Kids Need to Learn Digital Literacy-- Not How to Code

The new narrative in education, echoed from Silicon Valley to Washington, D.C., is: “Everyone should learn to code.” But something's getting lost in translation between technologists and parents of students around the country.

Let’s get this out of the way: Not everyone needs to learn how to code. Coding is just one part of the constantly evolving technological landscape. 

There’s a big difference between learning how to code and having a fundamental understanding of how technology and software operate. Of the two, the latter is way more important for most people.

What students—and, really, anyone who wants to function in careers in the future—should learn is how to be digitally literate. 

Driver Ed? Why Not Coding Ed?

Working with computers and mobile devices is a bit like driving a car. Multiple parts contribute to the overall functionality of the technology. 

When I first learned to drive, my mother taught me two things: how to change a tire and how to check the oil. I didn’t need to know how to rebuild the transmission, but when I got stuck on the side of the road with a nail through my tire, I could figure out what the problem was—and solve it.

At a session on “coding as the new literacy” hosted last Thursday in San Francisco by social coding site GitHub, panelists discussed the importance of teaching students how to work with technology, and the important difference between learning to code and learning about code.

“Nine in 10 jobs that we’re creating right now require some form of digital literacy, even if they’re not in computer science related fields,” said Carol Smith, manager of Google’s Summer of Code open source programs. “Coding is the next step—literacy is the basic understanding of how to interact with a computer, how to interact with applications on that computer, how to make it do what you want.”

By 2018, there will be 1.2 million new jobs in science, technology, engineering and math and a lack of qualified applicants to fill them, according to a White House initiative called US2020. To help fill those future jobs, some organizations are partnering with schools directly. For instance, there'sArdusat, which enables students to program satellites in space; others, like the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools, work to make computer science part of the core curriculum, just like algebra or physics.

Many people in the U.S. don’t understand the tools and software they’re using. That knowledge gap was on full display last week when hackers attacked iCloud and leaked private celebrity photos to the Internet.

“The cloud” is still one of those misunderstood technical terms that gets thrown around far too often, and yet people don’t understand what it means.Even CNN couldn’t educate their viewers appropriately about where and how data is stored in cloud services like iCloud.

In fact, according to a 2012 study by cloud company Citrix, 51% of people think bad weather affects cloud computing, and over 95% of respondents didn’t think they had ever used the cloud.

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.

So What Are Schools Doing?

Fewer than 10 percent of 37,000 U.S. high schools offer college-level computer science. Which is a problem for people like Bennett Brown, director of curriculum and instruction and lead writer for the computer-science program at Project Lead The Way, who think the concepts of computer science and digital literacy should be introduced as early as second grade.

“[Second graders] could run an experiment and collect some data,” Bennett said. “Instead of coloring that in a bar chart, I would say it would be useful at that point to use Excel or an iPad app, or whatever the teacher has access to.”

Some initiatives, like, provide resources for teachers whose classes don’t have access to computers or tablets. Teachers can still teach basic concepts using pencil and paper.

For students with access to more advanced technology, dovetailing computer science concepts with courses students are already studying can benefit both subjects. Bootstrap, for instance, teaches students programming concepts by using algebra and geometry to create a video game. The materials are open source, and math teachers of students aged 12 to 16 can download and introduce Bootstrap to the classroom.

But finding and enabling qualified instructors to teach concepts of technology and computer science can be difficult.

Project Lead The Way provides science, technology, engineering, and math programs to schools around the country through curriculum development and teacher training. This includes learning best practices to teach computer science, as well as how to make those classes appeal to students from diverse backgrounds.

The organization piloted its first computer-science teaching program last year, and this year it’s rolling out to its network of schools around the country.

“Within that first year, 80% of the teachers who went through the two-week intensive course training say, ‘I feel comfortable going back to the classroom to teach this to my students,’” Bennett said.

The "learn to code," movement has almost as many skeptics as supporters—in part because coding, and understanding how coding works, are two very different things. 

Armando Fox, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley, says that digital literacy won't be a part of a students' required curriculum until parents know why, and thus demand, that their students be taught it.

Parents need to "realize that this is an intellectual gap in the elementary school curriculum that's going to be useful no matter what their kids are going to do,"he said. "Creating the pull is part of what needs to happen." 

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