Computer Science as (Foreign Language) Admissions Requirement

High schools in Georgia see surge in enrollments in computer science, and state leaders are pleased. But are those courses equivalent, as university system admissions requirements now say, to Spanish or French?

November 27, 2017
 

A recent piece on Atlanta's NPR station looked at the excitement among Georgia business leaders about computer science. High school enrollments in computer science are up 50 percent since 2014. Many high schools that weren't offering computer science instruction are now doing so.

In part, the enrollment gains reflect the growth of jobs in many fields for which computer science is good training. The Georgia Department of Education says there are far more jobs requiring computer science majors (or equivalent preparation) than there are college graduates with appropriate training. Proponents of the computer science boom talk about preparing students for jobs that are as good as guaranteed.

But one factor in the boom is of concern to some educators. In 2015, the Georgia Board of Regents amended the admissions requirements for the University System of Georgia. Until then, students needed to have completed two years of the same foreign language, while in high school, to apply for admission to the university system. The requirement remains, but in 2015, the board said that computer science could count as a foreign language.

The change makes sense to many computer science instructors in Georgia. Michael Reilly, a teacher quoted by WABE, the NPR station, said the change is all about jobs, and providing education students are sure to use. "Kids were required to take two years, at least, of foreign language that, frankly, most people don’t use after they’re done," he said.

The shift in Georgia comes at a time when many foreign language programs in higher education have been the target of budget cuts and enrollments are dropping -- even as college leaders talk about the importance of a global perspective.

In 2015, the Modern Language Association released the latest of its periodic examinations of foreign language enrollments. Enrollment in foreign language courses decreased 6.7 percent over all since 2009, after increasing steadily since 1995. Enrollments in all major European languages (including Spanish, which has led in enrollments) were down.

Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, said that "coding skills are incredibly valuable for students, perhaps especially for humanities majors, but computer science learning is not equivalent to language learning, nor should it be a substitute." She said that the value of foreign language is not just about learning a vocabulary, but about culture and context that cannot be gained through computer science, however valuable that may be in its own right.

Krebs said that people should consider a comment made over the summer by Simon Gikandi, an MLA vice president who is Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University. Said Gikandi, "When I ask Google to translate 'Call an ambulance' into Swahili, it suggests 'beat up the vehicle that carries sick people.'"

"Code gives you Google Translate, but only cultural context will get you the ambulance," Krebs said.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has a page of its website devoted to arguing against the idea of viewing computer coding or science as equivalent to a foreign language. "Computer coding cannot be used to investigate, explain and reflect on the relationship between the products, practices and perspectives of a particular culture through the language. Languages provide an historical connection to society and culture and have been around for centuries, gathering the elements of culture, preserving stories and being used for human communication," says one argument on the page.

Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Institute of Technology, said he saw value in the steps by Georgia to encourage more study of computer science in elementary and secondary school.

"I like that kids, even in eighth and ninth grade, who are planning their path through school would take these courses, because basic coding and language will set them up for opportunities upon high school graduation that they would not have otherwise," Clark said.

In fact, he said his concern is that access to computer science is unequal in Georgia high schools. Most of those who not only take a course, but are able to take Advanced Placement in computer science, are in the metro Atlanta area, Clark said. Georgia Tech is worried about these inequities and is exploring ways to use online instruction to make sure those outside the Atlanta area have access.

At the same time, Clark said, the push for computer science should not be viewed as either/or with foreign languages. He said Georgia Tech is "looking for students who demonstrate that international vision and interest," and that he finds many of those applicants who are taking AP computer science in high school are also pursuing foreign language instruction as advanced levels.

More than half of Georgia Tech students participate in study abroad, he noted, and 10 percent of undergraduates are from outside the United States. "We are intent upon enrolling students who in high school chose to seek out that global perspective," he said.

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