Last fall, Stanford offered an introductory computer science lesson to more than 200 talented high school students from across the country. When I was first given the opportunity to serve as a course teacher, I was particularly attracted to the program’s goal of making the Stanford experience available to high school students with insufficient resources. Through a partnership between Stanford University and the non-profit National Education Equity Lab, this pilot project introduced students to Python programming, web application development, and other topics such as computer architecture and security. Although I was initially excited to teach students coding, at the end of the program I learned a lot about social inequality and how elite institutions like Stanford have the resources to inspire a whole new generation of students through innovative and accessible educational programs.
During my first training course for teachers – current Stanford students and experienced graduates – I was surprised to learn that high school students are taking the same “CS 105: Introduction to Computers” course they offer to regular Stanford University students. I started working on my curriculum with a little nervousness, because these students not only took a strict Stanford course, but did so even though they came from an environment with insufficient resources. However, when we completed the first lesson together, the nervousness quickly turned to enthusiasm.
When I learned that many students were the first in their families to enroll in a college course or to study STEM, I recalled the National Education Equity Lab’s slogan: “Talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not.” One student wanted to study computer science. hoping to get a well-paid job that would allow her to take care of a mother who works in multiple jobs to support her family. Another student longed to be an astrophysicist and work on space exploration. Another student, a first-generation immigrant, wanted to be a technology entrepreneur and produce products that would strengthen his backward community. Many of them hoped to visit prestigious institutions one day such as MIT, Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
Before I started teaching this class, I believed that technology did a great job of democratizing educational opportunities. After all, many of the same programming and artificial intelligence courses I took at Stanford were freely available on Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms such as edX and Coursera. “The Internet has allowed anyone in the world to learn technical skills and move up the socio-economic ladder” is a story I have often heard in the Silicon Valley bubble, especially in Stanford, which has created almost one-fifth of all unicorn-focused companies. In a world where software gives us almost endless possibilities, information is undoubtedly more accessible than ever before. But thanks to my experience with this class, I realized that technology alone would not solve complex societal problems.
When some students, who were very enthusiastic at the beginning, started to miss hours and assignments, it took me a while to figure out the problem. Students at elite institutions can often express what they want very loudly. However, high school students, especially those from insufficient resources, are often reluctant to ask for help. As I began to actively address them, I found that they were constantly going through difficult circumstances that were difficult to notice in our Zoom sessions. These included the lack of access to a reliable computer or internet connection at home; the inability to attend office hours because timing collided with part-time work; difficulties in accessing the myriad platforms used in the online IT course; and cheat syndrome. I learned that these were just some of the many issues they had to deal with, and I wondered how effective the MOOCs were in democratizing education.
After conducting some research, I learned that the MOOCs had not significantly delivered on their promises. Approximately 96% of all MOOC participants did not complete their courses in 2017-18. It turns out that technology alone does not magically “fix” education. On the other hand, I have learned that the high rate of early school leaving can be reduced more than tenfold by a scalable, person-centered section management model that is an integral part of Stanford’s introductory computer curriculum. In this model, which was also a hallmark of the pilot project, students take part in weekly discussion sections led by the section leader or teacher, who also evaluates assignments and exams. The students in my class clearly agreed that they wouldn’t get much out of the pre-recorded lecture videos alone. According to the students, active learning during the lively discussions was vital for their progress in the course.
When the day of the successful completion of the course came, I could not be proud of what the students had achieved. I am incredibly grateful to the Stanford Office of the Vice President of Digital Education, the Department of Computer Science and the Transforming Learning Accelerator at the Graduate School of Education that made this pilot project possible. This experience has inspired me to further explore innovation in education and to become part of Emerson Global, where high school students around the world meet mentors from leading institutions such as Stanford. I can’t wait to see how incredibly talented and astute students today will take care of solving the most pressing problems of our time through technology and innovation.