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Moving Beyond the Technical

How computer science education can be expanded to connect learning to social and ethical issues.
Moving Beyond the Technical

With more and more schools prioritizing computer science education, and making it a core part of the curriculum, Sepehr Vakil, assistant professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University, recognizes an opportunity to expand the scope of how the discipline is taught. Computer science shouldn't just be about technical skills and coding, he says. Instead, he imagines it as a subject with which to connect learning to social and ethical issues.

While addressing diversity issues in the field is important, examinations of equity and long-held power structures are also vital, says Vakil, in a conversation for the Harvard EdCast about making computer science learning more representational, more inclusive, and — ultimately — more purposeful. "It isn't just to get more faces and different kinds of people working for tech companies, but to get their ideas, identities, and experiences and shift the possibilities of what can be created from a technological standpoint," he says. “[We need] to really have a conversation about the broader purposes of why we want to get kids involved in science and technology. So I think focusing on power is a way to say that diversity is important and inclusion is important, [and] what are we really driving toward.”

More students — both in universities and K–12 — are craving this deep, interdisciplinary work, Vakil says, citing a movement in Chicago that is trying to get more computer science requirements in school. It is important to be mindful of the goals, he says, advocating — as he did in a 2018 article in the Harvard Education Review — for a justice-centered approach to equity in computer science education. If we only focus on technical and scientific, then it’s a “missed opportunity for engaging students,” he says.

In this episode of the EdCast, Vakil talks about the importance of treating computer science education as more than just a technical pursuit, and looks at what a more balanced computer science course might look like.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

With more and more schools prioritizing computer science education and making it a core part of the curriculum, Northwestern Assistant Professor Sepehr Vakil sees this as an opportunity to look beyond just teaching students to code or understand technicalities. Instead, he imagines computer science as a place to connect learning to social and ethical issues. Now is a good time to pivot our long focus on increasing diversity in the field to actually figuring out how the work can tap into equity and power structures that exist, and possibly change them. 

Sepehr talks about the importance of looking at computer science education beyond just the technical, and what a more ethically and power balance computer science classroom might look like in education. 

What do you mean when you talk about equity and power in computer science education? 

Sepehr Vakil

Sepehr Vakil: First of all, the conversation on equity often times, and for many good reasons, centers on issues of inclusion and diversity, right? So there's longstanding inequalities in the education system, and those inequalities definitely play out and show up in science and technology and computer science. There's a lot of important research documenting the racial and gender based disparities. So you step into a computer science classroom at Northwestern right now, and you're going to see mostly white males. And that's a problem. That's a problem of representation. It's a problem of inclusion. And one that has been on the radar for some time. And there's some progress that's being made on the front, but still an enduring challenge to the field of education. 

The push to bring the topic of power is one that's sort of rooted in concern that equity or inclusion is not enough. And so the notion there is that it's not just the end game, if you will. It shouldn't be to get more children of color and more girls into computer science so they can end up working for technology companies. And once we get kind of racial and gender parity, then we're done. We can say, mission complete. 

It's more a challenge to think about the ways that inclusion is an opportunity to kind of shift the narrative. The idea of diversity and what can make it so powerful isn't just to get more faces and different kinds of people working for tech companies, but to get their ideas and their identities and their experiences, and to shift the possibilities of what can be created from a technological standpoint. That's where power comes in-- to really have a conversation about the broader purposes of why we want to get kids involved in science and technology. So I think really focusing on power there is a way to just say, yes, inclusion is important, diversity is important, but what are we really driving towards? And kind of to open that up as a space for debate and conversation. 

Jill Anderson: It's interesting that it hasn't been looking at that, because it seems so important. 

Sepehr Vakil: I would just add that it's not completely absent. There's definitely a lot of rich things happening. In education there's a very, very long and deep tradition of educators and activists and community organizers working to not just create more inclusion and access, but to really control the narrative to make education something that's socially relevant, that's connected to social justice. So this is not happening in isolation. 

I think that the argument I was trying to make in the article about computer science and equity in power is that there is a window of opportunity to anchor computer science education and some of those longstanding traditions to make it something that's more powerful from an equity standpoint. Especially given that computer science education is sort of just taking off. I just arrived to the Chicago area less than a year ago and there is so much happening that I'm learning about here within Chicago Public Schools that sort of mirrors what was happening in Oakland, about people fighting to get computer science as a requirement in the high schools. And kind of out of school programs bringing in a focus on coding and technology. 

And so as that is ramping up, I think there's really a window of opportunity to say, what is this really all about? What kind of learning opportunities do we want to provide young people? Is it just about the technical and the learning how to code in Java or Python, or is it about thinking about the power that these technologies and these different coding languages have to impact a lot of different social issues in local and national and global communities? 

Jill Anderson: So when you talk to educators or maybe curriculum designers, developers, do you find that they're thinking about this? Or is it something that isn't necessarily at the top of their minds? 

Sepehr Vakil: I think it really depends who you're talking to. There's definitely some kind of stronghold spaces in education, especially kind of traditional computer science conferences or communities or groups of educators and scholars where to talk about ethics and politics or race is sort of like, no. That's not what we do. Take that somewhere else. That's not what we're about. The kind of objective, neutral design of algorithms, and this has nothing to do with politics or equity or power or ethics. That definitely exists, and we can't be naive about that legacy, so to speak. 

