Last month, I published a curriculum to help beginners learn computer programming. My motivation was to promote ICT and technology education at a younger age, so students would have more opportunities to prosper in our economy. The feedback was hugely encouraging, and helped me discover and connect with many folks in the Maritimes who are working toward the same goal.
Recently, I've participated in many discussions about technology education reform in public schools. I've been privileged to spend some time with government officials, administrators, and representatives from industry advocacy groups and post-secondary institutions. I hear a common theme across the spectrum from elementary classrooms to community colleges and universities: we want a "coding culture" to permeate all levels of the education system.
But the wheels move slowly in public schools, and it's not reasonable to expect change to occur overnight. An education review is currently under way, but won't produce actionable results until 2015. In the meantime, it's important to maintain momentum, and prime students for the new learning opportunities they'll soon encounter.
An education review is a strategic effort, and strategy takes time. What we need right now are tactical initiatives that can fill the gap in the interim. Below, I outline my proposal for such an initiative: a collaboration between public school teachers, administrators, and industry stakeholders, designed to effectively support students who want a head start in ICT education.
I call it the Digital Bridge Scholarship.
Before getting into the details of the proposal, I want to disclose the core principles that guided my thinking. I'm sharing these with the hope that other proposals and initiatives might embrace these principles as well.
Like public education itself, I believe that programs like these should be free for students. When money is involved, there is always the risk of tacitly widening the digital divide. While subsidies or third-party donations can mitigate this to an extent, my ideal is to establish a sustainable model that doesn't depend on fees. The opportunity to learn should be available to all comers.
Students will see the best results if they're consistently practicing their skills, and learning new material at a steady rate. Also, it's important to have access to a mentor or facilitator who can help guide them as they learn new content. Without consistent practice and guidance, we'll see lots of in-session interest and engagement, followed by a rapid drop-off until the next time.
So, the program I envision would provide personalized, ongoing support to learners, and allow them to move at their own pace, while keeping them accountable to continue practicing on their own.
Starting small is good. But, we should aspire to engage as many students as possible while we wait for educational reform. So, we should ensure that whatever foundation we lay is broad enough to build upon, and quickly. In computing, we call this scalability, and it depends on decentralization and federation. To be scalable is to build redundant systems that can function independently, instead of massing everything around one or two central nodes.
In practice, this means we should avoid the workshop model, inasmuch as it requires lots of people to be in the same physical space at the same time. Such a model isn't easily scalable: the bigger the group, the harder it is to coordinate students', parents', and volunteers' schedules. What's more, physical spaces have capacity limitations, and we don't want to turn anybody away.
Finally, because the workshop model requires so many resources and so much planning, it's difficult to replicate this model across the province. I believe this is a problem. We should aspire to give remote communities in Nova Scotia access to the same opportunities as urban centres (you know, like we do with public education).
These principles are important to me, and I hope they resonate with you as well. Let's look at how they might come together to make something great.
The Digital Bridge Scholarship would identify students with a keen interest in ICT, and help them explore this interest by subsidizing online classes for a period of 6 months. This self-directed learning would be supported by an instructor with a technical background, who would act as a mentor and connect periodically with the student as they learn.
This scholarship would be funded through private sector donations, so it would be free for students and their families. Students' progress would be monitored online, and they would be required to check in periodically with their mentors, who would provide guidance and ongoing engagement. Finally, this program could easily be replicated across the province, as it only requires a computer, internet connection, and a small time commitment from a teacher in the student's local area.
Digital Bridge scholars would receive 6 months' access to CodeSchool, where they could learn a variety of different topics ranging from responsive web design, to iOS development and game design, to real-time web services and big data visualization. This 6-month access would be funded by tax-deductible donations of $175 from individuals and businesses.
Student-scholars would be nominated by high school, community college or university teachers with some technical background. These teachers would need to commit to spending an hour every week checking on their students' progress and providing guidance and mentorship.
I envision this program being implemented in a phased approach, by starting in the secondary school system. Let's assume the Digital Bridge Scholarship finds an organizational backer and begins to receive private sector donations. It would work with the school boards to identify one school in every board (with a suitably qualified technology teacher) as a pilot. These teachers would identify one or two promising students who they believe would benefit from this scholarship. These would be the initial Digital Bridge scholars.
Over the next several months, teachers would meet regularly with students as they explore the course offerings online. They would help students find the topics that interest them, assist in background research, and help focus students by posing questions or suggesting challenges. They'd also be alerted if students lapse in their online learning, so they could provide intervention if necessary.
Halfway through the pilot, and again at the end of the 6 months, teachers would be debriefed by the program administrator, and use this feedback to retool and refine the reporting procedures, and to come up with eligibility requirements and a formal application process.
If the pilot is successful, the Digital Bridge Scholarship would be launched publicly across the province. Scholars would need to be nominated by qualified technology teachers who would be willing to act as mentors for the duration of the scholarship. This would ensure accountability and increase the likelihood of a successful independent study.
Ultimately, this scholarship could be rolled out to any students at any level, including community college and university students, provided they are nominated by instructor-mentors, too.
The benefits of this model are myriad. Here are the most salient:
There's no requirement to source legions of volunteers, or to satisfy the school boards' vulnerable sector requirements (police record checks start at $25 per person). Students work with familiar teachers, who are asked to make a very small commitment of time over and above their current responsibilities. Because of the online administrative tools, the entire program could be managed by a single (dedicated) individual.
Socio-economic factors play absolutely no part in the eligibility requirements of the Digital Bridge Scholarship. The selection and nomination process is completely impartial, depending entirely upon qualified teachers to identify students with potential. The opportunity to learn is available to all comers, and driven by interest, not privilege.
It would be irresponsible to run (or donate to) a program like this without being able to assess its effectiveness. The organization that administers the Digital Bridge Scholarship would be keenly in tune with students' progress, and would be able to report on the success of the program with meaningful numbers. Recipients who aren't making the most of the program would be identified early and steered back on course.
All Digital Bridge Scholars would know which individuals or companies donated the funds that made their learning possible. This would introduce them to the players in our industry, while shining the best possible light on a career in ICT.
ICT will likely be reintroduced to the public school system as a result of the education review. With a few dozen Digital Bridge Scholarship alumni scattered across the system, teachers will have a much easier time delivering this new curriculum. Remember what I said earlier about decentralization and federation? It applies to knowledge too.
The financial commitment from donors is very small. Furthermore, the number of hours spent on program administration is quite low, due to the decentralization and federation of responsibilities. All stakeholders will see a meaningful return on their investment.
For this program to be successful, we will need collaboration between public teachers, school board administrators, and industry advocates. This is exactly what we're trying to encourage with the education review! Implementing this program as detailed above will create opportunities for dialogue, and help formalize the collaborative process between industry and government.
We're in this together, after all.
I believe we need to grow our I.T. industry if this region wants to see prosperity in the future. While we wait for the education system to realign with our economic priorities, I've outlined this interim measure to help get us there. This proposal grows out of several deeply-held convictions, and an eagerness to see positive change and new opportunities extended to young people in this region.
I hope to see the Digital Bridge Scholarship (or a variant thereof) find a home with an organization that can take the proposal and run with it.
Torusoft would make the first donation.
If you want to see the Digital Bridge Scholarship become more than just a proposal, help spread the word and show your support:
What do you think of this proposal? What are its strengths, and limitations? Can you think of an improvement or an enhancement? Give us your feedback by leaving a comment, or continue this conversation via Twitter!