Coding for what? Lessons from computing in the curriculum

Ben Williamson

Christiaan Colen

[This is a talk prepared for the Pop Up Digital conference, Gothenburg, Sweden, 19 June 2017]

There was a key moment in the popular American drama Homeland this year when a group of talented young computer programmers finally launched their new software system. You could see their arms in the air, and hear their cheers, before their boss said, ‘Now it’s time to get to work.’

But what have they created in this darkened software bunker? What work are they about to put their coding skills to? This is what the Homeland’s creators call a ‘propaganda boiler room.’ Driven by extreme political convictions, they’ve created thousands of fake social media accounts to spread disinformation into the news feeds of millions of users.

As all of you will have heard recently, the role of the web and social media in political life have now become major global concerns—not just the plots of TV drama. We’re hearing more and more in the news about fake news, hacking, cyberattacks, political bots and weaponized computational propaganda.

And from critical technology thinkers, too, we’re hearing that ‘software is taking command,’ that automation and ‘algorithms rule the world,’ and that you can either ‘program or be programmed.’ Digital technologies, we now know, aren’t just neutral tools—but powerful devices for shaping our actions, influencing our feelings, changing our minds, filtering the information we receive, automating our jobs, recommending products and media to consume, manipulating our political convictions—even for ‘personalizing’ what and how we learn.

But as Homeland dramatizes, if software is becoming more powerful in our everyday lives, then we also need to acknowledge there are people behind it—programmers who have learned to code to make the technologies we live with.

Within our own field, education and teaching, some have begun to suggest that we need to equip children with the tools and skills to take an active part in this increasingly software-supported and automated world. Recently, for example, the Financial Times magazine ran a piece on ‘Silicon Valley’s classrooms of the future.’

‘Having disrupted the world,’ it claimed, ‘the tech community now wants to prepare children for their new place in it. Leading venture capitalist Marc Andreessen predicts a future with two types of job: people who tell computers what to do, and people who are told what to do by computers. Silicon Valley wants to equip young people to rule the machines.’

As a result, Silicon Valley companies are now investing billions of dollars to re-engineer public education to achieve that aim.

One such effort, according to the New York Times, is the learning to code organization Code.org, ‘a major nonprofit group financed with more than $60 million from Silicon Valley luminaries and their companies, which has the stated goal of getting every public school in the United States to teach computer science. Its argument is twofold: Students would benefit from these classes, and companies need more programmers.’

But it’s not just in Silicon Valley that this enthusiasm for teaching children to ‘rule the machines’ has taken hold. Across the world, children are being told they must ‘learn to code’ to become ‘digital makers.’

In the UK, learning to code and computer science are now part of the formal curriculum for schools, in England, Wales and Scotland alike. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been studying the documents produced to promote learning to code, following how coding and computing have been embedded in the curriculum, and recently interviewing relevant policy influencers involved in the new computing curriculum in England.

Sweden is now embarking on a shift to embed coding, computing and digital competence in its schools—so what can we learn from how things have worked out in England? In our recent interviews, we’ve been trying to work out why various influencers want computer programming in schools—what are the purposes of learning to code in the curriculum? In other words, ‘coding for what?’

Now, we need to go back in time a little here, back to 2011, and to Edinburgh. Here, at the Edinburgh Television Festival, was Eric Schmidt, then chief executive of Google, giving the keynote address to an audience of media, industry and policy leaders. After talking about disrupting TV broadcasting through media streaming, Schmidt suddenly turned his attention to attacking the British education system.

‘In the 1980s the BBC not only broadcast programming for kids about coding, but (in partnership with Acorn) shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes,’ he said. ‘That was a fabulous initiative, but it’s long gone. I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage.’

The talk tapped into a growing concern in the UK at the time that teaching children how to use Microsoft Office applications was inadequate to preparing them for living and working with more complex computer systems.

In fact, within six months of Schmidt’s speech, the Secretary of State for education in England at the time, Michael Gove, announced a complete reform of IT education during his own speech at a 2012 ed-tech trade show for IT teachers.

‘I am announcing today that the Department for Education is … withdrawing the existing National Curriculum Programme of Study for ICT from September this year,’ he announced. ‘The traditional approach would have been to keep the Programme of Study in place for the next 4 years, while we assembled a panel of experts, wrote a new ICT curriculum….  We will not be doing that. Technology in schools will no longer be micromanaged by Whitehall.’

So what happened?

Well despite Gove’s argument about not micromanaging the new curriculum, by September 2013, just 20 months later, entirely new programmes of study for computing in the National Curriculum appeared, to apply at all stage of compulsory schooling in England.