On the other hand, there's all kinds of other communities doing really transformational work in this space. I was in Chicago in the Rogers Park neighborhood meeting with a community organization there and learning more about the work that they do, and thinking about some possibilities for collaboration. And they were telling me about their interests, and connecting the dots between social justice educational initiatives and technology literacy and documentary filmmaking. And so I think there's definitely spaces both in formal and informal contexts where people are seeing the power of computer science playing a much more prominent role in discussions around equity and inequality and justice. 

But I would say it's still on the margins, so to speak. And that we have to be honest about that piece of it as well. 

Jill Anderson: Can you maybe describe what this would look like in practice when it's working? When we're using computer science in a way to explore deep ethical issues? 

Sepehr Vakil: I definitely don't have all the answers on that. I think there's a lot of people trying to figure that out. One thing I would say is that it needs to look interdisciplinary, right? Just to kind of bring my own personal experience into this, I studied electrical engineering in my undergraduate days. But I also took a lot of courses outside of engineering. So I was taking courses in philosophy and history and African-American studies and Chicano studies. And the kind of disconnect between what counts as deep intellectual reasoning, and the forms in which that reasoning shows up is very different. 

So to kind of make it very concrete, in a typical engineering or computer science classroom you're designing artifacts, or you're solving complicated math based problems, or you're working through code. But you're not necessarily doing a lot of reading or writing. I have a colleague at Northwestern, [INAUDIBLE], who talks a lot about the possibilities for bringing a literacy focus into STEM. That could be one way to expand the kind of ethical and political analysis that could potentially take place. 

Another scholar that comes to mind who I've been reading about lately, her name is Donna Reilly. She took a traditional thermodynamics course that would be common in an engineering curriculum and integrated a lot of kind of Humanities and Social Sciences perspectives in that. So I think there's ways in which interdisciplinary approaches can start pushing the possibilities for knowledge production and learning in the context of a computer science or engineering course. 

Jill Anderson: This goes beyond the undergraduate experience. I mean, you're really looking at K through 12. 

Sepehr Vakil: It could definitely be K through 12, but also in the undergraduate. Again, from my own experience and also it's reflected in the literature, undergraduate learning experiences in computer science and engineering, at least in the United States, oftentimes marginalized social and ethical issues. It's all about the technical and a quote, unquote, "scientific." Again, there's a missed opportunity for engaging students in thinking deeply across the technical and scientific and ethical. And we're starting to see universities be aware of this and respond to this. 

At Northwestern, for instance, there's a brand new Ph.D. program that's a joint program between computer science and the learning sciences, and that's starting to kind of shift the conversation about what it means to do computer science. I know MIT has a brand new initiative that's really tackling ethical issues head on, and there's a number of other programs across the country. So I think there is a sense that students are wanting this and craving this. 

I had an undergraduate computer science student just a couple weeks ago-- and I'm new to campus here, but she found me and she probably read my profile online. And she showed up to my office wanting to do some of her research on topics that kind of broadly connected the dots between sociopolitical inequalities and database science and computer science. 

I just really want to emphasize that I really do think we are in a moment where the broader public, and also students at the high school level, at the college level, are starting to demand something more from computer science and STEM education. And maybe it has to do with the fact that we are in a particularly ethically and politically charged moment in the world, and in this country in particular. Even people in STEM disciplines want to think about how they can connect what they're learning about in technical domains to more pressing social ethical issues. 

Jill Anderson: So where's a good place to begin if you are an educator and you haven't, perhaps, thought about this so much, but you're teaching a computer science class or something of that nature in your high school or middle school? Is there a good place to start sort of incorporating this approach into their classroom? 

Sepehr Vakil: That's a great question. Two things come to mind just right off the top-- one is get to know the local community. I guess I have the luxury of being in the Chicago area, and coming from the Oakland area and the ecology of community organizations was so rich and there was a lot of interesting things happening in those spaces. Where educators in informal environments might be clued in to the ways in which certain neighborhoods or communities are experiencing technology, and bringing those experiences in to the classroom as relevant and as worthy of intellectual exploration. It could be one way to think about making the learning of computer science matter in a more direct and powerful way. 

The other thing I would say is that there's so much that's going on in terms of people writing about technology in new ways. A couple of books that come to mind Safiya Noble-- she wrote a book called Algorithms of Oppression. So really looking at the way racial and gender based bias is sort of deeply entrenched in the way that search engines operate. And so that could be a really powerful way to think about what's the computer science in that? How does that work from a technical perspective? 

There's another book that comes to mind by Virginia Eubanks-- I think it's called Automating Inequality. And again, it's looking at the different kinds of ways that automation technologies and the algorithms underlying them are really having profound social and ethical consequences. and So kind of within a computer science context you can imagine assigning some chapters from those books. You could imagine creating activities where students are probing at the ways in which algorithms can encode different kinds of biases, and how that works, and the kind of science behind that. 

But there's a lot of resources that are being developed right now. I think there's a Google document going around specifically curating resources on computer science educators that are incorporating ethics into their curriculum. So I think tapping into that community. There's a Twitter community called #ETHICALCS that is a pretty vibrant space, and that's spearheaded by a computer science high school educator. There's a lot going on. I think part of it is just getting tapped into the community, being in conversation with folks, and really trying to ground curriculum and pedagogy and the lived experiences of students. 

Jill Anderson: Sepehr Vakil is an Assistant Professor at Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy, where he investigates the politics of learning and the politics of knowledge production in STEM education. 

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


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