Responding to the coding crisis: What are we subscribing to?

When Trimbur stopped to ask what educators, literacy and composition scholars had been subscribing to over a century of literary crises, he found two general narrative patterns and a number of specific values not typically identified in the crisis discourse. He found that crises were typically stories about declining literacy abilities or rising literacy expectations (p. 281), and the coding crisis discourse clearly partakes of the latter. Trimbur identifies at least three unexamined assumptions in the narrative of progress: 1) that increasing literacy standards will increase American global competitiveness; 2) that the call to increase literacy standards is primarily about increasing individuals' credentials and private interests rather than the public good; and closely related, 3) that individuals who do not attain these higher credentials fail because of personal shortcomings (pp. 284-94). Below we elaborate on what Trimbur has to say about these assumptions, and then examine contemporary coding crisis discourse in light of Trimbur’s insights.

A rhetoric of global competitiveness

“[A] heightened demand for literacy is linked to job performance, productivity, and the need to improve the competitive position of the United States in the world market” (p. 284). Writing in the early 1990s, Trimbur acknowledges the economic transformation brought about by the “computerization of information” but he raises doubts about the need for higher literacy levels “when nine new jobs created are for cashiers and checkout clerks to each one for computer programmers” (p. 285). As Trimbur writes in the final essay of this book, the vast changes brought about by the digital revolution were difficult to foresee in 1991. Trimbur would have a more difficult time doubting the real need for highly educated workers in 2014¹, but the coding crisis narrative over-emphasizes global economic competitiveness at the expense of computational literacy’s ability to empower users’ expressive, aesthetic, and rhetorical abilities. Just as literacy narratives can foreground the democratic, creative, and aesthetic values of reading and writing, coding literacy narratives can avoid the discourse of crisis and foreground both individual and collective empowerment outside the standard institutions of contemporary meritocracies.

Rushkoff (2010) tells a story of declining abilities in order to make support his call for raising the literacy standards:

That’s right: America, the country that once put men on the moon, is now falling behind most developed and many developing nations in computer education. We do not teach programming in most public schools. Instead of teaching programming, most schools with computer literacy curricula teach programs. Kids learn how to use popular spreadsheet, wordprocessing, and browsing software so that they can operate effectively in the high-tech workplace. These basic skills may make them more employable for the entry-level cubicle jobs of today, but they will not help them adapt to the technologies of tomorrow. (pp. 135-36)

Rushkoff is expressing the kind of deep-seated cultural anxieties Trimbur says come with literacy crises, while Codecademy, an online educational company, provides the kind of magical solution that accompanies the anxiety (Trimbur, p. 279). Their website’s landing page offers three pithy solutions to the problem: get technical, learn how to hack, and buy this product (even though it is free) (see Figure 2). Codecademy’s response to the crisis is unabashedly about personal skill development and economic gain, and as of this moment of writing, the site boasts 24 million global learners.

Screen capture of Codecademy’s splash page on Nov. 20th, 2012.
Figure 2. Screen capture of Codecademy’s splash page on Nov. 20th, 2012.

Admittedly, in each of our Sugar Labs proposals for funding, we included language of global competitiveness and credentialing (the next section). We said in our Google Rise Proposal that one of the benefits of our afterschool program would be to “Establish a progressive computing culture within the Fargo community that will benefit local high-tech companies by ensuring there is a qualified pool of job candidates” (Sugar Labs @NDSU, “Google Rise Proposal”). These economic competitiveness arguments are commonplace in the narrative of heightened expectations, and Trimbur might say that crises are “always articulated in a relation to power and the negotiation of cultural hegemony” (p. 285). A better argument, and one that would resist the discourse of crisis, would emphasize the global cooperation that characterizes the work of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation and Sugar Labs network. Our local deployment was connected to global deployments of Sugar through the XO computer; resources and ideas were shared among that community through listservs and blog aggregation. Going forward, we will have to consider more carefully the rhetoric we deploy, resist the crisis rhetoric, and stick more closely to the principles we actually subscribe to.