I’m going to fill in the gaps in this story in a minute, but if we briefly come back to the present, we find Google now much more positive about British education.

This is Google’s proposed new London headquarters, the enormous ‘landscraper’ building it plans to build next to King’s Cross railway station. On its announcement last November, new Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said:

‘Here in the UK, it’s clear to me that computer science has a great future with the talent, educational institutions, and passion for innovation we see all around us. We are committed to the UK and excited to continue our investment in our new King’s Cross campus.’

So in 5 years, Google has reversed its opinion of computing in the UK, and even of its educational institutions.

I think you’ll have detected the theme I’m developing here. Programming and computing in education is a shared agenda of major global commercial firms and national government departments and policymakers. One of the interviewees we spoke to about the new curriculum said, ‘Would you have got the attention of Michael Gove without Google or Microsoft government relations? I don’t think you would. You wouldn’t reach that level of policymaking.’

But actually it’s not as straightforward as business driving policy. What happened in England with computing in the curriculum was the result of a much messier mix of ambitions and activities including government, businesses, professional societies, venture capitalists, think tanks, charities, non-profit organizations, the media and campaigning groups. As another of our interviewees said, from the outside the new curriculum looked ‘sudden and organized’ but was actually a more ‘anarchic’ mess of ‘passions’ and ‘reasons’.

So, for example, the year before Eric Schmidt’s Edinburgh speech, the campaigning organization Computing at School had already produced a ‘white paper’ detailing a new approach to computing teaching. Computing at School is a teacher members’ organization, originally set up by Microsoft and chaired by a senior Microsoft executive.

Its 2010 white paper focused on ‘how computers work,’ the knowledge and skills of programming, and ‘computational thinking’—that is, it said, a ‘philosophy that underpins computing’ and a distinctive way to ‘tackle problems, to break them down into solvable chunks and to devise algorithms to solve them’ in a way that a computer can understand. The Computing at School white paper, and the outline computing curriculum it contained, was then put forward after Michael Gove’s speech as a suggested blueprint for the national curriculum.

Computing at School, we were told, was concerned that Gove’s decision not to ‘micro-manage’ the new subject would lead to an ‘implementation vacuum,’ and worked hard to lobby for its own vision. As we were told in an interview we conducted with Computing at School:

‘The Department for Education held consultation meetings for the ICT curriculum, I went to one. Afterwards I stayed behind to talk to the civil servant involved and told him about computer science as a school subject. I was able to put [our] curriculum on the table … complete revelation … led to relationship with the DfE, they went from thinking of us as a weird guerrilla group with special interests to a group they could consult with about computing.’

In fact, it was the Computing at School chairperson who was then appointed by the Department for Education to oversee the development of the new curriculum, and who led a 3 month process of stakeholder consultation and drafting of the new curriculum in autumn 2012.

One of the other key groups influencing computing in schools was Nesta—which is a bit like a think tank for innovation in public services. In 2011 Nesta oversaw a review of the skills requirements for the videogames and visual effects industries in the UK. The review was led by the digital entrepreneur Ian Livingstone, the chair of Eidos Interactive games company, and then the government’s ‘Skills Champion.’

Livingstone actually called his Nesta report, Next Gen, a ‘complete bottom up review of the whole education system relating to games.’ Nesta also produced a report on the legacy of the BBC Micro that Eric Schmidt had credited as a ‘fabulous initiative’ to get kids coding in the 80s. Nesta has continued to produce reports along similar lines, including one on getting more ‘digital making’ into schools, and another on the role of computer science education to build skills for the data analytics industry and the data-driven economy.

Soon after the Next Gen report was released, Livingstone and Nesta formed a pressure group, the Next Gen Skills campaign, which lobbied government hard to get programming and computer science in the curriculum. The campaign was supported by Google, Facebook, Nintendo, Microsoft, and was led by the interactive games and entertainment trade body UKIE.

Videogames, visual effects, data analytics and the creative digital economy are the real drivers for computing in the curriculum here—which Nesta claims has ‘influenced policymakers, rallied industry and galvanised educators to improve computer science teaching.’

Ian Livingstone, meanwhile, is establishing his own Academy Schools. Like the Swedish free schools approach, the Livingstone Academies will be privately run but publicly funded, and have significant discretion over curriculum.

‘It is the combination of computer programming skills and creativity by which today’s world-changing companies are built,’ Livingstone said when announcing the Livingstone Academies in a Department for Education press release. ‘I encourage other digital entrepreneurs to seize the opportunity offered by the free schools programme in helping to give children an authentic education for the jobs and opportunities of the digital world.’

