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.