Day #056: Meaningful computer education

Economic mobility is a big problem in Richmond. Education could be the silver bullet, but one component is lagging significantly.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Prioritize computer science and technology education.
  • Difficulty: 3 — Incorporating technology into the curriculum isn’t easy without sufficient professional development.

In 2010, 38.7% of children in Richmond lived below the poverty line. Approximately 43% of children born into poverty still live in poverty as adults. Even more fail to accumulate any modest wealth or achieve homeownership. The “American dream” is dying.

Education has the potential to be the most powerful tool for increasing economic mobility and decreasing income and wealth inequality. As a city, we are falling short, and this is particularly true in computer science.

Computer literacy is an essential skill to joining the modern workforce. Mobile phones, tablets, and computers are the greatest productivity enhancing tools in the history of humanity.They amplify the abilities and knowledge of users, but more importantly they offer unbelievable educational opportunities.

The processes of programming, creating and editing content, or simply being creative in front of a computer develop abilities that will be valued in the future. The Internet already knows everything, the students and employees of the future will be rewarded for their abilities to take complex information and put it into meaningful practice. This is too important to ignore.

Teacher Training

The choice between the “One-to-One” initiative (giving every student a device) and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is difficult, but iPads in classrooms won’t enhance technology skills as long as the focus is on consumption rather than creation.

Teachers and the way technology education is packaged is more important than any device, but Richmond is fighting an uphill battle. RPS teachers have the fewest professional development days in the region and teaching for the future requires training in skills that weren’t around when teachers joined the labor force.

Last year, Google’s Neil Fraser caught headlines after stating that half of students in an 11th grade class he visited in Vietnam could pass parts of Google’s notoriously difficult interview process. Good technology education is about more than money and shiny toys.

Vietnamese students learn almost exclusively on Windows XP.1 They can’t afford fancy machines or software, but they “Start everyone early and offer those who are passionate about the subject limitless room to grow.” Computers are expensive, but training teachers and attracting the most talent should always be the financial priority of schools.

How many families in Richmond have abandoned computers sitting in the attic? I know people with a Richmond skyline’s worth of old towers or a stack of unused MacBooks they would love to wipe and donate to schools.

Sometimes discovering everything you can do with one limited tool is more valuable than having a tool that can do everything. Computers are available, teacher training and early education need to be the priorities.

Demand More

Some students in developed nations in Asia are leapfrogging Western nations on standardized test scores like the PISA. Education is being prioritized, particularly in STEM areas.

The American approach to education is, and probably should be, different. Instead of a total emphasis on math, we focus on building well-rounded students who also excel in the humanities, arts, athletics, and other areas.

Computers transcend disciplines. They are productivity enhancing tools that can capture imaginations. The possibilities for inclusion are limitless. Basketball teams can track advanced metrics. Literature–and rap–can be analyzed by vocabulary word and frequency. Gym classes can chart athletic progress and then visualize it. And all of these ideas are limited to data analysis.

The education system bundles students by ability and then allows them to satisfice in their groups. Until we demand more from our individual students, teachers, parents, administrators, and entire community, the system will be limited .

That students are only “11 percent” of the city’s population can longer be an excuse. Throwing a computer in a class room and checking “computer education” off on society’s checklist of baseline expectations can no longer be an adequate way of preparing the next generation.

Business Relationships

Finally, schools need to develop strong relationships with area businesses. Not to gain access to resources and volunteers, but to gain insights into the skill demands of the area. This is the biggest area for hope in Richmond. Superintendent Dr. Dana T. Bedden and members of the School Board seem committed to developing these relationships.

Curriculum shouldn’t be determined by businesses, but there are opportunities to lay the groundwork for future competitive members of the labor force.

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Income and wealth inequality is a huge problem in America. Education has the potential to increase economic mobility while strengthening society. Without a comprehensive and demanding focus on computers, that education will be incomplete.

Kristen Larsen contributed to this article; however, the entirety of the article does not directly reflect her individual beliefs.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: kellygifford

  1. Windows XP costs around one month’s salary in Vietnam. There’s a serious monoculture around the operating system, and Fraser jokes that they probably all have the same serial number. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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