Amplify’s AP Computer Science MOOC Could Draw More Students to Tech

Will more students be drawn to technology careers if they have access to free computer science courses? That is the hope of former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein who is the man behind Amplify’s new massive online open course in Advanced Placement Computer Science.

According to Gregory Ferenstein of TechChrunch, offering an AP Computer Science course online for free could not only make programming more popular in general, but could also result in growing interest in pursuing a computer science degree among students who are typically underrepresented in the technology field: women and minorities. The course is being offered on the platform provided by Klein’s ed tech startup Amplify starting this fall.

More than 3,000 schools around the country have already signed up to offer the class which, like its traditional counterpart, will run over a course of a year and allow students to earn two semester’s worth of credit hours.

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.

According to data released by the College Board, the company that administers the Advanced Placement program, fewer than 12% of high schoolers enroll in its AP Computer Science class annually. This is bad news for the country’s technology sector which has long complained about difficulties in finding qualified college graduates to fill a growing number of vacancies. Offering the AP course online for free could go some way to closing this gap down the line.

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%.

However, what Shelton sees as a problem, Klein views as an opportunity. In addition to offering the course, the company will also offer – right alongside – paid tutoring and other academic assistance to those who are having problems keeping up.