Widgets Magazine

Code.org video causes controversy among students, professors

A video produced by Code.org—a nonprofit foundation dedicated to increasing computer literacy—lamenting a lack of high school programming courses has sparked interest and controversy among students and professors, with some expressing concern that computer science (CS) has attained too prominent a role at Stanford.

The video, which describes coding as a “superpower,” has been viewed over 10 million times since it was uploaded in February. It features Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, musician Will.i.am and basketball player Chris Bosh—among other prominent individuals—speaking about their experiences with coding.

Associate Professor of Computer Science Mehran Sahami ’92 M.S.’93 Ph.D.’99, who serves on the Code.org advisory board, said that the video was created to increase awareness of the need for computer-literate workers as well as to demonstrate the empowering nature of programming skills for the broad range of individuals featured.

“The whole message there is that the ability to program or understand principles from computing is something that is really needed on a broad basis,” Sahami said. “In the same way that we think about reading, writing and arithmetic being broadly applicable skills, we’ve moved to an age where computing is now becoming a broadly applicable skill.”


Computer science’s ascent at Stanford

Even as Code.org calls for greater investment in programming education, computer science has continued to advance rapidly on the Farm. It recently became the most popular major at Stanford, with over 220 students declaring during the 2011-12 academic year and—by Sahami’s estimation—more than 90 percent of students taking at least one computer science class while at Stanford.

Enrollment in the CS106A: Programming Methodology introductory course has also continued to rise, from 964 students in the 2009-10 academic year to 1,523 students last year. According to Claire Stager, manager of educational affairs in the department of computer science, 1,187 students have enrolled in CS106A this year through autumn and winter quarter, putting the course on the path to another record enrollment total.

“The CS 106 courses are made to be accessible to students across a range of majors, not just computer scientists and not just engineers,” Sahami said. “We strongly believe that it is good for everyone to have some computing skills, and so we try to make our classes accessible to everyone.”

Sahami attributed the recent rise in student interest in computer science to a variety of different factors, including the revision of the computer science curriculum to create 10 different tracks, the increasing value of programming skills on the job market, and a change in public perception about coding.

Alexander Atallah ’14, a computer science major and an officer in the Stanford chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM), echoed Sahami’s sentiments. As an incoming freshman, Atallah had planned to major in economics but changed his mind after realizing that computer science aligned with his interests and after discovering the resources available for computer science majors at Stanford.

“It’s pretty easy to get involved with things in CS. It’s just everywhere,” he said. “It’s not something that I personally want to do forever—I can’t see myself sitting down in front of a computer for the rest of my life—but it’s a way for me to penetrate an industry that I’m interested in.”


Controversy over computer science’s prominence

With the recent popularization of coding through the Code.org video and movies like The Social Network, some critics have claimed that the glamorization of computer science has resulted in many students pursuing the subject for the wrong reasons.

Atallah, who described the Code.org video as “sensationalist, to some extent,” said that he believes that the presence of celebrities in the video may have an unintended effect.

“It was just trying to get the message out through people that most viewers would recognize. The fact that it did that made coding look a lot more glamorous,” Atallah said. “The reality is that a lot of people just become programming monkeys.”

Ayush Sood ’14, a computer science major and president of ACM at Stanford, agreed that the video was “overglamorous.” According to Sood, many computer science students serious about the subject itself and less interested in financial success were upset with the video’s portrayal of computer science as a means to an end.

“All the stuff that they showed in the video is true, but to get to that level where you are working for Facebook or you are working for Dropbox or you are working for Airbnb, you really have to have a passion,” he said. “Sure, it’s a glamorous way to get rich, but there is a lot of failure in there, too.”

While Sahami said that he would recommend that Stanford establish a computer science requirement for all students, Sood claimed that too many students enroll in computer science courses with many “just there to finish the program.”

“I think everyone should have the exposure to CS and have that experience, but a lot of people end up taking it because there is this mentality that everyone has to take it, which I think is not true,” he said. “Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean it’s a reason to take it.”


