Do We Still Need Computer Science Teachers?

These days it seems like “how to learn coding yourself” opportunities are everywhere. There are MOOCs  from major universities, ( has great online tutorials, Facebook  just opened a web site called TechPrep ( to help parents and students alike find resources and tools, and there seems to be a new edtech company starting up every week with online CS resources.  The question for many becomes “do we still need computer science teachers?”

For those of us who make our living teaching computer science the fact that this question is even being asked is a little scary. OK maybe more than a little. I think most of us believe that there is still a crucial role for computer science teachers though.  CSTA is at its heart about Teachers for good reason.

Online resources work great for autodidacts. People who can learn on their own gravitate to these tools, often have great success, and often promote them as “THE ANSWER” in all caps. In the real world not many people are autodidacts though. For every person who can learn on their own there are thousands who cannot. They need that personal touch.

What do teachers do? For starters they can explain a concept in multiple ways. We can adapt what we say and how we present it to the specific needs of the student. We can give hints – point students in a direction without giving away the answer. We can even personalize those hints depending on the student. Automated systems are not there yet. Not really even close.  I attended a workshop at Microsoft Research last winter where automating hint systems was a major topic of conversation. Hint generation is hard.

We adapt the curriculum around our students. Is one class more interested in story telling than games? Fine, change the projects. More interested in graphics than console applications? Change the projects. Is everyone in the class doing the same project boring for students and teacher? Fine. Let’s all do something different.  I’ve played around with autograders lately. They seem like a solution but try creating an autograder for each of forty different final projects? Trust me,  you will not save any time that way!

Is there something computing related in the news? Think about the Volkswagen emissions  software cheating recently! A teacher can fit it into the curriculum and have a discussion about ethics in computing at the drop of a hat. Flexibility is something human teachers excel at and automated systems really don’t do well.

There may be a bigger reason that we still need computer science teachers though. After school programs and learn on your own programs are generally more available, along with the resources to support them, to students who already have some privilege. For far too many students if they don’t get it in school as part of a regular class they will not get it at all. Often they will not even learn about the opportunity and know what they are missing.  For a truly diverse community in computing we need to see more classes in schools, counting for graduation, and taught by actual people.

Do we still need computer science teachers? Yes, now more than ever.

CSTA Equity Committee

The CSTA Board’s Equity Committee is, no surprise, concerned with issues around equity of opportunity, support and encouragement for all students in computer science education and careers. We are especially concerned with supporting women and underserved minorities. Diversity is critically important in society and computer science is no exception.

For the past several years a major effort of the Equity committee has been “We are the Faces of Computing” competitions ( ). The purpose of these competitions is twofold. First is to get students thinking about diversity in computing and its importance. Secondly, and even more importantly, we want students to create artifacts that can be used to help more students see themselves in the field of computing. A collection of winning posters from several years is available at the Faces of Computing web page. For 2014 the Equity committee ran a competition to create videos. The winners were announced during CS Education Week and can be found at the CSTA web site. (

Throughout the year, the Equity committee works to make sure that all CSTA programs help to support the CSTA goals of equal opportunity and broadening the participation in computing to all segments of the population.

These tasks are of course everyone’s job but having specific members of the board with a particular focus on Equity is an important responsibility that helps the Association keep sight of the goal.

Alfred Thompson, Equity Committee Chair and At-large member, CSTA Board

More Than Just Jobs

If you followed the media attention around Computer Science Education Week and Hour of Code you might be forgiven for believing that the need for more students to study computer science is all about jobs. But of course we don’t really expect every CS student to become a professional developer any more than we expect every student taking an English course to become a professional writer. Just like almost all jobs need people who can read, write and do figures most jobs today require some knowledge of how computers work.

We run a real risk of alienation and of setting false hopes and goals if jobs are all we talk about as a reason to learn computer science. Fortunately there are other reasons.

