Leave out the digital literacy. Part One

May 19, 2014 § 9 Comments

Please read the following very carefully. It is the opening Statement of Purpose to new subject in the National Curriculum for England, computing. And it is positively bursting with goodness:

“A high-quality computing education equips pupils to understand and change the world through logical thinking and creativity, including by making links with mathematics, science, and design and technology. The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, and how digital systems work. Computing equips pupils to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of media. Building on this knowledge and understanding, pupils are equipped to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of content. Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.”

Change the world! Or at least maybe find a job. Here are the keys to your digital future. Consider yourselves equipped.

Overblown rhetoric aside, this represents, in epistemological terms, what might be viewed as a very significant shift in traditional British thinking about education. In effect, it proposes that the rigour and discipline of computer programming is capable of providing children with all the things that were once thought to be afforded by a classical education: logical thinking, creativity, understanding, self-expression and empowerment. If Athens was once the intellectual cradle of civilisation, I guess it is now located in a cloud somewhere between Stanford and Seoul.

In the detail of thinking that follows this opening statement, these proposals seem quite attractive, and will certainly resonate strongly with a portion of the school population at least. So, it has to be correct to offer all young people the chance to learn how to “to create programs, systems and a range of content” in appropriate and engaging ways. This could be creative, productive and educational fun, if done well (the prospects of actually being able to provide this high quality computing education right across the system are somewhat less certain). For all the hyperbole of the opening sentence, the basic premise of promoting a child friendly version of computer science is both daring and sound.

But please note: computer science is a discipline in its own right. And like any discipline, there are strict limits to its concerns; the inner logic of the thing. I cannot see why the inner logic of computer science is expected to encompass the notion of digital literacy – a claim that is offered as a final irresistible flourish in the statement of purpose, presumably to reassure us that whilst the baby that was ICT has indeed been thrown out, its bath-water remains:

“Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.”

Computer science concerns the application of symbolic languages to the manufacture of mediated communications and representations. It is, quite evidently, a morally neutral activity which is concerned with making things work well. Digital literacy, on the other hand, is essentially a moral construct that concerns itself with guiding people to use digital media in socially desirable ways, so that they may contribute to the knowledge economy, and not disrupt the moral economy. There is a meeting point for the two, I acknowledge: you can’t be an effective knowledge worker if the code breaks down; but then neither can you send abusive messages on Twitter if the code breaks down. Just because digital literacy comes from the same wellspring as computing, it does not mean that they can be made to serve each other educationally.

This is a fundamental fallacy of false relations – like thinking that if you eat a lot of fish you will learn to swim.

Coming soon – part 2. What kind of digital literacy do we want, if any?

 

Chris Davies

 

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