Individual credentialing rather than collective action.

Global economic competitiveness could be conceived of as a collective endeavor, but Trimbur notes the theme of individualization that runs through literacy crisis discourse. In his conclusion, he writes, “part of the ideological work performed by the discourse of crisis has been the privatization of literacy—the representation of reading and writing not as a means of enlarging the public sphere of discourse and political participation but as personal credentials, forms of cultural capital and articulations of a wider ideology of possessive individualism” (p. 294). Trimbur documents the rich history of “popular literacy in the early 19th century [that] belonged to the civil society” and he notes the efforts of slaves to “clandestinely . . . learn to read and write, for religious reasons and an act of political resistance” (p. 288). Literacy and computational literacy have not always, nor need always, be cast as individual cognitive skills or credentials.

In Rushkoff's book and articles like “Learn to Code, Get a Job,” he gestures to the public value of learning how to think computationally, but the rhetoric of social value is still framed by the rhetoric of individual credentialing and economic and military competitiveness.

If you know how to code, you can get a high-paying job right now, or make valuable stuff right now. You will understand more about how the world works, and become a participating member in the digital society unfolding before us. You will be enabling America to compete effectively on both the economic and military frontiers, where we are rapidly losing our competitive advantage due to our failure to teach ourselves code. We should not have to wait for the NYSE to be hacked by kids from Asia to learn this lesson.

Codecademy is not oriented to empowering activists to harness the power of codes or databases; instead, it teaches participants how to write games such as blackjack, hangman, checkers, and how to code a flight scheduler program. Coding, in this manifestation, is not “a weapon to defend democratic principles, a means to curb the power of the state and the attack the elitism of existing institutions” as Trimbur describes one of its early 19th century functions (p. 288). The “kids from Asia” who hacked the NYSE might have embraced that vision, but the coding crisis in America has been framed primarily as one of credentialing for individual success and global competitiveness. embraces something closer to a socially transformative vision, but that vision is presented as a choice, the other being personal success.’s (2013b) founder Hadi Partovi (2013) says in the site’s promotional video, “Whether your want to make a lot of money or change the world, computer programming is an incredibly empowering skill to learn.”

Our “Smart Computing Culture” proposal that generated funding for Sugar Labs @ NDSU didn’t offer formal credentialing, but we claimed we would “Expand children’s understanding of technology beyond cell phones and video games to build logic and technical skills that will enable them to succeed in a technological environment.” Our pedagogy, however, was collaborative and constructionist; we used no badges or reward system to privilege individual accomplishments. We offered no certificate of completion. Looking at our founding documents through the rhetoric of a literacy crisis, we clearly subscribed to the dominant discourses even if our practices embodied other core values.

An unarticulated social stratification.

The crisis of heightened expectations in the 1980s, Trimbur suggests, is entwined with Reaganomics, the two Americas that resulted, and a culture of blame. “[L]iteracy appears both as a social explanation that individualizes oppression by blaming the victim and as a tool to incorporate all the ‘other Americas’—the poor, blacks, Hispanics, new Asian immigrants—into a monolingual body politic” (p. 286). In other words, those who cannot keep up with the literacy demands of a postindustrial society—real or imagined—have only themselves to blame, and as Americans, they have been given an unprecedented opportunity to succeed. Those who succeed apparently become fully assimilated.

This point about unarticulated social stratification is of particular importance because its values are hidden, rather than embraced or touted by the charged language of the coding crisis discourse. Rushkoff does not include “increase access” as one of his ten commandments for the digital age, nor do Codecademy’s assignments, like hangman and black jack, seem likely to broaden participation by gender, race, or socio-economic status. Efforts like ours, Google’s, and NSF’s might actually backfire if opportunities are presented, but the initiatives don’t work because organizers don’t fully understand and address the deeply embedded cultural issues and history that have lead to the computation sciences, and the digital humanities being so white (McPherson 2012). As long as computer programming is defined as an individual, cognitive skill and specific segments of the population are not programmers, the crisis discourse sets up the possibility of individual, rather than systemic failure.

