Voices in Education

Seizing the Moment: Possibilities for Equity and Justice in Computer Science Education
Should all children learn to code? Should computer science courses (CS) become a graduation requirement in public schools? Is access to coding and computer science a civil rights issue? Or a matter of US national security, technological supremacy, and economic competitiveness? Some combination of these, or all the above? Given how forcefully and rapidly CS education has made its way into public education, and the consciousness of the American public, it is incumbent upon educational practitioners, researchers, and policy makers to carefully and critically address these questions.

These conversations, though, will not be easy. Proponents of CS education include an ideologically diverse, motley crew of nonprofits, university-based researchers, school districts, community-based organizations, educators, Silicon Valley companies, and even celebrity musicians and athletes. Nationally, CS education has been a rare bipartisan issue in a time of historic political tension. For instance, Computer Science for All was a key policy initiative for President Barack Obama, but President Donald Trump has also called for increased expenditures for CS education, a rare example of political continuity between the two administrations. Within and across these calls lies a rationale for CS education that draws heavily on narratives of diversity and inclusion—the idea that expanding CS education for all children is not just a good idea but one that is morally imperative and part of broader efforts to expand racial and gender equity in schools and society.

Yet, the rationale for CS education is also commonly linked to the economic and political needs of technology companies and sometimes calls for “national security” or “defense,” politically loaded terms which signal a link to the priorities of US foreign policy. So, which is it? Is CS education an instrument for equity and opportunity, or an instrument of industry and militarism? Some may wonder, can’t it be both things at the same time? From a critical theory perspective, the answer is an unequivocal no: dominant approaches to CS education rooted in neoliberal and nationalistic goals cannot and will not advance the noble causes of equity and justice. Unless, of course, as I argue in my recent Harvard Educational Review article,Ethics, Identity, and Political Vision: Toward a Justice-Centered Approach to Equity in Computer Science Education,” we can reimagine and retool CS education across three critical dimensions: the what (expanding CS curriculum to rigorously address ethical/political topics), the how (designing equitable learning environments respectful of students’ identities and communities), and the why of CS education (authentically linking CS learning to equity and justice).

In the article, I discuss ways that this work is already underway, although tentatively, from within as well as outside of traditional CS education circles. I show, for instance, how the recently released K–12 Computer Science Framework creates important pedagogical openings to engage students with questions of ethics and the sociocultural dimensions of computing. Skillful educators can use these “openings” to move beyond framing ethics in computing as a matter of individual choices or responsibilities (e.g., right and wrong decisions on questions of piracy, cyberbullying, copyright laws). This way, students may develop a deeper understanding of the complex interplay between technology and society through opportunities to examine, discuss, and debate macroethical issues such as questions of privacy and surveillance, the role of racial bias in algorithms, or how technological systems are manipulated by nations who might block social networking sites for political purposes, an issue that has recently made headlines with recent events in Iran. In these examples, questions of ethics and technology revolve around an interrogation of how new technologies are embedded within and constitutive of systems of power and oppression, and the potential they have to be tools for opposition and resistance.

So how and where should we begin? Thanks to a vibrant community of CS educators and university-based researchers (too many to list here), we are learning a lot, and fast, about how to design CS learning environments and tools in ways that optimize learning and identity development for all students. Thanks to support from the National Science Foundation, CS education is now emerging as a priority for many colleges of education and teacher preparation programs across the country. Nonprofits such as Code.org, Level the Playing Field Institute, and Black Girls Code, to name but a few, have not only expanded access to historically underrepresented students, but also have successfully raised the profile of CS education within the public discourse.

To build on this momentum in the directions alluded to here, I suggest we invite a broader range of voices into discussions of what CS should be and how we can get there. For instance, we have much to learn from other community-based organizations (less commonly associated with CS education) such as Youth Radio, the Digital Youth Network, Code510, and TechActivist, which all frame their work around the simple yet powerful notion that computing can empower youth to solve local and global problems of great significance. Similarly, there are an increasing number of computer scientists and computing researchers—such as Fox Harrell, Phillip Rogaway, Stuart Russell, Tapan Parikh, Noel Sharkey, and Joy Buolamwini—speaking and writing about the complex ways in which systems of power, ethics, and race are deeply interwoven with new technologies, and simultaneously calling for more inclusive, responsible, and ethical paths forward for computer science and related fields. These scholars and their ideas should be given serious attention in discussions about how to best conceptualize and enact CS learning opportunities for children and young adults.

Computer science education will soon be a prominent feature of US public education. The fact that CS education is forcefully emerging should be a call to action. Let’s begin by collectively, clearly, and unequivocally articulating a vision for CS learning anchored in principles of peace, diversity, and justice. And of deep, authentic, and meaningful learning. This way, students may be attracted to learn how to code and design not merely to traverse the “pipeline” leading to a job at Google or Facebook, but to become a technologically sophisticated participant in their local and global community. To explore the wonders and undiscovered power and possibilities of technology to address serious problems of humanity and society. To learn how to think computationally, as well as critically and with a deep sense of wonder and compassion and respect for diverse communities and cultures. To critically probe the philosophical and political aspects of technology as it shapes our lives today. To dream and design the technologies of a more peaceful and prosperous tomorrow. This is the potential of CS education, and the kind of CS education our world and our youth desperately need and deserve, if we are only able to seize the moment.

About the Author: Sepehr Vakil is an assistant professor of STEM Education and the associate director of Equity & Inclusion in the Center for STEM Education at the University of Texas at Austin.