The Livingstone Academies are basically government-approved models of the Next Gen vision. They’ll have industry partnerships, design studios, and even on-site startup business hubs to, it claims, ‘provide wider opportunities for future careers for a new generation of successful and confident citizens who will contribute to local, national and international economic success.’

So, Nesta and Livingstone have highlighted the powerful role of digital entrepreneurs and the language of the digital economy in securing government approval for computing in schools. As you can see, their emphasis is very firmly on programming and software engineering, rather than the more abstract study of the mathematics and algorithms that are the focus of the discipline of Computer Science.

Although programming and Computer Science are of course related, many critics have pointed out that most new computing courses and curricula are more closely connected with software development. We asked people about this is in our interviews, and were told by several people, including those at Computing at School and Nesta, that it was in everyone’s best interests to allow terms like Computer Science, coding, programming, computational thinking, digital skills and even digital literacy to be treated as the same thing.

Several people we interviewed were especially critical of the Shut Down or Restart report produced by the Royal Society in 2012. Its emphasis was on disciplinary computer science, and its recommendations reflected the views of major computer science academics and associations.

The Royal Society report was published just a few days after Michael Gove’s speech—in fact, he said he was looking forward to reading it. And you can see the influence of the Royal Society in the strong emphasis on the idea of computing at the ‘fourth science’ in the English computing curriculum. This goes well with the current emphasis in English education on established subject knowledge—though the fact the Department for Education authorized the Livingstone Academies indicates how government sees computing as a hard science and an economic catalyst at the same time.

In fact, we were told by several interviewees that a major issue in the development of the computing curriculum was that the government ministers and special advisers responsible for it didn’t think it was academic enough—it needed more hard Computer Science content and theory. Even though they weren’t supposed to be micro-managing it of course.

When the computing curriculum consultation group submitted its draft in late 2012, ‘The exact words were ‘the minister is not minded to approve the draft you sent,”’ one interviewee told us. The group had submitted its draft curriculum at 5 o’clock on a Friday evening and the chair was then contacted over the weekend by the special adviser to the minister.

One of our interviewees described how he called the working group chair to ask, ‘are we going to reform the drafting group…? And the answer was, “No, we’ve already done it. We were told unless we got it back to the minister by 9 o’clock on Monday morning with a greater emphasis on Computer Science, then computing would not be in the national curriculum.”’

Despite being a consultative curriculum drafting process, in the end the new programmes of study, we were told, were the product of just two senior executives responding to the demands of the minister and her special adviser to emphasize academic Computer Science.

But for many other people involved in trying to shape the new curriculum, the purpose wasn’t to reproduce disciplinary computer science through the school classroom, or skills development for the digital economy. One of the people we interviewed, also part of the curriculum consultation and drafting group, told us he was even banned from attending meetings after complaining about there being too much Computer Science content. Another had his expenses cancelled as part of the group to stop him doing wider consultation with teachers. The minister’s special adviser was allegedly behind both decisions.

Another area of influence on the computing curriculum was the role of charitable, non-profit and voluntary groups. Code Club is an after school programming scheme that puts volunteer coders together with children to teach them to code. It has its own coding curriculum that starts with visual programming applications like Scratch and then proceeds to programming with HTML, CSS and Python.

There are now over 5000 UK Code Clubs, teaching over 82,000 children programming. When it first started in 2012, the computing curriculum hadn’t even been drafted, yet Code Club is still going strong even though coding is now embedded in the curriculum.

One of the things that the continuing popularity of Code Club reveals is that computing remains very poorly resourced in schools. Code Club has an army of volunteer programmers—the computing curriculum has a teaching workforce of mostly ICT teachers who all need radical retraining. The government budget for this retraining worked out to about £100 per member of staff, which largely means external providers have stepped in.

As a result, Code Club now runs its own teacher training sessions, where volunteer programmers educate teachers in how to teach programming. Other training providers are available—Computing at School offers resources and training, but so do large commercial organizations, as we’ll see in a moment.

Code Club was also absorbed into the Raspberry Pi Foundation in 2015. The Raspberry Pi device itself is a very small, ‘hackable’ computer, and the foundation was set up as a charity to support its educational uses. But one of the other activities performed by Raspberry Pi is to catalyse the wider take-up of computing in schools. It has a couple of magazine titles, The MagPi and Hello World, to promote coding and making.

The MagPi is specifically about making with Raspberry Pi itself, while Hello World focuses on ‘plugging gaps’ in teachers’ knowledge and skills in computer science, coding, computational thinking, constructionism and digital making. Again, this reflects the deliberate ambiguity built in to the curriculum.

Probably the most high profile intervention into coding in schools so far came with the launch of the BBC nationwide campaign called Make It Digital in 2015.

