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Information and Communication Technologies

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:

Extending financial services to women in Bihar yields social and economic benefits

Jennifer Isern's picture


How many bank accounts do you have? One, two or more? For people in developed countries, a bank account is a fact of everyday life. A constant presence. Something that is pivotal to your home, your work and your family. But imagine if you didn’t have one. How would you be paid? How could you pay for your rent or mortgage, your food, utility bills, and so on?

Complexities in utilizing free digital learning resources

Michael Trucano's picture
What do you mean, 'gratis' or 'libre'? It's 'free' and so I'm taking it!
What do you mean, 'gratis' or 'libre'?
It's
'free' and so I'm taking it!

Here's a scenario I have encountered more than a few times.

Officials at a ministry of education in ___ tell me that:

They've bought lots of computers.
They've put computer labs in their schools.
They've connected (most of) their schools.

And:

Lots of their teachers have (inexpensive) laptops.
Now their students are getting tablets.
Along the way, they've been teaching basic computer literacy.

Which leads them to ask:
 

Now what should we do?

(In my experience, this query may be a result of an evaluation that showed little or no 'impact of technology on student learning’, despite massive amounts of money that have been invested … or it may simply come about because a lot of initiatives are coming to an end and the groups involved in them are looking for stuff to do. There are other impetuses as well, but I am regularly reminded that the motivations which animate this sort of question can vary quite a bit!)

In such instances, I usually respond by first congratulating them on all of these great accomplishments. A lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people was needed to make these things happen, and no doubt lots of difficult challenges popped up along the way.

However:

As difficult (and expensive) as it may have been to achieve all of these things, in many ways they represent just table settings, and not the main course. In other words (and to adopt another metaphor, in case you didn't like that last one), they are some of the key raw materials that can be used to help do something purposeful with technology to supports learning that has real, demonstrable impact.

what a minute: where's the content?
what a minute:
where's the content?

It's about the content, not the container, after all. (That will be the last metaphor for a while, I promise.) As devices proliferate, and as better and more widespread connectivity enables connections to networks from different places using a variety of different devices, the value will decreasingly be in the devices themselves, but rather in the educational content they enable learners and teachers to access (and in the connections to communities of other people as well).

OK, they counter, if the value is indeed in the content, and not the container ... where do we get this content?

The textbooks we use do not have straightforward digital equivalents or complements.
We really haven't budgeted for any digital learning content.
We spent almost all of our money on hardware (and a little on related training).

We know that there is a lot of 'free' content available on the Internet that would be useful to teachers and students.

Can't we just use a bunch of this stuff?

And if so:

How might we go about doing this?

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Media (R)evolutions: Internet freedom in decline across the world

Roxanne Bauer's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

In its 2015 annual “Freedom on the Net” reportFreedom House, a US-based organization, analyzed 65 countries to assess the degree to which individuals enjoy rights and freedoms online within each country.

Unfortunately, the report finds internet freedom around the world has declined for a fifth consecutive year as more governments censored information of public interest while they also expanded surveillance activity and cracked down on privacy tools. Authorities in 42 of the countries analyzed required internet users or private customers to restrict or delete online content related to political, religious, or social issues, while authorities in 40 of 65 countries went a step further to imprison people for sharing information concerning politics, religion or society through digital networks.  Additionally, governments in 14 of 65 countries passed new laws to increase surveillance since June 2014, and others upgraded their surveillance tools.  Globally, democracies and authoritarian regimes alike stigmatized encryption as an instrument of terrorism, and many tried to ban or limit tools that protect privacy.

However, it is not all bad news. Nearly one-third of Internet users worldwide are in countries that are considered "Free". Internet freedom has also increased in eight countries over the past few years, including Cuba, Iran, Malawi, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Zambia. All of these fall into the "Partly Free" or "Not Free" categories. This occurred while many other poor performers showed further declines in freedom.

This chart, created by Niall McCarthy at Statista, shows the state of internet freedom around the world in 2015, as compiled by Freedom House.

