Third space networks: digital literacies, media arts and coding

At the end of last month, at the invitation of Ben Williamson, I presented at the first of the ESRC seminar series called Codeacts in Education at the University of Stirling.  This series is about all aspects of learning through code / learning to code.  This long-ish post is an experiment to turn a presentation in to a post.  It’s necessarily contingent and fluid and still forming in many ways.  In the presentation I gave the topic was as shown in title slide:

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In the presentation, I wanted to use the word “coding” to encompass many activities. So coding is – in this presentation as elsewhere in common usage in educational circles – hazily (and lazily) conflated from terms like coding, programming, computational thinking and app building.  This very possibly drives real coders and computer scientists mad though that was not the intention.  It was really only to use it, like many others, as a shorthand way of describing the activities arising from the new orders for computing in school.  The reason for doing this was to use the presentation as an starter for a conversation about changes to the curriculum which will see “computing” replacing “ICT” in schools in England from September 2014.

Generally, I think this is a positive move, though it has been brought about much too quickly and with too little regard for the subject it has replaced, namely, ICT.  From personal experience, I can see that sometimes this was not well conceived as a subject or well taught.  But it was not all bad and neither was it always simply about teaching the skills of Microsoft Office, though this was how it was portrayed by the various lobbyists.  A lot of very good work has been forgotten, sidelined and even ridiculed.  We now at least have a task force appointed to see of some of what we knew then and know now can be applied to what happens next.  Perhaps the best thing to come out of the move is the opportunity to have conversations about what coding is, how it should be taught and what it means in the wider world.  The pace is rapid and the talking takes place against a background of ongoing curriculum reform but there is the possibility of positive change if we frame coding as part of wider, lived experience.

Coding in wider media culture: a way of thinking about teaching and learning in the new computing curriculum

And so…instead of discussing the National Curriculum itself in detail, I wanted to talk about the other huge issue, that of how coding might actually work in schools and communities.  I wanted to present it as part of media culture, not to set it apart in a computer science bubble.  More than that, I wanted to present a positive view on how it could work, how it could be enacted and how it could find a purposeful place in schools, in the home and in the “third space” between the two.

In the real spaces of the after school club and summer school, partly in response to the problem of there being nowhere near enough qualified teachers ot take on the computing curriculum, there are after school clubs springing up which are being run by expert users and educators who see the value of giving children and young people a broad experience of digital making and doing.  NESTA, for example, is the funding body behind the “Make things do Stuff” site which brings together media forms and coding in the same space.  Other organisations foster creative action in programming and app building in a variety of settings.  It’s not possible to list them all but organisations and SMEs doing exciting work in this are in an enabling way include Apps for Good, Codasign, CodeClub, Young Rewired State – many of whom were mentioned during her presentation at Stirling at Codeacts by Amy Solder. Some of the apporoaches of these organisations are mentioned in “Mapping Digital Makers”,  Julian Sefton-Green’s recent review for the Nominet Trust and also have synergies with digital making in the US and in particular the work of Kylie Peppler who has produced a report for the Wallace Foundation on interest driven creative digital making.

Defining the “Third Space”

I was speaking about this “third space” in two ways.  Firstly, as the literal third space of the after-school club, an example being the inspirational Hackey Pirates or CEN8 in Deptford.  Secondly, I was seeking to define it as a metaphorical third space, located between the cultures of home and school, following the work of many others including Jackie Marsh specifically in relation to media cultures.

Slide05

In the slide above, children and young people are daily in transition across this space, recognising that some of what they bring with them as part of their material lived culture will not be welcome or usable inside the school as a resource.  They leave many of their important affiliations and markers of identity at the school gate and, in some settings (not all, by any means!) they find only small reference to the culture they are living in every day and the practices they undertake in that wider culture.   In an environment in which outside culture was valued more, teachers would be able to make use of these resources to locate and build on the skills and dispositions which children and young people exhibit outside school.   Good teachers do this already in spite of the performative constraints on them from a punitive inspection regime and a political system in which neither of the large parties will trust them to be professional.

