Conclusion: Subscribing to computational literacy

A simple way to sum up here is to say that “the computer revolution hasn’t happened yet” (not even within the field of computing). So wise people trying to make progress will keep a more open mind about what computing might be about, what it means to teach computing while the field is still being invented, and to be as open and helpful as possible to get many kinds of minds involved in making better forms of computing for the future.
—Alan Kay (2014).

Rhetoricians are ideally positioned to engage literacy crises discourses, including the coding crisis discourse we have addressed. As Trimbur has argued, literacy crisis discourse often masks values and heightens a sense of crisis where one might not exist. We know that one of two dominant narratives are likely to inform the crisis discourse, and we can pay attention to additional narratives, like the dehumanizing anxiety narrative, that emerges with new stories. We can, however, also capitalize on a crisis discourse in order to accomplish our own goals and enact our own values, which are distinct from the dominant narrative. But as we have found out and acknowledged, that is a difficult move to make.

Rhetoricians do not have to limit their engagement with literacy crisis discourse to a rhetorical engagement, and we can’t afford to make only broad claims that try to sweep the crisis discourse away. Even in the case of the coding crisis discourse, computers and writing scholars have a potential role to play. We can develop curricula and programs for storytelling and game development that introduce both teachers and students to computational literacy. Some of Trimbur’s recommendations for strengthening the educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged students—free tuition and student stipends—are off the table in the current political and economic milieu (p. 294). That means that we need to be engaging with the students in K-12 environments who are the most disenfranchised by the current educational system.

As preliminary findings from our own research indicate, we also need to recognize that digital divides still exist within American communities. In particular, access is more complex and uneven than haves vs. have-nots, since some of the families of our Tech Team students owned computers, yet acted as gatekeepers in their very own homes. Furthermore, we need to be attentive to the social dynamics at school and in afterschool programs, because the gendered and peer patterns that persist in computer science and professional programming domains were visible to us among 4th and 5th graders.

The “program or be programmed” sound-bite and Code Year and Code Hour initiatives have functioned as megaphones for an apparent coding crisis, but the single-year and single-hour solutions are magical quick-fixes and superficial responses that Trimbur identified as likely to emerge in a literacy crisis discourse. We need to recognize that the 50 years of effort to build computational literacy practices are in fact still providing us with the tools and the imagination to tackle this challenge in a variety of ways. And finally, Trimbur’s work should encourage us to pay close attention to who is being educated to be programmers, for what reasons, and to what ends. Through Sugar Labs @ NDSU, we tried to ensure broad access to and participation in the full range of expressive powers available to students, teachers, and the community today, but we remain mindful of the need to not simply train our students for low-paying cubicle work or accommodate them to the machines. Rather, we seek to engage in literacy education with the goals of broadening access and participatory opportunities. We also hope that our work helps others pinpoint and refute the autodidact, bootstrap appeals of the coding crisis. To accomplish this, we need to value technosocial initiatives beyond Code Year programs and towards developing sustainable, flexible, and multiple forms of computational literacies.