Computer science and digital literacy

Fred Wilson’s post on the push to make computer science a standard part of New York state public school curriculum got me thinking, and specifically the struggle to make that happen outside of the cities, got me thinking.

I support the addition of computer science as a standard part of K-12 curriculum, so long as it’s balanced by a strong and challenging literary/humanities curriculum. As Steve Jobs once said, technology alone is not enough. And in many respects American educational thinking is already far too focused exclusively on the economic aspect of learning, while personal and cultural knowledge is lost or never conveyed in the first place.

But literacy of any sort requires good language. Think of Albus Dumbledore’s comment to Harry Potter in The Deathly Hallows to the effect that “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”. That means that the careful use of language in what we describe will shape what we strive to do.

How many schools still use archaic language like “Computer Class” or “Technology” or something similar? That’s atrocious phrasing that I think underscores how far those schools are from Fred Wilson’s vision of computer science for all. (The same is true, by the way, for terrible, nebulous subjects like “Religion” and “Social Studies” and “English Language Arts”, etc.) What’s really being taught (or what should really be taught in this class) is not “computers” or “technology” but digital or electronic literacy.

“Digital Literacy” curriculum would demand better teachers, because it would encompass not just basic skills like typing, systems use, coding, etc, but could go a step further by seeking to impart a sense of public citizenship. And personal social network guidance. And imparting at least intermediate critical learning and research methodology.

“Computers and Technology” is creaky language, and an obsolete, vague, unmeasurable sort of class. It’s like calling an English composition class “Typing Class”—technically accurate, while missing the point.

A digital literacy curriculum could encompass what Fred Wilson is working to do in New York, while also cultivating a wider set of virtues that would serve the whole person.

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