A little over a month ago, Google launched their latest update to Course Builder, a barebones LMS that benefits from the giant’s infrastructure and appealing material design. This follows on the expansion of Google Classroom, which is still debated between a serious competitor to Moodle or a “gateway LMS”.
Feature by feature, Google offerings mimic Moodle and other providers, with sections, modules and activities (they call it “Assets”), while still not being a complete institutional solution. Google has admitted Course Builder is a teacher-centered solution. There is even a way to add customizations, akin to Moodle plugins, and some standard compliance in the case of Course Builder, such as LTI. See a complete feature list here.
At the time of writing there are no statistics on Course Builder nor Google Classroom adoption or usage.
Course Builder 1.11 is expected to be the bread and butter at Google’s Computer Science Education Week, to run between December 5th to 11th of 2016. CSEdWeek is looking to expand the outreach of Hour of Code, a program to motivate more teachers into coding, to pass along critical computer science concepts to their students. Over time the focus of CSEdWeek has shifted from education policy towards K-12 students, industrial organizations and corporate professionals.
Advocacy programs to raise awareness of what CS is and can do would likely find few detractors. But within them, the successes and utmost goals are hard to ponder. Focus on K-12 by recent initiatives means it will take some time and serious follow-up efforts to associate increased CS and programming skills due to Google and similar companies’ initiatives, namely Code.org, Hour of Code and CSEdWeek, with statistical significance.
But even before that, a more urgent problem in the promotion of CS skills lies in the fact that the focus of the initiative seem to rely on the forecasted labor market gap if nothing else. Job openings in computer science, up to 2024, is expected to surpass half a million in the US alone, according to Google using the US Bureau of Labor Statistics data. (This conflicts with a graphic on the CSEdWeek “Promote Computer Science” page that claims this number is for “current openings“, mentioning as source the same link from this paragraph.)
On the supply side, they report 42,969 CS bachelors graduated in 2014. If this is an annual rate, even with a conservative rate of growth on yearly graduates, it would not look like there is a significant labor gap in computer science jobs by 2024, and this is assuming all the forecasted jobs will require a bachelor’s degree. Unless there are some caveats on the numbers I missed, the jobs angle is not making a particularly strong case for CS skills advocacy, let alone the focus on K-12 population.
Related to the labor market, a stat on CSEdWeek says:
A computer science major can earn 40% more than the college average.
Another rationale about promoting CS skills is diversity. Code.org wants to increase the percentage of women and minorities in the software workforce, and cites research claiming that Black or Hispanic students who try AP Computer Science in US high schools are 7-8 times more likely to major in CS. A Gallup survey commissioned by Google reveals some unsurprising data on perceptions and stereotypes about computer science (PDF). It is interesting to note that across the board, parents, teachers and school administrators agree on the favorability of CS degrees and careers, and at the same time they “do not properly distinguish between computer science activities and general computer literacy“. Nevertheless, the diversity issue is subsidiary of the first one, since the goal of these initiatives is to expand the number of employment candidates in the existing industry.
Besides the obvious relationship between Google and computer science, the only argument as to why to promote these particular skills I found was in Code.org:
Every student should have the opportunity to learn computer science. It helps nurture problem-solving skills, logic and creativity. By starting early, students will have a foundation for success in any 21st-century career path.
Whether this is sufficient defense is up to you, the reader. But it is inevitable to bring into account a recent instance of advocacy which over time became the subject of some scrutiny.
A compilation of over ten years of data by the UK’s National Cancer Research Institute shows that breast cancer and leukaemia are by far the largest recipients of funding for research, more than five times the amount for lung cancer, even though at 22% of all cancer deaths, lung is the most fatal cancer, while breast and leukaemia together account for 10.5%. Breast cancer has been historically the best funded, relative both to estimated deaths caused and new cases. Explanations are varied and anecdotal, ranging from better marketing to survivorship bias, to the profitability of breast cancer treatment.
To be sure, the question is not whether it is right or wrong to advocate for more awareness of breast cancer or CS education. It is about transparency, opportunity cost and even impact evaluation. Put more simply: is CS education the best way to nurture problem-solving skills, logic and creativity, and why isn’t Google funding efforts to make sure whether CS literacy unequivocally is?
At the end of the day, supporting a cause is an autonomous decision by people and organizations. For the time being, student analytics on Course Builder (which do not by default cover demographic stats) require an account with billing enabled for Google’s Cloud Storage Bucket. Other features of CSEdWeek involve YouTube stars, the YouTube Kids app, Android devices, Google Drive and Google Classroom.
What do you think, dear reader, on the reasons why corporations promote skills they require among students early on? Tell us in the comments below!