Digital Literacy vs. Computer Science

I’ve had this post open in my browser for days.  I read it, and then let it sit, and I just now went and read it again, and the comments.  I’ve written many, many times about how frustrating I find it that people think Computer Science = Teaching Excel or how to use the Internet.  Computer Science is a very, very broad field, and in fact, I would argue that it can encompass Digital Literacy.  The writer of the post I linked to is frustrated by the lack of distinction, too, which she argues takes away from the importance of Digital Literacy by focusing more on Computer Science.   So she’s on the other side of this issue from me:

It’s dismaying then, to see in a week where we are seeing a huge move forward in the promotion of technology and a fresh look at how ICT as a subject area is designed and implemented in schools, to see digital literacy being used as an interchangeable term for computer science skills.

Her focus is on the British Government’s announcement earlier in January to revamp the ICT curriculum so that its focus is more on computing and computer science, including coding.  That announcement left CS teachers here salivating as they’ve been fighting to get any kind of computing into the curriculum.  ICT or Educational Technology as it’s often called here in the states in “integrated” into the curriculum, sometimes fabulously, sometimes not.  In some schools, it’s specifically taught as a separate class, sometimes not so well.

Here’s my beef with her post and mostly the comments on the post.  Once again, the commenters imagine the lonely coder in a cubicle.  We don’t want that!  We want to teach collaboration via digital tools.  GitHub anyone?  Have they been to a startup?  Do they know about people using chat, skype, etc. to work together to roll out software?  Seriously?  And, it’s not all about coding.  There’s HCI–interface design.  Have you had to use poorly designed software lately?  Do you know that medical software needs to have certain interfaces to make it easier and faster for doctors and nurses?  The HCI person doesn’t usually do the coding, but instead knows how humans actually prefer to interact with computers.  Almost every field and profession could benefit from having its practitioners know how hardware and software works, to have had some experience uploading files to a server or tweaking some javascript or understanding the logic of an “if” statement.

Yes, I think being able to blog and tweet and build documents together online and skype is all good.  And if, as Josie says, it’s about critical thinking and lifelong learning, why is Computer Science not about those things, but Digital Literacy is?  There are people who think that things are done on computers because it would be too hard to do them some other way.  Facebook and Google are the way they are because someone programmed them to be that way, and if we don’t understand that, then we have a big problem.

Program or be Programmed, Rushkoff’s book, is an apt mantra for today’s world.  We don’t have enough Computer Scientists not just serving as programmers, but working in other fields.  And while I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as a Digital Native, and that we can just let the kids take care of their own digital literacy, I don’t think we can say that teaching DL is more or less important than teaching CS.  I’m watching us all latch onto devices that can’t be easily hacked.  Can you write a script for your iPad on your iPad?  We’re dependent on software developers to create tools just to allow us to view Flash on them.  We’re letting huge companies dictate what we can do with our tools.  We need more people who are, yes, digitally literate, but who can participate in the development of tools that allow us the freedom to work in the world in whatever way we need to.  That’s what attracted everyone to the Internet in the first place.  The Internet would not exist if we didn’t have coders.


Sorry, but I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by this focus on “21st Century Learning” and “Digital Literacy” without anyone recognizing that without Computer Scientists, we would not have those terms.  I’m watching fellow CS teachers being asked to teach digital literacy classes when they could be teaching Python or Java or helping a kid develop an app.  Many of us feel that we’re being shoved out by the call for “21st Century Learning”.  What’s more 21st Century than knowing how to code, or having a deep understanding of how computers work?  Or having people able to harness the power of computing to solve our biggest problems: cancer, global warming, famine, transportation.  That’s where we’re headed.  Those problems will be solved by people plus computing.

4 Replies to “Digital Literacy vs. Computer Science”

  1. Interesting, ’cause I think this conflict you’re describing is shadowing a little bit of what you described when you were working at your previous university job. You’re seeing a CS class as being about teaching an academic subject centered around getting machines to do what you want them to do, while others are fighting to make the class about using the machines to do something you want to do (with tools others have developed). I remember your conflict with faculty using tech services being that you wanted to show them how to use the tools and they wanted you to use the tools for them.

    I think both of the conflicts are a bit driven by the role of using/creating technologies. The history teacher wants the kids to learn how to do computer-based reserach in your class so that they can teach history in theirs (and not how to use the tool for history research). I’m inclined to believe that tech tools should mostly be taught in other classes while CS is about teaching CS. But, that only works if the history teachers know how to teach tech, and I don’t think they do yet.

  2. Absolutely, bj. I think it’s an issue of people outside the field trying to describe it or determine what’s in it. And, actually, I don’t have a problem with looking at it as a continuum, that using Excel expertly might come before learning to program, for example. And I actually teach both, but I keep the curricula mostly separate. The trouble comes when people start to say–hey, maybe we just need tech stuff. And sure, more people should probably be exposed to that than to CS, but if we could increase the numbers of people exposed to CS, that would be a huge benefit.

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  4. It’s kind of the difference between art history and art isn’t it? It seems to me that overall, this has been addressed in Western education by teaching the subject itself earlier, and then fitting it into its cultural and historical context later. So I’d like to go even further back and start with logic/symbolic logic & algorithms first with a choice of language for practical application, and then after that sure, go ahead and make your Excel macros or functions or express yourself on the Internet. But it’s true I’m kind of old school about it. And not a programmer at all.

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