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Code Literacy: A 21st-Century Requirement

| Douglas Rushkoff

Ask kids what Facebook is for, and they'll tell you it's there to help them make friends. And, on the surface anyway, that's what it looks like. Of course, anyone who has poked a bit deeper or thought a bit longer about it understands that people programming Facebook aren't sitting around wondering how to foster more enduring relationships for little Johnny, Janey and their friends, but rather how to monetize their social graphs -- the trail of data the site is busy accumulating about Johnny and Janey every second of the day and night.

After all, our kids aren't Facebook's customers; they're the product. The real customers are the advertisers and market researchers paying for their attention and user data. But it's difficult for them or us to see any of this and respond appropriately if we don’t know anything about the digital environment in which all this is taking place. That’s why -- as an educator, media theorist and parent -- I have become dedicated to getting kids code literate.

Digital World Ownership

As I see it, code literacy is a requirement for participation in a digital world. When we acquired language, we didn't just learn how to listen, but also how to speak. When we acquired text, we didn't just learn how to read, but also how to write. Now that we have computers, we are learning to use them but not how to program them. When we are not code literate, we must accept the devices and software we use with whatever limitations and agendas their creators have built into them. How many times have you altered the content of a lesson or a presentation because you couldn't figure out how to make the technology work the way you wanted? And have you ever considered that the software's limitations may be less a function of the underlying technology than that of the corporation that developed it? Would you even know where to begin distinguishing between the two?

This puts us and our kids -- who will be living in a more digital world than our own -- at a terrible disadvantage. They are spending an increasing amount of their time in digital environments where the rules have been written by others. Just being familiar with how code works would help them navigate this terrain, understand its limitations and determine whether those limits are there because the technology demands it -- or simply because some company wants it that way. Code literate kids stop accepting the applications and websites they use at face value, and begin to engage critically and purposefully with them instead.

Otherwise, they may as well be at the circus or a magic show.

More generally, knowing something about programming makes us competitive as individuals, companies and a nation. The rest of the world is learning code. Their schools teach it, their companies are filled with employees who get it, and their militaries are staffed by programmers -- not just gamers with joysticks. According to the generals I've spoken with, we are less than a generation away from losing our technological superiority on the cyber battlefield, which should concern a nation depending so heavily on drones for security and electronic trading as an industry.

Finally, learning code -- and doing so in a social context -- familiarizes people with the values of a digital society: the commons, collaboration and sharing. These are replacing the industrial age values of secrecy or the hoarding of knowledge. Learning how software is developed and how the ecosystem of computer technology really works helps us understand the new models through which we'll be working and living as a society. It's a new kind of teamwork, and one that's under-emphasized in our testing-based school systems.

Codeacademy

To build my own code literacy, I decided to take free classes through the online website Codecademy.com, and ended up liking it so much that I'm now working with them to provide free courses for kids to learn to code. The lessons I've learned along the way are of value to parents and teachers looking to grow more code literate young people.

1. Learning by Doing

One of Codecademy's key insights was that programming is best taught by doing. Where literature might best be taught through books, coding is best taught in an interactive environment. So instead of just giving students text to read or videos to watch, Codecademy invites them to learn to code by actually making code. Every online lesson involves writing lines of code in an interactive window within the web browser, and then hitting the "run" button and watching those lines actually work. Instant payoff, and an "intrinsic reward."

2. A Stake in the Outcome

Code also makes much more sense to people when it is tied to a real project. People need reasons for learning one skill or another. When students are working to devise a computer adventure game, all of a sudden abstract mathematical functions become immediately relevant.

3. Benefits of Interaction

Finally, while badges and point scores are great for motivating students in the short run, social connections to a real group of cohorts probably matter more for the long haul. Codecademy's first strides in that direction, simple forums, allow users to seek out help from others when they're stuck in a lesson. Meanwhile, those who are mastering a skill find it really sinks in when they have the opportunity to explain things to someone encountering it for the first time. Just as research has shown a heterogeneous classroom benefits those on both ends of the aptitude spectrum, interaction between more and less experienced code learners benefits both.

After-School Adventures

The greatest challenge so far, at least from my end, has been figuring out ways to get these interactive lessons into the schools that need them. Between curriculum standards, overworked faculty and legal restrictions on inviting minors to use websites, it's an uphill battle. To help with these challenges, Codecademy has unveiled an after-school program through which any parent or teacher can teach code to a self-selecting group of interested students.

Codecademy.com/afterschool is basically "Codecademy in a box." It's a year of interactive lesson tracks, specially assembled for an after-school group or club run by an adult with no programming experience. In the fall semester, kids make a website by learning HTML and CSS. In the spring, they build an adventure game by learning Javascript. The beauty of the model is that the adult supervising all this needn't know anything about code in advance. The course materials let you know everything you need to stay a week ahead of the kids, and the rest of the online community is there to help you out if you get stuck.

When I learned about the after-school program, I was compelled to tweet, "No Excuses." That's about the best I can say it. The obstacles to code literacy are getting smaller every day, while the liabilities for ignorance are only getting more profound.

What steps are you taking to bring code literacy into your classroom?

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Comments (12)

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I'm so much agree with you

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I'm so much agree with you Douglas.
World is just going digital. I think it's so important for young generation to keep up with it. Moreover, children can pick up any knowledge quickly including, I assume, learning principles of programming.

Digital Literacy Advocate - Codecademy

Alas, I haven't done any real

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Alas, I haven't done any real work on the extension of childhood or the infantilization of adults - at least not when they do it by choice. There's a bit about this in Postman's "Disappearance of Childhood," where he makes the observation that it's not children who have become adult-like but adults who have become perpetually young. And a lot of it has to do with the way youth is marketed. I talk about it a bit in Merchants of Cool, a Frontline documentary from back in 1999.

But I don't see all digital technology as toys, any more than I see all text as jokes. I think there are some people who use any technology - be it a computer or a gun - as a way of clinging to some childlike postures. There are others who look to digital technologies for ways of helping us mature as individuals and a society.

What I study are the biases of different media and technology. You're correct in that certain biases of digital technology lead to over-simplification and quick-triggered conclusions. I dedicate two chapters of Program or Be Programmed to those particular problems. Again, this is why I believe young people should be taught the biases of these technologies - digital technology as a liberal art - so that they won't so easily fall into these traps, and so that they can recognize when others are doing so.

Life Skills Support Teacher

I'm deeply committed to

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I'm deeply committed to chastising those adults who play with "toys" for a living.

I look around and I see many so-called "adults" in a state of retro-adolescence. Perhaps with all your prodigious analytical skills you can clue me in to why these same people are so obsessed with clinging to their youth and not embracing the wonders and liberation that age and maturity grants.

Digital Literacy Advocate - Codecademy

Again, a fascinating and

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Again, a fascinating and atypical response - especially from someone who seems so deeply committed to online banter.

As I see it, digital literacy could go a long way to preventing the spawning of more digital businessmen - or, at the very least, toward helping the many of us who are engaged digitally from falling into their traps. Without digital literacy, we can't really tell what those folks are trying to do to us. If we avoid all digital education, as you're suggesting, I think we are actually more vulnerable to manipulation in this realm. But perhaps that's what you're calling for? That we should prevent others from learning what Zuckerberg and Gates have learned, so that we can follow their missives without question?

I don't have nearly as much time or energy to spend online as you, though. So maybe your deeper immersion in the digital has given you insights I'm only beginning to develop myself.

Life Skills Support Teacher

Please, the world doesn't

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Please, the world doesn't need more Mark Zuckerbergs or Bill Gateses.

Digital Literacy Advocate - Codecademy

Gosh, thanks Monica.

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Gosh, thanks Monica. ClassTechTips looks great, too! I'm going to have to start recommending it in my talks!

Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

Wow that's fabulous blog and

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Wow that's fabulous blog and i would agree to it fully. Literacy is the need of the hour and one can't stay without getting to know the possibilities in life by being a literate person. literacy could be gained through online portals is the best thing one can do. The internet tool in hand would act as boon for the ones who want to get access to the knowledge database. So one should utilize the resources and gian the code of the era i.e. Literacy.

Thanks

Digital Literacy Advocate - Codecademy

Yes and no. I have written

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Yes and no. I have written books applying what I considered to be the coder's or open source instinct to religion, business, and other aspects of society. I started writing about programming when I realized these same insights were no longer being applied to digitality.

I get a lot of push back when I talk about code fitting in with history, social studies, and so on, because then CS teachers are afraid of being turned into a multi-disciplinary extra instead of a core curriculum of its own.

Hi Doug, Agreed. Thanks for

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Hi Doug,

Agreed. Thanks for your response.

Although in your writing, there seems to be a required technical underpinning (to borrow a phrase from Rheingold); for understanding how algorithms or logic might sort or categorize requires a bit of understanding about the underlying logic, algorithms or (as you write) the biases and assumptions made by the programmers in the underlying code. These algorithms are most likely at work in showing me the ads I see, now, on the right side of my screen.

But this, I agree, differs from a thorough understanding of, say, Perl or Python.

At the pragmatic level, we've been treating these topics at a high, conceptual level (so as to build foundations for understanding), for example, through our work on Engineering the Net (engineeringthenet.org); but haven't fully resolved the 'how much for everyone' debate (if it ever fully resolves).

Outside of programming, library or computer classes in K-12, have you considered (or written; perhaps I simply haven't seen it) how teaching 'core code' might fit with, say, History, Social Studies or other standard subjects?

Cheers,
--Dave

Digital Literacy Advocate - Codecademy

Well yeah, that's why I write

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Well yeah, that's why I write whole books!
To begin, I'd suggest there are two main paths or aspects of code literacy to consider: coding as a technical language, and coding as a liberal art.

I think learning expressions and algorithmic language will end up less important for the majority of us than learning how to think critically about digital spaces. We're spending a lot of time in digital media environments, so learning about interfaces, choices, and biases of the underlying technology (what I try to explain in Program or Be Programmed) is part of that.

As for *real* programming, there are places to learn, such as free resources like Codecademy.com. But these languages aren't easy to master, and they're actually somewhat convoluted in their very design. Newer languages are emerging that are a bit more sensical, but they're not really in common use out there in the world.

Still, if we were to expose millions of American kids to real code in school, the few thousand who might have a natural inclination toward learning this stuff would at last have the opportunity to pursue it.

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