Tuesday, March 23, 2010

SparkCBC takes on the issue of computational literacy

As I've explained in previous blog posts, I'm a fan of incorporating computational literacy education into the formal classroom--across curricula and content areas. So I was thrilled to see Spark Radio will be tackling the issue of computational literacy in an upcoming broadcast. Spark co-producer Dan Misener explains, using the user-friendly iPad as an example:

(T)he iPad (and its little brothers, the iPhone and iPod touch) abstract much of the computer away. Apple watcher and former Spark guest John Gruber says it’s a bit like the automatic transmission in a car:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.

And from the standpoint of the vast majority of computer users, this abstraction can be a good thing. It makes computing simpler, easier, friendlier. Why should I need to understand what’s going on under the hood of my computer if all I want to do is send email to my friends?...

But I wonder, is the same attitude towards computers dangerous? Does oversimplifying technology –removing necessary complexity — have a downside? By making technology simple, easy, and convenient, do we risk a generation of people who can’t tell the difference between this blog post and the Facebook login page?

As I ponder this, I’m a bit torn. The technology populist in me wants to say, “Of course, make computers easy! What’s wrong with making computers as simple and friendly as possible?”

But another (geekier, snobbier) part of me wants to say, “Yes, computers are hard, and that can be a good thing. I don’t want to use technology designed for the lowest common denominator.”

The question this Spark show hopes to tackle is this:

If I don’t understand how to use my computer, whose fault is it? Is it my fault for not wanting to read manuals or spend time learning a new technology? Or is it the fault of the designers and engineers who build the technology we use?

You can weigh in on the discussion at the Spark blog, then listen in live or or download the podcast of the show; information on broadcast times and podcast download is available here.

Here's my take on this issue, which I've also posted as a comment on the Spark blog:

This is a thorny issue, because easier interfaces help to drop the barriers to participation, but on the other hand this shift means we give up some degree of empowerment to make decisions about which sorts of interfaces, and by extension which sorts of technologies, work best for our specific needs. Indeed, the crafting and marketing of products like the iPad is deeply, deeply political, and the embedded politics that lead to the tools we use is not readily evident to those without a degree of computational literacy. And enormous swaths of the computer-using public are lacking in this area.

On the other hand, computational literacy is very much like other forms of literacy: reading, writing, mathematical literacy, and so on. We don't blame the math-illiterate learner who has never been exposed to mathematics education, or whose math education was lacking in significant ways. This is the exact case with computational literacy education: It's nearly nonexistent in formal classrooms, and has become the nearly exclusive domain of those with the luxury of access to computational technologies outside of school. In some ways, then, perhaps we get the technologies we deserve.


Gurdonark said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

In 1975, when a science camp for physics folks introduced me to Fortran programming, we all lived in a science fiction world in which everyone assumed that knowledge of computer languages was a key skill, as essential as French in Paris. The debate then was more along the line of whether Fortran or Cobol was enough, or whether we in fact needed to know assembler or machine language. Then, when the PC and the IIe (and then the Mac) came along, they succeeded only when they removed the need for the consumer to speak Basic or C or any code at all. My view is that the iPad is not apt to succeed, but the notion of computers-as-apps rather than computers-as-code is here to stay.
What is intriguing about the "cloud' is not its "cloudiness" so much as the way it envisions computer use as apps liberated even from the CPU.

Yet both "computational literacy' and "hardware/electronics" literacy are nonetheless important skills to be taught. They will define the difference between a future of megalithic manufacturers and a future in which small business will create apps and programs and games. They will define whether the cloud is a huge corporate parking lot, or
a place with "localvore' consumers of apps, buying apps from "localfarm" creators of computers and apps.

This is why funding community colleges, extension courses, state universities, and primary/secondary computer use is so essential.
Logo, Ruby, C #, integrated circuits, the whole panoply. We can create a future of literate users and capable small businesses, and this is the sustainable future we want to have.

marry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenna McWilliams said...

This is interesting. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how your intro to Fortran has shaped your current attitude toward technologies. Given that the specific training is useless, were there any features of that education that helped (or hindered) you in working with newer technologies, tools, and programming languages?

Gurdonark said...

What I learned of Fortan and Basic in a bygone day was useful to help me understand the ideas behind computer languages which is a useful thing.
My time with COBOL one Summer was less productive.

When I learned Logo, years ago, I enjoyed making diagrams. I still use Logo to make string-art today.

I'm intrigued by the way that literacy in one language as a quick tool to a job can be a focus in some quarters, when history shows that it's literacy in a way of thinking about computers that may be more important.


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