In sharing and making things in wider digital culture, children and young people exhibit skills of problem solving, critical literacy and more.  It’s not all one way, however, because, again in a positive version of this picture, many things of value can pass in the other direction from school to home through good teaching and learning practices, not least among them a sense of criticality and judgement.  In the diagram, as I’ve written about elsewhere, things of value pass through in either direction through the semi-permeable membrane between the two spaces.  And the space in which they do this is the “third space”.

What has the “third space” got to do with coding?

Coding itself lies behind the media which children and young people consume and (sometimes) produce daily.  It helps users to fashion new ways of doing things, new applications to use, games to play, films and animations to make and more. It makes devices work (or not) and changes their action on the world. In the best possible interpretation of the new computing curriculum, children would have their attention drawn to the possibilities of code to do all of these things, to see where it is in their lives from the most mundane systems to the screens they peer at and the controllers they use in their games.   Some projects recognize this and are working on solutions for children in the earliest years which locate coding in real world situations, some of them with a welcome focus on how teachers can enable this, or what they need to know…

Can we connect the teaching and learning of coding to that of reading and writing?

Good pedagogy in the teaching and learning of reading and writing acknowledges the situated nature of language. Reading and writing well depends on many essential, technical decoding/encoding skills but the way in which this has been the sole focus of so much teaching because of a poorly managed and polarised debate harms everyone. The synthetic phonics “method”, for example, which has become so widespread in application has reached its nadir as an absolute in a “phonics check” which appears to be destroying the confidence and ability of beginner able readers.  Synthetic phonics as a sole “method” confines a literacy teaching scheme to the narrowest of technical definitions and certainly ignores many of the features of language acquisition such as reading for meaning, context, exchange within a culture, the practices of language which we have known about for years.  This goes back in pedagogy to the teaching of literacy as socially situated practice, exemplified by educators such as Harold Rosen and his son, the writer and broadcaster, Michael Rosen.

Writing letters / writing code: Developmental and situated approaches

In the developmental view of writing, children come to know that the marks which they make stand for them when they are not there.  They learn this not simply because of direct technical instruction but also because they see the use and the impact of writing on the lives of the those around them: in shopping lists, text messages, web pages, letters, forms, notes from school and so on.  Marian Whitehead, and many others, have written about this in the context of good early years teaching and learning. When children know that writing has a purpose or a reason for existing they will use it freely and in an agentive way.  There is a breakthrough moment when children see this for themselves.  Whitehead quotes an example of a child leaving a note for a teacher to explain that he is in the playground.

Writing code as producing action on the world

For coding, how powerful would it be if beyond thinking of it only as a set of technical operations children came to know, at a very young age, that coding not only stands for them when they are not there but produces action on the world and the things in it?  It works like written language but also as “written language plus” with another, active dimension to it.  The marks, if written in the right way, in the right order make devices and objects on screens do things that cause other things to happen in the world.  They make things happen in a range of devices but they also make things happen in a range of media.  Children need only see that things do not work in the way they wanted to know that their instructions need looking at again.  They can debug incorrect code from seeing that a floor robot does not travel or behave in an expected way. Just as they learn to edit writing to make it clearer, to stand for them when they are not there they can see that they can adjust, draft and check through immediate feedback where they are going wrong and where they are going right.  It’s not so different in media production as the section below agrues…

Coding and the digital/media arts

Having established that coding can be thought of in this way, my intention in the presentation was to link it to other ways of thinking about pedagogy which are centred in culture, literacy and media arts.  In getting coding this far interms of curriculum activity, plenty of industry experts have had their say and plenty of lobbyists have held sway with the present high-culture fascinated education secretary by describing it as the New Latin.  Instead of making this argument, I wanted to connect it to something living, malleable and ubiquitous, not dead and immutable. I wanted to say also that it is as much a part of media education as it is in the realm of computer science.  I used the m-word, “media”, which is largely absent from our National Curriculum for 2014.  For readers from other countries, our curriculum for children in England contains strangely little reference to the “moving image” in any form; this is a form of communication in which we are all swimming, children, teachers, parents, carers and was invented in the century before last.  How strange not to study how it works and how to use it? (As an aside, more forward looking countries are considering the UNESCO curriculum for media and thinking they could adapt it as an entitlement for learners in the 21st century.)