We also hear a lot of talk about teaching critical thinking and problem solving skills. We sure to a lot of problem solving and critical thinking in computer science. The research is mixed on how much of that transfers to other areas though. I don’t think there is much doubt that it is good exercise for the brain at least.

In my opinion the best reason for more students learning computer science it to understand the world in which they live. This is much the same reason we give for learning physics and biology and chemistry for students who are not going to become professionals in those fields. We, and especially our students, live in a world where computers are ubiquitous. Understanding something about how they work and what they can do is important knowledge.

The objection I hear frequently is that students learn to drive cars without being able to repair an internal combustion engine. And there is truth there but that is not what we are trying to do. Our students do understand how wheels work, how combustion works, and such concepts as force being related to mass and velocity. They generally find that useful, at least at a subconscious level, when doing advanced driving techniques like stopping.

Frequently we hear talk about adding an A for art making STEM into STEAM. Fortunately there is art in computer science. Developing software is at its heart a creative endeavor. Thought computing we can explore the beauty of fractals for example. We can create visualizations of data that make things much more clear to visual learners and thinkers.

And if students really want to go into the field full-time there is probably no better way to change the world for the better. And that is good motivation for almost anyone.

Alfred Thompson, At-large Member, CSTA Board


Time to Reflect

For most of us in the US, it is holiday break time. For many of us, that means time with family and friends and some down time to rest and recover. For many teachers it also means catching up. Catching up on jobs around the house as well as catching up on schoolwork. Honestly, most of you brought grading home to do didn’t you? I know I did. But it is also a good time to reflect and plan.

If you are anything like me you are looking back on the school year so far and taking stock of what worked and what didn’t. Where did you go too fast and where did you go too slowly? I teach semester courses so the middle of January I get to start over again. I’m spending time thinking about how I will do things differently next semester.

Teachers of full-year courses, especially you Advanced Placement teachers, are probably looking at your plan for the year and trying to figure out how you are doing with coverage. Are you behind? Ahead? What adjustments can you make?

Most people who are not classroom teachers have little idea of how much energy teachers spend on school during the break.

As you think about the short term, as important as that is, it is not too early to start thinking about summer professional development plans. The CSTA Annual Conference is probably the best chance to learn from and network with other computer science educators. Is it in your summer plans?

Alfred Thompson
At-large member, CSTA Board

CS EdCamp Anyone?

Some of the more interesting professional development events I have been to is recent years have been called EdCamps. Many of these are organized via the EdCamp wiki. EdCamps are a form of unconference. An unconference is a participant driven conference. Rather than the traditional format of a committee selecting speakers and topics in advance and attendees picking which to attend, the unconference is organized on the spot. Attendees arrive at the start and write down things they would like to present of facilitate. Other attendees vote, by indicating which events they would like to attend, and the various top selections are arranged into a schedule for the day. It works surprisingly well.

The other aspect of EdCamps is that they tend to be more interactive than traditional “pundit on the podium” presentations. Often presentations morph into broad or very narrow discussions depending on the participants.

The EdCamps I have attended have tended to focus very much on using technology in the classroom. Discussion of Maker Spaces, using social media in the classroom, and many more topics of interest are covered. What I see very little of is computer science related, or at least focused, presentations at these conferences. While I value the things I have learned at these EdCamps I keep thinking that a computer science focused EdCamp could be a valuable event for many of us.

These events are locally organized, very informal and require far less than the usual amount of resources a conference requires. Other they are held in schools, universities or even public spaces made available by companies. The Boston EdCamp has been held in space donated by Microsoft for example. All you really need is a couple of rooms for sessions and a central space to do the initial registration (always good to know who is there) and presentation selection. They can be large or small and run all day or part of a day. Personally I think they would make a great CSTA chapter event that would promote both professional development and community building. I’d welcome some feedback on the idea. Would you attend one? Have you attended one? What do you like or not like about this idea?

Alfred Thompson
At-large Member – CSTA Board