Sunday, February 15, 2015

Coding Movements -- Mainstream vs. Grassroots

Last update: Tuesday 2/17/15 @ 1:14 pm
Two overlapping, but distinct coding movements have recently swept the nation: the mainstream movement strives to provide opportunity and encouragement for all of the nation's youngsters to acquire coding and computational thinking skills at the earliest possible age; the other movement focuses on Black and Latino youngsters. The mainstream movement engages school systems, whereas the Black and Latino movements are grass roots operations that directly engage parents and students. 

As a Black man who was an educator of Black students at one of the nation's preeminent Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for more than forty years, I am especially concerned about the Black segment of the grass roots movement.  I am concerned because I believe that the mainstream cannot succeed without the inspired role models and mentors provided by the grass roots, and the grass roots cannot succeed without the infrastructure developed by the mainstream.

A. Black programs work for Black students, but they don't scale ... yet

In another note on this blog, I identified a few of the most notable leaders of the Black coding movement, exemplars like Black Girls Code, #YesWeCode, and Qeyno Labs. These programs are still too new to have been the subjects of rigorous statistical assessments of their long-term impact. But the enthusiastic, anecdotal testimony of their students, parents of their students, and their financial supporters leaves no doubt that their short-term impact has been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, most of the comments from their students during and after hackathons, workshops, and other activities loudly proclaim their students' involvement in learning experiences that are causing deep-rooted and joyous transformations of their views of themselves and of the subject matter they are learning. 

Unfortunately, most of the programs currently run by the exemplars are still cast in traditional formats. The content of their learning activities may be high tech, but their delivery modes are the same low-tech/no-tech, face-to-face  formats used by most K-12 and college courses. Effective for small enrollments, these labor-intensive delivery modes don't scale. As enrollments increase, especially if the larger enrollments engage students who aren't as well prepared, one has to deploy state-of-the-art educational technologies. 


I have no doubt that the tech-savvy social entrepreneurs at Black Girls Code, #YesWeCode, Qeyno Labs, etc, will eventually adopt appropriate educational technologies. But it will be a supremely unwelcome irony if the exemplars are marginalized before they have had sufficient time to fully deploy blended courses, flipped courses, 100 percent online courses, and other technologies that will enable them to scale to a size wherein they can have maximum positive impact on the nation's 9 million Black youngsters who will be in the K-12 pipeline each and every year for the next 20 years. 


I am concerned because the windows of opportunity for the grass roots are closing even as its exemplars expand their enrollments because enrollments in programs offered by the mainstream movement are growing at a much faster pace. In this regard, I am especially concerned by the explosive growth of Code.Org

B. CodeOrg's programs scale, but they won't work for most Black students

What is Code.Org? Here's a self-description from its Web site:

  • "Launched in 2013, Code.org® is a non-profit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science by making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color. Our vision is that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science. We believe computer science and computer programming should be part of the core curriculum in education, alongside other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, such as biology, physics, chemistry and algebra."

Since its founding two years ago, Code.Org has achieved remarkable success: 
  • Enrolled over 60,000,000 students in its "Hour of Code" in 2014 -- including President Obama
  • Provided 90,000 classrooms (worldwide) with use of its Code Studio, a collection of 20-hour self-paced online courses. These courses have already enrolled 4 million students ... of whom over 1 million have been U.S. Black and Latino students (2104 annual report)
  • Established Partnerships with 60 U.S. school districts, including the seven largest  -- New York City, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Clark County (NV), Broward County (FL), Houston, Montgomery County (MD), Denver, and San Francisco ... "to bring computer science to your district" via online & blended course materials and teacher training programs.
  • Been the primary catalyst for changing policies in 16 states to enable computer science courses to be taken for credit towards graduation from high school (2104 annual report)
  • Received over $30,000,000 in grants from generous supporters : 
    -- 4 Platinum Supporters ($3,000,000+ each) ... Ballmer Family, Google, Microsoft, and Omidyar Network
    -- 16 Gold Supporters ($1,000,000+ each) 
    -- 2 Silver Supporters ($500,000+ each)
    -- 16 Bronze Supporters ($100,000+ each)
    -- 26 Supporters ($25,000+ each)
Given these impressive achievements, why am I concerned? I'm concerned because I've seen this movie before. Indeed, I have seen this movie again and again for the last fifty years. It's full title is "the U.S. integrated mainstream system of education."

I have no doubt that White and Asian American students will gain substantial benefits from the new coding courses and teacher training programs that Code.Org has developed, just as these same groups have derived substantial benefits from previous K-12 course and teacher training innovations in other components of STEM. But the fact that Code.Org has partnered with the same administrators and teachers who have been unable to close the academic achievement gaps between Black students and White students or between Black students and Asian American students in math and science provides me with no reason to believe that they will be any more successful with regards to coding and computational thinking skills. Millions of Black students may enroll in Code.Org's computer courses, just as millions of Black students have enrolled in math and science courses ... and the results will be the same.

To be sure, the mainstream system is minimally effective for part of the Talented Tenth, the part that in another essay on this blog I call "Bright Stars"; but it's ineffective for "Dark Stars." Indeed the rapid rise of the grass roots Black coding movement reflects widespread recognition within America's Black communities that the current system isn't working for the vast majority of Black students. That's why Black parents in Oakland, New York, and Philadelphia cheer so loudly when their kids participate in the hackathons and workshops organized by Black Girls Code, #YesWeCode, and Qeyno Labs.

Just as HBCUs continue to provide more effective training for more Black students in STEM than mainstream colleges and universities, so too I anticipate that the Black coding movement will provide more effective training for more Black students in coding and computational thinking skills than mainstream K-12 initiatives like Code.Org., and for the same reasons ==> more effective mentors and role models. But it's more than that.

HBCUs are a continuing movement that began in the years immediately after the Civil War. As a movement, HBCUs continue to empower their faculty and staff with a heightened sense of purpose that enhances their capacity to inspire Black students. And it's not just a "Black thing" because some of the most effective faculty and staff at HBCUs are not Black; some are White, others are Asian American; but all are united by their shared commitment to the historic mission and legacy of HBCUs. I perceive this same sense of historic mission and purpose in the exemplars of the Black grass roots coding movement. That's why I expect them to become far more effective than the mainstream.

C. A productive de facto partnership
Looking ahead, I hope the mainstream continues to develop advanced courses, provide teacher training, and use its connections with powerful foundations and corporations to advance policy changes that enable students to receive graduation credits and other important recognitions for their computer studies.

On the other hand, I hope that the grass initiatives maintain their focus on providing Black students with the kind of inspired introductions to coding and computational thinking that will enable their students to develop the basic skills, confidence, and motivation required for success in the advanced courses created by the mainstream. That's why I urge the exemplars to adopt scalable educational technologies that will allow them to provide their inspired introductions to far larger numbers of Black students as soon as possible.

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Related notes on this blog: