Crisis intervention analyzed: Some failures and successes

For our analysis, we are going to combine two of the three coding crisis themes we have been examining: global competitiveness and individual credentialing. Considering the scope of this chapter, responding to Trimbur's themes, we are utilizing preliminary findings from our video and fieldnote data. Yet, we provide a glimpse into the experiences at Sugar Labs @ NDSU, touch on students’ responses to our goals, as well as their individual competitiveness and cooperation. We are currently conducting a more thorough analysis of the data for further publication. However, what emerged much more clearly over the fourteen weeks were the ways in which early signs of social stratification emerged. The SoaS itself, while meant to be an instrument of democratization, turned out to be an instrument of stratification. The mixed, balanced Tech Team was meant as a social technology for encouraging persistence and socially diverse access, but the loss of one member significantly affected another member of the Tech Team. The two Black African girls who quit were exactly the kinds of smart, talented students we and many efforts were trying to encourage and support.

Global competitiveness and individual credentialing

Neither the rhetoric of global economic competitiveness, nor the rhetoric of global education effort, seemed to motivate our students. Their reaction is understandable and appropriate: these elementary-aged children wanted to have fun and mess around with the computers. We introduced the Sugar Lab’s connections to OLPC, and we brought in XOs to try one day (much too small and slow for these American kids who were working on slightly larger and slightly faster netbooks). We regularly asked them to reflect on what they were learning, but Kevin and one of the students fell into a familiar exchange that was clearly captured on video (refer to Figure 8). Kevin asked students to reflect on what they had just accomplished and learned with Physics, and then he looked right at one student, Jacob, and said, “You’re just going to write, ‘I had fun, but I didn’t learn anything’ aren’t you?” Jacob responded with a “yes” and Kevin laughed. Yet, considering the environment and context, our afterschool program with no standards to meet, the emphasis on expressiveness and having fun most likely took precedence over preparing 5th graders for a globally competitive job market.

Figure 8. Clips from multiple Physics and Etoys sessions.

Jacob’s easy-going attitude was not shared by all the students, all the time. One high-performing student, Jonny, brought his stage two Physics creation up to Chris to show him that he had achieved a very tricky balance for the objects on his screen, but Chris spotted the “pins” the student had put on his objects to keep them in place. Jonny sheepishly turned away, although Chris was laughing and the student exhibited a sort of cartoonish anger. Another student, Carter, working on the same activity got up quickly from his chair, raised both arms while carrying his laptop in his right hand and shouted out to the room, “I completed it!” Trying to show completion of a task and showing excitement about completing a task are by no means evidence that students considered themselves on the road to global competitiveness, but these boys did exhibit fairly typical gendered, boyish competitiveness and seemed to take pride in being able to complete tasks quickly and effectively. Yet, these small gestures of sharing accomplishments often generated more spontaneous collaboration and expressiveness between students.

One of the girls, Victoria, also exhibited pride in completion and a really high level of persistence with tasks. She was consistently one of the most creative and engaged tech-teamers, but she was also one of the more reserved with her victories. As illustrated in video from a Turtle Art activity (see Figure 9 below), Victoria is working through one of the shape challenges, while simultaneously learning about all of the different blocks and variables. She says quietly to herself, "I don't know what I did. I'm sorry, turtle, I don't know what I did." Yet, after a few instances of trial-and-error, she celebrates her accomplishment with her friend by clapping and saying, "Oh, yeah! I made a bigger one!" Rather than announcing her success to the room, Victoria's more reserved celebration and creative computing elicited and engaged her friend, Sophia, throughout the 14-week program. Both were trying to solve Turtle Art challenges, and Sophia often watched, consulted, and followed her stronger peer, Victoria, throughout the entire process. As seen in the video (Figure 9), the two often moved back and forth between their screens, consulted our curriculum materials, and, in this case, they may also have been eavesdropping on some verbal coaching Chris was providing to a third student, Alayna (offscreen), at the same table.

Figure 9. Video of students on their first day using Turtle Art working through the shape challenges.

During our weeks working in Etoys (refer to the time after 2:25 in Figure 8), where students composed scripts for the objects they created, we observed moments of collaboration and creative computing. Yet, upon review of our data, we also observed moments where we (Kevin and Chris) unintentionally invoked credentialing values through our student interactions. We introduced Etoys by first asking students to complete the provided tutorials within the Etoys activity (refer back to our curricula in the Crisis Intervention Planning section for examples). During the second session in Etoys, we challenged students to draw an object and compose a script for it after watching a tutorial on Etoys's tile-based scripts and features. On our final day in Etoys, we learned about variables and showed them a tutorial to write a script for a slider object to control, i.e., change a desired variable (rate of speed, y-axis location, etc.) of another object, that they had previously painted from another week. From there, we challenged them to take this knowledge and apply it to a joystick object, which takes two variables instead of just one. While Chris provided the initial demonstration of the slider and example joystick, many students followed along, except for Alex and Carter.

At approximately 3:20 of Figure 8, Kevin and Chris respond to Alex and Carter's accomplishment for the day, which was their re-creation of one of the demo cars that is able to recognize a "track" to travel along. After reviewing the video data for this day, it is clear that Kevin and Chris misunderstood what Alex and Carter were attempting to share with them. To Kevin and Chris, they perceived a deviation from the challenge for the day. Alex and Carter, as evident in the video, were frustrated and resistant to our attempts to redirect their mindset to conform to our curriculum. What Kevin and Chris missed in this moment was how Alex and Carter collaborated for over 45 minutes on this project, and when they re-created a functioning car and track simulation, they also attempted to add a "nitrous" speed-booster feature to their car. Alex and Carter were proud of their work and creativity, but Kevin and Chris found themselves locked into the challenge of the day and consequently overlooked the value Alex and Carter placed in their accomplishment.

