Digital Literacy vs. Learning to Code: A False Dichotomy

The below linked article makes some strong assumptions about “learning to code” that lead to the author’s confusion about the difference between learning to code and digital literacy.  NOBODY is arguing that all students “need to learn how to build the next Dropbox.”  EVERYONE is in agreement about the importance of digital literacy — but what does that mean, and how do you get there?

As I’ve pointed out several times, a great many professionals code, even those who don’t work in traditional “computing” jobs — for every professional software developer, there are four to nine (depending on how you define “code”) end-user programmers.  They code not to build Dropbox, but to solve problems that are more unique and require more creative solutions than canned applications software provides.  We’re not talking thousands of lines of code.  We’re talking 10-20, at most 100 lines of code for a solution (as my computational engineer colleagues tell me).  For many people, coding WILL be part of the digital literacy that they need.

Learning some basic coding is an effective way of developing the valued understanding of how the cloud works and how other digital technology in their world works.  Applications purposefully hide the underlying technology. Coding is a way of reaching a level lower, the level at which we want students to understand. In biology, we use microscopes and do dissections to get (literally) below the surface level. That’s the point of coding. No student who dissects a fetal pig is then ready for heart surgery, and no student who learns how to download a CSV data file and do some computation over the numbers in it is then ready to build Dropbox. But both groups of hypothetical students would then have a better understanding of how their world works and how they can be effective within it.

Offering programming electives for students who want to learn Python or scripting won’t solve the underlying problem of digital illiteracy. So even if your goal is to teach all students to code, schools will first need to introduce computer-science concepts that help students learn how to stack the building blocks themselves.

They don’t need to learn how to build the next Dropbox, but they should understand how the cloud works.

“If you want to be able to use the machine to do anything, whether it’s use an existing application or actually write your own code, you have to understand what the machines can do for you, and what they can’t, even if you’re never going to write code,” Ari Gesher, engineering ambassador at Palantir Technologies, said at the event.

via Kids Need To Learn Digital Literacy—Not How To Code – ReadWrite.

September 12, 2014 at 8:22 am 1 comment

Computing ed researcher fired from NSF over questions about her role as 1980s activist

I’ve known Valerie Barr for years and believe that she was honest with the agents. I don’t believe that she lied about her involvement with a domestic terrorist organization that had “ties” (whatever that means) to two political activist organizations she belonged to.

I’m most shocked about the process. Valerie was dismissed on the basis of a report by a possibly biased agent — there are no transcripts or notes from the interview.  The OPM is prosecutor, judge, and jury — there is no defense. Doesn’t sound like due process to me.  It’s a loss to our community that a well-regarded researcher is forced out of NSF.

It’s a greater loss in that it will make it less likely that another “typical liberal college professor” (a quote from the below article) might offer to serve.

After again being asked if she had been a member of any organization that espoused violence, Barr was grilled for 4.5 hours about her knowledge of all three organizations and several individuals with ties to them, including the persons who tried to rob the Brink’s truck. Four people were found guilty of murder in that attack and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including Kathy Boudin, who was released in 2003 and is now an adjunct assistant professor of social work at Columbia University. “I found out about the Brink’s robbery by hearing it on the news, and just like everybody else I was shocked,” she recalls.

But OPM apparently thought otherwise, again citing her “deliberate misrepresentation” in its report. Relying heavily on that investigation, NSF handed Barr a letter on 25 July saying that it planned to terminate her IPA at the end of the first year because the OPM review had found her to be unfit for the job…Barr was given a chance to appeal NSF’s decision, and on 11 August she submitted a letter stating that OPM’s summary report of its investigation “contains many errors or mischaracterizations of my statements.” As is standard practice, agencies receive only a summary of the OPM investigation, not a full report, and lawyers familiar with the process say that an agent’s interview notes are typically destroyed after the report is written.

via Researcher loses job at NSF after government questions her role as 1980s activist | Science/AAAS | News.

September 11, 2014 at 8:38 am 2 comments

New Video on Exploring CS at UCLA

Nice job — I like the interviews with the students the best (though Jane rocks, of course).

