Literacy, numeracy and the next step… programming

Dr Jon McCormack, ARC Australian Research Fellow and Associate Professor at Monash University, discusses the future of computing and the increasing need for all generations to upskill from the basics of literacy and numeracy to the universal language of computer code.

Creative Coding

Computing has rapidly grown from its origins as a selectively focused, highly specialised technical discipline and profession to one of the most important drivers of modern economies and cultures. Networked computer technologies have facilitated seismic changes in industry, government, education, business, culture, science and society. These days, at least in the developed world, we find ourselves deeply engaged in activities that rely completely on technology and which affect almost every aspect of contemporary living.

Schools are increasingly using technology in education. Yet, ironically, a 2010 ACM study found that secondary US education in computer science had fallen dramatically, with advanced placement courses declining by 35 per cent over the years 2005 to 2009. The report also suggested educators confused the use of technology and teaching technology literacy with computer science education as a core discipline.

Similarly, in September 2011, Google executive chair Eric Schmidt criticised UK education, claiming: “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it is made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage.” While new programs have gone some way to address this discrepancy, there is still a long way to go before we think about teaching programming in the same way we would teach music, art, design or poetry.

Schmidt is not alone in his concern about a lack of basic programming literacy. In his book Program or Be Programmed, Douglas Rushkoff prophetically argues that: “In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software.” The concept of unknown technological forces watching us, analysing us, categorising us and predicting us is increasingly written about in social sciences, and often adds to a general malaise as we struggle to understand the underlying agency behind much of the software widely in use.

Why does this stark disparity exist between computing’s astonishing impact and our cultural desirability to see it as a creative discipline?

Creativity is critical for our ability to develop as a society, yet the mainstream practice of computing has not formally situated itself around the exploration of creativity and creative ideas. Rather, it has been approached from a scientific and engineering perspective that aims to represent aspects of the world as data, and then has the task of manipulating that data in order to solve problems or gain understandings.

This must change. Given our dependency on computers for almost every aspect of modern life, it’s becoming increasingly important for everyone to learn about programming. Language literacy and numeracy have always been essential skills in education, and now we can add programming literacy to that list. Computer code is a universal language, and our hope in developing the creative coding MOOC is that it will help bring computing literacy, and an appreciation of computers as creative machines, to a wide audience.

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