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Why the ‘coding for all’ movement is more than a boutique reform

Tyson Navarro, 10, of Fremont, Calif., learns to build code using an iPad at a youth workshop at an Apple story last year in Stanford, CA. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Earlier this year I published a post about coding by education historian Larry Cuban that took issue with current calls for all students to learn how to code computers as a way to learn problem solving and computational thinking. Cuban is professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, and a former high school teacher and district superintendent. Here is a response to Cuban from two academics who explain why they think all students should learn to code. This was  written by  Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of  “Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing,” and  Yasmin Kafai, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and author of  “Connected Code: Why Children Need to Learn Programming.”

By Jane Margolis and Yasmin Kafai

We are two education researchers who follow and identify with Larry Cuban’s current and past writings on education. Like Professor Cuban, we have witnessed how education has fallen prey to the myth of technology as the great equalizer—the magic bullet to solve the achievement gap.

So, why have we committed our research to increasing access to computer science for all students? How do we answer Cuban’s call to caution against the fast rush, promoted lately by Silicon Valley interests, to teach all students coding? And how do we see the “computer science for all” movement positively impacting teaching and learning in the schools? Will it bring more progressive education into the schools despite much of its driving force being the creation of more jobs for the tech industry?

We have one answer to all these questions: Computer science can help interrupt the cycle of inequality that has determined who has access to this type of high-status knowledge in our schools. Just as public education is crucial for promoting reading and writing, it is equally important for introducing students to the fundamental concepts of computer science. Computer science drives innovation across all fields, from the sciences to the arts—across all careers, from medical assistants to auto mechanics. Students who have this knowledge have a jump-start in access to these careers, and they have insight into the nature of innovation that is changing how we communicate, learn, recreate, and conduct democracy.

Like Cuban, we have seen how the educational opportunities that present themselves in this field are for more privileged students, who come to school with family resources and experiences (such as computer summer camps, robotics kits under the Christmas tree, and parents who can help guide their passions). Such experiences give these more privileged students a leg up across many disciplines, opening up worlds to them that remain closed to other students—especially low-income students of color.

Also like Cuban, we have observed the great disparities in access to CS learning opportunities, and how these disparities fall along racial and socioeconomic lines. For instance, research in Los Angeles public schools has shown that in schools with high numbers of low-income Latino and African American students, computer science classes covered mostly rudimentary skills and lacked the problem-solving, critical thinking that is the true core of computer science. In “Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing,” we present research that shows that many schools are technology rich but curriculum poor, and that disparities in learning opportunities in computing, as in other subjects, fall along racial and socio-economic lines.

But, unlike Cuban, we see the “coding for all” movement as more than just a boutique reform “to equip young children and youth with the computational skills that will prepare them for the labor market in the 21st century.” We have a broader vision, because we see computer science as neither “coding” nor computer literacy alone.

Being a digital native today isn’t just about browsing the web, using technology to communicate, or participating in gaming networks. It really involves knowing how things are made, breaking down and solving problems, designing systems, contributing through making, and understanding social and ethical ramifications. We see how computers in any form and place have become an inextricable part of our social lives—not just how we interact but also how we contribute.

This is why we think that the study of computer science should be accessible to all students. Anything less is denial of access to an important form of knowledge. In Connected Code: Why Children Need to Learn Programming (Kafai & Burke, 2014), we make the case that CS education needs become the next literacy because everyone, not just the monied elite in Silicon Valley, needs to have a voice in making the digital publics livable spaces for all. Digital technologies are not just a workforce issue. They are deeply embedded in the ways we live, work, play, socialize, learn, and teach. Students not only need to learn how to participate in, but also how to make, the digital world they live in.

How do we open the door to students who have been denied access to this knowledge? Schools and teachers must become the force of equity. Meaningful change will require well-thought-out, engaging curricula that facilitate inquiry and deep thinking for all students, and a professional learning community of teachers who are committed to these goals. Two such programs are Exploring Computer Science and Computer Science Principles, high school programs that have spread nationwide, and are committed to broadening participation in computing. And, both programs are being supported by the National Science Foundation and the non-profit group

Cuban is right when he says that many educational reforms do not take hold. This is why we believe that those in the computing community who are promoting CS education need to partner with experts from education who understand how reform happens in schools and who not only understand issues of teaching and learning but also issues of equity in education. The movement to bring computer science into the schools must understand all the system-wide pressures that are occurring in the school districts across the country because of accountability and the introduction of the Common Core State Standards. There must be an understanding of how partnerships are built, to make sure that the movement comes from within the Districts as opposed to from the outside only. And, there must be an understanding that teachers are key. Pedagogy, that is effective in reaching all students, must accompany content.

So, while we appreciate all of Cuban’s concerns about schools rushing into any technology-related reform without a thorough airing of the motivations, implementation strategies, and—most importantly—the unintended consequences, we hope that the participation of scholars invested in education equity will help ensure that students who have been historically denied access to this field actually benefit from the reform.

And what about the transfer to the “real world”—whatever this might be in 10 to 20 years? Here we need to recognize that while only few of us will become computer scientists who will write the code and design the systems that undergird our daily lives, we all benefit from understanding code. After all, all of us are users of digital technologies for functional, political, and ultimately personal purposes.

On a functional level, a basic understanding of code allows for an understanding of the design and functionalities that underlie all aspects of interfaces, technologies, and systems we encounter daily. On a political level, understanding code empowers and provides everyone with resources to examine and question the design decisions that populate their screens. Finally, on a personal level, everyone needs and uses code in some ways for expressive purposes to better communicate, interact with others, and build relationships. We need to be able to constructively, creatively, and critically examine designs and decisions that went into making them.

To Cuban’s concern about the “true believers” promotion of computing and possible neglect of teaching cursive in the schools, we don’t regard this as an either/or situation. Instead, reading and writing code can be seen as cursive 2.0. Ultimately, cursive handwriting was never just about learning to write but also about writing to learn, so that students could express their own ideas. Providing CS education for all is as much about reading the world as it is about understanding and re-making the digital world in which kids are going to live.