As Senior Director of Education at GitHub, Moira Hardek identifies ideas and strategies to get students excited about and connected to the world of computer science and coding.
GitHub recently announced that educators who join GitHub’s Global Campus and use GitHub Classroom can now access Codespaces, GitHub’s integrated development environment, for free. In addition, GitHub has also announced plans to host two in-person graduation events this month.
Hardek said about 1.9 million students are active on the GitHub Education platform.
“What’s especially groundbreaking about Codespaces in the education space is how the development environment is set up,” says Hardek. “So for anyone who has ever tried to code as a student or tried to teach, setting up that development environment could take minutes, it could take hours, it could completely derail someone’s experience in computer science and turn them around in the place you then start writing the syntax.”
In a recent conversation with ZDNet, Moira spoke about what sparked her interest in technology, opportunities to introduce tech education experiences to students, the sense of community within GitHub, and misconceptions and opportunities in tech education.
Below you will find our interview. It has been trimmed and edited.
What opened the door to a career in technology?
Moira Hardek: I have always been surrounded by strong female role models. My high school that I went to was the world’s largest Catholic high school for girls. So you can imagine I had a lot of empowerment but was very surprised and disappointed when I walked into the industry and it looked very different from the real positive message I got.
So early in my career, I often realized that I was the only woman in the room when it came to technical work, and I also worked a lot on the service side of technology. Looking around the room, looking around at my experiences that weren’t so great, I wanted to change how the room looked, and I wanted to focus on diversity. So I started going into education in this way.
Transitioning from a corporate job to a technical education advocate
MH: When I went to work for Best Buy, then the world’s largest consumer electronics retailer, we had some really brilliant leaders. There was then a very innovative CEO by the name of Brad Anderson. I am still a big fan of his.
I thought his approach — and nobody really thinks about that in consumer electronics — it was really more anthropological. He was always talking about our consumers, and our users, and our impact on their lives. And that really shaped me at a younger stage.
I went to our CEO and said, “I really want to work on diversity in our services and technology.” And wouldn’t you know, they supported me and said, “Okay, great. We’re going to give you some resources to create a more diverse workforce.”
I kind of shot myself in the foot there because, if I remember correctly, I was in college as one of three girls in my computer science class. So when I went to colleges looking for women to get into technology, there were just as few of them as when I was in school.
And then I really realized that we had to go much further down the pipeline and start changing these perceptions about computer science and who it’s and isn’t for, very early in elementary and high school, through college.
What is a good way to help children see themselves in technology?
MH: The one thing that has always baffled me about how we teach technology is that we start coding a lot. … I like to ask this question to every developer I work with: “Hey, could you do some of these things you’re doing today if you didn’t know what FTP was?” And they are like “No.”
And I [ask] “Could you do some of the work today if you didn’t know how to manage files and your subfolders? [work]†
And then you look around and ask, “Where do we teach these fundamentals and these fundamentals to our students?” And we don’t do that anywhere else. In math we don’t jump long division, we start with numbers. And then count, and then add, and then subtract.
Coding is long division. And so much precedes that. The vernacular, the basis of hardware. And to be honest, these are not the most exciting topics. Those of us who are educators have a real challenge in making it engaging and fun. But I think a lot comes before coding.
And yes, we inadvertently discourage and steer students very early by starting them with perhaps too advanced a subject.
Misconceptions about technology education and careers
MH: I actually like to make the comparison that now it’s kind of like going to medical school. And our job is to have the first-year medical students. So you have to learn the basics of the body… but then you’re going to specialize. Will you become a cardiologist, will you become an oncologist?
And the same thing happens in technology. Are you going for Full Stack, are you going for front-end, are you cybersecurity, are you a data architect?
Treating computer science as if it were just one solid block of content and subject, I think, has been one of the biggest mistakes the education community in general has made in teaching computer science.
The value of building a community in computer science
MH: When we form a community and start talking to each other, we really start to demystify all these pieces. And I think in the community we find both our questions and our solutions.
We live in an incredibly virtual digital world, of course, and especially things like Global Campus and Codespaces are all about accessibility. Everyone has access, whether you’re on your own device or not.
When the pandemic first started, there were initially a lot of levers that we had to pull – which we were very blessed to have – to keep the community as connected and together as we could during a pandemic with all these physical barriers.
But of course we are humans at some point. We crave contact, we crave a connection beyond the digital… you could feel the stress and you could feel the tension, but what came out was magical, it was how everyone leaned on each other for support. How suddenly humanity drowned out everything else and we were all in this together, worldwide.
And we saw that with the first-ever virtual graduation ever delivered by GitHub education in 2020. And now it’s become a staple of what we do, and it’s probably I think the best example of our community that you can see in one place.
What’s really interesting about this is that in the very first year we did this, we found that over a third of the pull requests that were submitted [to request inclusion in the graduation] were a student’s first pull request. So graduation motivated students to learn a very advanced skill.
SEE: How to build a coding portfolio
Merging a pull request on GitHub is one of the most serious achievements, that big first step you can take. And we found that events like [graduation] give our students the courage and confidence to step forward and try new things within the platform.
But what made it even more magical was that the students, especially the ones who did these first pull requests, helped other students solve the pull requests of the students doing it for the first time. It didn’t matter which region they came from. This happened worldwide all over the world.
This year, in 2022, when we released the original repository with the opening command, it was written in English. And the students started translating the assignment for sharing. It has now been translated into 22 different languages to ensure as many students as possible have access to virtual graduation, all done by the students themselves for their community.