Meet Yasmin Kafai

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CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.

Yasmin Kafai

Yasmin Kafai is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work promotes coding, crafting, and creativity across grades K–16.

How did you become involved in computer science education and cyberlearning more generally?

I got involved in all of this over 30 years ago when I was teaching statistics. In those days, the statistical packages didn’t come with many of the current options, so you actually had to learn how to write code to filter results. This got me interested in how we interface with computers. At that time, new research projects were starting around man-machine interactions and how to use programming as a way of problem solving.

So, in a roundabout way, I got into programming as a technique for learning. I wasn’t a computer science educator in the beginning; I was more of a cognitive scientist using programming as an example of complex problem solving. It is only when I came to the United States in the late 1980s that I realized that there were actually projects like Project Headlight, which Seymour Papert had initiated with hundreds of computers in an elementary school. It was then that I began to fully understand that we could use programming as a form of learning and interacting.

Have your views on children’s learning through games and game-making shifted over the years? Do you have a different sense of how schools should be playing a role in terms of gaming in and around classrooms?

That’s a really good question. I have seen a lot of evidence that making games for learning has really become one of the main avenues how to get children engaged in digital productions and find a pathway into programming. So yes, this has definitely happened.

I think one of the major changes–which was also a change that happened in my own thinking– was that making and playing games are essentially two sides of the same coin. They’re not two separate things. We have a lot of evidence of this, in communities like Minecraft, for example. The boundaries which academic communities have kind of drawn around studying games and playing games for learning versus looking at how children can learn while making games are really artificial boundaries. Out in the gaming space, most players actively engage in making and modding as a form of game playing and vice versa.

As to your second question, the general stance towards incorporating digital games into schooling has definitely shifted. Nowadays, you have a much broader perspective from educators. Most, if not all, people realize video games are an essential part of the general media landscape. Video games even have a professional context now; look at eSports, where gamers are now akin to professional athletes, training and earning money playing in front of mass audiences. So, yes, there has been a 180 degree shift across the wider culture in terms of how video games are perceived, and this wider shift means that schools are far less resistant to using games.

Are you hopeful about more children getting more equitable access to high quality digital content and learning opportunities? What are your hopes going forward with programs along these lines, such as about the CSforALL initiative?

It’s exciting to see the CSforALL initiative starting to take root in school districts and state-wide initiatives. There’s definitely a shift in the general landscape of how people look at computer science education. Ten years ago nobody was really interested, and nowadays it has become a national effort to promote access. There are many good initiatives on the way to broaden participation. And more importantly, these initiatives are not just offering access to computer science education but also figuring out wider pathways for participation that get K-12 students continued exposure to computational thinking and computer science.

This is part of the broader agenda of CSforALL. We’re right now at the beginning, and we are realizing that we need many more teachers and we need way more teacher professional development. We need to change schools of education and teacher education programs so we’re not just focusing on teachers who are already in classrooms but also preparing the next generation of instructors accordingly. Furthermore, we need to think more deeply about computing integration into existent coursework.

A critical concern is that once we go over and beyond the first group of CS education adopters–and frankly, these are the people who are doing it right now–how much will we be able to scale up? How are we going to go to the next level and start talking and working with people who may be entirely unaware of–and even more resistant to–CS and CT as essential in U.S. schools? I do have some concerns that in the end, when we come to the last stretch, a significant group of students are still going to be left out. The hard work has started but the even harder work is yet to come.

How do we get CSforALL to scale across all school districts as opposed to the select few getting all the coverage to date?

This actually has to be a multi-pronged effort. For one thing, schools of education need to join the fold and expand teacher preparatory programs to include computing beyond stand-alone intro tech courses. We need to think about expanding integrative curricula, most prominently at the primary and middle school levels where it’s very likely that computer science is not going to be a standalone course but integrated with other subject matters. We face a considerable challenge as how to actually conceptualize this integration to ensure there is equal or equitable attention paid not just to computer science but also to other interdisciplinary connection. And, in terms of corresponding curricular tools and teacher professional development, this likewise requires substantial resources and wider commitments from a range of parties.

What do educators and families need to know about computational thinking as both a concept and as a practice?

First, let’s talk about what computational thinking is. When Jeannette Wing wrote about it in 2006, it was about designing systems and using the concepts of computation to solve enduring problems. There’s nothing wrong with this particular definition. Now that the term has entered the K-12 education realm, people talk about computational thinking seemingly with only the individual student in mind. As a result, CT, whether it’s programming or computing in general, appears as a individualistic, even solitary activity. But this is not what learning computing ought to be. We know from numerous studies–and simply from our own experiences–that learning itself is not individual activity. It takes place in a social context and for that reason, when we talk about computational participation, we need to better highlight this social aspect. We need to recognize that yes, computing in conceptual, but it always occurs in a particular context and for a particular purpose. Realizing these cultural and social ramifications means that we need to stop seeing computational thinking as a matter of solitary thought and operation and rather as a matter of participation–a critical literacy skill.

I don’t think we can–nor should–expect that all students, once they’ve taken a few courses or activities involving computational thinking, will become computer scientists or engineers. Far from that. Thisis really more about giving students an opportunity to understand the digital technologies that are so pervasive now in all aspects of their life to meaningfully connect with each other. And for that reason, just to focus on the thinking part is short-sighted and misleading, particularly for those families who may not know much about computing to start with. This is really an opportunity to think about where computing is and can continue to be as a social activity.

What’s next for you and your research? Where are your eyes looking at right now in terms of educational outreach in and around schools?

So, my immediate focus right now is to better realize what this vision of computational participation by designing and researching computational activities around electronic textiles. These are design of wearables where coding, and crafting, and circuit design come together in one activity and challenge students to re-think who is doing what. Activities like coding and engineering are considered “high tech” versus activities like sewing and crafting, which are largely considered “low tech” and more located in the female domain. So I think the activities collectively represent an interesting, compelling juxtaposition which help us to broaden our repertoire of computational participation. Aside from making games for learning, designing robots, or other activities, we also can move into the domain of physical computing and introduce students to key ideas around computation, concepts, and practices in new and innovative ways. This is what we have been working on for the last three years with Exploring Computer Science community.

A further goal for me is around designing with biology. This is a very different and new activity for me, and it is one in which we are still learning about its fundamental components and rules for best practice. We can actually turn the table and move from a study of biological phenomena by just studying nature to understanding biological function by designing new applications I see many parallels between computer science education of 30 years ago, when the idea of young children using fairly expensive equipment was somehow seen as not appropriate, to what we are doing now with synthetic biology. Technologies are now everywhere, even very young children are using iPads, touch interfaces, and there is no longer a discussion as to whether or not children can interact with computing. By analogy, I think we now have tools available to have children meaningfully design with biology, and I want to work on figuring out what other kind of languages we can use, what are the range of tools and activities to create culturally and socially relevant activities in that domain.

In another 5-10 years, do you think courses like synthetic biology will be much more commonplace in US public schools?

There are a few schools where students already design with biology. In synthetic biology you use your understanding of DNA and plastids as a means to design new applications like generating color pigments in a more ecological sustainable way. It could be designing sensors which react in the presence of a contaminate or serve to create enriched food. And what is really compelling about those examples is that they target socially relevant topics. A lot of these projects have long moved out of the research labs and already are into industrial manufacturing where you grow cement pavers rather than make them. Right now we’re still at the cusp. This is a new topic, a new area, but I would predict in the next 5 to 10 years, this will become much more commonplace.