Internet Freedom Across The World Visualized | Statista
Infographic: Internet Freedom Across The World Visualized | Statista

Common (and uncommon) approaches to preventing the theft of computers, laptops and tablets in schools

Michael Trucano's picture
if you don't pay attention, I'll steal this tablet right out of your pocket!
if you don't pay attention,
I'll steal this tablet right out of your pocket!

Many critics of contemporary schooling practices have noted that, if a teacher from the 19th century was magically transported into a typical classroom today, she would feel very comfortable with how things look. The room itself would be very familiar.

(Whether that teacher would be comfortable with today's students is another matter entirely, given that they probably look a little different than they did 'back in the day' -- to say nothing of how they might act and some of the opinions they might have!)

Contrast this, such critics note, with the situation of a surgeon from the 19th century teleported into an operating room today -- he would be bewildered, and perhaps disoriented, by all of the technology on display.

Few would deny that, in many fundamental and obvious ways, technology has revolutionalized medicine and healthcare.

Why hasn't it done so (yet) for learning and education?

One way that critics illustrate and reinforce this question is to share pictures of 'typical' operating rooms in the 19th and 21st centuries, alongside pictures of 'typical' classrooms from both centuries. The classrooms in such examples usually do look quite the same, with a teacher standing at the front of the room and neatly lined up rows of students intently (if metaphorically) drinking from the fountain of the teacher's knowledge. The chief noticeable difference (again, apart from the students themselves -- and the teachers as well) is that there are now computing devices of some sort on display in the 'modern' classroom, sometimes (depending on the country) lots of them, although the room essentially looks and functions the same way. The arrangement and nature of these ICT devices don't fundamentally alter the architecture of the room, nor what occurs inside it. In others words, the changes are additive, not transformative.  (It is of course possible to provide pictures of some of today's 'innovative' classrooms that complicate this simple and popular narrative, as well as to ask some fundamental and important questions about what such pictures may obscure and what they illuminate, but I'll ignore such inconvenient complications here.)

Side note: Over a dozen years ago I visited the launch of a computer lab at a school in Cambodia. The headmaster had proudly transformed a room formerly used for sewing instruction into a 'technology lab', with a new PC atop each desk in place of the 'old-fashioned' technology of the sewing machine, with neat rows of students facing forward toward a teacher who was energetically shouting instructions.

Let's also put aside for a moment whether all of this technology 'makes a difference' (as well as perhaps more relevant questions about how and under what circumstances ICTs have an 'impact'). Let's ignore discussions about whether or not today's classrooms are a legacy of a 'factory model of education' that once existed but is no longer useful, or about the potential need to re-think school architecture in the age of ICT. Let's also ignore related 'big picture' issues around policymaking and planning.

Let's focus instead just on the technology itself.

Many regular readers of the EduTech blog are no doubt familiar with scenes of ICT equipment sitting unused in schools, locked away in computer labs or even still resting peacefully (and undamaged!) in unopened boxes. Often times, getting teachers and students to use such equipment, let alone to use it 'productively', can be a rather tall order, for all sorts of reasons. Nevertheless, education ministries, local educational authorities, and schools around the world are buying lots of technology: PCs, laptops, tablets, projectors, and lots of other devices and peripherals. 

What are they doing to make sure that this stuff doesn't get stolen?

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Internet governance 2015: Brazil and beyond

CGCS's picture

Christian Moller explores the future of the Internet Governance Forum as the November 2015 IGF meeting in Brazil approaches.

Table flags and backboard of the 7th Internet Governance Forum2015 continues to be a decisive year for Internet governance. As in 2014 with the passage of Marco Civil and the NETmundial Meeting, Brazil is again in the focus of this year’s developments as the tenth meeting of the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will convene in João Pessoa in November. Titled “Evolution of Internet Governance: Empowering Sustainable Development,” in anticipation of this year’s IGF, human rights advocates have already begun to ask whether Brazil’s approach to internet governance might serve as a model for the rest of the world.

