Book Review: ‘Code for What?’ by Clifford Lee and Elisabeth Soep

Over the course of 10 years, a team of young people ages 14-24 worked with mentors to combine journalism, data, design, and code to create digital media products that would impact their communities. This is his story.

Facial recognition software, a streaming service’s music categorization algorithm, high school dress codes by gender and race, and LBGTQ+ discrimination are some of the social issues that a team of teens from YR Media sought to address using digital technologies.

In ‘Code for what?: Computing for storytelling and social justice’ (The MIT Press, $29.95, ISBN 9780262047456), Dr. Elisabeth Soep and Dr. Cliff Lee challenge current practices in computer science courses. Instead of teaching computing in a technical and decontextualized way, they encourage educators to push the boundaries of traditional education and lean on impactful, interactive methods that can approach content from a more human perspective.

Could coding become a justice-driven medium for storytelling? Would you empower young people to create digital products with social impact? What would that look like? These are some of the questions that the authors tried to answer together with the group of young interns working at YR Media.

The program enabled students from underserved communities to develop digital media skills. Over the course of ten years, the teens designed projects that could serve their communities and learned how to code them into existence. The book is an account of these initiatives: their successes, failures, and the lessons that could be applied by educators who seek to modernize their ways of teaching.

west side stories was a project that allowed students to highlight the rich history of a community facing gentrification in an interactive way. Meanwhile in Can AI be taught to dance?, teen coders discussed artificial intelligence tools used to quantify creative art products. In erase your face, they challenged the limitations of facial recognition algorithms and the social implications of the increasing popularity of the technology.

Some of these products had tangible impacts on student communities. Double charge: behind the numbers shed light on how assigned court fees kept young people in cycles of poverty and debt, even leading them to accept new charges and return to prison. To raise awareness of this perceived injustice, the YR Media team created an interactive digital experience in which users would follow a young man’s conviction story. With each step, a calculator added up all the accrued charges, based on the experiences of real people.

News sparked by this investigation led to Alameda County’s decision to abolish administrative fees in juvenile delinquency cases. In 2018, the state of California followed suit.

Written from the mentors’ perspective, the book is an engaging reflection of what it means to teach computing to a highly digitized generation. Described as “a radical reinvention of STEAM,” the authors make a compelling and compelling case for a human-centered approach to computer science, where students can ask what coding can do for them and their communities. communities.

While the book focuses heavily on the specific experiences of YR Media’s youth program, which would not necessarily be easy to replicate under the current constraints of most education systems, it does provide a useful context in which to rethink the ways current teaching. In this regard, the last section, ‘Tensions and Expansions’, sheds light on real-life educators and innovators who have been able to establish ‘justice-driven’ approaches to teaching that can be placed at the intersection of computing and learning. art.

Using accessible language, but delving into the implications for teaching computer science, Soep and Leep make a compelling case for the importance of incorporating ethics into coding courses. At the end of the day, it’s humans who code; and human errors are often the cause of algorithmic bias and technology’s tendency to reproduce inequality.

Instead of thinking of coding as a skill only useful for the tech sector, Code for what? It provides real-life examples of how coding can benefit media and journalism, as well as education in general, and leaves you wishing you had attended impact-driven coding lessons in high school.

Why do we code? The authors of this book discuss how computer programming can provide insight, connection, community, responsibility, creative expression, joy, and ultimately hope for the next generation. But, ultimately, the title question of the book could be summed up in a single concept: We code for change.

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