Connecting the Unfortunate Dots

Seeing and responding to what may be hidden.

My reading patterns have gotten me into trouble more than once, sending me down rabbit holes from which there seemed to be no return. Yet in most cases I suppose it has been “good trouble, necessary trouble” as Rep. John Lewis would say. Today’s trouble is tomorrow’s insight I figure, so I keep reading, sharing and spinning webs.

I recently encountered some interesting reads arguing for a more critical consideration of teaching and learning to code when it is positioned as a remedy for so many education and employment ills, real and potential. Embedded in that critical stance is a push for ethics as an essential piece of what can otherwise surface as largely technical training. On the one hand, there’s a certain pleasure many of us educators take in this narrative. We generally appreciate suggestions which imply that more education, better and more specific training will improve the odds of positive change; perhaps unleash a wave of remarkable individual and institutional advances. On the other hand, we know that this is not how the world works but we keep hoping in spite of ourselves. (And frequently cheering on proposed tech advances to deliver a breakthrough we have not yet envisioned to support that tender hope.)

In one instance I read some good news. A young Latino man who initially ventured into digital networking with the aim of building a mentoring platform for the National Hispanic Institute was recruited to a tech talent search program, sent to a coding academy and is now earning well enough to live reasonably in NYC. His is a definite success story. In response to the question of how his life has changed since completing tech training and getting a job in the industry he says this:

My salary has doubled and continues to go up every six months. I feel valued, in-demand and confident. I push myself out of desire to grow with the security that I will always have work opportunities and that they will only get better with my investments of time and effort.

And as advice to others who might try this path he offers the following:

Not to be intimidated. Tech is where we’re all equal. You don’t need investors or to inherit a trust to get started. You don’t have to have started young because tech is always changing. All you need is motivation and focus.

I’m glad that this young man seems to have found a way forward that appears both promising and satisfying on various levels. This is a narrative many of us seek out: individual and outwardly measurable success, a clear upward trajectory emerging from humble beginnings, and as a fairly direct result of educational elbow grease. It’s the stuff of the American dream, the one that has become increasingly rare and far more challenging to market as a real thing.

Meanwhile in education at large, in K-12 as well as in the post secondary sector, the salience of this preferred narrative serves as a grotesque template for creating policy which allows politicians to look busy while some students benefit and others suffer the consequences. In the case of calls for increased coding and computer science instruction, there appears to be plenty of enthusiasm from several corners of the education landscape: administrators, parents, students, teachers, policy makers. The reasoning is straightforward: tech is the future, our kids will need the capacity to code to be successful and capable and, of course, competitive in the global economy.

Ben Williamson (@BenPatrickWill) takes up this thinking and looks at how it informs education policy in the US and the UK. The article’s title: Coding for What? provokes readers at the outset. While Williamson acknowledges the calls for coding in schools as understandable he emphasizes the need for deeper, more nuanced consideration of the social consequences of coding and algorithmic structures in teaching students to work with these potentially powerful tools, particularly in light of the rise of “fake news and computational propaganda.”

The reality, though, is that coding in the curriculum, and many other learning to code schemes, have tended to overemphasize either economically valuable skills for the software engineering sector, or high-status academic computer science knowledge and skills. There has been far too little focus on enabling young people to appreciate the social consequences of code and algorithms…

… There is now a rising tide of concern that learning to code initiatives, like the software engineering sector, may have lost sight of the social effects of technical systems.

Williamson is right to worry. When we present tech to students as one of the only viable ways to advance economically without addressing the ethical dilemmas posed in how tech is used and can be abused and tie that directly to the humans who make it possible, we not only open Pandora’s box but steadily feed it with astonishing efficiency.

Even as much of tech and its attendant industries claim to want to make our lives better, easier, and more productive, our stubborn humanity often seems to rise as a barrier en route to achieving those lofty ideals. The fundamental goal assumption of economic benefit as consumer, shareholder, or producer tends to crowd out more complex ethical considerations in the process. Business first, moral constraints later. Much later.

In education we often claim to operate from a different premise. While our articulated goals are many and varied, most relate to benefiting society by developing people. Education in my world view involves growing and cultivating humanity, exploring its diversity and multitudes of expression. In this frame, teaching code must go beyond providing a stepping stone to potentially lucrative employment. When we encourage students, peers, friends, loved ones to learn code, we also implicitly ask them to take their humanity with them and build it into the task. This happens, but the (still overwhelmingly white, western male) humanity that gets baked in often reflects all the prevailing biases which reinscribe inequality again and again and again.

In a brief but fiery post, digital consultant, Walter Vannini, insists that

It’s better to admit that coding is complicated, technically and ethically. Computers, at the moment, can only execute orders, to varying degrees of sophistication. So it’s up to the developer to be clear: the machine does what you say, not what you mean.

We, educator humanists, actually wish for precisely that: for the machine to do what we mean. Without, however, reading our minds, invading our e-mail or cataloging our online interactions. Our humanity is complicated and complex. So, too, are its demands on society. Yet our day-to-day requests of tech are simpler: we want things to work, to not cost us anything and to stop transmitting/collecting/sharing our data when we say enough’s enough.

When it comes to teaching our young, preparing them for that decidedly uncertain future: which avenues will we promote? How will we counsel them to be productive and thoughtful, financially independent and socially compassionate, to write code and unpack its consequences? Both/and propositions tend to be like throwing a wrench into systems hard wired for pernicious either/or binaries.

Guess what our emerging digital citizens need more of in their education? Both wrenches to throw into current systems and courage to build new structures. Compassionate, thoughtful, far reaching digital citizenship should be the start of the conversation in learning to code, not the add-on. That means changing and rethinking some of our favorite narratives around tech, advancement and education; connecting the unfortunate dots.

images via Pixabay

Leadership Coach, Educator, Workshop presenter & facilitator, avid reader & writer @ home on the edge of the alps. Publisher of "Identity, Education and Power"

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