August 3, 2020

Coding as the New Latin? Can Code Clubs Provide a New Pathway for Low-Income Children and Help Close the Digital Divide?

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Digital Learning
Parenting for a Digital Future book graphic

It’s the new Latin isn’t it? It’s like, if you couldn’t read or write 600 years ago, you were on the outside, you were a peasant. So in the new world you should know how to use HTML…, you should know some of the tools, you shouldn’t just be a passive user.

The idea of coding (or computer programming, as was) as the new Latin was mentioned to us by several parents during interviews for our new book Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears About Technology Shape Children’s Lives. As this middle-class mother suggests, learning to code can seem vital to parents seeking to support their child’s digital future, to ensure they have the necessary tools to succeed. Prominent policy discourses promise digital pathways to future jobs in post-industrial economies, as from the OECD:

The children entering education in 2018 will be young adults in 2030. Schools can prepare them for jobs that have not yet been created, for technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that have not yet been anticipated.

One chapter of our book compares three digital learning sites which attract parents or children who ‘vote with their feet’ for an imagined digital future. They encompassed families living below the poverty line (often from ethnic minorities), those living creatively (often educated but with constrained finances), and elite families (multiply privileged and competitive).

At Bluebell, an under-resourced primary school, our research in the after-school code club reveals the challenge for society’s efforts to close social and digital divides, if the middle-classes are not simply to pull ahead yet again, now using technology to mark the distinction between their child and the rest.

Field observations at Bluebell

The code club at Bluebell was attended by students from African, Afro-Caribbean, Asian and some Latin American backgrounds. Two thirds of them were boys. The curriculum used Scratch, a coding language developed at MIT so that young people could “share and remix” ideas while learning “essential skills for the 21st century.” Observing at the club, Alicia recorded:

A palpable sense of excitement when different tasks are completed, shouting out to me or to Beth, ‘Miss! Miss! Come see! Come and look!’ when they have successfully gotten the rocket to get to the moon or made the sun turn into crazy colours.

But this was individual work, since the collaborative dimension of Scratch was lacking – for reasons of privacy and child protection, the school blocked the social network functionality of Scratch. In the club, students sat at their work stations and rarely collaborated with or asked their peers for advice, being more likely to take their difficulties to volunteer facilitator Beth, perhaps because they are used to consulting a teacher during school time.

Among other questions in our minds, we were interested in the connections in learning across home and school. So we noted that Beth was unaware that nine-year-old Braydon Datong in her class was strongly supported in his interests by his mother Samantha and his father Olu, as we ourselves discovered when we interviewed the family at home.

Can parents help connect children’s learning across sites?

Samantha hoped that Braydon’s participation in code club might lead to a career, given that Olu worked in IT support:

Braydon has always said that he wants a job working with computers. So I said,… it would be helpful if you knew exactly how computers worked – just for his own knowledge really.

Though she tried to support his learning in code club, Samantha had never actually seen Braydon’s Scratch designs, since the school did not permit the students to use the public-facing galleries on the Scratch website. Nor could she learn much from Braydon, since he never went “into detail” about the class – although Samantha could tell that he was “having fun.” Feeling somewhat excluded left her with plenty of anxieties, however, informed by her previous work in child protection. Braydon talked more deeply with Olu; Samantha described them “talking about binary… he shows Braydon what he does or when he works on call and he has to do it from home.”

Braydon’s interests were not entirely lost on Beth, for he was active in the class. When Beth brought out the Makey Makey, it was Braydon who immediately grasped the principle of circuitry, saying “you make a circle and then it goes into your blood!” However, there was little opportunity for Beth to learn what Braydon had been doing or talking about at home, nor for her to build on it in the sessions. The parents were usually rushed at pick-up, meeting their child in the downstairs entrance and not invited up to the computer room. Several spoke limited English, so while friendly towards Beth they could not ask much about what had gone on in the club, had they wanted to.

Much of the learning at code club was opaque to parents. Typically, students had signed themselves up, their parents hardly aware of what they were doing. Though generally positive, their parents were often mystified by the idea of coding. Some students became disengaged over the course of the semester, perhaps because they could not practice their newfound skills at home.

New digital pathways to equity? Or not

Bluebell was experimenting with digital technologies to connect with home, but usually in a unidirectional manner, to send messages home rather than invite parental input. Such messages largely served the school’s administrative needs – such as sending text messages about PE kits from no-reply phone numbers. During our fieldwork the school was rolling out a new ‘digital homework’ platform. The system was awkward, though some of the middle class parents managed it. One mother described how her daughter “loves going on the computer… [the digital homework] is a chance for her to be doing something to do with her learning… her maths skills have improved a hundred per cent.” Her daughter, who previously attended code club, told us how she’d further developed her interest: “I really like using Scratch and I’ve got an account at home. I’ve made lots of projects.”

Although located in a low-income school and neighbourhood, Bluebell nonetheless did better at reaching parents higher in cultural capital (and to an extent economic capital, for although none were wealthy, they were better off than the many families at Bluebell living below the poverty line). The school’s contact with other parents was either absent or defined by problems – calls home when children got into trouble rather than to discover or share their interests.

We were left wondering how these parents could have been invited into the experiences at the school, given the limitations of a volunteer-run after-school club and parents’ pressurised circumstances. Now and again we hear of a new educational initiative to involve parents. But what makes them successful? More important, what makes them fair and inclusive? For parents, digital technologies seem to offer a fresh start, a workaround to escape the social reproduction of established inequalities. Hence they invest in technologies at home, often beyond their budget. But without new educational thinking, the effect will be to compound familiar social divides with new digital divides.