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Hour of Code a good start, but far short of the IT finish line for kids

Karen GoulartKaren Goulart

Back in the early 80s, a select group of students in my elementary school class were given the chance to participate in an extracurricular computer class. We played around with LOGO and a bit of BASIC. It was fun, and we were a lucky few, but it pretty much ended there. None of us became the next Bill Gates -- but it wasn't for lack of interest in programming. If we had been provided consistent opportunities to work with computers as 8-year-olds, well, who knows.

In schools across the U.S. this week, more than 10 million children were encouraged to spend time playing around with Angry Birds by their teachers, their principals, heck, even by President Obama. They weren't trying to master the piggy-punishing game -- they were learning how to make it themselves. It was all part of a Computer Science Education Week initiative called Hour of Code, which sought to increase interest in computer programming among kids in grades K-12.

As the name suggests, teachers were prompted to expose students to at least an hour of computer programming with the help of online instruction. The colorful, well-paced online tutorials and "celebrity" endorsements -- ranging from the POTUS to Mark Zuckerberg to Shakira -- gave off a fun vibe. Frankly, the whole thing, sponsored by non-profit group Code.org, sounded great.

But as Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser bluntly opined in The Boston Globe -- which is this week's top Searchlight item -- an hour of code is not enough; not even close. Awareness-raising moments like Hour of Code are a good thing, but without a real plan behind them, they will be just that -- moments.

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Some schools already offer coding courses, but they tend to be in districts of certain means. If teaching kids to code is to be the leg up in the future workforce that its proponents believe it can be, instruction needs to be available everywhere, to everyone, Glaeser insisted.

How? Well that's where IT professionals can play a role. Aside from simply not having the time, most teachers lack the training to teach the subject. Besides, changes of this gravity happen at a "glacial pace" in the public education system, Glaeser said. So instead of relying on teachers, Glaeser suggested putting the instructor jobs out to bid so the right people -- IT experts -- will get them. Or maybe it will be you. These are your potential future employees; the makers of what will come next. Can you spare a few hours of your time?

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, senior features writer.

This was first published in December 2013

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