One student stands out as a model for what we are trying to accomplish; although the fact that individual rather than collective success emerged might mean that our program tilted in the direction of individual credentialing. On the first day of our program in 2011, Jackson, an initially reluctant attendee with limited aptitude for computers and a big appetite for after-school snacks, asked if he could lick the Sugar on a Stick. By the end of fourteen weeks, our cooperating teacher told us that Jackson had been transformed from a docile student into an academically engaged student. We were told that other kids would ask him about Tech Team and what he was learning; we saw Jackson successfully coach his peers on the use of Sugar when we introduced it to all the fourth grade students. He didn’t receive any official credential from his participation on the Tech Team, but from what we were told, Jackson received quite a bit of social capital through his participation, and he made greater investments in his education.

Social stratification emerged throughout the program

We feel more confident in reporting that even though we designed the program to counteract the social stratification that already exists in the computer and high-tech industry, and we tried to use a technology that is touted as a universally accessible technology, the most obvious result of our program is that we saw social stratification happening because of the hardware and the social networks at home and in school.

In choosing Sugar on a Stick as our hardware-software combination, we hoped we were choosing technologies that would disrupt the students’ understanding of computing. We were able to get students to think about operating system metaphors (Sugar, Windows and Desktop), and understand more clearly the separation between hardware and software as technology. We also hoped that we were choosing a technology that could move easily between school and home. We found, however, through our persistent efforts to encourage home use of SoaS that both technical and social barriers emerged. Sugar on a Stick requires that a computer, upon start up, recognize that an operating system is present on the USB drive, and that the computer chose that operating system over the hard drive’s operating system (most likely Windows). Only three of thirteen students were able to get the SoaS to load on their computers at home, and most seemed to have their computers booting directly to their hard drive, with the boot order not set to look for a USB drive that could function as the operating system. Two of the students ran into social barriers: a father in one case and an older brother in the other case. These men seemed to control access to the family’s computer and would not allow the USB drive to be used. We aren’t suggesting this refusal was unreasonable; their legitimate concern might have been computer viruses. Only one student reported regular use of SoaS at home; based on what we knew about the families, he had the most familial support, in the form of a grandfather with significant computer experience.

We also saw in the classroom the kinds of social dynamics that seem to hinder the field of computer science and would hinder the widespread development of computational literacy. Based on the most common attendance of students, the typical table groupings were:

  • three white girls working together
  • three boys working together: one white, one Asian, one mixed race
  • four Black African students (two girls, two boys) working together
  • The boy with the highest aptitude and interest in computers usually worked on his own

When one of the Black African girls quit, Maya, her best friend in the class, Alexa, continued for three more weeks, she continued to do good work, but she stopped smiling and communicating with us and the other kids. Alexa started sitting by herself, as seen on the video during a day when most of the students were working at the same table. Alexa resisted our attempts to integrate her, and eventually stopped coming. We saw her again on “Sugar Day,” the wrap-up to the program when all the fourth grade students in the school were introduced to SoaS; she was smiling and helping out, even though she had left the Tech Team. Whatever pleasure or challenge she got from working with Sugar activities, that pleasure was not sufficient to keep her coming back. When given a chance to share her knowledge and skills with classmates on “Sugar Day,” Maya was much more like the student we saw during the first seven weeks. Anderson et al. (2008), in their search of the literature about gender and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) education, identify “peer support,” or lack thereof, as one of the five key factors that contributes to the high attrition rate of girls from ICT subjects and professions. Maya didn’t need support in order to get the work done; she just needed social support, she needed a close friend to share her interests and activities.

If efforts to teach computational literacy do not pay closer attention to the social dynamics of their classes or program, those who have formed a strong relationship with the computer, not necessarily other students—likely, but not necessarily, boys—will more likely benefit from these educational efforts. The students most at risk of falling behind—if that is what is happening—will be the students who are interested in classes or after-school programs primarily for the social dimensions—likely, but not necessarily the girls. Volman et al. (2005) examined ICT preferences and skills among Dutch boys and girls, as well as majority and ethnic minority groups, and found that girls in their study preferred communicative and creative applications while boys preferred programming and games. Ethnic minority students used computers less frequently than the majority students, and tended to practice what they were being taught in school, rather than emailing friends or surfing the web. These findings, along with our preliminary findings, suggest that the social dimension needs to be the strength of a strong computational literacy effort—a social dimension that can draw in a wide range of community members, and support them in their computational literacy development.

Our analysis is of course limited in scope and time frame, due to the focus of this edited collection.² The two Black African girls who quit in 2011-12 showed up for a few sessions in 2012-13 but did not persist. One of our success stories from 2011-12, Jackson, was a regular attendee in 2012-13, but became victim of SoaS’s fickleness. He tried to use the same USB drive he finished 2012 with, but it failed, and he had particularly bad luck throughout the year with failing drives. By the end of the 2013 school year, we began exploring Scratch because Scratch 2.0 was released as a web-based platform, making it potentially more usable than SoaS at both home and school. We also saw that our efforts had run their course because we were not able to secure additional funding, the SoaS personnel were moving to new projects, and the work needed to properly support computational literacy, we learned, will be monumental. We have not given up on the dream of building a smarter computing culture in our community, but for now, we have put those efforts on hold.

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² Findings regarding our main research questions surrounding the the SoaS technology, and it as a mediational means in relation to computational practices, will be published elsewhere.