Building an adaptable computer science curriculum

Making computer science curricula as adaptable as our code

No two computer science students are alike—so teachers need curricula that are open and adaptable.

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Educators in elementary computer science face a lack of adaptable curricula. Calls for more modifiable, non-rigid curricula are therefore enticing—assuming that such curricula could benefit teachers by increasing their ability to mold resources for individual classrooms and, ultimately, produce better teaching experiences and learning outcomes.

Our team at CSbyUs noticed this scarcity, and we've created an open source web platform to facilitate more flexible, adaptable, and tested curricula for computer science educators. The mission of the CSbyUs team has always been utilizing open source technology to improve pedagogy in computer science, which includes increasing support for teachers. Therefore, this project primarily seeks to use open source principles—and the benefits inherent in them—to expand the possibilities of modern curriculum-making and support teachers by increasing access to more adaptable curricula.

Rigid, monotonous, mundane

Why is the lack of adaptable curricula a problem for computer science education? Rigid curricula dominates most classrooms today, primarily through monotonous and routinely distributed lesson plans. Many of these plans are developed without the capacity for dynamic use and application to different classroom atmospheres. In contrast, an adaptable curriculum is one that would account for dynamic and changing classroom environments.

An adaptable curriculum means freedom and more options for educators. This is especially important in elementary-level classrooms, where instructors are introducing students to computer science for the first time, and in classrooms with higher populations of groups typically underrepresented in the field of computer science. Here especially, it's advantageous for instructors to have access to curricula that explicitly consider diverse classroom landscapes and grants the freedom necessary to adapt to specific student populations.

Making it adaptable

This kind of adaptability is certainly at work at CSbyUs. Hayley Barton—a member of both the organization's curriculum-making team and its teaching team, and a senior at Duke University majoring in Economics and minoring in Computer Science and Spanish—recently demonstrated the benefits of adaptable curricula during an engagement in the field. Reflecting on her teaching experiences, Barton describes a major reason why curriculum adaptation is necessary in computer science classrooms. "We are seeing the range of students that we work with," she says, "and trying to make the curriculum something that can be tailored to different students."

An adaptable curriculum means freedom and more options for educators.

A more adaptable curriculum is necessary for truly challenging students, Barton continues.

The need for change became most evident to Barton when working students to make their own preliminary apps. Barton collaborated with students who appeared to be at different levels of focus and attention. On the one hand, a group of more advanced students took well to the style of a demonstrative curriculum and remained attentive and engaged to the task. On the other hand, another group of students seemed to have more trouble focusing in the classroom or even being motivated to engage with topics of computer science skills. Witnessing this difference among students, it became important that curriculum would need to be adaptable in multiple ways to be able to engage more students at their level.

"We want to challenge every student without making it too challenging for any individual student," Barton says. "Thinking about those things definitely feeds into how I'm thinking about the curriculum in terms of making it accessible for all the students."

As a curriculum-maker, she subsequently uses experiences like this to make changes to the original curriculum.

"If those other students have one-on-one time themselves, they could be doing even more amazing things with their apps," says Barton.

Taking this advice, Barton would potentially incorporate into the curriculum more emphasis on cultivating students' sense of ownership in computer science, since this is important to their focus and productivity. For this, students may be afforded that sense of one-on-one time. The result will affect the next round of teachers who use the curriculum.

For these changes to be effective, the onus is on teachers to notice the dynamics of the classroom. In the future, curriculum adaptation may depend on paying particular attention to and identifying these subtle differences of style of curriculum. Identifying and commenting about these subtleties allows the possibility of applying a different strategy, and these are the changes that are applied to the curriculum.

Curriculum adaptation should be iterative, as it involves learning from experience, returning to the drawing board, making changes, and finally, utilizing the curriculum again.

"We've gone through a lot of stages of development," Barton says. "The goal is to have this kind of back and forth, where the curriculum is something that's been tested, where we've used our feedback, and also used other research that we've done, to make it something that's actually impactful."

Hayley's "back and forth" process is an iterative process of curriculum-making. Between utilizing curricula and modifying curricula, instructors like Hayley can take a once-rigid curriculum and mold it to any degree that the user sees fit—again and again. This iterative process depends on tests performed first in the classroom, and it depends on the teacher's rationale and reflection on how curricula uniquely pans out for them.

Adaptability of curriculum is the most important principle on which the CSbyUs platform is built. Much like Hayley's process of curriculum-making, curriculum adaptation should be iterative, as it involves learning from experience, returning to the drawing board, making changes, and finally, utilizing the curriculum again. Once launched, the CSbyUS website will document this iterative process.

The open-focused pedagogy behind the CSByUs platform, then, brings to life the flexibility inherent in the process of curriculum adaptation. First, it invites and collects the valuable first-hand perspectives of real educators working with real curricula to produce real learning. Next, it capitalizes on an iterative processes of development—one familiar to open source programmers—to enable modifications to curriculum (and the documentation of those modifications). Finally, it transforms the way teachers encounter curricula by helping them make selections from different versions of both modified curriculum and "the original." Our platform's open source strategy is crucial to cultivating a hub of flexible curricula for educators.

Open source practices can be a key difference in making rigid curricula more moldable for educators. Furthermore, since this approach effectively melds open source technologies with open-focused pedagogy, open pedagogy can potentially provide flexibility for educators teaching various curriculum across disciplines.

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About the author

Amarachi Achonu - Amarachi is a current undergrauate studying Computer Science. As a member of the Technology Research and Development team at CSbyUs, an open-source website for CS curriculum and support, she has worked to build not only this platform but to bridge the gap in technology careers for underrespresented students.