How Do We Close the Coding Opportunity Gap?

EVickery_1by Emily Vickery

Learning to code and write programs is a new literacy – some would say as important as reading, writing, and math. But how do we close the opportunity gap between those who have access to digital literacy instruction and those who don’t?

As far back as 1983, in an Education Leadership article titled 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 receive 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, a former professor at McGill University, summarized a powerful observation by Daniel Watt from the 1982 book of essays, 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.”

More than 20 years later, this imbalance in the empowerment / disempowerment equation had not gone away. Far from it, in fact. Harold Wenglinsky’s research findings – based on a massive survey of NAEP student data and published in 2005’s Using Technology Wisely: The Keys to Success in Schools – confirmed Watt’s earlier prediction:

computer-lab2Students of color and low socioeconomic status predominately used technology for drill and practice and not for higher order thinking skills.

Jump forward another decade, and we find once again that little has changed 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,’” said Barbara Ericson, the director of computing outreach and a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech, 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, Ericson noted. In Alabama there were only eight, six of whom had a passing score. “It’s sad that there were only six,” she said, “but it’s good that they’re doing a good job.”

CELEBRATE-CEM-banner-300Mother 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 Facebook founder 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].”

Even Harvard Business School has caught the coding bug. Plans are underway to add a computer science elective to address the “changing nature of the workforce,” recognizing the value of coding for MBAs.

Secured Data TransferToday, increasingly, coding and programming are considered necessary skills for everyone. So 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 million-plus jobs to be created by 2020 that will involve computing? What initiatives must be undertaken to ensure that many more children of color  take computer science AP courses? How can this opportunity gap be closed?

Promoting coding as a new literacy for all

According to Mark Guzdial, a professor of interactive computing, “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.”

31TouchingArrowAnd 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.”

Resnick is a developer of the popular teaching tool Scratch, an approach to learning how to code that can be quickly grasped and will be eagerly explored by any student in the middle grades.

In essence, Scratch offers simple coding modules (above) that kids can manipulate to create programs and direct the functioning of digital objects and imagery to develop interactive stories, games, and animations. An online community provides a way to share creations with others.

Scratch is free online (with lots of examples), so the opportunity to teach and learn basic coding is within the reach of any teacher and student. (There’s even a new, free iPad app Scratch Jr for K-1, if you want to get kids started before they reach the middle level.)

Other valuable resources to teach coding

space-junkAnd, fortunately, there are more forward-thinking programs and organizations committed to increasing access to the new literacy of coding – as schools, libraries, and community organizations begin to offer coding camps, certifications, and hackathons.

Listed below are only a few of many resources to advance coding skills and computational thinking among often-excluded students. 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.”
  • NEW: Read CODE2040’s Research Report On Being Black and Latino/a in Tech, and the Barriers to Improving Diversity and Inclusion at Companies, with Recommendations.

Are you ready to act?

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.

Emily Vickery is a learning architect, speaker, consultant and English teacher based in Pensacola, Florida.  She has taught technology and ELA courses in public and independent middle and high schools. A former research fellow at Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), she is a frequent presenter on digital learning topics and a co-author of Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students & Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. Learn more about Emily’s work at her Digital CV page and read another MiddleWeb article by her: Are You Hacking Your School’s Learning Spaces?


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

1 Response

  1. ajollygal says:

    Love your thinking, Emily! Coding is, indeed, the new literacy. In fact, it was the literacy that most appealed to my sons decades ago when a forward-thinking professor taught coding to children on Saturdays. That was when coding was much different than it is today. Thanks for an enlightening and important perspective on a new educational direction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.