'We're doing it wrong' - Vandana Sikka on computer science education

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 6, 2016
The alarming lack of computer science educated students is only matched by the lack of teachers in this discipline. Vandana Sikka talks about how this problem could be solved, It will take time, effort, money and commitment. Infosys Foundation USA is working towards that goal.

vandana tikka
Vandana Sikka, chairperson Infosys Foundation USA

Reading, writing and computer science

Those are the words Vandana Sikka, chair Infosys Foundation USA uses to hammer home the need for a vast expansion in the teaching of technology related skills in US schools.

It is a message that is gaining momentum at both local and national levels but which has yet to be actioned as a government led program.

When I first saw Sikka take to the stage with Nicholas Negroponte at Confluence 2015, I was impressed by her command of computer science as a teaching imperative. Since then, I've watched as she has grown increasingly confident and persuasive in her arguments for advancing - among other things - the Code.org agenda which, in a nutshell, is about helping to provision the teaching profession for the foundational elements of computer science, with an emphasis on disadvantaged and marginalized children.

In February, I said of our meeting:

Our conversation ranged from the work the Foundation does through to some of the recent initiatives in endeavoring to bring computer science and coding to children who are less privileged or coming from difficult backgrounds. Sikka talks with authority about this topic because she knows from personal experience the benefits to be gained from the pursuit of a career in computer science.

Since then I have seen some of the Foundation's work showcased at Confluence 2016  and, more recently, her video vignette presented during Vishal Sikka, CEO Infosys' presentation at Oracle Open World was truly inspiring. Sitting next to Derek DuPreez at that event, we were both impressed with the quiet confidence with which Sikka explained the Foundation's mission.

With that in mind, and knowing I was scheduled to visit Infosys Palo Alto HQ, I wanted to spend some time catching up on progress with the work the Foundation is doing and get a better understanding of the state of computer science education. It is both depressing and uplifting in equal measure.

As a side note, Sikka opened the conversation by asking about a member of my family and my own interest in apprenticeship. It was wholly unexpected but gives you a sense of how a person cares about the people they meet. It's a sure sign of empathetic leadership, a rarely discussed but important topic, especially so when you're trying to push a marginalized agenda.

As per last time, I recorded the bulk of our conversation. The audio quality is not as good as I would like but then it was a noisy environment and I was working with 'minimal viable product' as compared to my usual bag full of audio gear.

One of the key points that came over early in the conversation is that the Foundation and the various bodies with which it is affiliated have extended their activities into a more direct lobbying of the political class, reaching the ears of the most senior US politicians. The case they make is clear:

Computer scientists are not only needed in technology companies, they are and will be needed in every organization. In a presentation, Code.org says that there are over half a million open positions in the US that have a significant computing component. According to Sikka, there is a backlog of some 50,000 teachers needing education so that they can teach the topic but that the current methods of what amount to tactical funding at local levels won't scale. If the US is to meet the demand for people with computing skills then she says:

The way we are trying to scale computer science education and by 'we' I mean the whole of the computer science education community, this is not going to scale. It has to go back to the schools of education where teachers receive their credentials in large numbers.

Turning to the type of education needed, Sikka says that among the leading educating institutions, the focus was on the passing on of Java language skills. That is changing.

The whole point of computer science education is to teach children programming along with computational thinking and programming language skills, not necessarily just one programming language because programming languages will come and go...so you have to teach programming concepts...I personally think that the best way to do this is to expose [children] to two or three languages...so the newer courses that are evolving...are going in a number of directions like mobile and so on.

One of the bottlenecks Sikka identifies is the past compartmenalization of computer science as part of math whereas she has a very different vision where it is treated as part of the reading and writing foundation with which most teaching begins. While I did not follow this line of thought, afterwards I wondered how long it will take to make this approach stick in the minds of parents. Why? Because I recall being taught to read and write long before i went to my first school yet I saw at first hand the advantage that gave me in comprehending what I was learning.

Instead, Sikka points to the way very young people are exposed to computing devices and, when given the chance, will work these things out for themselves. Using an example from India, she told of a project to bring electricity to a hill village. As part of that project, the team took along compute devices. They found that children intuitively knew how to explore the things they were given and didn't need much more than the most basic help.

We see this played out in the numerous videos that get posted to YouTube and in our own lives so, despite my concerns, it may well be that in the next half generation, a form of computer science will effectively be taught at home as naturally as people learn language skills. That though is for the future. In that context, Sikka talked about her youngest son:

He is nine years old and is a tinkerer so we expose him to making and the creative skills. He is interested in programming and did three weeks at a programming camp. This is the new typical future generation.

Clearly, the Foundation's work has extended well beyond its initial focus on supporting disadvantaged children and that work will continue. But I then turned to the future.

We hope that Congress steps in and funds at least $100 million that gets distributed to the schools districts...it is a very small amount but it will make a huge difference. That will be for starters - at least.

The problem of course is that it is an election year and while advocates for education continue to lobby, the reality is that only one candidate has put their weight behind the idea - Hillary Clinton.

In closing out - and I hope this comes across in the audio - I noted that Sikka remains enthusiastic about the progress being made across all the initiatives the Foundation  supports and says the work being done is rewarding in many ways but much has to be done, not just in the US but around the world. Her final words:

Just because we haven't got to 100% literacy in reading and writing doesn't mean that we can't teach computer science.

That seemed a good place to bring our discussion to a close. I look forward to hearing more in 6-12 months time.

Bonus points - a series of short videos that recorded Vandana Sikka's recent address to the CSTA. Enjoy:

Image credit - via YouTube and the author

Disclosure - Infosys is a premier partner at time of writing but we have no financial connection to the Infosys Foundation USA

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