If Coding is the New Literacy, How Do We Close the Opportunity Gap?

Learning to code is a new literacy – as important as reading, writing, and math – but, how do we close the opportunity gap between those who have access and those who don’t?


In the 1983 Education Leadership article Equity in Computer Education, John P. Lipkin shed light on how “microcomputers are widening the gap between rich schools and poor ones.” He wrote:

One of the outstanding implications of the new information technology is that poor people are the last to receives its benefits, and those who lack the prerequisite skills of reading, writing, and computation are handicapped in attaining computer literacy. Thus, the economically and educationally disadvantaged are prime candidates to join the ranks of this new category of disadvantaged—the computer nonliterate.

Lipkin points out the findings of Daniel Watt in Education for Citizenship in Computer-Based Society:

Affluent students are thus learning to tell the computer what to do while less affluent students are learning to do what the computer tells them.

And, over 20 years later, things haven’t changed. Harold Wenglinsky’s research findings in Using Technology Wisely: The Keys to Success in Schools confirmed Watt’s earlier observation:

Students of color and low socioeconomic status predominately use technology for drill and practice and not for higher order thinking skills.

And, yet – again – things haven’t changed in 2014 in regards to how children of color and less affluent students interact with technology. Advanced Placement (AP) computer science courses “‘are more prevalent in suburban and private schools than in urban, poor schools,'” according to Barbara Ericson, the director of computing outreach and a senior research scientist at Georgia Institute for Technology, in an interview with Education Week. In Mississippi alone, where the African American population is 37%, there was no African-American AP computer science test-taker.

Students of color and low socioeconomic status predominately use technology for drill and practice and not for higher order thinking skills.
Research findings of Harold Wenglinsky

Mother Jones reports in We Can Code It! Why Computer Literacy is Key to Winning the 21st Century that “the children of the privileged” are learning to code and employing computational thinking. This thirst to code has prompted some parents to hire coding tutors, as Mark Zuckerberg’s parents did when he was in middle school. The demand for coding tutors has increased, with New York City alone seeing a doubling “each of the past two year[s].”

scratch-image

An example of playing and coding with Scratch.

According to Mark Guzdial, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, “Coding is absolutely a question of literacy. Those who don’t have access to this kind of education are going to be missing a core skill.”

And, Mitchel Resnick, MIT Professor of Learning Research and head of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, agrees: “Coding is the new literacy. Just as writing helps you organize your thinking and express your ideas, the same is true for coding.”

Today, coding and computer programming are considered necessary skills for everyone. Even Harvard Business School has caught the coding bug for plans are underway to add a computer science elective as the “changing nature of the workforce” includes coding for MBAs.

But, if coding is the new literacy, what happens to children of color and those from low socioeconomic status if, as mentioned above, they are exposed to only responding to a “drill and kill” (lower order critical thinking) use of technology instead of creating and coding (higher order critical thinking)?

How can these children prepare for the 1.4 million jobs to be created by 2020, with more than 70 percent involving computing? What initiatives must be undertaken to increase more children of color to take computer science AP courses? How can this opportunity gap be closed?

Fortunately, there are some forward-thinking programs and organizations to increase access to the new literacy of coding as schools, libraries, and community organizations offer coding camps, certifications, and hackathons.

Listed below are only a few of many resources to advance coding skills and computational thinking. For a much more exhaustive list (300+), see the Kapor Center for Social Impact report Coding Nation and its companion, Coding Landscape Database, to keep abreast of happenings in your area and online.

  • Digital Youth Network  “is a project that supports organizations, educators and researchers in learning best practices to help develop our youths’ technical, creative, and analytical skills.”
  • Black Girls CODE ”introduces computer-coding lessons to young girls from underrepresented communities in programming languages such as Scratch or Ruby on Rails.”
  • Level Playing Field is “committed to eliminating the barriers faced by unrepresented people of color.”
  • CompuGirls is a “culturally relevant technology program for adolescent (grades 8-12) girls from under-resourced school districts in the Greater Phoenix area and in Colorado.”
  • GirlDevelop provides “affordable and accessible programs to women who want to learn software development through mentorship and hands-on instruction.”
  • The Code-to-Learn Foundation “promotes computational fluency for everyone..and supports projects that engage young people in learning through coding, enabling them to develop as creative thinkers, designers, and innovators.”

What is happening in your school and community to close the opportunity gap in learning the new literacy of coding? How are your school principals, district administrators, and policymakers assuring that all students learn this new literacy? Please share your thoughts and stories.

Oh, and, if you would like to learn more about what coding is all about, watch Dr. Mitchel Resnick’s engaging TEDTalk below.

Running the Digital River of Learning with You,

Emily Vickery

“Coding isn’t just for computer whizzes, says Mitch Resnick of MIT Media Lab — it’s for everyone. In a fun, demo-filled talk Resnick outlines the benefits of teaching kids to code, so they can do more than just ‘read’ new technologies — but also create them.”

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