In case the embedded video doesn’t work, click here:

Education research team successfully launches innovative computer science curriculum

“Exploring Computer Science” boosts female student participation in L.A. school district to double the national average

Jane Margolis is an educator and researcher at UCLA, who has dedicated her career to democratizing computer science education and addressing under-representation in the field. Her work inspires students from diverse backgrounds to study computer science and to use their knowledge to help society. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Margolis and her team investigated why so few girls and under-represented minorities are learning computer science. They developed “Exploring Computer Science,” or ECS, to reverse the trend.

September 10, 2014 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

CS Leadership Session on CS Education in K-12 at the National Scale

The Snowbird conference is the every-other-year meeting of deans and department chairs in computing, to talk about how to support computing research and education.  There was a panel this last summer on the state of CS education in K-12.

This panel discusses the role that U.S. research departments must play in sustaining CS in K-12. The panelists will address issues of educational reform, while highlighting the role that academia has played in other disciplines; illustrate the breadth of existing efforts from the perspective of a university-led project; and consider how departments could contribute to building the needed research base for CS education.Chair: Jan Cuny NSF. Speaker: Jeanne Century CEMSE, University of Chicago, Dan Garcia University of California at Berkeley, Susanne Hambrusch Purdue University

via Snowbird Conference 2014 – Computing Research Association.

The slides are available here. I particularly liked Susanne Hambrusch’s slides on the role of computing education research in the University.  The slide below (copied from her deck) addresses a particularly critical point — computing education research has to be seen as a real research area, not just what some education-focused faculty do.


This tension between computing education research being research versus supporting the education mission of the University comes up often for me.  I was recently asked, “How does your work with high school teachers improve the education of CS undergraduates at our school?”  I replied, “It probably doesn’t.  This is my research.  I’ll bet that researchers in your medical school study cancers that your undergraduates don’t have.” Susanne is pointing out that we have to get past this confusion.  Yes, Universities teach.  But Universities also study and explore questions of interest.  If those questions of interest involve education, it should not be immediately confounded with the teaching that Universities do.


September 8, 2014 at 8:19 am Leave a comment

10 Reasons Why America Needs 10,000 More Girls in Computer Science: Need to change girls’ minds about girls

Nice article from Ruthe Farmer on why we need more girls in CS. The point quoted below is particularly interesting to me, and relates to a recent Blog@CACM post: student perceptions matter. It’s not just the males who need to realize that females are good at math. Girls sometimes take themselves out of the competition.

The idea that girls can’t do math or succeed in science is a silly myth that needs to be put to rest. Girls made up 63 percent of the 2013 Intel ISEF finalists in biochemistry, accounted for 46 percent of all Advanced Placement AP Calculus test-takers in 2013 (See, and contributed 47 percent of the winning projects in the Google Science Fair. But it’s not only boys who need to get the message about girls’ abilities: According to the Atlantic, female test-takers around the world reported feeling “helpless” while doing a math problem, although they scored within striking distance of their male counterparts. In other words, there is an abundance of girls who are good at math and science, but a lack of girls who know it.

via The Shriver Report – 10 Reasons Why America Needs 10,000 More Girls in Computer Science.

September 4, 2014 at 8:47 am 1 comment

The most gender-balanced computing program in the USA: Computational Media at Georgia Tech

Jennifer Whitlow here at the College of Computing at Georgia Tech just posted enrollment statistics about our undergraduate degrees, BS in Computer Science and BS in Computational Media (a joint degree between Computing and the School of Literature, Media, and Communications in our Ivan Allen College of the Liberal Arts).  (You can read student impressions about CM here.) We’re now at 1665 undergraduate majors, the largest ever.

This is a huge table — click on it to make it bigger.


