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4 Effects of K-12 Coding Programs for Higher Ed

Some K-12 schools have begun requiring that all students learn coding as a means of encouraging the next generation of computer scientists and of fostering higher-order thinking. What does that mean for higher education? Here are four possibilities.

1. Colleges and universities may have a ready team of student developers to help spur innovation.
Ellen Yu Borkowski, CIO at Union College in Schenectady, NY, said she is looking for innovative ways to involve students in multidisciplinary design projects that can yield real products her college can benefit from. She said she sees that as the next step in her college's evolution into the digital world, and the benefits to both students and institutions can be great.

The products could serve university needs, such as apps for recruitment or collaboration on campus, but the more powerful products Borkowski said she envisions would solve real-world problems outside the confines of the college or university.

To harness the innovative spirit of incoming students who already have the coding skills to create these products, institutions may want to consider interdisciplinary courses that bring together lower- and upper-division students in different subject areas. The culminating project could be an app that solves a real-world problem. To ensure that students receive the credits appropriate to their level in school, it may be necessary to have two different course numbers for the same class section.

2. More students may go into computer science and related fields.
Programming at a young age can be an effective method of providing students with experience in creating computer-based tools rather than just consuming them. According to Josh Sheldon, project manager with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Scheller Teacher Education Program and Center for Mobile Learning, he and his colleagues occasionally talk about surveying the people in their department and in computer science professions to see how many of them learned programming at a young age using Logo, the language developed by Seymour Papert to put computing power into the hands of even very young children. "Our hypothesis is that there would be a lot of people who were introduced to Logo at an early age that are now doing some computer-related task or some creative-related task."

If this hypothesis proves true, then more computer science faculty and graduate students may be necessary to handle the influx of these students.

3. Students may be more prepared to succeed in college-level coursework.
Coding instruction may have the power to foster the higher-order thinking skills required of college and university faculty. "At its core," said Adobe's Worldwide Education Programs Lead Tacy Trowbridge, "coding is all about breaking down problems and coming up with solutions."  

That type of thinking, what Sheldon calls computational thinking, is a key in developing higher-order thinking skills. For teachers that means working with students and "helping them become creative problem solvers, allowing them to explore their own interests and problems with the aid of computation, to collaborate with each other and a skilled teacher, and much more."

Some of the tools to teach these skills were developed at MIT, including Scratch and App Inventor. Originally created by Google, Scratch, said Sheldon, is a tool that can be used by anyone to develop games. "It has a low floor so it's easy to get started with and immediately see good results and engage students," he said, but it also has "a high ceiling, meaning that you can do many powerful things with it and be very creative with it."

After recent news about ACT and SAT scores, the thought that future students may be more prepared to think creatively and solve problems should be a welcome relief to educators. As a result, colleges may be able to offer fewer remedial courses intended to give incoming freshmen more of the skills they need to succeed in college. And faculty may spend less time teaching students to think critically and more time exploring their subject areas and fostering deeper understanding.

Pat Schoknecht, CIO at Florida's Rollins College, worked her way from faculty to administration, and she said she remembers well the work she did to foster critical thinking in her students. "The whole point of what you're doing with your students is you're teaching them to question you. You want them to challenge you all the time, and you work hard to teach students how to do that." How far could even lower-division students go if they came into college with those skills?

4. Students may adapt better to college life.
Another important skill learned through coding, said middle and high school math teacher Rob MacDonald, is adaptability. "Coding is a field that's constantly growing and changing," he said. His school, Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts, recently launched a program to integrate coding into their entire curriculum so that all students will graduate with skill and experience in programming.  Because computer science changes so quickly, he said, "the goal isn't to teach kids to be experts in a particular language." Rather, they are looking at finding the right tool for each task and evaluating the "new options popping up all the time."

Sheldon said she agrees, adding that coding "teaches you a flexibility in thinking that will enable you to adapt to what comes next."

That is a skill that will serve students well throughout their lives, as they are faced with changes in their work environments and tools. But it can also have a profound effect on the college experience. The first term (if not the entire first year) is a time of tremendous change for most students, and it can be a dangerous time for them to navigate. Some students simply do not adapt to college coursework or a college lifestyle and drop out. Adaptability can greatly improve these students' transitions and may make them more likely to complete their education.

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