Vancouver web developer Melody Ma was an enthusiastic supporter of the B.C. government's decision to add computer coding to the provincial school curriculum. She organized last month's Hour of Code for B.C. – a free computer science camp for youth – and has been working with the ministry of education to shape the new strategy.
But her vision diverges from the plan unveiled this week: She thinks kids need computers and high-speed Internet access to learn coding skills. That would require additional resources that were absent from this week's announcement.
"I just ran a coding event for almost 100 kids in Prince George, and we had to go off-line because they didn't have enough Internet bandwidth," she said. "What I'm worried about is that we don't have a plan that supports the back end of this announcement."
The B.C. Ministry of Education is phasing in a new school curriculum over the next three years, starting in September. The overhaul spans the education system, but includes an emphasis on new standards in mathematics and sciences, and an "applied design, skills and technologies" component to help develop skills in problem solving and creative thinking.
The addition of coding to the curriculum was announced at a tech conference with the promise to harness B.C.'s education system from the elementary years and up to groom the next generation of workers for the province's growing high-tech sector. Students will learn aspects of computer programming such as algorithms and programming languages, as well as visual, text-based and robotics coding.
Premier Christy Clark announced on Monday that basic computer coding will be made available to students in Grades 6 to 9 as part of the new curriculum. When pressed about the lack of computers and other resources in many classrooms, Education Minister Mike Bernier said kids do not need computers to learn coding.
"That's ridiculous to say you don't need computers to learn coding," responded Rob Fleming, the New Democratic Party education critic. "Many schools lack the current technology. Parents, students and staff will tell you they are exhausted putting together fundraising activities to buy equipment the schools lack."
Jon Hamlin, vice-president of Computer Using Educators of BC, an arm of the B.C. Teachers Federation, drafted the new curriculum around coding, but prefers the term "computational thinking" rather than just coding or programming.
"What we are looking at is integrating 'big idea' principles about computational thinking in the early grades," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "You can do it using software tools, but you can just as easily achieve those outcomes by looking for patterns in a jar of jellybeans."
However, he said, there are gaps that need to be addressed. Some schools will need to upgrade their tools – particularly Internet access. And teachers will require adequate training to weave computational thinking into their classrooms.
"The disparity of access is huge," Mr. Hamlin said. "It's not the hardware that is vital, it's the access to the communication platforms. You can code on an old computer, but you need the high-speed infrastructure and you need to have a teacher who understands the subject."
Ms. Ma worries the government is simply focused on churning out potential high-tech workers rather than seeing the big picture. "Computer science isn't just coding, it isn't just a vocational skill to be developed for jobs in demand. Computer science is a topic and a subject that we need to understand as citizens of the 21st Century."