Humanities’ discontent

By contrast, Professor of Classics Richard Martin said that he believes that learning languages like Greek and Latin “does more for you” than coding, and that coding and the humanities are “on entirely different levels.”

“I think the real difference is that when you study humanities, you are doing something for yourself beyond the material and beyond the immediate,” he said. “It’s not a head-to-head contest because the humanities [are] so much more necessary than coding.”

While Martin said that the popularity of computer science at Stanford is understandable, given the University’s history and location in Silicon Valley, he described a detrimental effect on the composition of undergraduate applicants, of which only 10 to 12 percent express an interest in the humanities.

“The real danger these days is that students don’t apply to Stanford if they are interested in hardcore humanities subjects. They think Stanford is simply a technical university,” he said. “I’m happy to let computer science have all the buildings and money they want, as long as they don’t take anything away from the humanities.”

After watching the Code.org video, Martin expressed confusion as to why the video was created considering computer science’s ongoing popularity.

“ I guess it’s driven by the market—they want a lot of human tools to basically code for them to help them make money, to be the most cynical about it,” he said. “My problem with it is that it sounds like this magic ticket to a job [and] a great life, and nobody seems to talk about the intellectual value of coding in and of itself.”

Martin also took issue with a quote from President John Hennessy on the Code.org website, in which Hennessy encourages all students to learn how to code.

“I would like to see him and his peers in the administration come out and say how important it is for everybody to do humanities, let alone Greek and Latin, just to kind of right the boat [and] to make it even-keeled again,” Martin said.

Martin advocated making a similar promotional video featuring speakers attesting to the power of the humanities as a means of reducing the disparity between the humanities and computer science at Stanford.

“What you’re not going to convince people [of] is that, if they [study] humanities, they will get a cool job where they can play ping pong in the middle of the day and have massages, which the [Code.org] video plays up as well.”


  • Dexter

    I agree the video is definitely sensationalist and CS isn’t the end all be all but…the statements made by Martin are somewhat disheartening. He’s just as dismissive of CS as some engineering majors are of humanities majors. There’s a lot of misunderstanding between many fields that needs to be bridged. Plus he never even mentions why studying Greek or Latin can be important.

  • I think all controversy would go away if we could all just recognize this: Coding is not CS.

    Here are some implications of this statement.

    1. You don’t have to major in CS to know how to program, just like you don’t have to major in math to know how to do some useful math, or major in the humanities to read and write, or major in a foreign language to speak a foreign language or visit a country whose primary language is that language.

    2. We don’t have to fret any more about CS106. It’s just another skills class, like the quarters of Spanish I had to take. No big deal. (I happen to think that CS106 is a particularly /good/ skills class in that it introduces some nice theory along the way and has some wonderful projects, but it’s still just one skills class among many: nothing more nor less.)

    3. We can stop thinking about coding as a thing of great interest in itself because, unless you’re a CS person plumbing the depths of formal methods, it’s not. Instead, we can think about the things that we build and want to build, and why we want to build them, regardless of the means of their construction.

    4. We can recognize that coding is arbitrarily easy or arbitrarily hard, just like reading and writing and doing math are, all depending on the context and what a person wants to do. No more techie/fuzzy arguments!

    5. We can value CS as a beautiful, deep, human discipline in itself, just like math and literature, and absolutely without regard to possible utility. Then I won’t have to be embarrassed to say I’m a CS person any more, because my passion will be seen as worthwhile and deep rather than a means to a first-world, consumer-electronics, is-this-what-we-imagined-when-we-imagined-ourselves-as-adults end.

    6. We can recognize that you can have a career in a software-related field without majoring in CS; more than that, we can see that in fact it would advantageous to employ people from many majors. Then people who major in English don’t have to worry about future employment. Just take a few programming courses. And we will be surrounded by things built by people of many backgrounds rather than just a few.

    7. We can recognize that, as Prof. Martin says, “the humanities [are] so much more necessary than coding.” Yes they are. I’m cool with that, because coding isn’t CS. Indeed, in my opinion, Prof. Martin absolutely /nails it/ in many of his quotes. Go back and read his quotes now that you know coding is not CS.

  • Lol

    Martin- U Mad Bro?