Curriculum, Companies, Cooperation and Conflict

Where does curriculum come from? Where should it come from? What involvement should industry in general have in creating curriculum? These are all questions suggested by some comments Garth left on my blog post last week on New Teaching & Learning Resources for XNA and Web. In part he says: (Highlights mine.)

If Microsoft really wants to get involved in programming education they need to get two things up and running: a teacher education curriculum on how to teach introductory programming to mainstream kids, and a semester/year long curriculum for those mainstream kids with an interest captivating goal.  If Microsoft wants to capture the phone market, teach junior high and high school kids to write apps for the phone and they will buy that phone.  Same with Xbox.  If I was really ambitious I would start designing and writing my own curriculum but teaching, eating and sleeping would get in the way.

In the idea world teachers could and would develop their own curriculum or at least they would create and share enough curriculum modules that it would all be completely independent, fine tuned to teacher’s needs, and broadly concepts based. Yeah. But if you haven’t noticed lately the world we live in is far from ideal. The average teacher has all they can do to keep up with grading, planning for tomorrow’s lecture and yes trying to have a life outside of school. Creating curriculum from scratch is hard work and very time consuming. I gave up a summer of teaching summer school to write my first textbook and I still was not able to finish it in a summer. Royalties never really made up for the lost summer income either. And that was just a textbook that was based on work I had dove over several years creating a course I was teaching. This is impractical for most people.

Which brings up textbook companies. Today if you want to sell a textbook it is not enough to write the book and create answer sheets. Today you also need a full test bank of questions and answers, PowerPoint presentations for each major topic and ideally some other (multi media anyone?) resources for teachers to use. Someone still has to create lesson plans though. This is expensive and we are in an era when textbook money is already hard to come by. It’s an even larger problem in computer science because things change faster than even normal textbook refresh cycles. Textbook publishers are still creating books and curriculum but it is hard for many schools to afford to stay current.

So that leaves industry. Obviously industry has an interest in students using and learning using their tools. For companies in the computer software industry this is hugely desirable. So many companies do create educational resources. CISCO has it’s Cisco Academies, Adobe has programs for teaching Dreamweaver, and of course Microsoft has a lot of educational resources as well. I blog about the Microsoft resources a lot. You may have noticed. There is some conflict involved of course. Parts of the companies are interested in earning revenue for sales to schools. Just like oil companies don’t give heating oil to schools for free (do they?) companies like to sell products to schools. Of course academic discounts abound and that helps. Some companies charge for curriculum as well. I pretty much blog links to Microsoft related curriculum that is free because I think that is the most useful for most schools. Companies have a self interest in training students but schools need it to be an enlightened self interest that supports the ideals of a good education.

So a larger conflict is between teaching tools against teaching concepts. Most schools want to teach concepts not specific tools and with good reason. Conflicts have a much longer “shelf life” than specific tools. Companies who want their curriculum used have to take that into account. For example the Web Development curriculum that Microsoft had developed. From the beginning the idea was that while Expression Web would be the tool used for the course the focus on the course would be on good web page design concepts. Expression Web was just the tool used to teach the concepts.

Likewise the XNA Game development curriculum is focused on programming concepts but game development is the motivating idea and XNA is the tool used to combine game development and learning programming.

There are also schools who are reluctant to adopt company created curriculum of course. They are concerned about maintaining independence. They are also concerned about becoming “vocational” or too locked into a single vendor. reasonable concerns that companies have to take into consideration. The best companies are looking for students with broad knowledge and deep concepts understanding though. They are even more aware of the changing nature of software and what to hire people who can adapt and adopt new things as they come available. The good companies and the good schools find common ground here.

Even large companies can’t do it all though. There is that trade-off that demands a quick return on investment for shareholders and upper management and looking at the long term. So partnerships with educational institutions can sometimes help. Much of the curriculum at the Microsoft Faculty Connection’s Faculty Resource Center was developed by schools, colleges and universities with funding or other assistance from Microsoft.

But more could be done. Garth suggests phone development courseware and that is something I will be trying to find or get developed. Brian regularly reminds me of the need for Silverlight and AJAX curriculum materials. With limited resources most companies have to focus on the “big bets” – the chances to make the biggest difference in the most schools. So some things will take longer than others and that is a shame. It’s a reality though. The thing that helps most is hearing from teachers in schools telling companies what they’d like to teach, would be willing to teach and can get their administrators to agree to let them teach if they have the right curriculum materials.

If  I could add one last plea though it would be this – teachers who are doing creative things and creating their own materials could be doing more sharing themselves. The Microsoft Faculty Connection’s Faculty Resource Center is one place where that sharing could be done. If you have something that should be there let me know and we’ll see about getting it there. If you want something else, the CSTA has a curriculum repository as well. Sites like these only work as well as people are willing to support them though sharing what they are developing. We could also use a lot more CS teachers blogging if you ask me. But I am biased towards blogs as a sharing resource. For real time (or close to it) there is also Twitter where a lot of great links are shared by teachers all the time. (I’m at @AlfredTwo BTW) Sharing is key though and has never been more important than it is today.

Note that as always I am speaking my own mind and giving my own opinions. While I hope others agree with me I do not guarantee that they do.

Comments (1)

  1. Garth says:

    Since I may have got this post started I figure I ought to give it one reply.  On the topic of companies like Microsoft and Cisco writing courses targeted for high school students – I am all for it if it is free.  I then have the choice to use it or not, cut it up to suit, or just plagiarize the heck out of it to write something I like.  I have no problem with hidden agendas; after all, beggars cannot be choosers.   If Microsoft were to write a “Window 7 Phone for Beginner Programmers” course with the obvious agenda of attracting young programmers to using a Windows phone product, that is OK with me, because I would have a hidden agenda also, attracting students to programming.  We are starting to see a lot of “hidden agenda” in courses, especially the ones labeled “Game Programming”.  Kids are attracted by the “Game” part of the title; the teacher’s intent is the “Programming” part of the title.  There is a good chance that everybody is happy.  With Microsoft what I cannot understand is that most of their tutorials are written for middle level and higher programmers.  There is some stuff for young children but there just seems to be a gap in there.  In the gap is the material for a Programming I level students (8 – 10 grade) that would teach the fundamentals of OOP to students that have never programmed before.  It just seems there is a perfect target audience being missed.