21st Century Literacy: New Initiative Makes the Case that Learning to Code is for Everyone

July 10, 2014

Many people view computer programming as a narrow, technical activity appropriate for only a small segment of the population. But, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from MIT’s Media Lab, the University of California’s Digital Media and Learning (DML) Research Hub, and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society is seeking to change that.

With a recently awarded $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the researchers aim to engage a broader range of young people in computer programming by building on their interests in areas such as music, dance and sports.

“Coding is the new literacy,” said Mitchel Resnick, professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab and director of the Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten research group. “To thrive in tomorrow’s society, young people must learn to design, create and express themselves with digital technologies.”

The new initiative extends the Lifelong Kindergarten group’s Scratch programming language, which enables young people to code their own interactive stories, games and animations. To ease the transition into coding, the MIT team is developing a series of interest-based “microworlds” — specialized coding environments designed to connect with young people’s interests. For example, those interested in dancing could use a microworld to program musical beats and the movement of dancing characters on the screen.

“The most powerful and effective learning happens when young people pursue personal interests and passions,” said Mimi Ito, research director of the DML Hub, which is based at UC Irvine. As part of the three-year NSF grant project, Ito and her team will conduct ethnographic research studies examining what types of technical and social support enable youth from diverse backgrounds to become engaged in learning to code.

The initiative will offer a variety of online activities and events that will help youth see coding as relevant to their interests and useful in a wide range of fields, from animation to zoology. In addition, the team at Harvard’s Berkman Center will investigate policies and practices designed to protect young people’s privacy and safety online, while opening new opportunities for learning.

“The increasing degree of interconnectedness in the digital learning space creates legal and policy challenges just as it opens doors for youth and educators,” said Urs Gasser, Berkman Center’s executive director and Harvard Law School professor. “We’re looking forward to working with our colleagues to support good practices that both enable connected learning and preserve privacy and safety of young learners.”

This summer, the research team is piloting initial activities in libraries in Los Angeles and other cities nationwide, offering online mentoring to help youth design their own interactive games using Scratch.

“The initiative has the potential to broaden perspectives and participation in coding, especially among youth who otherwise may not imagine themselves as interested in computer programming,” said Natalie Rusk, a learning researcher at the MIT Media Lab. “We have seen that youth who learn to program interactive games and animations gain confidence in their abilities and expand their visions of future career options.”

The project responds to NSF’s cyberlearning challenge to “draw in and promote learning among those in populations not served well by current educational practices,” and addresses national priorities in workforce development, equity and the need for a technologically-fluent public.

“Our goal is to make computational fluency part of what all young people learn, not just a tech-savvy minority,” Ito said. “We expect to have large numbers of underrepresented youth participating actively in the Scratch community, and from there, continuing to other opportunities and programs that extend their computational fluency.”

Media Contact: 
Mimi Ko Cruz, mcruz@hri.uci.edu, 949-824-4587

About the Berkman Center

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is a research program founded to explore cyberspace, share in its study, and help pioneer its development. Founded in 1997, through a generous gift from Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman, the Center is home to an ever-growing community of faculty, fellows, staff, and affiliates working on projects that span the broad range of intersections between cyberspace, technology, and society. More information can be found at http://cyber.law.harvard.edu.

About the MIT Media Lab

Actively promoting a unique, antidisciplinary culture, the MIT Media Lab goes beyond known boundaries and disciplines, encouraging the most unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas. It creates disruptive technologies that happen at the edges, pioneering such areas as wearable computing, tangible interfaces, and affective computing. Today, faculty members, research staff, and students at the Lab work in more than 25 research groups on more than 350 projects that range from digital approaches for treating neurological disorders, to a stackable, electric car for sustainable cities, to advanced imaging technologies that can “see around a corner.” The Lab is committed to looking beyond the obvious to ask the questions not yet asked–questions whose answers could radically improve the way people live, learn, express themselves, work, and play. More information can be found at http://www.media.mit.edu/.

About UC Irvine's DML Research Hub

The Digital Media and Learning Research Hub’s mission is to advance research in the service of a more equitable, participatory, and effective ecosystem of learning keyed to the digital and networked era. Located at the system-wide University of California Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine, the DML Research Hub is an international research center committed to promoting compelling research collaborations about best participatory learning practices, applications, programs and their assessments that engage digital media. More information can be found at http://dmlhub.net/.

Last updated July 10, 2014