Pursuing universal computing literacy: Mozilla-as-Teacher, Everyone-as-Coder

September 27, 2011 at 9:14 am 6 comments

Here’s another take on the “Computing for Everyone” theme that is near and dear to me. I’ve been exploring this idea in my talks and papers, here in the blog, and all starting from our Media Computation work.  This theme starts from a different question than CS: Principles, which is asking what should everyone learn about computing.  The Mozilla-as-teacher post is suggesting why everyone should learn “coding” (here, including HTML coding, vs. programming): to make the Web better.

It’s a reasonable answer, in the sense that universal literacy makes the world of letters better.  But how does it make it better?  For me, I’m still attracted to the innovation argument: we use code as a medium to say, share, and test ideas that we can’t in other media.  That communication, sharing, and debugging of ideas leads to more and better ideas, which results in innovation — new ideas, new extensions of those ideas, new implementations of those ideas.  That’s why it’s important to strive towards near-universal computing literacy, at least with respect to knowledge workers, which is why it’s important to require computing in college.

There are other arguments, too.  Another powerful reason for universal computing literacy is that it’s about knowing the world we live in. Why do we teach students the periodic table and the difference between meiosis and mitosis?  It’s mostly not because of job skills.  It’s because people live in a world where chemistry and biology matter.  Today, we all live in a world where computing matters.  Knowing about the inherent limitations of digital representations is more important to most people’s daily lives than knowing about meiosis and mitosis.

Now, if you buy all that: How do we get there?

This has been the premise behind much of what we have done with Mozilla Drumbeat: people who make stuff on the internet are better creators and better online citizens if they know at least a little bit about the web’s basic building blocks. Even if they only learn a little HTML, the web gets better.

via Mozilla as teacher « commonspace.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  September 27, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Let’s see ca. 70AD … Teaching everyone Roman Numerals will help them to think better and become better mathematicians …

    This is not 100% bogus, but close to it. Why try to teach something really badly done just because it is pervasive?

    Slavery and human trafficking was pervasive in Roman times also … (and is still found in many cultures today)

    Let’s think of 10 things that are pervasive that we don’t want to teach just because they are there — but rather we want to teach against them! We want to teach not just better alternatives, but how to think clearly and evaluate and make real progress!

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 27, 2011 at 10:16 am

      Alan, are you talking about learning HTML here? Or CS as it stands today in general? What do you see that is analogous to Roman numerals that we’re teaching today in Computing classes?


      • 3. Alan Kay  |  September 27, 2011 at 10:43 am

        Hi Mark

        HTML (which is what the Mozilla article is about).

        As for CS itself, I’m still with Seymour and Marvin and Al Perlis in thinking that there are important epistemological perspectives in computing which are important to learn.

        I think a very workable compromise would be to make a terrific interactive system from JavaScript — along the lines of Dan Ingalls’ Lively Kernel, but more so — which would be great for authoring in the browser/web *and* that would help users tune into what’s special about computing.



        • 4. andrea forte  |  September 28, 2011 at 9:43 am

          Mark, Alan, interesting discussion!

          My student Tom Park and I spoke yesterday with people who run community centers in disadvantaged areas of Philadelphia where, among other things, local businesses and young people come together to learn to build web pages. Should we use this opportunity to expose people to some basic elements of computation by explaining how HTML and CSS work? Why waste our time teaching a suboptimal system? Why “choose” HTML when there’s a world of possibilities? We could argue about the pedagogic value of HTML as a toolkit, but realistically, features of social context, learners interests and other needs help shape those choices as much as the merits of the toolkit itself. It’s not “just” because it’s pervasive, but that pervasiveness can lead to opportunities for engagement…

  • 5. Bri Morrison  |  September 27, 2011 at 11:02 am

    There’s another benefit to computer literacy, albeit indirect: problem solving. Even those that learn HTML at some point must “debug” their “code”. Learning (logically) how to pinpoint and solve the problem is a skill that (I believe) is transferable to other domains. And it is certainly helpful when dealing with the (somewhat unhelpful) error messages that computing devices often generate. If nothing else, computing literacy should help reduce the demand on simple tech support.

    • 6. Beth Simon  |  September 30, 2011 at 12:03 pm


      Our students, in their own words, support your belief that learning “debugging” and, more generally, how to analyze and think about code (which we support in class via Peer Instruction) DOES transfer to support them in other areas. Some example quotes from our ICER “general education computing” paper make this clear.


      “I feel that learning the language of computing definitely helps you understand dense reading a lot more efficiently. I personally have noticed that my in-depth understanding of Computer Science wording has helped me understand my mathematical theorems and proofs more regularly than before.”

      “Programming allows a person to think more logically…
      Aspiring to go to law school, thinking logically is extremely important and I think this has helped.”


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