Computer literacy begins at home

Filed under Happenings, Musings;

KansasFest 2013 is now a week behind us, and I’m still absorbing everything I saw, learned, and experienced. Moments such as interviewing Steve Wozniak and other unscripted events are memories that will last a lifetime. But of those events that stuck to the schedule — that is, the daytime presentations and official sessions — but one that really caught my attention was "Teach U.S. Kids to Program" by attendee Matt Hellinger.

Hellinger’s talk was prompted by "Teach U.S. kids to write computer code", a December 2012 article by Douglas Rushkoff, digital literacy advocate for, a tool I use in my own classroom. Rushkoff outlined ten reasons why programming must be an essential part of any student’s curriculum, given how pervasive computers have become in modern culture and industry. The article focused on how we passively use computers, allowing ourselves to be the passenger to tools that drive our lives. Hellinger in turn reflected on the golden age of the Apple II, when users and programmers were one in the same, putting us in the driver’s seat. Can that experience be replicated for today’s youth?

His proposal stems from more than some nostalgic desire for his kids to grow up the same way he did. Hellinger made a compelling argument that computers have become so powerful and complex as to be impenetrable, transforming them from tool to crutch. He suggested bringing them down a notch to again make them accessible to students, providing them with an environment where they can write original programs in fifty lines of code instead of a thousand. The Apple II is just such a machine.

But there’s more to that equation than the classroom. Hellinger and I approach the topic from very different perspectives: he as an IT professional and parent; I as childfree educator. Although I’ll happily expose other people’s children to retroprogramming, as is already happening in Milton Keynes, those lessons have to be reinforced in the home. To that end, Hellinger proposed taking away the tablet, replacing or completing the desktop with a Raspberry Pi, and limiting Internet access.

I challenged Hellinger on these potentially draconian measures — not out of opposition but curiosity, to better assess the rigor of the stance. I asked what Johnny should do when he comes home from playing Xbox 360 and surfing Facebook at his classmates’ homes. Hellinger said those exceptions are no different from expecting a child to obey other house rules: different parents make different allowances for their kids. Later I followed up via email: what about when the disagreement isn’t between homes, but between home and classroom? What if the student is using an iPad at school and needs one to complete his homework? Again, Hellinger made it a simpler matter than I imagined, pointing back to his basic tenets. "I would definitely recommend restricting usage (as if the kid had brought home a video game to research)," he wrote. "Disabling Wi-Fi in the house would go a long way toward resolving unfettered use."

Overall, I was pleased and intrigued by Hellinger’s proposal. I hope for opportunities to test and practice his ideas in the classroom, just as he is doing so in his own household. If you want to see his theories for yourself, he has generously allowed me to embed his original slides in this blog. Watch for them to eventually be added to the KansasFest file archive.

  1. I suggest that hardware literacy, a basic knowledge of how computers are built and function, is as important as programming literacy.  Hardware and software are interdependent, and without knowledge of both, the computer remains a black box.  Both the hardware and programming pieces contribute to the larger goals of “computer literacy.”

    To extend Rushkoff’s automobile analogy, to drive safely, efficiently, and effectively, you need basic knowledge about how a car works — you need to understand the relationship between turning the steering wheel and movement of the front wheels; you need to understand a bit about tires, friction, and weight to guide choices about acceleration, stopping, and following distance; you need to understand how to add gas and change tires. Similarly, you need some knowledge of hardware to program effectively (and some knowledge of software to build hardware effectively).

    To encourage hardware literacy, I propose limiting manufactured items and encouraging self-built (DIY) items.  Not all items are readily DIY. I give a flashlight as an example that is easily DIY.  Armed with a light bulb, wire, and battery, it’s easy to build your own flashlight, and the exercise gives experience with electric circuits, a foundational hardware concept.

  2. D Finnigan says:

    Very good! The story and slides remind me of when I got started programming at age 10 with a Mac SE/30 and Microsoft Quick BASIC. Basically no other software on the Mac except for ClarisWorks and Super Paint. Learned BASIC from some old books from the 1970’s!