This autumn our research group was involved in the design and implementation of a MOOC for Finnish teachers. The Code Alphabet MOOC was designed to help teachers bring coding to their classes, as proposed by the national curriculum framework for primary education in Finland from 2016 onwards. The national curriculum states, for example, that a 6th grade student should be able to create simple programs using a visual programming environment.
To help teachers do their job, in autumn 2015, we designed a six-week program that was ran as a MOOC. All the learning materials are online under creative commons license and the course was free and open for all. The program was particularly designed with school teachers in mind. The objectives of the MOOC were:
- To learn computational thinking and basic programming concepts (such as command, loop, conditional statements).
- To get hands-on experience of programming tools that are considered to be suitable for students (Preschool-Grade 2: ScratchJr / Grades 3-5 Scratch / Grades 7-9 Racket).
- To study how computational thinking could be brought to students in a meaningful way so that the learning objectives of the curriculum are met.
- To study how the teacher’s role and classroom practices are changing.
- To study how coding could be used in all school activities, from sports, to music and art and from cooking and crafts to academic subjects and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
From all the primary and secondary teachers of Finland over 6% (2727) registered themselves to the MOOC. 1301 teachers started the course by completing the first exercise. 471 teachers finished the whole course doing all the 6 weekly exercises and the “final diploma work”. From those who registered to the MOOC 36% completed the course. We’re planning a second implementation in the spring of 2016.
Why are we doing this? What is the point of teaching all teachers to code? Why they should introduce coding for their students? Do we think that everyone should know how to code?
We do not think that everyone should know how to code.
Everyone, however, should understand automatization and how to use it in problem solving. We may call it computational thinking. A good way to get a basic understanding about how computers and software work is by studying some coding. Knowing how to code, however, is not enough.
Often the reasons to promote coding in schools are wrong. Coding is not important, because there might be a growing need of computer scientists and software developers in the industry. A better approach is to see coding as new type of literacy and personal expression — a new way to organize, express and share ideas.
Fair enough. Although there are also more fundamental reasons to learn computational thinking. These reasons are related to power, social justice, equality and do I dare to say (?) . . . our attempt to build a better world.
The world is changing. Without understanding of computer and software we can’t have an impact. Someone somewhere will decide on our destiny. It is a question of power. It is a matter of access to tools, empowerment and freedom.
Computers, software and code are everywhere. The world around us is ran by code. Today, we all use online media outlets, read and write blogs, post images and videos to online services and update our status to social media services. We use credits cards, online banking services, buy goods and service online, make an appointment to a doctor and apply for our social security benefits online. All these are running on software that is making decisions on our behalf. Schools, business and governments are managed with software. And, of course when we take a bus, a train or a plain we again rely on software.
Do we know how these things work? No we don’t and it is not even really necessary. Still, by understanding what is automatization and how it is used in problem solving it will help us to make educated choices and to ask hard questions from those who are building these systems.
So does knowing how to code help us to get along in the new world? No, but it’s a good start. It is a small step to a world where everyone is able to critically observe whats going on in the world. And then to participate in the society — to have an impact.
In addition of playing with the code, we need great educators who are able to lead their students to explore complex issues. Educators, who are letting their students to ask questions and that are able to guide their students to uncover assumptions — many of them related to computers, software and code.
Brining coding to school is the first, small step.