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Creating a Digitally Fluent Workfoce

The UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation hosted a panel discussion on April 1 titled, Public Policy for Innovation in the Digital Age: Creating a Digitally Fluent Workforce. Educators, technology policy experts, researchers, students and professors attended this fifth event of the Public Policy for Innovation in the Digital Age series, which featured speakers from Google, Microsoft, The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Panelists discussed the importance of improving the role of digital literacy and computer science in the K-12 curriculum. They discussed the collaboration between the private sector, the public sector, K-12 schools and institutions of higher education to create innovative programming to address the digital literacy gaps. Additionally, panelists discussed digital fluency in the workforce, and the strong demand for computer science and technology skills in the job market today. The panelists defined digital literacy along a spectrum. Basic knowledge and safe usage of technology is at one end of the spectrum, while the other end is defined by innovation, in which innovators utilize computer programming skills and algorithmic thinking to create in the digital space.

Sarah Holland, Senior Public Policy Analyst at Google, described digital literacy as a universal skill that now applies to virtually everyone. She noted that it requires leveraging existing technology to create and advance new technology. Holland said that digital literacy also means using the internet safely and responsibly, “…security is only as good as the end user, and it is important for people to have basic skills to protect them from malware…they need to know how to use technology in an ethical and responsible way.”

Dr. Jane Margolis, Senior Researcher at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, discussed the significant lack of diversity in the field of computer science. She noted that the underrepresentation of women and people of color in the computer science field stems in part from racial and income inequality. “Relatively few African American and Latino/a high school students receive the kind of institutional encouragement, educational opportunities, and preparation needed for them to choose computer science as a field of study and profession,” she said in her 2011 book Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, and underscored during her comments on the panel. Margolis’ research showed that many schools were “aglow” with technology and computers, but lacked teachers with the training to instruct computer science. This “technology-rich and curriculum-poor” environment can be created when money gets “thrown” at schools without appropriate companion efforts to integrate it meaningfully into the curriculum.

In response, Dr. Todd Ullah, Ed. D., Administrator of Instruction at LAUSD, discussed how digital fluency is a key piece in LAUSD’s strategy to make content accessible to all learners. “The LAUSD district has 80,000 employees, 545,000 students, and is the largest unified school district in the country…what happens in LA has an impact nationally,” said Ullah. The LAUSD began the Common Core State Standards to re-define education in the classroom. The standards encourage students to base arguments on evidence, and to look at claims and defend them across disciplines. As part of the District’s efforts to integrate technology into instruction and incorporate 21st century skills, it has launched the Common Core Technology Project. The Project is a new 1:1 tablet initiative that aims to provide devices to every child in the district.

Lori Harnick, General Manager of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Microsoft, discussed Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program, which enables engineers to volunteer to teach computer science in high schools alongside in-class teachers. Started in just several schools in Seattle, the program now has almost 300 volunteers teaching across the U.S. Harnick said that schools have seen very high interest and excitement for computer science programming.

However, there are still major barriers to instituting more computer science courses in public school curricula. Harnick explained that today only 19 states and Washington, D.C. count computer science courses for math and science credits. This means that even if students are taking AP computer science courses, those courses are not fully counted towards graduation. The panelists agreed that education policy has to recognize the importance of computer science in the K-12 curriculum.