‘BBC Make it Digital will capture the spirit of the BBC Micro, which helped Britain get to grips with the first wave of personal computers in the 1980s,’ the BBC claimed. ‘It will put digital creativity in the spotlight like never before, and help build the nation’s digital skills, through an ambitious range of new programmes, partnerships and projects.’

One of the key projects was the launch of the micro:bit, a small coding device which it distributed for free to a million UK schoolchildren in 2016. The BBC has also established a non-profit foundation to roll out the micro:bit internationally.

The micro:bit, Code Club’s courses, and Raspberry Pi’s magazines indicate how much the new curriculum relies on public and charitable organizations to provide the support and resources required when government departments withdraw their ‘micro-management’ of key subject areas but retain a strong steering capacity over strategy and direction. One of our interviewees, who worked at a coding charity, described how she acted as a ‘geek insider’ who could translate the language of ‘geek’ into government speak for ministers, their special advisers and civil servants.

But besides these charitable providers, the curriculum has also, as we’ve seen, become the target for promoters of academic computer science and for entrepreneurial influence based on arguments about the digital economy. I think it’s a model case of how education policy is being made and done these days—it’s steered by government but taken forward by wider networks of organizations, with the special advisers of government ministers taking a strong role in approving who’s involved and vetting the outputs produced by the participants.

Yes, it’s not micro-managed as Michael Gove promised, but it’s not unmanaged either. And that doesn’t make it easy to work out what the overall purpose of the curriculum is—because it means different things to different groups.

The missing aspect of the curriculum as it has ended up from this messy mix of organizations, interests and interventions, for me anyway, is a more critical understanding of the social power of computing. Several of our interviewees said that the more critical aspects of computing suggested during the curriculum consultation were systematically erased before the curriculum programmes of study were finally made public in 2013.

Look at the bottom left column of this table where text has been struck out—this is from the draft computing curriculum in 2012 and emphasized ‘critical evaluation of digital content,’ the ‘impacts’ of technology on individuals and society, and ‘implications’ for ‘rights, responsibilities and freedoms.’ The right hand column shows how this part of the draft curriculum was rewritten, now emphasizing the study of algorithms, Boolean logic, and data manipulation.

This is what was lost when the draft curriculum had to be rewritten between its submission on Friday night and the new deadline for 9 o’clock Monday morning specified by the minister’s special adviser.

I understand that here in Sweden there remains potential for more critical approaches to digital competence, so I want to spend the last few minutes focusing on that.

Just a week or so ago, the Austrian research group Cracked Labs produced a report on the commercial data industry. It demonstrated how we are being tracked and profiled via data collected from our use of telecoms, the media, retail, finance, social media and technology platforms, and public services.

One of the examples in the report is Oracle, one of the world’s largest business software and database vendors. Oracle’s ‘data cloud’ contains detailed information about 2 billion people, which it uses to ‘profile and sort,’ ‘find and target people,’ ‘sell data,’ ‘personalize content,’ and ‘measure how people behave.’

What does this have to do with computing in schools?

Well, last year Oracle announced it would fund European Union member states $1.4 billion dollars to advance computing and programming in schools through Oracle Academy, its global philanthropic arm. This is part of its ambition to spread computer science education around the world. It claims to have impacted on 30 million students in 110 countries already, mostly through retraining teachers, and annually invests $3.3 billion to ‘accelerate digital literacy worldwide.’

Most notably, in Europe, Oracle is seeking to ‘Level Oracle Academy’s entire curriculum to the European Qualifications Framework.’ This makes Oracle potentially very influential in European computing education. A European Union spokesperson said of the deal, ‘Digitally skilled professionals are critical to Europe’s competitiveness and capacity for innovation. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen the demand for workers with computer science and coding skills grow by four percent each year. Oracle’s efforts to bring computer science into classrooms across the European Union will help strengthen our digital economy.’

So, one of the world’s most powerful data harvesting companies is also one of the world’s most powerful computer science for education philanthropies, funding one of the world’s most powerful cross-national digital economies.

The Oracle example is an important one because it captures quite a lot of what’s going on with coding and computing more broadly:

First, coding and computer science are being put forward as solutions to the digital economy by businesses but also think tanks and government officials too, with students positioned as future digital workers and entrepreneurial citizens—or agents of social and economic progress through software.

Second, relationships are being built between national governments and commercial companies to deliver on major educational goals and purposes. This is changing how education systems are governed—not just by government departments but from the headquarters and philanthropic outgrowths of global technology companies. It’s an example of how tech companies, many from Silicon Valley, are becoming ‘shadow education ministries’ as Neil Selwyn has described them.

