Is Coding the New Literacy? What does learning to code buy you?

June 22, 2014 at 9:32 am 11 comments

The article posted below is a carefully-considered (not a “Rah! Rah! Let’s Code!”) and intriguing consideration of the role of coding in modern notion of literacy.  I particularly liked the idea below.  Is Annettee Vee right?  Does knowing about coding inform your ability to think about things to code?  I suspect that’s true, but it’s an empirical question.  It’s much nearer transfer, and is not as much of a stretch as looking for evidence of general problem-solving skills from programming (which is very rare) or applying a computational framework for understanding the world (i.e., computational thinking).

The happy truth is, if you get the fundamentals about how computers think, and how humans can talk to them in a language the machines understand, you can imagine a project that a computer could do, and discuss it in a way that will make sense to an actual programmer. Because as programmers will tell you, the building part is often not the hardest part: It’s figuring out what to build. “Unless you can think about the ways computers can solve problems, you can’t even know how to ask the questions that need to be answered,” says Annette Vee, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies the spread of computer science literacy.

via Is Coding the New Literacy? | Mother Jones.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Let’s do the math: Does it make sense to fill a pipeline of CS workers from 3rd grade? We need computing in schools, in whatever category will work

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shawn  |  June 22, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Of course “knowing about code helps you think of things to code”. Recent example: after the recent AP chemistry national test the students had six weeks of school left and so they decided to make videos on various chemistry topics. One student wanted to provide illustrations for a chemistry poem; she eventually decided that she could control the timing of the animations better using Scratch than she could using her own skills with video. Her work is here:
    From my own experience in grad school with every new challenge I remember weighing “easier to just bang it out? Or easier to invest the work in the code and let it do it.” Knowing how to program gave me options.

  • 2. Muvaffak Gozaydin  |  June 22, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Question is silly .
    Sure .

  • 3. Raul Miller  |  June 22, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    A related question, of course, is “what does literacy buy you”?

    Fundamentally, it buys access, but only within the realms of your interests and priorities and choices.

    • 4. Dennis Frailey  |  June 22, 2014 at 9:31 pm

      Literacy buys you a better understanding of the world, the history of the world, and human nature, among other things. It enables you to make better decisions in life and can make your life richer and more rewarding.

      • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  June 23, 2014 at 1:32 am

        That’s textual literacy. Numeric literacy (sometimes called numeracy) gives you tools to check your understanding, to measure and describe relationships exactly (e.g., F=ma), and to communicate at a level of detail that is not possible with human language.

        Coding is new kind of literacy because it’s a new kind of expression — you can say something different with programming language than you can with either human language or mathematics. Human language isn’t great for defining process exactly, while programming language is terrible for describing intentionality (e.g., you couldn’t write “Pride and Prejudice” in Java). Programming language describes dynamics, process over time, which mathematical equations do poorly. Programming can be used to communicate ideas that are difficult (if not impossible) to communicate with natural language or mathematics. Computational literacy includes knowing something about programming. Programming literacy requires some knowledge of CS, but not all of CS is about coding.

        • 6. dennisfrailey  |  June 23, 2014 at 7:59 am

          I agree that coding is A new literacy but I don’t agree that it is THE new literacy. The latter implies coding is replacing traditional literacy whereas the former implies it is supplementing traditional literacy. Along those lines I also quibble with the term “coding” here because there’s so much more to competent software development than coding and there’s a new literacy associated with that.

        • 7. guy  |  June 23, 2014 at 3:44 pm

          I think a good example of of where programming shines is in the development of models. Computer-based models are great tools for learning, for expanding our understanding, especially when the mathematics underlying a hypothesis is lacking substance. I was sold on modelling when I read about how it was used to explore how we
          learn language… Remember Simula?

  • 8. Dennis Frailey  |  June 22, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    I’m inclined to think that coding is the new illiteracy. i say this for two reasons: 1) coding is a focused, specialized endeavor that teaches one a lot about how computers work (although many languages hide how computers really work) whereas literacy refers to a much broader range of knowledge and understanding. Coding is valuable to learn for the reasons many have stated, but it does not replace literacy. 2) In my experience, programmers do not rate high in conventional measures of literacy, especially given their relatively high level of education. Whether it be spelling and grammar errors, not knowing how to write a cogent, concise paragraph, or not being “literate” in economics, history, music, art, or many other fields of human endeavor, I have found many (fortunately not all) software practitioners to be at a real disadvantage outside of their field of specialty.

  • 9. Bonnie  |  June 23, 2014 at 8:58 am

    I really, really, really hate the term “coding”. First of all, it sounds suspiciously like “medical coding”. Secondly, developing software requires FAR more than the ability to sling out some Javascript or what have you. And if there is anything at all I would like nonmajors to learn about computing, it is exactly THAT. Industry is rife with managers who think there is nothing to building a large software system except a little “coding”. Then, they can’t understand why software projects come in late and bugridden. Computational literacy needs to stress that far more is involved in developing quality software than just flinging code.

    I am certain that you will argue that you aren’t talking about software development, that you are really talking about some kind of higher order literacy. Fine. We also want people who can comprehend and appreciate the computational sciences, for example, computational biology. But what is that field about? It is about algorithms, fundamentally. It is the application of pretty high powered algorithms to biology. People don’t learn about algorithms in coding classes! Mainly, they focus on the syntax of a particular language. What a typical nonmajor is going to take away from a coding class is that computers are really fussy about semi-colons and spelling, and if the student is really astute, that computers are really fussy that every line of code is in the proper order. I don’t think that is enough to appreciate anything going on in computational biology, and it is exactly what future business managers should NOT be learning.

    • 10. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 23, 2014 at 10:59 pm

      Only a small part of computational biology is about algorithms. A lot more is about statistics (particularly Bayesian statistics), data representation, and (yes) coding. The grad level intro to bioinformatics course that I teach is mainly about statistics and algorithms, but student work is focused on coding the algorithms, not on “conceptual” understanding of them.

      Only a small fraction of computational biologists develop new algorithms. Most end up learning how to choose appropriate tools, do data wrangling (which is mainly low-level coding to make the tools that encapsulate algorithms play nicely with each other), and help other biologists interpret the results.

  • 11. Peter Donaldson  |  June 24, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    What disappoints me about a lot of the debate around CT, coding and computer science is it focuses on low level technical details or narrow applications instead of really grasping the nettle and trying to imagine CS as the science of information. Exploring computer science and CS Principles get some of the way but we have a lot of ideas that have never been explored in enough depth on a wide scale.

    Information is a fundamental lense through which to understand the world we live in and just as important as areas such as chemistry and physics which mostly explore matter and energy respectively. When I hear people downplaying our field with the refrain that many of the core ideas in computing appeared earlier in time I despair. If Computing Science really can, and does, touch upon some useful and important concepts you would expect that some aspects would already have been discovered and used before the invention of computational devices.

    We do have examples of projects aiming to touch on deeper themes in other areas of the curriculum; I just wish we had a larger number of people in our field taking a similar approach for CS.


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