In both our “Smart Computing Culture” (2011) and “Google Rise” (2012) grant applications, we identify the diversity of the students in the program, balanced by gender and race, but we show no specialized knowledge of how to make sure a diverse group will succeed. We say in our Smart Computing Culture grant that we “want to ensure that children are aware of career paths that are available and start building the necessary skill set early in life,” but we do not show an awareness of the leaky pipe in STEM disciplines, and we do not provide a plan for counteracting either the cultural values that inform popular understanding of computer programmers or the actual culture that permeates computer science departments or coding—intensive work environments. In the Google Rise proposal, we recognize that we would need to connect our students to middle school and high school computational literacy opportunities in order for our elementary school intervention to have any lasting effect. Our community is not without opportunities for sustained development of computational literacy, but without attention to issues of social stratification, the typical demographic—male, white and Asian—is likely to take the most advantage of these opportunities.

Trimbur's tropes of crisis discourse helps illuminate the very issues we hoped to address with our afterschool program, Sugar Labs @ NDSU. We knew that the digital divide is materially more than access to technology, and that culture is embedded in the design and appropriation of technology. Accordingly, our program allied itself with a computational education movement that has been churning since the 1960s. In what follows, we discuss the cultural and historical roots of the technology we used in our afterschool program, the Sugar operating system (OS). In the next section, Crisis Intervention Planning, we discuss our association with this computing culture, and how we implemented it within an afterschool context.

Subscribing to computational literacy over 'learning to code'

In the 1960s, Seymour Papert, Daniel G. Bobrow, Wally Feurzeig and Cynthia Solomon launched the LOGO programming language and environment (see Figure 3 below). LOGO was one of the first high-level computer programming languages, and Papert, a protégé of Jean Piaget, designed the language and programming environment to embody social constructionist principles. According to Papert, children built knowledge through the construction of their programs. He continued to design and implement LOGO, creating what he deemed a social-constructionist sandbox. He believed that children are "active builders of their own intellectual structures" (1980, p. 19), where children could learn, apply, and come to know worldly concepts and things through the process of writing programs: the "child as epistemologist." Accordingly, he claimed that such material and symbolic activities fostered both what we are calling computational literacy and conceptual skills. According to Papert, the two are inseparable.

LOGO programming environment: source code on the right, result from source on the left (Wikipedia, <a href='' target='_blank'>LOGO</a>).
Figure 3. LOGO programming environment: source code on the right, result from source on the left (Wikipedia, LOGO).

Inspired by Papert's LOGO, computer scientist Alan Kay was integral in the development of Smalltalk, an object-oriented computer language for children. Kay's vision for such a language, he claims, was heavily influenced by Marshall McLuhan's ideas about the implications of new media. In an influential article about user interfaces and interaction, Kay (1989) writes “Though much of what McLuhan wrote was obscure and arguable, the sum total to me was a shock that reverberates even now. The computer is a medium! I had always thought of it as a tool, perhaps a vehicle—a much weaker conception. What McLuhan was saying is that if the personal computer is a truly new medium then the very use of it would actually change the thought patterns of an entire civilization” (p. 124). The more immediate implication of the computer as a medium is that it needs to be fully and effectively integrated into lives and education. “If the computer is only a vehicle,” Kay writes, “perhaps you can wait until high school to give ‘driver’s ed’ on it—but if it is a medium, then it must be extended all the way into to the world of the child” (p. 125). Kay and his development team at Viewpoint Research Institute later launched Squeak Etoys (see Figure 4), a higher-level platform built on top of Smalltalk. Etoys served as Kay's next step into the development of a programming environment, where kids could create objects and write scripts for their objects to model the conceptual work they were learning in schools—a new method of multimodal writing that incorporates writing scripts.

