Monthly Archives: December 2011

Why ‘computer class’ is pointless: educating IT participants, not consumers

This morning I read thatt UK schools are failing to provide students with ICT training.  Only 40% of teenagers receive some kind of computer training, and from what I can gather, this essentially means learning to use proprietary software to do things like print screens, format texts for printing, and develop spreadsheets.  Journalists despair over these poor levels of computing training and worries that the country would fall behind if children didn’t take more computer qualifications.

But what these ‘computer classes’ are doing is training consumers – people who follow instructions and learn a standard set of processes on products provided by big companies. In creative terms, it’s like learning photography by looking at magazines without ever picking up a camera. What people who actually work as programmers or software developers do is mostly creative problem solving using tools based on logic and mathematics, as well as social processes including the design process – and of course, creativity.
It is these things – problem solving, understanding the capacities of different kinds of tools, creatively applying them – that are the foundations of being a participant, as opposed to a consumer.  This participation and creativity is what will will drive innovation and (maybe) economic growth.  According to David Gauntlett’s book Making is Connecting, participation and creativity also open opportunities for civic participation and (maybe) positive social change.

Using ICTs in teaching/learning is not really about ICT at all, then.  It’s about having learned various logical and linguistic processes that are part of particular problem-solving tools, and about having learned how to creatively apply those tools to solving problems.  You can learn the basic processes by learning foreign languages, or Boolean, or by paying attention in math class.  But the key to connecting coding to a broader ethic of participation is allowing places within education where these abstract things can have a concrete application. That should be across the curriculum, and it should be fun. MIT’s ‘programming for everyone’ Scratch lets you build and animate beautiful things – programming in the service of art. You don’t have to teach database design in a separate class if you require history students to determine how to devise a database that brings up different/similar/related historical situations related to significant social changes (ie, the causes of WWII, to cite the perennial favorite).

I went to elementary and high school in Canada, and yes I was taught programming (as well as touch typing) in my public (state) schools. I didn’t much like the programming I learned, as it was in a ‘computer science’ class that didn’t seem to have much to do with anything. I didn’t get to do anything interesting with the BASIC loops I built. But at other times in school I remember making cool things using all kinds of ICTs, as well as other technology. I learned how electronic circuits worked, as part of a geography project to devise an electronic quiz where lights would turn on when someone correctly identified a Canadian province.  And when I edited the school newspaper we learned to lay out the paper on a drafting board . . . and then using graphics software. Everything we did then can be done now in ways that are more interesting, more interactive, and more powerful.

But there is huge resistance, that I think is part of a culture that sees ICTs as discrete and separate entities that we engage with as consumers, following patterns instead of inventing our way in. When Will and I proposed to lead a session on research, creative work and technology for his alma mater that would have involved the students devising a research project with social implications, and then developing technical tools to solve their research problem, the school didn’t take up our offer. They said that they did use ICTs – their students learned how to make Powerpoint presentations.

I still need to learn to code, properly. I can’t ‘walk the talk’ as a scholar of code and digital media otherwise, and I want to participate too. I’m going to learn Python, because Will’s just finished running a course to teach it to London’s finest visual effects artists. But which language I learn doesn’t matter as much as learning what computer code can do – which is like learning what words can do when you first learn to read. Once you learn that, you can use those words to express your ideas and participate in the world. We now have even more interesting ways to express our ideas. Programming, building electronics, making and sharing electronic music – or videos – or blogs – or Tumblrs – are all ways to write ourselves into the world – and to participate.