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Harvard EdCast: Moving Beyond the Technical

How computer science education can be expanded to connect learning to social and ethical issues.

Sepehr VakilWith more and more schools prioritizing computer science education, and making it a core part of the curriculum, Sepehr Vakil, assistant professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University, recognizes an opportunity to expand the scope of how the discipline is taught. Computer science shouldn't just be about technical skills and coding, he says. Instead, he imagines it as a subject with which to connect learning to social and ethical issues.

While addressing diversity issues in the field is important, examinations of equity and long-held power structures are also vital, says Vakil, in a conversation for the Harvard EdCast about making computer science learning more representational, more inclusive, and — ultimately — more purposeful. "It isn't just to get more faces and different kinds of people working for tech companies, but to get their ideas, identities, and experiences and shift the possibilities of what can be created from a technological standpoint," he says. “[We need] to really have a conversation about the broader purposes of why we want to get kids involved in science and technology. So I think focusing on power is a way to say that diversity is important and inclusion is important, [and] what are we really driving toward.”

More students — both in universities and K–12 — are craving this deep, interdisciplinary work, Vakil says, citing a movement in Chicago that is trying to get more computer science requirements in school. It is important to be mindful of the goals, he says, advocating — as he did in a 2018 article in the Harvard Education Review — for a justice-centered approach to equity in computer science education. If we only focus on technical and scientific, then it’s a “missed opportunity for engaging students,” he says.

In this episode of the EdCast, Vakil talks about the importance of treating computer science education as more than just a technical pursuit, and looks at what a more balanced computer science course might look like.

About the Harvard EdCast

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast featuring brief conversations with education leaders and innovative thinkers from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Jill Anderson, the EdCast is a dynamic space for discourse about problems and transformative solutions in education, shining a light on the compelling people, policies, practices, and ideas shaping the field. Find the EdCast on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher