March 30, 2020

CS for What?

Category: Digital Learning
CS For All report graphic

Why should students learn computer science? For creativity? Jobs? Justice? Innovation? The answers to this question shape what computer science education (CSed) looks like in practice. A new CSforALL publication explores how the rationales, values, and intended impacts people have for CSEd are linked to their choices for design and implementation of learning experiences.

The Publication:

  • provides a framework for understanding the many reasons for teaching computer science by considering underlying values — beliefs about what is good, worthwhile, and important
  • includes examples of how different CSed curricula, programs, and tools enact particular values and rationales
  • recommends ways that people involved in CS ed at every level can use their community’s values to guide their choices about CS learning opportunities

The ideas in the publication support policymakers, educators, administrators, students, families, and other stakeholders to come together to do the messy and challenging work of hashing out their values. If this happens well, CS education initiatives will better address community needs and issues of equity.


The Four Highlights:

1. There’s no one reason behind universal computer science education.

There is not one purpose for education, and there shouldn’t be one purpose for computer science education either. Communities across the US are different, face distinct challenges, bring their own strengths and resources to the table, and because of that, may see CS education serving different purposes. We hear lots of arguments around why CS education is important, like:

“…we need to diversify the tech ‘pipeline’ to make the tech sector more inclusive of people of color and women”

“…CS can teach youth to solve problems in their communities through technology”

“…youth shouldn’t just be consumers but also producers of technology.”

And while different rationales might be more or less relevant for a given community, it’s important to have clarity around which are driving our work.

2. Common rationales for CSed can be understood through looking at underlying values and projected impacts.

While there are many arguments for CS ed out there, the research behind the paper shows how most reasons offered generally draw on some combination of seven core values about the impacts CS education will or could have:

CS Visions Values and Impacts

One of the most valuable things about the framework is how it acts as a sort of ‘x-ray goggles’ that can help decode the ubiquitous, but also distinct, values that are present in people’s arguments.

For example, a rationale like “we need to diversify the tech ‘pipeline’ to make the tech sector more inclusive of people of color and women” projects impacts for industry that are related to promoting equity and inclusion. A comment suggesting that CS education would “teach youth to solve problems in their communities through technology” indexes values and impacts related to participation in civic life, production of technological innovations, and potentially making their world more just and equitable through their actions.

3. Rationales aren’t just important to make the case. The values and impacts they reflect should drive learning and implementation on the ground.

Elements of a CS Vision

If stakeholders don’t clarify the central purposes of CS for All initiatives, their efforts could wind up off course, losing sight of goals and priorities that really matter to their communities. It doesn’t matter if you’re designing CS lessons, curricula, after-school programs, or learning tools, or even broader CS education initiatives within schools and districts. The framework can help anyone — whether they have deep knowledge about CS education or not — make decisions about what type of CS they want to implement.

A vision rooted in labor empowerment may require youth-serving organizations or schools to partner with local businesses. One rooted in broadening participation may entail making connections to racial or gender affinity groups within science and technology sectors. A vision rooted in technology for social impact may require identifying real-life community issues and problems for students to address through their designs. A vision rooted in creative computing may require hiring teaching artists to collaborate with students, or curricula that involve more open-ended projects. We share more concrete examples in the publication.

4. Deliberation around CS Visions is a critical component of any systems change or design effort around CSEd.

Beyond using the CS Visions framework to understand existing arguments and their underlying values, it can also be used to spark collective deliberation. Whether you’re having conversations among district leadership teams, organizations that design CSed curricula or professional development, out-of-school organizations, funders, or policymakers, anyone involved in CS education efforts can do their work better when they have clarity about the visions they have for CS education. These conversations should not just happen at the beginning of an initiative, but throughout, as more is learned and achieved.

Going through existing arguments, like those shared in the white paper, and then debating, discussing, and surfacing those most important to a group can help establish a ‘north star’ that can guide its work.

What can I do? Next steps:

  1. Download the publication and discuss it with your colleagues.
  2. Visit to find more unplugged activities to support deliberation around CS Visions.
  3. Take the CS Visions Quiz and see what your underlying values are for CSed.

Authors of the Publication:
Rafi Santo, PhD, is a learning scientist focused on the intersection of technology, education, equity and institutional change. He is a research associate at CSforALL and principal researcher at Telos Learning. Centering his work within research-practice partnerships, he has studied, collaborated with, and facilitated a range of organizational networks related to digital learning and computing education. His work at CSforALL involves supporting and researching school districts as they develop equitable computing education initiatives rooted in student and community needs, He’s received support from the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, the Susan Crown Exchange and Google.

Sara Vogel is a doctoral candidate in urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, researching computer science education, bilingualism, and social justice pedagogy. She co-developed and is currently the lead research assistant on Participating in Literacies and Computer Science (PiLaCS), a National Science Foundation-funded project that leverages the diverse language practices of bilingual youth as resources in their computer science learning. A former bilingual teacher, she has also worked as a computing educator in informal settings with the nonprofit Global Kids Inc.

Dixie Ching, PhD, is a senior user experience researcher at Google Inc. Trained as a cell biologist and holding a master’s degree in science journalism, Dixie has dedicated her career to helping people see the relevance of STEM in their lives and developing a better-informed public through STEM literacy. While a doctoral student in the Educational Communication and Technology program at NYU, she co-led Hive Research Lab, a research-practice partnership with the Mozilla Hive NYC Learning Network. Previously, she worked on research and design of educational media at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the Center for Children & Technology/Education Development Center.

This post originally appeared here and has been crossposted with permission.