Should Computer Science Courses Be Required?

Should Computer Science Be a Core Requirement?

A growing trend among colleges is a requirement for students (of all majors) to take computer science courses, as noted in a recent U.S. News article Computer Science Transitions From Elective to Requirement. At first it may not seems like an ideal match to all degree programs and there is even a debate among educators about the scope of the curriculum offered for these courses. However, while the value of computer science courses may be in question, what can be agreed upon is a need for computer-related skills in a job market that is heavily influenced by technology. For students who are not required to take consumer science courses, or those who want to evaluate their options should it become mandatory, there are numerous online resources available to explore.

The Computer Science Debate

Educators do not always agree on what should be emphasized – computer science basics, digital literacy, or computer fluency. One of the institutions noted in U.S. News was the Georgia Institute of Technology, which requires all incoming freshmen to take a computer science course. Charles Isbell, associate dean for academic affairs at the school’s College of Computing, stated that “similar to traditional general education requirements such as philosophy or world history, the purpose of each courses is to turn out well-rounded graduates.”

Randall Stross, professor of business at San Jose State University, provides another perspective about the use of these courses in Computer Science for the Rest of Us. Stross states that “computational thinking or the general concepts programming languages employ” should be taught; however, “the need for teaching computational thinking to all students remains vague.” He acknowledges that computer science courses may cover a broad base of topics, from coding to mainstream language to ethical issues, and concludes that from all available choices, “the understanding of computational processes may be indispensable for people in all occupations, but it’s not yet clear when we’ll cross that bridge from nice-to-know to must-know.” Jeannette M. Wing, professor of computer science in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that computational thinking “is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists.”

Robert Talbert, a mathematician and educator with the Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan questioned this trend in Making Computer Science a Requirement?. Talbert believes “there’s a tendency among higher ed administrators and faculty to think that if students need to learn something, it’s enough to simply require a course in it, and at that point it’s the students’ problem.” He refers to this method of learning as an “infection approach” where students are “exposed” to a course subject with the belief they’ll “get” it or be able to comprehend and put the information to use in the limited context in which they learned it.

Geoffrey Bowker, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine provides another perspective by stating that “all aspects of our personal lives and our work lives are affected by computers. We need to know about the tools that we’re working with.” In New Programs Aim to Lure Young Into Digital Jobs it was noted that “a solid grounding in computing, experts say, promises rewards well beyond computer science.” Robert Reich, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, also indicated within the same article that technology will influence most new jobs, requiring technologically-based skills.

A course in computer science may not be as useful or beneficial as a course that promotes computer fluency, which can be put to use immediately by all students. As an educator, on-ground and online, I believe that computer-related coursework would be beneficial for students. While students may not need to learn the specifics of coding or programming languages for their career, many lack a fundamental knowledge of systems and programs in general. A basic course in computer literacy can also help dispel a common myth I’ve encountered among students, that knowing how to interact online (through social networking or online classes) provides the background necessary to be technologically competent.

Career Options with a Degree in Computer Science

Students that are required to take a computer science course may discover aspects of this field that are of interest, which could also lead to a career in the field. For students that decide to pursue this goal and earn a degree in computer science, the following chart lists Popular Computer Science Degree Jobs for 2011 to 2012. The jobs listed are based upon full-time employment in the United States, with a minimum educational requirement of a bachelor’s degree.

Popular Computer Science Degree Jobs
computer science degree computer science degree
Jobs ranked by popularity among graduates. Annual pay for Bachelors graduates without higher degrees from all colleges. See full methodology for more.


Resources for Computer Science Beginners

There are free online computer science resources available to help students learn more about the many topics associated with this broad field. The following is a partial list of these sources and it will allow students to better understand what their interests are, decide on a course to take at their school, or to gain general knowledge and skills as a means of furthering their academic or career goals.

1. Khan Academy: The list of free videos includes a category for computer science.

2. 45 Free Online Computer Science Courses: This provides a list of Open Courses from MIT and Stanford University, such as Introduction to Computer Science and Programming (MIT) and Programming Methodology (Stanford), which includes all course materials (handouts, assignments, and exams).

3. 100 Free Online Courses On Computer Science and Digital Literacy: This is the most comprehensive list I was able to find for students and it includes computer science and digital literacy courses from MIT and Stanford, along with podcasts available from iTunes U, and videos from YouTube and TED Talks.  Also included in the list are classes offered by Udacity, which was started by a former professor of computer science at Stanford University Sebastian Thrun. Udacity’s goal is to “provide free university-level computer science classes to anyone interested in advancing their tech knowledge.”

As students consider their academic and career goals they are certain to discover that technological skills are mandatory, which is not synonymous with computer science courses. While I understand the idea of creating well-rounded students, I’m not certain that computer sciences courses are the answer for all degree programs. It seems that computer literacy courses would be put to better use, especially if they were designed to help students become familiar with computer software, applications, and programs – in addition to helping them develop their technological skills. Educators may not agree on what courses should be required; however, students that are interested in the field of computer science or may be required to take a computer science course can learn more by exploring the resources provided.

Do you agree that computer science courses should be required? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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