Making Room for Tech-Ed

When technology and education merge, we tend to think about ed-tech - how new hardware and apps and interactive teaching tools can change the experience of teaching and learning. We don't, though, spend much time thinking about teaching technology.

Instead of ed-tech, call it tech-ed.

And if you believe the numbers and forecasts about the skills that will be needed to get a good job, having good computer and technology skills may well be the indispensable skill of the next 20, 30, even 50 years.

President Obama believes in teaching computer skills to young people so much that he's pledged $4 billion to a program he announced this year called the Computer Science for All Initiative. The goal is to get young people - some even grade school young - to understand basic computer concepts and have them literally start writing computer code. The point isn't to have kids writing data-mining software for NASA, but to give them a working familiarity with the terms and logic of coding so, ideally, they will be inspired to enter STEM fields and eventually work at places like NASA.

The concept of hooking kids on coding isn't entirely new as it relates to the tech revolution. Minecraft, Microsoft's build-your-own-world game, has introduced young people to building in a coding environment since 2009. And the impact of these learning-to-code games has been seismic. Just this week, Minecraft announced a deal to bring the game to China.

At the same time, the push to teach computer coding to kids is hitting public schools. PBS reported this past week that many of the nation's largest and most diverse school districts including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, are teaching code principles to students as early as second grade - in ways second graders understand such as having a student volunteer walk, "back and forth across the room to demonstrate looping, a technical term used in the field of computer programming."

Given the accepted premise that learning computer logic such as looping can help develop critical thinking skills, whether applied to computers or not, getting kids immersed in coding early may be really wise. But does it work? Do kids get coding?

According to Krishna Vedati, the co-founder and CEO of Tynker, absolutely. "Kids really gravitate to the ideas and concepts of code - you can see it excite their creativity and spark the desire to learn and do more," he said. He should know. His company, Tynker, aims lessons in coding at young people and their apps and programs have been used by more than 32 million kids in 50,000 schools. "In some ways, it's easier to teach these ideas to kids because they're playing, experimenting, and having fun. Many adults, on the other hand, see it as work."

From an education perspective, it's hard to see a down side to getting tech concepts in the hands of kids early - especially in play and leisure settings like those offered by Tynker, Minecraft and others. We've been pushing educational play probably forever - and at least since Legos and Erecter Sets.

The choices are a little less clear when it comes to putting tech-ed in where teaching time is a premium and where we're already expecting our teachers to accomplish more with less. Ideally, no one would have to make a decision on what lessons are cut or reduced to make way for coding education in schools. As tech-ed expands - and it will and it should - parents, educators and school leaders may have to make tough choices.