How A New Free Online Computer Science Course Could Bring College Prep To Everyone

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All the equality cheerleading in the world won’t make Silicon Valley more colorful if only a select class of elite students have access to Computer Science. According to the College Board, only 11% of schools offer Advanced Placement Computer Science, serving a very select group of 30,000 students annually.

Now, some diversity may be heading the Valley’s way thanks to Former New York Schools Chancellor and Amplify CEO, Joel Klein, who is giving away a free Massively Open Online Course in Advanced Placement Computer Science. “There’s very few really good computer science teachers in America”, Klein tells me, at the The Atlantic’s Aspen Ideas Festival. “There are lots of kids who are prepared and could do well in these programs.”

Starting this Fall, Amplify will provide an interactive online course to students around the country. More than 3,000 schools will offer students 2 semesters worth of credit hours. While details are scant on the curriculum, it will hopefully open up a path to a more colorful technology sector.

Hispanics and blacks make up 30 and 13% of the American population, respectively, but they only account for 6.7 and 5% of Computer Science degrees, according to a report by the Anita Borg Institute For Women In Technology.

The bold move already has qualified accolades from Education leaders who are tired of seeing the rich-poor gap eat away opportunity in their districts. “You don’t have to worry that your school does not offer this, you can get this online and that’s very important for people who live in circumstances of poverty,” says Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy.

Aside from the very poor, there’s countless smaller specialized schools that may not have the resources for such an advanced course, “Those kids should not be denied that opportunity.”

Deasy, who just spearheaded a $30 million plan to roll out iPads district-wide, is a fan of ambitious tech experiments. When I asked him what Klein had to prove in order to make it successful, he said “I don’t need to be convinced it is a solution, it is already an opportunity for our students.”

The Department of Education’s technology lead, who was recently promoted to Acting Deputy Secretary, Jim Shelton, was cautiously optimistic. “One of the challenges with MOOCs is its attrition rate.” Since the courses are free and voluntary, only about 10% of students complete courses on one of the more popular platforms, Coursera. Though, when students are required to hand-in a first assignment, completion rate jumps to 45%.

Shelton says “It’ll be phenomenal if it’s good enough” to keep kids all the way through completion. Joel Klein is aware of the problem and sees it as the way Amplify can turn a profit on the venture. Amplify plans on offering local personal tutoring and other training assistance.

It’s important to note that Amplify’s MOOC ambitions may have limited impact. The College Board’s own research on the importance of Advanced Placement tends to overestimate how well students do in advanced college courses. When Kathleen Thomas of Texas Christian University accounted race and the highest level of parent education, she found that “AP students are generally no more likely than non-AP students to return for a second year of college or to have higher first semester grade point averages.” [PDF]

Now, if Amplify finds an extraordinary teacher and provides extended support, it might have a much greater impact than the average run-of-the-mill AP course. It will, at the very least, give select students of outstanding ability and motivation a chance that they otherwise never would have had.

Amplify is taking a step in the right direction, and we’ll be monitoring it (optimistically) in the hope that it does indeed boost college performance and bring some much needed diversity to Silicon Valley.

The Book : Tesla’s Wins White House Petition, New Child Ad Rules, Mental Disorders Good?, Lingerie For Snowden

Free Tesla! [White House]

  • Some state place legal restrictions on selling cars directly to consumers, rather than through a retailer
  • One avid Tesla supporter started a White House WeThePeople Petition and reached the 100,000 signature threshold this week, which forces the White House to respond.

New Child Ad Rules [The Verge]

  • Federal Trade Commission instituted new rules related to targeting ads at children
  • A guardian must verify, via credit or other methods, that the company is permitted to target someone under the Age of 13
  • Violators will face a steep fine and several lobby groups contend that there hasn’t been enough time to prepare.

Maybe Mental Illness Is Good? [NY Times]

  • Catherine Rampell argues that a bit of mental instability could be the cause of mad scientists and mental health care would dampen their genius.
  • “history is littered with examples of “mad geniuses” whose creativity and innovativeness have sometimes been attributed to alleged mental illness (e.g., Thomas Edison, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, John Nash).”

Lingerie For Snowden [The Daily Beast]

  • A shameless german lingerie ad, Blush Berlin, is exploiting whistleblower Edward Snowdens troubles.

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