Digital literacy and Computer Science

In a very incisive article Josie Fraser makes the very important point that Computer Science is not Digital Literacy. After discussing some definitions of digital literacy, she says:

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.

Not being able to code doesn't make you digitally illiterate. Not being able to participate in  social, economic, cultural and political life because you lack the confidence, skills and opportunity to do so is what makes you digitally illiterate.

2146I’d go slightly further and say that the corollary is true also, ie that being able to code doesn’t make you digitally literate. A few months ago I was asked by someone at PC Pro to give my views on the idea of a Computer Science GCSE. Here’s a summary of what I said, which I think is relevant here:

  • Computer studies and its main component, programming, could be an exciting new addition to the curriculum. However, we must not repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, when the subject was, at least in my experience and in my opinion, insular, highly technical, and rightly perceived by some (especially girls) as “geeky”. In fairness, this wasn’t the fault of the syllabus alone, or at least not directly. I inherited a Computer Studies class which seemed to have attracted several geeky and outspoken boys, and that alone had probably put a lot of the girls off taking the course. After the course had finished I switched to ICT, which attracted equal numbers of girls and boys. I also ran a computer programming club after school, and that attracted girls too. So, I don’t think that the subject of computer programming itself was to blame for the low interest by girls, but the syllabus as a whole.
  • The syllabus should be robust in terms of teaching procedures like coding, but also provide plenty of opportunities to explore issues to do with values, ethics, morality. For example, there is scope for working with colleagues who have a responsibility for teaching other subjects or areas of the curriculum, such as "Citizenship", or Personal Health and Social Education. For instance, consideration should be given not simply to how to create an application but whether it should be created, ie whether or not it contributes to the “common good”. Other factors could be brought in too, like acceptable levels of risk vs cost etc etc.
  • The syllabus should also include issues such as the ethical arguments for and against hacking, creating and spreading viruses, internet scams, spam, cyber terrorism and the fighting of wars over metals for mobile phone components.
  • It should also be highly relevant, both to the needs of the economy and the need for pupils to develop so-called “21st century skills” * such as team work. For example, ideally it will include opportunities to work with local businesses, local community centres or even other schools to create applications that have a practical value in the real world.
  • That last point suggests another useful, if not essential, attribute of any course in my opinion: it should be locally relevant, not just generic (which often means bland).
  • Another practical application might be the developing of new digital content for their school, given research from BESA which states that over half of all schools report being under-resourced with digital content.
  • This approach would also, I suggest, serve to encourage girls to take up the subject, as girls tend to be more attracted to subjects that involve skills like collaboration and communication. I hesitate to engage in any kind of gender stereotyping, but in my experience what I’ve just said does tend to be true.

When I was teaching Economics ‘A’ Level, I wasn’t so much teaching Economics as teaching people how to think like economists. I believe the same applies here: there’s no point in teaching only the skills that are needed to be a computer programmer or digitally literate at present, but how to think like a computer programmer, and how to think  like a digitally literate person. To do so we probably need to agree on some core concepts which are essential in these contexts. I have my own ideas about what these might be, but I’d be interested in hearing what others think about that suggestion itself.

* For an explanation of why I use the term “so-called 21st century skills”, please see 21st Century Skills Do Not Exist; Here Are 9 Skills That Do

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