Last week, in the wake of Code Academy’s – “Learn to code” campaign we asked: What does digital literacy really mean today? And what might a Digital Literacy Agenda include?
Betsy, our friend at Google, replied directly arguing that “digital literacy” is too narrow a concept – we need to think more broadly about “digital citizenship,” she argues. “Understanding how to write code that builds an isolated piece of technology is like understanding how to read and write, or knowing the ins and outs of a particular subject like Biology. But understanding how the Internet works is like understanding the way society is governed.” It’s about providing enough digital civic education so that students can recognize why Chinese censorship of the Net, SOPA/PIPA, or debates about wireless spectrum are connected to our fundamental values about speech and communication.
I’m agnostic about whether “digital literacy,” “digital civics,” or even basic “technology education,” is the right term. But, as I watch Mozilla, Code Academy, General Assembly, and many others dive into this topic, its clear there’s a need to continue untangling these concepts.
Last week Bloomberg and Fred Wilson announced the new Academy for Software Engineering, a tech-focused high school in New York. In doing so they intimated that one vision of the school is to develop a tech curriculum that can be exported to other schools in New York. What might such a curriculum include?
In our view, basic tech education should center around three core concepts: Understanding, Creation, and Critique.
- Understanding – Understanding is about explaining the building blocks of technology as well as the larger ecosystem of institutions in which technologies operate. It’s about enabling students to understand the basic relationships between inventors, tech companies, publishers, regulators, or consumers and the centers of control therein. It’s also about teaching the fundamental “internet architecture” or “digital civics” topics of which Betsy speaks.
- Creation – Creation is about giving students the basic tools and grammar to create and “build stuff” using new technologies. It about raising a generation of “web makers” as Mozilla trumpets. It is also about teaching the fundamentals of publishing in the new media era and the flow of information on the web. Ultimately it’s about giving young people the ability to exploit all the structures and architecture, to have a voice. This is part of democratizing media and technology. Today, creation might be about providing basic coding, mobile app creation, or web design skills. But it’s surely an evolving standard.
- Critique – Critique is about enabling students to decipher and analyze both incoming information as well as the communications they create. If teaching coding is like teaching the basics of a new language (ie. basic grammar), teaching critique is like teaching literature. It’s about teaching students to analyze the reliability, perspective, and editorial control in the Wikipedia articles, digital videos, or other web communications they receive. It’s about enabling students to understand the difference between platforms that are highly moderated or curated and those that are opens. It’s about understanding what’s at stake with anonymous vs. identifiable speech.
It’s clear that in some cases, teaching these fundamentals may require the creation of new high school classes – i.e. coding class. But in many cases, it’s more about extending our existing classes in literature, history, and science to cover the technology related stories and topics.
Digital and web literacy is a lot about opening up the black box that is our tech-enabled world so that more people can participate in this world and critique it. Coding alone is about being able to create and modify this box. It’s clear that the Academy for Software Engineering will likely add a whole host of additional classes on entrepreneurship, design, finance and many other topics. But if they can lead us and strike even the basics of digital literacy and technology education right, that will be a huge accomplishment.
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