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Proposed curriculum for Alberta elementary schools includes computer coding.istockphoto/istockphoto

Elementary students in Alberta will learn computer coding under the province’s proposed curriculum for elementary schools, starting in early grades by focusing on a concept called computational thinking, which includes breaking a task into smaller chunks or identifying patterns to solve problems. By Grade 6, they will be working with code to write simple computer programs.

The inclusion of computer science and coding concepts for K-6 students in the school system has been celebrated as the province becomes the latest to stitch the fundamentals of coding into their grade-school curriculum – a skill seen both as a foundation for future job prospects and, perhaps more importantly, a way to understand a world around them that is increasingly built with lines of code. It has also emerged as a bright spot in a broad curriculum overhaul that has been otherwise panned by teachers, Indigenous groups and other critics as a growing number of school boards reject it.

Experts say it’s essential that all students are exposed to coding as computer science becomes a core subject on par with math, literacy and science, but they also warn that teaching the subject effectively will require substantial investments in technology and infrastructure to ensure children can put those concepts into practice in a meaningful way. The Opposition New Democrats are calling on the province to set aside money for technology in schools rather than force school boards to juggle those expenses in their already constrained budgets.

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The uneven access to technology in the school system became an issue earlier this year when Education Minister Adriana LaGrange responded to a question on a live Facebook video by downplaying the need for students to have access to computers to learn to code.

“It’s not necessary to have all of the technology in place,” she said. “Some of the key principles about coding are things that can be done with paper and pen. So while it’s great to have the technology … if it’s not available we can certainly continue to provide the students with that skillset without having actual technology available.”

Melissa Sariffodeen, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Canada Learning Code, an Ontario-based charity that advocates for coding education, says it’s true that many of the underlying concepts of coding can be taught without computers. Her group has a number of “unplugged” resources that don’t rely on computers, which can be especially useful for younger ages who may connect with those concepts better than if they were interacting with a screen.

But she says that eventually, those students will need to be able to put what they’ve learned into practice.

“I liken it to woodworking – there’s only so long you can theorize building a chair before you need to cut wood and use carpenter glue and tools to put it together,” she says.

“You can only theorize so much and do so many unplugged activities before you need to actually get behind a computer screen, get on your keyboard and actually type some code.”

Ms. Sariffodeen said uneven access to computers is a frequent problem for schools trying to teach coding. Even schools that have computers often don’t have enough – for example, a set of laptops that must be shared across the entire building. Her group has a fleet of “Code Mobiles” that are equipped with computer labs to solve this problem for their workshops.

“It is so critical to the future, and if we aren’t prioritizing these investments or ensuring that kids have access to these skills that are building their knowledge around computer science, it’s just going to put them further and further behind,” she said.

Cathy Adams, a University of Alberta education professor whose research focuses on technology in schools, said she has been advocating for a comprehensive computer science curriculum for more than two decades and was glad to see the subject included throughout the K-6 system.

Dr. Adams said it’s critical to teach students computer science because it affects so much of everyone’s life, even if most students won’t grow up to become professional programmers.

“Just like you learn math, and you learn English language arts, and you learn science, none of those mean you’re growing up to become a mathematician, or a writer, or a scientist,” she says.

“Rather, [it’s about] having a basic knowledge of what’s going on in our world. That’s the definition of a literate citizen.”

She agreed that there is much about computer science that can be taught without screens, and it’s clear that some parents prefer that for younger children. Computational thinking is a way of solving problems, working collaboratively and trouble shooting, she said – all skills that are relevant far beyond writing lines of code.

But she notes that the proposed curriculum will require students to be working with computers by Grades 5 or 6, which she thinks is an appropriate time. She acknowledges that improving access to technology is costly.

“That budget is high and you also need professionals there to look after that,” she said. “There are all sorts of complex issues and infrastructure. This is not cheap.”

Ms. LaGrange, the Education Minister with the province’s United Conservative Party government, wasn’t available for an interview.

Her press secretary, Nicole Sparrow, said in an statement that the number of computers in schools and how they are used is a decision left to local school districts. She could not provide any details about the availability of computers in classrooms or whether the government tracks that.

She defended the minister’s comments that some coding concepts don’t require technology to learn.

“Computational-thinking skills can be developed using a variety of approaches, with or without computers,” she wrote. ”Students can learn the basics of coding through games and activities. However, computers will be used for students to develop an understanding and appreciation for coding.”

She noted that the proposed curriculum will be tested in some school boards this fall to gather feedback before it is rolled out across the province. However, a number of districts, including public and Catholic school boards in Calgary and Edmonton, have said they won’t be using the new curriculum this year.

The Opposition New Democrats’ education critic, Sarah Hoffman, said the provincial budget should have a separate line item to fund technology in classrooms. School boards are already facing budget constraints with a provincial budget that does not keep up with inflation or enrolment growth, and she said it’s not fair to rely on them to choose between buying computers and other priorities.

“To say that schools should choose between staffing and technology is ridiculous,” she said.

“If this is a priority and focus – and I think a part of it should be – then the government needs to actually support getting the tools, which means computers, so kids can actually learn this content.”

Lynda Colgan, an education professor whose work focuses on math literacy at Queen’s University in Kingston, said students need to learn the basics of computational thinking first before sitting at a keyboard to type lines of code, and that most students probably aren’t ready for actual programming until near the end of elementary school.

While it’s also important to expose students as they consider career options, she said the point for most students isn’t job training, but rather to give them the tools to understand and interact with the world around them.

“It’s the problem solving, perseverance, the willingness to learn from mistakes, the willingness to work on a team,” she said.

“All of those skills are part and parcel of computational thinking, which is, at its core, about communication.”

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