Learning to code isn’t enough

Women lean over to help young girls working together on their laptops at a long table - AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Learning to code isn’t enough
Print Title: “What we learned from ‘learning to code'” & “The long history of ‘learn to code'”
MIT Technology Review, April 20, 2023
by Joy Lisi Rankin

“Historically, learn-to-code efforts have provided opportunities for the few, but new efforts are aiming to be inclusive.”


A decade ago, tech powerhouses the likes of Microsoft, Google, and Amazon helped boost the nonprofit Code.org, a learn-to-code program with a vision: “That every student in every school has the opportunity to learn computer science as part of their core K–12 education.” It was followed by a wave of nonprofits and for-profits alike dedicated to coding and learning computer science; some of the many others include Codecademy, Treehouse, Girl Develop It, and Hackbright Academy (not to mention Girls Who Code, founded the year before Code.org and promising participants, “Learn to code and change the world”). Parents can now consider top-10 lists of coding summer camps for kids. Some may choose to start their children even younger, with the Baby Code! series of board books—because “it’s never too early to get little ones interested in computer coding.” Riding this wave of enthusiasm, in 2016 President Barack Obama launched an initiative called Computer Science for All, proposing billions of dollars in funding to arm students with the “computational thinking skills they need” to “thrive in a digital economy.”


Now, in 2023, North Carolina is considering making coding a high school graduation requirement. If lawmakers enact that curriculum change, they will be following in the footsteps of five other states with similar policies that consider coding and computer education foundational to a well-rounded education: Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Nebraska. Advocates for such policies contend that they expand educational and economic opportunities for students. More and more jobs, they suggest, will require “some kind of computer science knowledge.”


This enthusiasm for coding is nothing new. In 1978 Andrew Molnar, an expert at the National Science Foundation, argued that what he termed computer literacy was “a prerequisite to effective participation in an information society and as much a social obligation as reading literacy.” Molnar pointed as models to two programs that had originated in the 1960s. One was the Logo project centered at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, which focused on exposing elementary-­age kids to computing. (MIT Technology Review is funded in part by MIT but maintains editorial independence.) The other was at Dartmouth College, where undergraduates learned how to write programs on a campus-wide computing network.


The Logo and Dartmouth efforts were among several computing-related educational endeavors organized from the 1960s through 1980s. But these programs, and many that followed, often benefited the populations with the most power in society.Then as now, just learning to code is neither a pathway to a stable financial future for people from economically precarious backgrounds nor a panacea for the inadequacies of the educational system.


Featured image caption: Black Girls Code works to increase the number of women of color working in technology by introducing girls to computer science.

Read the Full Article »

About the Author:

Joy Lisi Rankin is a research associate professor in the Department of Technology, Culture, and Society at New York University and author of A People’s History of Computing in the United States.