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MSPnet Blog: “Computing for all! #1”

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posted February 8, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

The President last week rolled out the Computer Science For All initiative.This adds energy to one of many movements sloshing around the education world. In this post and some that follow, I want to explore the landscape a bit, because as with all educational innovations there is a lot of context and history which can (may) help evaluate any new initiative — ideally seeking to clarify how it can contribute to the ever-new challenge of education (which might be defined as “equipping ourselves more wisely and meaningfully to engage in our social and personal lives, and reconstruct our society to be more just and serviceable for the future we are creating now”).

There are several elements in the movement. There’s been a push for at least 30 years to get more digital technology into schools, especially in STEM classes (we might call that First Wave Ed Tech, FWET, still a vital force).  Then there are the Information Economy (IE) people, who argue that henceforth we all will need to have more and more technical skills to get through the day. Some of the IE people add that if we don’t all reach some (not well specified) level of technological literacy, the US will no longer be Top Nation, or will not be able to reclaim Top status (if they are basing their argument on the assertion that we have fallen off the mountain peak).

The Code is the New Lingua Franca (CNLF) advocates suggest that coding (even an hour of coding) is so ubiquitously applicable a skill that we need to include coding in school, preferably K-12, as well as in after-school programs and the informal ed world). One might associate with this point of view the advocates of Computational Thinking (CT), who suggest that one can identify core cognitive activities and strategies characteristic of computer science, but applicable in many (all?) fields of learning and endeavor, and who advocate recasting the curriculum (to some extent, for values of “some” ranging from “here and there” to “comprehensively”) to explicitly teach and engage these skills.

Finally (well, not really) there are the  Coding for Democracy (CfD) people. These are educators (and others) who see the democratization of computer science as a moral imperative, because it can bring opportunities of many kinds to children (including aging children) who are marginalized or excluded from equitable participation in “the economy,” as well as many fields of endeavor for which they might well have inclination or talent, and whose schools and teachers are often under-resourced or neglected.

Broadening participation must be a fundamental goal for policy and practice,  in a society where economic inequality (and other kinds)  is worsening steadily. This approach, therefore,  is as good a place to start as any to explore the wide world of CSFA — starting with “What for?” rather than “What?” (which is being answered already by various groups working on standards, as well as the main curricula being used).

Jane Margolis and Yasmin Kafai in 2014 wrote a cogent guest post on the Washington Post‘s education blog, The Answer Sheet, in response to a critique  of “coding for all” by Larry Cuban (to which we will return).  Margolis and Kafai put their basic case this way:

 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.

The authors have published research showing 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.

I am with them so far — access to this knowledge should be available for any who want it.  But it is not at all clear what is being advocated.  Margolis and Yafai believe that computer science and computational thinking must be the “next literacy.”   Then they offer the following rationale:

 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.

This is because

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.

How does this strike you?  It is certainly consonant with the President’s initiative.  Yet I have to say that, even though I completely approve of the goal of accessibility of this knowledge for any who want it or might benefit from it, I can’t actually tell what’s being advocated in any specifics. It begs so many questions that I end up not knowing what world the authors envision, except maybe reconceptualizing the whole curriculum with this “new literacy” in mind.  No doubt they would provide some nuance, but I am not hearing it here, and a lot of damage has been done by proposed reforms that are too heavily weighted towards one or another special point of view, however worthy.  Maybe we can discuss ways to get off this latest pendulum,  and work towards a more holistic view of computers (or coding, or computer science, not all the same things) in education?

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Further from Margolis and Kafai

posted by: Brian Drayton on 2/8/2016 4:09 pm

See also their more recent Ed Leadership article mputer-Science-EL.pdf

which is also in the MSPnet library

post updated by the author 2/8/2016