accept CS courses as a requirement toward graduation. And because only one out of 10 schools offer CS courses, the ones that do offer them tend to be in more affluent areas, which means lower-income people and minorities often get left out. Another stat Ali mentions: Out of the 26,000 American high school students who took a computer science advanced placement exam last year, only 50 in the state of New York were black. Only 4 were black in the state of Washington.
Still, any attempt at education reform is a highly politicized battle, strewn with miles of red tape. Ali wouldn’t put a timeline getting CS in every school, but stresses it’s a long-term goal for the next five or more years. He said one approach for now is getting elements of CS integrated into existing courses, like algebra.
Just to play devil's advocate, there is also a school of thought that contrarily says, as we move forward, less of us will need to know how to code. When cars first came out, people either needed a mechanic or needed to know how to fix it themselves. There was no middle ground. And not too long ago, bloggers needed to know how to code, and now WordPress does the trick. As things get more automated, some think coding may evolve into something less esoteric through the natural progression of technology.
For the record, I agree with Code.org's mission. Of course, splashy launches, even if done well and pulled off tastefully, tend to be very sobering, very quickly. The window to actually galvanize people toward action closes very quickly. So Code.org, you’ve smartly played the Bill Clinton and Mark Zuckerberg (and even Chris Bosh) cards, and you have our attention. What now?
[Image courtesy: V&A Digital]