The arguments for coding have thus far been made by the computer science lobby but there is much to be gained from a broader alliance with the digital and media arts.  With our special effects and games industry dependent on artists and designers as much as on coders we should have media production in school as an entitlement and re-establish the creative subjects as essentials alongside them.  Could this not also be connected up with current initiatives in the teaching of film in schools, most recently  Into Film, Film Nattion UK et al?   It certainly is no time to downgrade any school qualifications in media studies, digital or creative arts.  A good game or a good film production depends on the cultural layer as much as the computer layer (as in the definitions provided by Lev Manovich).

Coding and media production: some similarities

Slide09Slide10

In terms of the skills needed to be productive in digital culture there are some aspects which are common to both coding and, for example, editing.  A moving image production, live action or animation, requires an understanding of how the software operates and conflates real craft skills into a space with its timelines, tools for cutting and pasting, adding sound, titling and effects through its tools and their onscreen affordances and so on (see the work of Julian Sefton-Green for more on this).  Scratch, a popular environment for learning about coding,  works bpartly by providing programming affordances through onscreen images of procedures nesting inside one another. Both are sets of visual metaphors and both conceal the work of the code behind enabling sets of tools; both also allow for creative action to be shaped by careful use of such onscreen tools. Furthermore, both produce results in the world that can be viewed and/or used and/or consumed by others.

I’ve been in the privileged position in recent research projects to observe children and young people working with both film editing and coding in the “third space” of after school clubs.  There are similarities in the ways in which both tasks were approached and the lessons learned in each reflected the investment in the craft skills of making to produce high levels of engagement. One element in common is the awareness of the effort required to make it work; like programming, media production is far from being an easy option (as it is so often described in the cultural stereotype used to ridicule “media studies” by its high-culture inflected, ideological opponents).

Children and young people recognize that it requires skill  and effort to make digital creative work.  In the best practice inside or outside school they experience the influence of careful pedagogy in which their abilities are not devalued by a deficit model and in which collaboration and peer expertise is valued.  The connection to wider digital culture supports a broader view of learning; this is an argument made in the inspirational edutronic website by the teacher, Chris Waugh.  In another example, Michelle Cannon has blogged work in media production with the BFI and in her own projects at her Fashioning and Flow website.  The common threads are planning, preparation, collaboration, imagination and time; and, yes, fashioning and flow.  All of these things are also necessary for coding and the activities that sit beneath that label: Programming, App Building, Computational thinking and more…

Coding, media and curation

In the years to come, I think it will be important that coding is connected to wider media culture and to media production and for children to experience the kind of teaching and learning in whatever space which values the skills and dispositions towards making and creating which they bring to the tasks at hand.  I have written elsewhere about how the experience of media production and exhbition is finding wider currency as a metpahorical process of “Curation” of experience.  The nature of coding as social and elaborated through collaboration means that there are possibilities for chidlren to curate their procedures and programmed creations.  Just as they can – and do , in some cases, use portfolio or notemaking software such as Evernote to record learning and associated processes for themselves can they not also create and curate a portfolio of their growing development as a coder?  Scratch, for example, was successful at least partly because of the social media element built into the site, a kind of YouTube for procedures with comment spaces and a further connectiuon to wider experiences.

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The message I wanted to give is that, for it to succeed in the longer term, coding should not become a dry, procedural, technical exercise in schools, divorced from popular culture. Teaching methods at home, at school and in the “third space” which encourage real-world problem-solving approaches, collaboration and a connection to other kinds of media production will succeed.

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