Drawing objects and writing scripts in Etoys (Animated gif from
Figure 4. Drawing objects and writing scripts in Etoys (

Papert developed LOGO and Kay developed Etoys – two computational technologies designed for kids – but neither resorted to more drastic literacy crisis rhetoric to fuel their respective movements. Papert, in particular, never envisioned LOGO as the necessary means to accomplish all educational goals, nor was it a means to build a career. Instead, the philosophies driving Papert's LOGO educational programs (1987) were founded upon the rhetorical propensity to develop a new critical discourse for computing technology and learning by supplementing pre-existing pedagogical strategies. Computers and LOGO was "'just one more material'" (p. 25), a mediational means, to accomplish this goal, providing a representational system to build "'objects to think with'" (p. 24). He called this approach to learning, social constructionism, extending Piaget's theories of learning to include the material.

Papert argued that if students and teachers alike were even moderately fluent in LOGO, and they had access to computers and other supplies to carry out their projects, classroom spaces could become "messing places" (p. 24). In these experimental places, LOGO would simply become another material extension for student epistemic practices, rather than the sole means by which to construct knowledge. It is these educational philosophies that influenced the design of the Sugar operating system (OS): the OS designed for One Laptop Per Child's (OLPC) XO laptop, which is also the OS we subscribed to in our outreach program.

Sugar is the OS designed by Walter Bender for the XO laptop. Bender, a MIT colleague of OLPC's founder Nicholas Negroponte, established Sugar Labs to opensource Sugar into contexts beyond the constraints of the XO. Sugar is a Linux distribution (Fedora), and we opted to use the USB bootable and writable "Sugar on a stick" (SoaS). We chose this version of Sugar, since it would run on any x86-based computer that can boot from a USB stick. In choosing SoaS as our technology, we hoped that we could more easily distribute these computing environments to children and their support systems beyond the school and afterschool program to be used in the children's everyday contexts.

Sugar is designed with a different metaphor than most OSs. Instead of a "desktop" metaphor with windows and folders, Sugar is designed with a "views" metaphor, where learners conduct one activity on the screen at a time. When we learned more about Sugar, we were interested in testing its claims about its ability to facilitate collaboration and sharing within and between activities and resources. All files from the activities are saved automatically to a "Journal," which can then later be integrated into a portfolio activity to showcase projects. (See Figure 5 below to review the handout our graduate student team created for students to explore and learn the new Sugar OS environment.)

The Sugar Labs handout of the Home View in Sugar.
Figure 5. The Sugar Labs handout of the Home View in Sugar.

In the top-left corner of the screen, there are icons for the different views: Neighborhood, Group, Home, Activity, and the Journal. (Our chapter is designed with this UI design in mind.) The Neighborhood view enables learners to see who is connected to their (intra)network and what activities learners are working on and with whom. The Group view is similar, but enables learners to make groups and join activities in an ad hoc or planned fashion. The Home view (see above Figure 5) contains the activities, and the Activities icon simply will show learners what activities are currently running. The Journal view provides an organizable list of all of the saved activities.

We were particularly drawn to this different metaphor and collaborative opportunities for learners to work within the same activity. We were also intrigued by their design mantra, "Low floor, no ceiling" (Sugar Labs 2010), which emphasizes the range of skills learners either bring or (hopefully) develop within Sugar over time. This design principle carries into the activities, or applications, originally designed for Sugar, ranging from puzzle and maze games to built-in Python programming environments and View Source views for all activities and UI components. Bender, himself, ported a LOGO-like programming block environment into Sugar, which he called "Turtle Art," and the original Sugar OS includes Etoys as well. Sugar has a deep cultural and historical connection with the computational movements began by Papert and his lineage in the 1960s. In our next section, Crisis Intervention Planning, we discuss the background and context of our program: Sugar Labs @ NDSU.

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¹The March 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 17% job growth for retail sales workers and only 7% growth for cashiers between 2010 and 2020, but BLS projects 12% growth for computer programmers, 28% for network administrators, 22% for information security analysts, web developers, and computer network architects, and 30% for software developers. Even technical writers, a career that might embrace computational literacies, in and out of code, better than any other career, is projected to grow at 17%. The shortfall of labor, particularly a diverse labor pool, is well documented in computer science and related fields, giving some credibility to the economic side of the coding crisis discourse.