Crisis intervention planning

[C]hildren encounter LOGO in a particular way, in a particular relationship to other people, teachers, peer mentors, and friends. They don't encounter a thing, they encounter culture.
—Seymour Papert (1987, p. 27).

Our after-school initiative was not initially designed as an intervention in the coding crisis discourse; it was conceived of as an educational experiment with the potential for making an educational and social impact locally and globally. We wanted to connect the students from refugee families in Fargo with a global educational movement that might make an impact in their families’ home countries, and we wanted to increase our own computational literacies so that we might be able to support a computer deployment in South Sudan at a school for girls established and run by a Fargo non-profit. From the very early planning stages, we also envisioned a city-wide effort that might take a small bite out of the significant amount of time kids in our community spend being consumers of digital products rather than makers of digital art, stories, and programs.

As we developed the project, however, we saw connections with, and without a doubt became interpellated by, the coding crisis discourse. We did not raise a lot of questions about the legitimacy of this crisis discourse because, as Trimbur notes, “[Crises] constitute necessary and enabling fictions that inscribe motives in educational policy and practice” (p. 281). We found ourselves drawing on the crisis discourse of “increasing Fargo’s global competitiveness” and “increasing individuals’ credentials” in order to sell our program to potential funders. We were aware of the potential to create a program that would replicate existing social stratification in the computing fields, so we emphasized in our rhetoric and practice the importance of building a diverse Tech Team with girls and under-represented minorities being over-represented in the program’s composition.

A globally competitive or cooperative curriculum?

The crisis discourse of global competitiveness informed our curriculum as much the rhetoric of global cooperation. Philosophically, we wanted to offer a legitimate and rigorous introduction to computational thinking, which we framed for the school, ourselves, and students as central to 21st century literacy and success. But we also wanted to foster collaboration among the students and remind them of this projects connection to the larger OLPC global education effort. And finally, because we were approaching computational literacy from our humanities, computers and writing perspective, we aimed to foster expressive computing that would integrate design thinking and digital storytelling with an introduction to programming environments.

Practically and chronologically, we developed a curriculum that started with basic user-interface instruction and activities, and then we used Etoys, a contemporary iteration of Alan Kay’s SmallTalk, to teach digital storytelling in a programming environment. We let the students self-select into teams to encourage cooperative learning. We moved from narrative to math and design thinking by introducing students to Turtle Art, a contemporary iteration of Papert’s LOGO. The programming environment in Turtle Art has a more gentle learning curve than Etoys, and the design challenges were more manageable, so we asked each student to complete their own challenges, but in a highly collaborative, sharing classroom setting. In the second half of our curriculum, we introduced a problem-solving environment called Physics and gave a lot of attention to the process of breaking a complex task (designing a Rube Goldberg-like machine) down into stages. As with Turtle Art, students worked individually but within a collaborative environment. We returned to Etoys and a race-car game development project in an effort to develop their programming knowledge further, but this unit pushed us and the students to the edge of our computational literacies. We asked students to do a complex level of coding that they were not quite ready for, but the results were some interesting forms of resistance. We created handouts for the kids, which we called "homeplay," to encourage home use of SoaS, particularly between the two seven-week sessions. Our curriculum can be found in one place on our project website, or broken out by Activity below:

An example set of shapes that we challenged our students to create using the Repeat block during the first session with the Turtle Art activity.
Figure 6. An example set of shapes that we challenged our students to create using the Repeat block during the first session with the Turtle Art activity.
An example demo of Etoys that the students used in our first week of Etoys.
Figure 7. An example demo that helped students learn how to compose scripts during our first session of Etoys.

With all of our units, we tried to provide sufficient scaffolding to enable success and completion of the activity, but we also tried to leave units open-ended enough for students to problem-solve, collaborate, and debug. Our goal was to help students develop the individual skills identified as computational thinking skills, but to develop those skills in a collaborative, social environment that we think matches the contemporary workplace—including the progressive nonprofit organization.

Individual credentialing or collective action . . . on a stick?

Because our initial goal was to connect local students to a global education effort that might resonate with them, and prepare ourselves for a possible computer deployment to South Sudan, we were trying hard to resist the privatization of literacy Trimbur identifies as central to a crisis discourse. Our public goal, however, also led us to use “Sugar on a Stick” rather than Scratch—another MIT platform for learning to code—or Kodu, the Microsoft programming for kids platform that might have lead to collaboration with our local Microsoft campus. “Sugar” is the name of the original operating system designed for the XO computer, the green and white laptop at the heart of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation. Sugar software designer Walter Bender parted ways with OLPC in 2008 (Lohr 2008), but continues to work on Sugar via Sugar Labs as an open source Linux operating system available for download and use on a “stick,” the colloquial name for a USB drive (also known as a thumb drive) as small as 1 GB, although we used 4GB sticks. Using Sugar gave us access to a number of programs (Etoys, Turtle Art, Physics, Implode, Maze, Typing Turtle), not just one programming environment, so we were able to design a curriculum with diverse activities.

We thought the SoaS would be an important part of our crisis intervention plan because it would be an affordable and ubiquitous technology we could give to all 200 students in the school. Like, our grand vision was to give every student in the school, and eventually the community, a way to develop computational literacy, but as we will explain in our analysis section, SoaS did not live up to its potential. Even we, two early technology adopters, found out that we did not have the time and expertise to customize and make enough sticks to sustain our program, so we hired an undergraduate student in computer science to provide that service. He typically had a 25% failure rate when making the sticks, and we ran into stick failures on a regular basis in the classroom, so we required fresh USB drives to be made throughout the year.

Trying to avoid social stratification

Our collaborators at the elementary school were open to our crisis intervention because they, like us, had invested in the crisis discourse about twenty-first century learning. The school had close to a 1-to-1 student / laptop ratio, so they were open to using their technology extensively and creatively. The technology specialist recruited a diverse “Tech Team” (see Table 1) balanced by gender (seven boys and six girls) and race (six white and seven non-white) and only slightly skewed in favor of 5th graders (eight 5th graders, four 4th graders, one 3rd grader) to try out the technology.

Table 1.

Tech Team participants during the 2011-2012 year at Sugar Labs @ NDSU.

Student (pseudonym) Grade Gender Race Year in the program
Victoria 5 Girl White 1
Sophia 5 Girl White 1
Alayna 5 Girl White 1
Jonny 5 Boy White 2
Will 5 Boy White 1
Alex 5 Boy Asian 2
Carter 5 Boy More than one race 2
Jacob 5 Boy Black African 1
Jackson 4 Boy Afro-Caribbean 1
Austin 4 Boy White 1
Alexa 4 Girl Black African 1
Maya 3 Girl Black African 1
Faith 4 Girl White 1

The ultimate goal was to have these students be classroom experts if / when we developed classroom uses for the school. We wanted to make sure that the program did not involve just the usual participants—boys, white or Asian—but even though we achieved a balanced team, gender, race, and age-groupings significantly influenced the social dynamics, as we will explain in the analysis section. We ran a one-day summer workshop prior to the 2011-12 school year for teachers interested in Sugar, and teachers were invited to see what the Tech Team was doing with Sugar on any of the 14 days we were in the school. We invited the parents/guardians of the Tech Team students at the end of the first block of sessions to provide a way for the students to showcase their work and for us to share information about the program with parents, and ultimately encourage more home use. We knew that in order to make any kind of meaningful crisis intervention, the students would need to continue their computational literacy development at home and ideally share their knowledge with family members and friends.