Brazil 2014: Marco Civil and NETmundial

In April 2014, a Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, also known as NETmundial, was hosted by the Brazilian government in São Paulo. NETmundial brought together over nine hundred attendees from governments, international organizations, the private sector, and civil society and resulted in the adoption of a (non-binding) Internet Governance Roadmap. Following the meeting, a number of pieces reviewed and commented on NETmundial’s outcome and final documents. The Center for Global Communication’s Internet Policy Observatory, for example, published Beyond NETmundial: The Roadmap for Institutional Improvements to the Global Internet Governance Ecosystem to explore how sections of “NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement” could be implemented. The meeting also played host to a series diverging narratives not only between governments, States, and civil society, but also among various civil society actors.

Media (R)evolutions: Internet penetration and income inequality

Roxanne Bauer's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

Growing inequality is one of the defining challenges of our time. Seven out of 10 people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater than it was 30 years ago, Oxfam reports. Inequality has also been on the radar of World Economic Forum topping its annual survey of global risks this year.  Christine LaGarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has also recently warned that rising inequality is choking economic growth, and leaving “a wasteland of discarded potential”.

What role can the Internet play in helping to address inequality?  The Internet can be an enabler of equal opportunity and broad-based growth because, among other things, it can:

Unfortunately, over four billion people are not connected to the Internet; ninety percent of them live in the developing world. The following graph from Web Index shows, there is a very strong correlation between per capita income and access to the Internet, with the steepest increases in Internet penetration taking place as average income rises from $0 to $10,000 per year.

 Internet Penetration and Income Inequality

The potential of reforming state broadcasters in divided societies: Advancing an unfashionable argument

James Deane's picture

BBC Media Action's Director of Policy and Learning argues for an urgent rethinking of what is often considered a relic of the past - the state broadcaster - to encourage discussion, dialogue and understanding across communities in fragile states.

Young child listens on a mobile telephoneMost commentaries on 21st-century media focus on the impact of new technologies, social media and, above all, the increasing global ubiquity of mobile telephony. Such commentaries highlight how in many, if not most, societies, the majority of people are under the age of 30 and are reinventing how humanity communicates with itself. The focus is on innovation, on digital replacing analogue, on an old order of mass, vertical forms of communication being supplanted by horizontal, digitally enabled networks.

Speaking personally, I have advanced at one time or another all these tenets and continue (mostly) to do so. This blog, however, marks the publication of a set of BBC Media Action policy and research outputs I’ve commissioned which collectively advance some unfashionable arguments.

We focus particularly on the role of media in fragile and divided societies and especially on what can be done to support media that transcends, rather than exacerbates, divisions in society. We argue that, for all the innovation, dynamism and potential that exists, there are growing signs that publics are less and less trusting of the media that is available to them. Media environments appear more dynamic, interactive and complex, but much of media – both traditional and social – exists to advance particular agendas or interests in society rather than to serve a public. 21st-century fragmentation of media environments has often been accompanied by an associated fracturing of media often owned, controlled or heavily influenced by particular political, factional, ethnic or religious interests. Such fracturing often applies to both social and traditional media.

Digital India = Inclusive India

Swati Mishra's picture
One of the greatest marvels of our times, undoubtedly, is the digital revolution. It has pushed through human limitations to unleash an ‘e’-era of cutting-edge innovations. Be it a student taking an online course, a healthcare worker using medical software to get a holistic view of a patient’s health, a housewife paying bills online,  or someone like me with a relentless urge to “google it up”, the technology has had a profound impact on our day-to-day lives. And precisely why, it also offers boundless possibilities.

More voices mean smarter cities

Stephen Davenport's picture
Urban cityscape.  Photo: © Curt Carnemark / World Bank


With the ink barely dry on the Sustainable Development Goals, naturally the just-completed Open Government Partnership annual summit focused on how greater openness can accelerate progress toward the goals.
 
The open government agenda is most closely linked to the ambitious Goal 16 on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, which among other targets includes the objective of ensuring “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.” Though progress in this area is maddeningly difficult to quantify, evidence increasingly shows that participation, the next transparency frontier, matters to development outcomes. Making the target explicit, it is hoped, will galvanize efforts in the right direction.
 
There are many issues one could propose to tackle with citizen engagement strategies, but to narrow the topic of discussion, let’s consider just one: enabling smart growth in the world’s exploding cities and megacities.  Estimates suggest that by 2035 most of the world’s extreme poor will live in urban areas.


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