The gender diversity in the BS in CS is improving significantly — from 9% in 2004, up to 19.91% this year.  But it’s the CM major that I find most intriguing.  It’s gone from the 25-30% female up to 45.32%.  At 45% female, I believe that it may be the most gender-balanced ABET-accredited computing undergraduate major at any US state university.  (Private schools with more control over admissions could be higher.)  That’s really something — dramatic and important.  CM graduates are getting good jobs (in the top starting salaries coming out of Georgia Tech undergrad, well into six figures). My son just graduated with a CM degree in May, and has now started a CS PhD — evidence that the degree is getting respect at CS departments too.

But there’s an interesting research question in here, too. CM is shrinking.

CM was at its largest in 2010 with 300 majors.  Today it has only 214 majors.  The number of women in CM has continued to increase every year until this last. It’s obvious what’s going on: we’re losing men.


Computational Media at Georgia Tech may be the only computing program in the country that is wondering, “Where did the men go?”  CM is clearly doing the right things to recruit, engage, and retain women.  Why are we losing men?  What is having a differential impact in terms of gender, that started about 2010?

One hypothesis is that it’s because of competition with the BS in CS, and in particular, with our threaded curriculum with threads available like Media and People.  But Threads started in 2005, same as the CM major, and CM grew while CS shrank from 2005-2011. While the faculty know from hiring statistics that CS and CM are neck-and-neck in terms of starting salaries and jobs offered, it’s not clear that the students know this.  It’s not clear why any competition with CS would suddenly rise in 2010, and then impact men more than women.

Another hypothesis is that CM is perceived as being easy — it’s “CS lite.”  You can see that perspective in the student comments I linked to earlier.  The hypothesis has two parts (a) that CM is perceived as easy, and (b) that men are more dissuaded by a degree being labeled easier than women.  Both are empirical questions, and I don’t know the answers to either. If we’re looking for changes in the CM program that might have triggered change, it is true that we recently made CM harder.  Two years ago, we found that CM students were struggling too much in graphics, so we added a new requirement: a challenging course in data structures and algorithms — the same one that the CS majors take.  CS and CM are virtually identical for the first two years.  Did making CM harder drive away men without driving away women?  Seems unlikely, but it’s possible.

Here’s yet another hypothesis: CM has become “feminized.”  See for some discussion of what happened in psychology as it became female-dominant, a UNESCO report on the feminization of education, or see a more detailed and academic consideration here:

When a field becomes feminized, it is perceived as “softer” and less-desirable by men.  CM enrollments started declining in 2011, after the percentage of females in CM passed 30%.

So here’s this wonderful result, that CM is nearly at gender-parity, with this strange additional observation — men are less interested in CM now.  We’d rather have gender balance and stable (or preferably, growing) numbers of both genders. The success of CM is the major story here, and we want to keep women in CM.  It’s an interesting question of where the men went.  Can we keep the successes of CM, and get men interested, too?

Matthew Guzdial, Jane Margolis, and Lecia Barker reviewed earlier drafts of this post and gave me very useful comments that I have incorporated.  My thanks to all of them!  I did not however use all of their comments, so hold me alone responsible for these comments.



September 2, 2014 at 8:08 am 3 comments

SPLASH-E: Educators Symposium Call for Participation

SPLASH-E Call for Participation
 Tuesday, Oct 21 2014, Portland OR
     In conjunction with the SPLASH conference
SPLASH-E is a forum for software and languages researchers with
activities and interests around computing education.  This year’s
SPLASH-E will feature sessions around three themes:
  * Creating (and Assessing) Projects and Courses to Engage Students
  * Design Issues around Drag-and-Drop languages
  * Designing Software Engineering Courses
as well as time dedicated to impromptu discussion around these and
other topics that arise.  Formal presentations will be short (15-20 minutes),
designed to raise questions for discussion rather than to simply present
The PC is framing discussion questions within each theme, but also
welcomes questions on these topics from the broader SPLASH community.
If you have a research question or idea related to these themes and
plan to attend, drop me a line so we can include your question in the
discussion period.
Come experience an interactive day of discussion on educational
aspects of software systems.  Hope to see you in Portland!
Kathi Fisler
SPLASH-E chair

September 1, 2014 at 8:52 am Leave a comment

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