Software and Digital Data in Education

For the last two years, a group of colleagues from across the universities of Stirling, Edinburgh and Bristol have been working with me on a seminar series exploring how code acts in education. As the project comes to an end, we have produced a free, open access e-book: “Coding/Learning: software and digital data in education.”

The seminar series was designed to address two particular matters of concern: first, the extent to which learning processes, practices and spaces are increasingly mediated and shaped through code; and, second, the emergence of a movement based on the idea of learning to code as a form of active participation in a heavily software-saturated world.

In terms of the former, our concern was whether code acts as a kind of pedagogy that is immanent and everywhere in daily life, running as a substratum of experience with the power to variously instruct, seduce, educate, liberate, discipline and govern people in their everyday lives and educational experiences. Tom Liam Lynch, one of the series speakers, has described this as “the hidden role of software in education,” drawing attention to how the lines of code and algorithms that constitute software actually work to produce new social relations, configure power dynamics, and generate new roles for teachers, learners and educational policymakers.

The seminars, thus, sought to focus on how the interactions between code and education might impact on knowledge practices, pedagogic techniques, learner agency, identity formation and pedagogic relationships. The resulting e-book acts as a guide for interested researchers and educators to understand how code operates within the networked publics where kids hang out; how algorithms participate in the social organization of educational practices; how the knowledge taught in schools, colleges and universities flows through digital infrastructures; how teaching is increasingly being automated by software; and how digital data is being used to make educational realities visible and actionable. In this sense, “Coding/Learning” seeks to address issues raised in recent events such as the conference Algorithmic Accountability, and questions raised there about the algorithmic future of education.

In relation to the second main concern with “learning to code,” the seminars have focused on such things as after-school coding clubs for children, community-based programming, and the reintroduction of programming and computer science in schools. ‘Learning to code’ has become a popular discourse in the educational technology field, as well as in educational policy and in the commercial agendas of major computing corporations. But we wanted to ask what is really involved in learning to code, and inquire into its political implications. Writing computer code is not just a technical act but a political act; it permits the programmer to construct particular models of the external world that might work through persuasion, seduction, coercion or education to change the way people think.

In addressing these issues, the “Coding/Learning e-book consists of a selection of short papers produced by the organizers of the seminar series and some of the invited participants in each of the events. They address questions of how code can be conceptualized; of how software is intervening in the production of educational data; and of how coded things such as data systems are exerting consequential effects on professional learning practices, forms of knowing, teaching, and educational policymaking.

Together, the papers point toward the significance of code as an object of inquiry for educational research and practice. While code has become a recent object of inquiry for geographers, sociologists, new media theorists and philosophers (sometimes clustered under the interdisciplinary umbrella term “software studies”), previously there has been no concerted effort to understand how code acts educationally, pedagogically, or instructionally, to shape how we acquire knowledge, skills and forms of conduct. What educational understandings can help us to interpret the work that code does in the world?

The e-book is divided into three main sections. In the first section, the papers attend to the conceptualization of code, infrastructures, algorithms and the digital materialities they generate. Together, the papers make it clear that code should not be understood simply as “lines of code,” but as a complex social and technical amalgam of practices, systems of thinking, materials and their attendant “codes of conduct.”

The second section focuses on emerging “big data” technologies in education. The papers collectively address such questions as: What software facilitates the collection, analysis, visualization and communication of educational data? What is the “social life” of educational data, and what sociotechnical practices are enacted as it moves between different statistical packages, analytics software, and modes of graphical display? How does the translation of data shape perceptions about educational institutions, practices, and people, and with what effects?

The third section then attends to issues around the coded practices of education: professional learning, the distribution of social scientific research methods to software, the interweaving of the human teacher with algorithmic “teacherbots,” and the contemporary move to encourage new kinds of literacies and coding practices to enable people to learn about and make sense of the coded environment.

The papers, thus, trace many of the debates generated in the seminars in what has been a richly collaborative, interdisciplinary and dialogic project. They have helped set the agenda for future research that explores how code acts in education; how it augments and influences educational institutions, processes, spaces, and practices; how it shapes the ways we encounter information and gain knowledge in everyday life; how it interacts with professional and work-based learning; and how it intervenes in the methods and analyses of educational research itself. We hope that “Coding/Learning acts a staging post toward new research, and to help shape practices that are critically attentive to the work of code, software, algorithms and digital data in education. DMLcentral is an ideal forum for raising and discussing these issues.