Third, and consequently, companies like Oracle, as well as Google and Microsoft and others, are directly influencing curricula across Europe and globally, changing what teachers practice and what students learn along the way. They are even actively supplying teacher training courses to equip teachers with skills and knowledge.

Fourth, these organizations are talking the language of ‘computer science’ which is appealing to many educational policymakers—in the UK, as we saw, giving coding the credibility of Computer Science has been really important. Yet what they are actually promoting is closer to software engineering as practised in the technology sector. Some, like Oracle, also mention ‘digital literacy’ but this clearly a functional kind of literacy in writing code.

And in doing so, these organizations are shaping computing to be a practical, skills-based subject area with a hard scientific surface—and definitely not a more critically-focused subject which might draw attention to the data surveillance practised by the same organizations persuading national governments to focus on computing education in schools.

As the Cracked Labs report shows, Oracle knows an awful lot about people. This is the kind of digital environment that children and young people are now living and learning in. That’s why, in closing here, I want to suggest the need for a different direction in coding and computing in the curriculum—or at least a proper discussion about its purposes. It’s great to see this conference as a space to start that dialogue here.

We are now teaching kids to code—which has all sorts of advantages in terms of tech skills, creativity and understanding how computers work. But there’s a risk we could just be reproducing the practices of Silicon Valley in our own classrooms.

As the philosopher of technology Ian Bogost has commented, ‘Not all students in computer-science programs think they’ll become startup billionaires… But not all of them don’t think so, either. Would-be “engineers” are encouraged to think of every project as a potential business ready to scale and sell.’ The commercial culture of computing that is creeping into computer science courses, he has added, downplays the social consequences of software engineering decisions while emphasizing ‘speculative finance.’

It is also notable that when the co-founder of Code Club criticized the ‘mass surveillance’ practices of Google a few years back that she was forced to resign by the Code Club board. Google was then one of Code Club’s main commercial sponsors.

‘We should not accept that privacy no longer exists, just because corporations doing mass surveillance also teach kids to code,’ she said. ‘I cannot stay silent about large corporations infringing on human rights, and I believe it is my moral obligation to speak out against it.’

We also need to think about the political uses and abuses of programming skills. Teaching children to code could actually be dangerous if it trains them with the right skills to work in Homeland’s propaganda boiler room. In many ways, young right wing activists are today’s most successful digital makers, using their programming skills to disseminate political values that many of us, I’m sure, find extreme and divisive.

Some critics are already arguing that learning to code is a distraction from learning ‘values filters so our children can interact in this environment.’

My view is that a properly purposeful and meaningful computing education would engage with the social and political power of code to engineer, in part, how we live and think. ‘To program or be programmed’ is a neat mantra, but you need a different kind of critical knowledge and skill set to understand how your information practices are being programmed by the engineers at Google, how you can be monitored and profiled through the Oracle data cloud, or how you can be manipulated via social media.

According to the Times Education Supplement, the weekly magazine for education professionals in the UK, ‘the algorithm’s gonna get you’ in the classroom too. That’s an overly paranoid headline—but maybe it might provoke educators to consider the social power of programming and the algorithmic techniques of data mining and surveillance it’s produced.

The programmer Maciej Ceglowski has said that ‘an enthusiastic group of nerds has decided to treat the rest of the world as a science experiment’ by creating ‘the greatest surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen.’

What would it mean to receive an education in computing that helped young people navigate life in the algorithmic data cloud in an informed and safe way, rather than as passive subjects of this vast science experiment?

Technical know-how in how computers work has its uses here, of course. But also knowing about privacy and data protection, knowing how news circulates, understanding cyberattacks and hacking, knowing about bots, understanding how algorithms and automation are changing the future of work—and knowing that there are programmers and business plans and political agendas and interest groups behind all of this—well, this seems to me worth including in a meaningful computing education too.

I am encouraged to see that there is scope for some more critical study in Sweden’s incoming digital competence curriculum. That type of study of computing and its impacts and implications, in the UK, was shut down before the curriculum had even started up.

Image by Christiaan Colen
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2 Responses to Coding for what? Lessons from computing in the curriculum

  1. martinowen says:

    Great piece Ben

  2. martinowen says:

    Great piece Ben. I have lived through at least 4 iterations of this. They never achieve their aims for reasons too numerous to put in a comment. Anecdotes must suffice. Much of Apple’s success results from Jobs’s love of typography and Woz’s counter-culture phreaking and love of Star Trek as anything else. Dundee became a world centre for the computer games industry possibly because the Speccy was built in the Timex factory and there were so many knock-offs in the community.

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