Creating Technology for Social Change

Why is tech so white? Future Research on Educational Pathways to Tech

CODE2040 Team

Last week I received a Summer Fellowship grant from MIT’s Public Service Center to fund my research in collaboration with CODE2040, a nonprofit organization that creates career pathways into the technology sector for underrepresented minorities. Recently there has been a growing concern over the lack of diversity within tech. While 57 percent of the professional workforce is comprised of women, they hold only 25 percent of the occupations in computer and engineering occupations. The numbers get worse when we zero in on the startup space, where 87 percent of founders of internet companies are white. Asians comprise 12 percent of the population, leaving only 1 percent for Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and other groups. Prominent minority voices within tech have argued that the lack of diversity creates a “boys club” mentality on the job, which perpetuates an inhospitable environment for employees who don’t fit the hoodie-wearing white male stereotype of Silicon Valley.

Hoodies from NYMag

I will be working with CODE2040 to research educational interventions designed to increase access to careers in tech for underrepresented groups. This topic is particularly interesting given the surge in interest in open online educational resources, such as MOOCS (massive open online courses), which some have proclaimed will revolutionize higher education. The poster child of this movement has been Battushig Myanganbayar, the Mongolian teenager who was admitted to MIT last year after acing a MOOC on circuits and electronics from the university. MOOC enthusiasts cite Battushig’s story as proof of the democratizing potential of online educational resources. For them, Battushig represents the powerful potential of making quality educational content widely available online, providing opportunities for the best and the brightest from around the world to learn and be recognized for their talents.

However, this framing of Battushig’s story fails to recognize the importance of a few key details. For instance, the principal of Battushig’s high school, Enkhmunkh Zurgaanjin, was the first Mongolian to ever graduate from MIT. Upon graduation in 2009, Mr. Zurgaanjin returned to Mongolia with a vision of strengthening the STEM education in his home country. In addition to hosting the MOOC at school, the principal purchased lab equipment and recruited a Stanford PhD candidate in electrical engineering to tutor a small cohort of students during the course. While there is no doubt that Battushig is an exceptionally bright pupil, these details are hugely important when we begin to think about the circumstances that shaped his ability to use these online resources to pursue his educational goals. However, these circumstances are frequently overlooked in the debates regarding the role of technology in the future of education. Focus tends to be placed on emerging platforms and open resources, rather than on the circumstances in which those technologies become transformative for students. The risk of this kind of discourse is that it promotes the illusion of an objective, merit-based system, in which talented and hardworking students rise to the top using resources free and available to all.

Meritocracy lol

This kind of thinking has crept into the debate regarding diversity within tech as well, where pundits describe their field as a meritocracy in which anyone who puts in the time can make a dime. This sentiment is captured well in a statement made by Internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, who last year was quoted saying, “The tech and tech media world are meritocracies. To fall back to race as the reason why people don’t break out in our wonderful oasis of openness is to do a massive injustice to what we’ve fought so hard to create. It flies in the face of our core beliefs: 1. anyone can do it, 2. innovation can come from anywhere and 3. product rules.” Such statements are reinforced by books and newspaper articles which depict the lone entrepreneur/innovator who drops out of college to pursue “the next disruptive idea.” This too-cool-for-school narrative implies that raw talent is far more important than a piece of paper from a university, which can be appealing when one considers the mounting costs of attaining a college degree. As student debt continues to rise, there is a growing interest in the expansion of alternative pathways to promising careers via online educational resources. This is particularly true in the tech sector, where online learning platforms like Treehouse, Code Academy, and Udacity, advertise the promise of future prosperity for any hardworking individual looking to make a career change.

Yet, this kind of talk gets uncomfortable when we think about just how white and male the tech sector is today. Hypothetically speaking, if anyone with interest and reliable internet access can learn to code within a short period of time, does that mean that students who are female, Black, or Latino/a simply lack interest or aptitude for these subjects? Of course not. A more productive starting point may be to map out the the educational pathways that individuals have taken in pursuit of full-time work in the tech industry. Only then can we understand the barriers and opportunities that shape who ultimately pursues careers in this field.

I’ll be spending my summer doing just that. In collaboration with CODE2040, I am investigating potential strategies to strengthen the educational pipeline for minorities and women pursuing careers in tech. I am particularly interested in the social, cultural and economic factors that shape one’s interest and ability to learn the skills necessary to work as a programmer or software engineer. Below are some of the key questions I am exploring:

Evolving importance of college degree: If universities are not where job-ready skill development occurs, what importance does a degree hold in today’s tech world? Could it be that degrees are important for other reasons, such as a reliable indication of one’s “ability to learn”?

Social connections: What role does one’s social networks, particularly their “weak ties,” play in getting a job in tech? What are the sites where these weak ties are formed and one’s reputation as a programmer are developed?

Power and the negotiation of value: How does the negotiation happen between learners, educational providers and employers about what’s important to know and what counts as a valid demonstration of competency in this sector? How is the power of credentialing authority shifting in these emerging eco-systems of informal learning? Who would stand to gain or lose if this system were to change?

Formal vs. Informal Education:What is the educational path that people tend to take in order to secure careers in tech? What role do experiences outside of a traditional classroom setting play in developing one’s skills? What are the social and economic factors that shape one’s ability to engage in semi-formal learning experiences, such as hackathons, online coding courses, etc?

    My hope is that this research will provide key insights into the factors that we should consider when designing more vibrant alternatives for learners interested in careers in tech, but who face significant barriers to pursuing a traditional university degree. I look forward to sharing more of this work with you in the future.