Carolyn Van from Canada Learning Code: Busting Myths, Blazing Trails, and Harnessing the Power of Education to Change the World

Carolyn Van, Director at Canada Learning Code, talks about how her own frustration fuels her fire, shines a spotlight on her mom, and asserts it’s not technology that is intelligent, it is the people behind it.

1. You describe yourself as a Shi(f)t Disturber. Tell us more.

What has motivated me is identifying problems and  opportunities and knowing that we can do better and be more effective. This has sometimes meant not doing or saying the obvious or what people want, being a bit disruptive, smashing through existing models, getting others to question what they thought they knew and causing some discomfort. In other words, being a Shi(f)t disturber. I’ve often joined organizations and projects as “the other” and it has typically led me to stirring the pot a bit – or a lot. The goal never is to “be different”, to “trailblaze”, to “set trends” – or to stir the pot. But if that is what’s required to start the process of necessary change, then it’s something I am more than ok with.

2. It seems like you’ve always been somewhat of a trailblazer. Where does this fire come from?

I have been asked this question quite often ever since my early 20s. For a while, I never could pinpoint where whatever fire others saw, felt, experienced came from and could never quite answer this question. There are traits and paths attached to people that I admire – but whom I don’t consider my role models. I also don’t come from a family of many entrepreneurial-types and technologists – I’m definitely a black sheep. I started to zoom outwards to observe the communities I have been a part of, the family I was raised in, the neighbourhoods I lived in, the friendships I’ve had, the network around me. I stopped looking for similarities that are on the surface: the titles, the industries, the educational experiences, the career paths – and started noticing bigger patterns. While I believe that we are all born with our own unique light and place in this universe, I equally believe that we are product of our environment, our upbringing, what we have been exposed to (and what we choose to be exposed to) since the moment we are born.

That said, I’d say my biggest influence is my mother. She is strong, independent, intelligent, and adventurous. She is always curious and wants to learn, wants the world to be better, is a fighter, and is full of gratitude. She is a strong supporter of whatever makes me happy. I always say, ”Ha! You think I’m strong? You haven’t gotten to know Mama Van. I got it from my mama.”

Other than my mother, the stories I am interested in and learn a great deal from are from those who break through barriers, smash through cycles and challenge assumptions – whether in the technology sector, those making wave in industries I know very little about or those not at all in the public eye. I think we can learn a lot (in some cases – even more) from the non-usual suspects and those outside of our bubble. After all, we are all connected. Every single day, I come across someone or discover someone’s story whom I can learn from – and am so grateful for it. A pattern I do see is that they have mostly been women. My never-ending list includes Mary Wollstonecraft, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Agnes Macphail, Madam C.J. Walker, Moj Mahdara – and hundreds more.  

3. What (or who) brought you to Canada Learning Code?

It was never in my plan to get into education but I started noticing gaps as I was in a position to hire technical talent around 2010. A gap in diversity. A gap in skill-level. I was essentially disappointed. And so, the story goes, it was my frustration that led me here. I wasn’t happy with the talent that was available – including those who came from backgrounds and educational experiences that are “on paper”, outstanding. I started having conversations with those who had come from the “best” educational institutions who felt completely lost in an evolving digital world. They were equipped with skills that were not aligned with what was going to drive the future. And this really upset me. I felt frustrated for these individuals, based on where technology was heading they would have a huge gaping skills gap.

I eventually started to become annoyed with my own frustration. In order to aid it, I had to do something about it. I started teaching interactive media and technology at the post-secondary level – under the condition that I was able to shape the learning experience. I realized when teaching adult learners that the opportunity to make more of a foundational change and to cause a shift in thinking would be to educate younger learners – before social constructs, resistance for change and habits that are tougher to shake off would begin to pile on. I came on board to work on Youth Programming at Canada Learning Code – and am now working on leading all Program Design.

4.  Canada Learning Code’s goal is to ensure that all Canadians – particularly women, girls, people with disabilities, indigenous youth and newcomers – who have been historically underrepresented in the sector are given equal opportunity to build our future. Why is this mission so important to you personally?

With technology becoming an increasingly powerful tool that drives innovation across all sectors, it’s important to pop open the hood and assess by whom and how technology is being created. With technology powering the experiences that we encounter on a daily basis, we are all consumers of technology.  I would like for those who create technology to be more representative of those who consume. I want a reality where more people can have – and know and feel they have – say.  It’s about putting the technology tools, knowledge and experience in the hands of all Canadians and empowering them to create experiences, change the world, and educate others. There are many perspectives that are left out, stories left untold, and a world that has been designed very well for some and not at all for others. I see great potential in technology to unite us and close these gaps.

5. How do you see Canada Learning Code’s programs and vision expanding and evolving over the next 5 – 10 years?

I see Canada Learning Code’s programming expanding significantly and reaching all Canadians. More experiences, more cross-Canada with more learners in mind. It will continue to involve working with others to chip away at our very ambitious but very doable goal of reaching 10 million learners by 2027.  We have worked with many incredible partners – and will continue to do so. There are other groups doing such incredible work in technology education – and it’s a good thing because there is so much work to be done and it’s definitely going to take an army. I am honoured to be in the great company of those who also acknowledge and dedicate most of their waking hours to closing the gap on technology education. I want to continue finding ways to work together.

6. Finally, any myths you want to bust about coding and the world of tech?

There is so much potential in technology and even more power in each and every one of us. We can change the world, we can change lives, we can identify and solve problems, we can have a say. I want people to know that technology is just an extension of what we are all capable of. We are so powerful. I want everyone who might not think they are, to know it by providing them with the opportunity to be it.

Technology is not too complex nor too difficult for anyone to grasp. It is not technology that is intelligent, it is the people behind it – it’s humans. It’s you, it’s me, it’s the voices and perspectives that are unheard that need to be heard. I want everyone to know they can play a role in creating technology. If you want to learn how to code – and feel like you are not capable of it, you are wrong. It is about finding the right type of learning experience for you. And for educators, policy makers, designers and technologists – we can play a huge role in helping to make technology education more accessible and inclusive. It is going to take time and for us to work together. But it is doable.

Guest writer: Jori Lichtman

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