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ICT literacy

Learning to code vs. coding to learn

Michael Trucano's picture
hello world!
hello world!

This week over a million students around the world will participate in the Hour of Code, an annual event designed to excite interest in computer science and computer programming. This reflects a growing interest in some quarters to promote efforts within schools to broaden awareness of what it means to 'code' (i.e. write a set of step-by-step directions that instruct computers to do something) and to help students develop related skills.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many leading technology firms have been keen proponents and supporters of this educational coding 'movement'. While such support has been particularly pronounced and high profile in the United States -- many of the prominent organizations have close ties to and/or roots in Silicon Valley -- this is long past being only a North American phenomenon.

Citing the increasing importance of coding skills, and IT jobs more broadly, to their national economies, policymakers in many countries are considering national coding education efforts of various sorts – and a few education systems have already begun to implement related initiatives. From Trinidad and Tobago to Indonesia to Nigeria, 'coding' is being introduced into classrooms and curricula around the world in various ways, both informally and (increasingly) formally as well, for better and/or for worse (depending on your perspective, and the particular nature or rigor of the specific initiatives).

This phenomenon is notably observable across Europe, where, rather famously (at least within the communities of people who care about and pay attention to such things), Estonia and the United Kingdom have introduced coding curricula for students beginning in early primary grades (the UK has actually made this mandatory – as has Slovakia, for what that’s worth). Each year in October, CodeWeek.eu serves as a continental focal point and showcase for many of these sorts of national and regional efforts. A recent report from the European Schoolnet (Computer programming and coding - Priorities, school curricula and initiatives across Europe [pdf]) features results from a survey of 21 ministries of education about their current coding-related initiatives and plans for the future. To date, 16 European countries have integrated coding into their curricula at some level (with Finland and the Flemish part of Belgium expected to do so in 2016). While the focus of most of these countries has been at the upper secondary level, coding is increasingly to be found (or soon to be found) at the primary level at a majority of these countries as well. The report highlights a number of important related pedagogical questions that are emerging out of European experience:

  • How to design effectively the learning processes and outcomes involving coding?
  • Which concrete activities (and programming languages) are most appropriate for different students, according to their age, interests and capacities?
  • What are the particular merits (and limits) of adopting a cross-curricular approach to teaching coding or a discrete computer science subject?
  • How to refine assessment, in particular where coding is integrated in a cross-curricular approach in other subjects?

It also highlights many challenges related to training and support for teachers. While many of the startups developing the tools and services that make the coding movement possible are in the United States, Europe is in many the ways at the center of actual related activities in schools.

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“Coding”, it is said by some, is the “new literacy”. The ability to write and understand computer code, some contend, is increasingly fundamental to understanding how to navigate one’s way through, to say nothing of succeeding in, a modern society where more and more of our lives are enabled and/or constrained by the actions of devices and information systems that run on computer code.

Few would argue with the notion, I would expect, that efforts to expose some students to ‘coding’, and to develop some related skills, is a bad thing. That said:

Should *all* students learn how to code?
All? That’s ridiculous! some would answer.
All? Absolutely! others respond.

I’ve sat in on a number of related discussions in ministries of education and at education policy forums around the world. At times, it can seem like members of these two groups are not only on different pages, but reading from totally different books. Those people just don’t get it, I’ve have heard representatives from both groups lament about each other after the conclusion of such meetings.

For what it’s worth, and in case it might be of any interest to others, here are, in no particular order, some of the most common arguments I hear made both in support of, and against, educational coding initiatives:

Ten things about computer use in schools that you don't want to hear (but I'll say them anyway)

Michael Trucano's picture

I don't want to hear thisAt an event last year in Uruguay for policymakers from around the world, a few experts who have worked in the field of technology use in education for a long time commented that there was, in their opinion and in contrast to their experiences even a few years ago, a surprising amount of consensus among the people gathered together on what was really important, what wasn't, and on ways to proceed (and not to proceed).  Over the past two years, I have increasingly made the same comment to myself when involved in similar discussions in other parts of the world.  At one level, this has been a welcome development.  People who work with the use of ICTs in education tend to be a highly connected bunch, and the diffusion of better (cheaper, faster) connectivity has helped to ensure that 'good practices and ideas' are shared with greater velocity than perhaps ever before.  Even some groups and people associated with the 'give kids computers, expect magic to happen' philosophy appear to have had some of their more extreme views tempered in recent years by the reality of actually trying to put this philosophy into practice.

That said, the fact that "everyone agrees about most everything" isn't always such a good thing.  Divergent opinions and voices are important, if only to help us reconsider why we believe what we believe. (They are also important because they might actually be right, of course, and all of the rest of us wrong, but that's another matter!) Even where there is an emerging consensus among leading thinkers and practitioners about what is critically important, this doesn't mean that what is actually being done reflects this consensus -- or indeed, that this consensus 'expert' opinion is relevant in all contexts.

How (not) to develop ICT literacy in students?

Michael Trucano's picture
to teach, or not to teach, basic ICT literacy?
to teach, or not to teach, basic ICT literacy?

In most cases, in most places -- at least in most so-called 'developing countries' -- the use of computers and other ICTs in schools is in practice focused largely on the development of what is commonly referred to or understood as 'ICT or computer literacy'. In fact, in many low and even middle income countries, professed needs to develop 'market-relevant' things like keyboarding skills, a basic understanding of how to navigate computer GUIs and operating systems and a general facility with standard office applications inform some of the primary justifications for the roll-out of computers in schools.

In some such places (case #1), once you have become 'proficient' in using (e.g.) a word processor, the promotion of the development of 'ICT-related skills' stops. (You are now 'computer literate': Time to move along!)

In other places (case #2), there is no shortage of lofty rhetoric around the need to develop '21st century skills' through the use (in part) of ICTs, but if you look at how the equipment is actually being utilized, the reality of ICT use in case #2 is not terribly different in practice than what one sees in the first case.

That said, some people think that way basic ICT literacy is being promoted within many 'digital divide' initiatives in the education sector may over time actually impede progress toward the development of higher order ICT-related skills. This points to a phenomenon associated with the so-called 'Second Digital Divide' (related EduTech blog post), which (in the words of the OECD) "separates those with the competencies and skills to benefit from computer use from those without". For such people, a focus on developing only basic ICT literacy,