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Is Coding the New Literacy?

by Terry S. Atkinson
 | Jan 10, 2014
Jen Smyth
Jen Smyth
Graduate students in my literacy graduate classes often broach topics extending well beyond our course objectives as they recount their own classroom teaching experiences. Such was the case this past summer as Jen Smyth, a ninth and tenth grade English teacher at Hertford County Early College High School, shared her thoughts about the importance of teaching coding to her students: 

When educators talk about web literacies, it seems we sometimes double down on consumption and fail to really think about what it means to be creators on the web. We teach our students to use search engines and read webpages but ignore the language and logic that underpins web creation: HTML. I’m doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be web literate and am slowly coming to realize that teaching students how to read and write code may be as important as teaching them how to read and write traditional text. William O’Byrne (2013) argues that web literacy ‘requires that students not only understand and research online information and culture, but employ a critical lens as they examine and remix online content. I believe that this is at the very heart of what we're doing as we remix a website using Hackasaurus, or create a YouTube mashup using Popcorn. Teachers need to understand the context within which students are revising, recreating, or remixing online content' (para. 4).

Months later as I listened to NPR’s recent Tech Marketplace report, Kids: Program or Be Programmed, I contacted Jen to ask if she knew about the Hour of Code initiative:

While aware of the initiative, she further investigated code.org’s resources to find that it featured mobile coding apps developed by MIT and Microsoft that offered an alternative for her students’ current game building projects using Scratch and Kodu.

Jen credits Connected Learning and her involvement in the Tar River Writing Project with significantly influencing her student web creation efforts. However, her students’ experiences are not typical of most U.S. students, as code.org reports that only 1 in 10 American schools teach students coding. This estimate stands in stark contrast to England’s 2014 curriculum implementation mandating the teaching of computer programming in all primary and secondary UK schools. However, some, such as Alli Rense, caution that programming does not exist in a vacuum and depends upon an understanding of logic, communication, and abstract thinking. As the U.S. conversation continues, proponents such as Mark Prenzky, Douglas Rushkoff, and Dan Hoffman argue that coding is a new literacy that American schools can no longer afford to ignore. Considering that students are learning to code and create on their own in ever increasing numbers offers powerful evidence to support their stance. Using free tools such as those available at the MIT Media Lab, Code Academy, Coursera, CodeSchool, and CodeCombat the outcomes may indeed be leaving schools behind.

Terry S. AtkinsonTerry S. Atkinson is an associate professor and a graduate director at East Carolina University, atkinsont@ecu.edu.

This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

 

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