Category Archives: Lab Updates

Lab Updates

Understanding Coding as Literacy

Author: Mathieu Girard

Almost 1000 years ago, Normandy invaded England, demanding a census that would improve colonial organization and administration. At this point, only scribes and administrators possessed the ability to read and write, and thus, they held the power to record and share information. In order to participate in the community and share ideas, people realized that they also needed to read and write. In essence, as the number of people who were literate increased, so did the need to be literate. While it seems that literacy is simply defined as the ability to read and write, University of Pittsburgh professor Annette Vee notes that this ignores social and historical context, and literacy should instead be defined as “a human facility with symbolic and infrastructural technology that can be used for creative, communicative and rhetorical purposes”.  As such, the textual writing system is simply a technology – a mode for literacy, but not the only one. Meanwhile, whether or not a set of communicative skills can be considered a literacy depends on social context, and how central to life that technology is.

Back in 1086 when the Normans invaded England, there were no computers – everything had to be recorded through writing. Humans then interpreted this writing and made decisions. In our society today, decisions are not simply based on the interpretation of written words. Evidence used to inform decisions comes from computer-based programs and algorithms, created through computational code. To name a few examples, we base our health policy on predictions generated by computational models, we have programs that can predict the likelihood that a defendant is guilty during a trial, and we even have algorithms that can determine someone’s identity using visual data. Put simply, computer programs pervade our lives. In order to manipulate computer programs and thereby understand the world around us, everyone must possess some knowledge of code. For this reason, coding is the technology for computational literacy, empowering those who can use it to think freely and express themselves.  The computationally literate have already begun to take advantage of the computationally illiterate, as seen through data selling and phishing scams. Computational literacy grants people the ability to maintain control over their own lives, as well as participate in civic matters.

Before learning more about computational literacy in the Spring class taught by Prof. Marina Bers, Technological Tools for Playful Learning, I assumed that coding simply taught more about problem solving. I neglected to think about a key way by which coding resembles writing – the ultimate goal of both is expression. American monk Walter J. Ong noted that “articulated truth has no permanence,” meaning that simply speaking a thought does not effectively communicate that message to anyone who is not present for the event during which the thought is spoken. In order to convey that message to a wider audience, it must be recorded. Writing has historically served as the instrument for recording. Ong further stated that writing separates the known from the knower, and a being from time. It is now clear to me that these functions are also completed by code. In class, we taught coding with young children at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School Through code, and we discovered that children (and people of all ages) can build a program or project that reflects their internal processes, facilitating the expression of some type of message. This program or project can be shared with anyone, providing a medium for separating the known from the knower, and the being from time. One’s thoughts, expressed through code, can exist for much longer than an articulated thought. Coding facilitates communication and is central to the world in which we live, clearly constituting a literacy.

Lab Updates

Voices from the Crehan ASD Lab: Community Advisory Board Meeting

This article was authored by Xihan Yang, a member of the Crehan ASD Lab.

On February 27th, 2020, the Crehan Lab hosted a Community Advisory Board Meeting in the curriculum lab. The goal of this annual meeting is to integrate community voices into our autism research through open dialogue. Attendees represented a range of disciplines and programs, including Tufts Student Accessibility Services and the Tufts Academic Resource Center, the Autism Program at Boston Medical Center, occupational therapists, students, and self-advocates. Dr. Crehan described five ongoing studies, a potential future project, and administrative questions, and board members were encouraged to give feedback out loud or in written form after meeting, depending on their comfort level. 

The Looking Study uses eye tracking to understand social cognitive processes in children with ASD and/or ADHD with the goal of understanding how social cognitive abilities manifest as eye movements. The board suggested providing some background information on the characters, such as their social relationships, used in the theory of mind stories and paradigms. The example they provided included creating a story with characters who had a positive or negative relationship. One of the board members also encouraged the lab to expand the participant population and include people without ASD, allowing us to compare patterns relative to diagnostic status. These comparisons could enable us to provide materials or social stories targeting the needs of the autistic population in future work.  Including individuals without ASD can also give a preview for further research studies on individuals’ understanding of different social relationships in various contexts, which would be applicable to a larger population. Other suggestions included combining the lab’s ongoing study in relation to sex education and sexuality questionnaires with the study of theory of mind.

Physical activity for adults with ASD is a new topic that the lab is preparing this year. The board members recommended the lab start with focus groups to figure out the specific activities and exercises that adults with ASD are interested in. Planning of physical activities among the autistic population was also discussed and recommended to be pushed later.

These community stakeholders brought important new perspectives for future research. Personally, I asked questions about conducting sexual education among autistic teenagers in relation to our current project. The board proposed a shorter time span of the curriculum and reminded me that the content need to be succinct and appropriate for the autistic group. In general, this community advisory board meeting not only provided our lab some insights that we previously had not thought of and provided guidance for future research directions, but also gathered input from people who are invested in positive outcomes for individuals with autism. 

The lab intends to hold similar events in the future to strengthen the bond with the autism community and form connections between resources and individuals with ASD. For future events, we want to invite more board members. Other than the current board members, relevant policy makers and special educators can also be potential attendees. The format of the meeting can also be extended to online meetings and even periodic report and communication among board members and research teams. With the cooperation of different groups and incorporation of various views, we expect a brighter future for autism research.