Researchers Create Graphic Novel to Stimulate Discussion on Inequality in Computing

Who teaches computer science at school?

While a growing number of schools offer some form of computer classes or after-school programs, these offerings are still much more common in well-resourced districts than those that primarily serve disadvantaged students, and more boys than girls follow them.

It’s a question that two UCLA researchers, Jane Margolis and Jean Ryoo, have addressed in their academic work – a phenomenon they call “preparatory privilege.” And they say that’s part of the reason the tech industry has struggled with a lack of diversity in its ranks.

Both scholars typically publish their work in journals or books aimed at scholars and policymakers, including two well-known books by Margolis titled “Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing” and “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing”. But they recently received an unusual invitation: Would they be willing to write a book about inequality in computing for children, the students who receive such unequal offers in their schools?

“And Jean immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s go,'” recalls Margolis. “And she said, ‘Let’s make it a graphic novel.'”

Graphic novels, of course, are most often associated with superhero stories, like Batman or The Watchmen. They’re basically meaty comics. And it turns out that Ryoo is a fan of the genre, and she was more than ready to answer the call to become a young adult author.

The pair ended up working with an illustrator to create the resulting graphic novel, titled “Power On,” and they based their story on real students they met while researching inequality in computing.

The graphic novel hit shelves in April, and already some schools and school districts, including the Los Angeles School District, are buying the title for their teachers, Margolis and Ryoo say.

EdSurge sat down with Margolis and Ryoo for this week’s EdSurge podcast, to talk about the research-based novel, which researchers hope will inspire more students to raise questions about offers (or lack thereof) in their own schools.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or anywhere you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, slightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Why did you turn your research into a graphic novel?

John Ryoo: I think it’s a really inspiring way to share ideas and emotions. Having been an English teacher and also working with educators, some students feel intimidated by heavy texts or may be reluctant to read articles or books. But when they’re given the ideas in graphic novel form, they’re suddenly drawn in. They read a ton of it and really engage.

Another thing is because there’s this visual element as well as the storytelling through the words and the dialogue, I think it’s such a great way to share the emotional context – the cultural context – and also to be playful with how these ideas are communicated.

We also thought about how a graphic novel like this could support a culture shift in how people think about teaching computer science.

A change of culture? How would you describe the current culture and what do you want to evolve towards?

Yes, a major challenge right now is that there’s a tendency in computing – and generally in STEM fields – to say that it’s not our responsibility to know how people use the technology that we create, we are simply the creators. That it’s not our responsibility to think about the ethics or the social impacts of this. It’s this misconception that IT is an apolitical and neutral field.

What are the main points of your research that base this graphic novel?

Jane Margolis: One is the importance of pedagogy in computer science education, especially culturally appropriate pedagogy. Education must be linked to the outside world.

There’s been this traditional notion of IT being just zeros and ones and goals. And what we’re trying to say is that [students] are more engaged if it’s related to issues that really matter to them and are happening in their lives. So we wanted the novel to really bring that point out.

And we’re working with a team of five equity fellows from the Computer Science Teachers Association who are developing resources and a teacher’s guide for the book.

In my book “Stuck in the Shallow End” there’s a whole analysis of inequality in IT – the fact that there are fewer classes in high schools with large numbers of children of color. And when they exist in these schools, they mainly cover the most basic rudimentary skills, like typing. The whole system is very segregated, privileging…students from white and wealthy areas and not students from underfunded areas and students of color. And so we wanted to address these inequities caused by the system and how that affects who learns computer science.

Listen to the rest of the interview on the podcast.

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