Friday, 13 January 2012

The dumbing down of computer literacy and decline of programming in education

All home computers used to be user-programmable

The need for a basic education in computer literacy

As well as career benefits to the individual, and skills benefits to the economy, computer programming (coding) also promotes clear logical thinking and is an instructive source of easily understood analogies for otherwise difficult topics in philosophy, including Buddhist philosophy. 

For example,  the key Buddhist concept of three levels of dependent existence can be understood in terms of algorithms, data structures and semantics, as well as the more traditional view as causality, mereology and mental designation. The use of the Church-Turing-Deutsch  principle to distinguish between the physical and non-physical aspects of the mind follows on from this.

Dumbing down
So it's a matter of concern that as computers become more pervasive, actual computer literacy has declined over the past ten or fifteen years due a process of dumbing down in schools and colleges.   Not only does this impact vocational skills, but lack of computer coding experience among younger people means that computer concepts can no longer be used to illustrate analogies in other fields of study.  Back in the mid-nineties, the growth in familiarity with computer programming was welcomed as a means of illustrating philosophical concepts.

Programming helps with understanding philosophy

Two examples of use of computer analogies in philosophy
In discussing the philosophical concept that conscious experience is a fundamental feature of the universe, irreducible to anything more basic, and that mentality is as fundamental as physicality, Copthorne Macdonald wrote in 1994: 

"The ancients were able to apprehend this perspective intuitively, but had difficulty expressing it clearly in words because they lacked certain key concepts that we now have. The present "information age" or postmodern refinement of the perspective had to wait until these concepts emerged and became part of our cultural vocabulary — concepts like medium and message, carrier and modulation, algorithm and information. It had to wait, for instance, until Claude Shannon (1948) demonstrated that the fuzzy concept of information could have a solid, quantifiable meaning. It had to wait until DNA research in the 1950s showed that organisms and other physical structures are in fact informational structures. It had to wait until the role of algorithms in information processing became clear in the 1960s and 1970s, and until ideas about parallel processing began to emerge in the 1980s."

Similarly, in 1996 Tom Etter discussing quantum mechanics as a branch of mereology, wrote

“Principia Mathematica” by Russell and Whitehead is one of the most famous books of the century, and one of the least read. In his autobiography Russell complains that only four people in the world had ever read his favorite part of the book, which is the part on the theory of relations. Though I am sure that this select company is larger today, it's still not very large. Fortunately for us, the relational ideas from Principia that we really need have found a happy home in the much more accessible language of relational databases.

What I shall present here parallels a much longer paper [Etter, 1996] which I wrote in the language of probability because I assumed that scientists are more at home with probability theory than with mathematical logic. But that was before I encountered relational databases. This happened serendipitously when the little journal I edit acquired Microsoft Access, in the hope of keeping better track of its subscribers. Browsing through the instruction book, I came across the word 'linking,' a crucial word in my long paper, and to my amazement found it had exactly the same meaning as I had given it there! I quickly realized that this harmony extended to many other relational concepts, and that with only a few strokes I could also define the concepts I was using from probability theory. To top it all off, database language is practically the mother tongue of today's young programmers, the fastest growing population on Earth!"

But both articles were written in the mid nineties, before...

The rot set in when coding was abandoned in favor of applications
Learning boring applications has replaced the mental challenge of coding.

The basic (or BASIC) problem is that young people are no longer taught to program computers, and indeed have few facilities to do so. Children are 'bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word or Excel by bored teachers'  instead of being taught how to program.  

BASIC or nothing

The problem was first described in 2006 by David Brin in his excellent article 'Why Johnny can’t code'

'BASIC used to be on every computer a child touched -- but today there's no easy way for kids to get hooked on programming.  For three years — ever since my son Ben was in fifth grade — he and I have engaged in a quixotic but determined quest: We’ve searched for a simple and straightforward way to get the introductory programming language BASIC to run on either my Mac or my PC.

Why on Earth would we want to do that, in an era of glossy animation-rendering engines, game-design ogres and sophisticated avatar worlds? Because if you want to give young students a grounding in how computers actually work, there’s still nothing better than a little experience at line-by-line programming.
Only, quietly and without fanfare, or even any comment or notice by software pundits, we have drifted into a situation where almost none of the millions of personal computers in America offers a line-programming language simple enough for kids to pick up fast. Not even the one that was a software lingua franca on nearly all machines, only a decade or so ago. And that is not only a problem for Ben and me; it is a problem for our nation and civilization... Read more.

British government to re-introduce programing for kids
The results of a decade of dumbing down have also recently been noticed by the British educational establishment (better late than never).

Back to the future?

School Information and Computer Technology to be replaced by computer science programme
"The current information and communications technology (ICT) curriculum in England's schools is a "mess" and must be radically revamped, the education secretary has announced.

From September it will be replaced by a flexible curriculum in computer science and programming, designed with the help of universities and industry.Michael Gove called the current ICT curriculum "demotivating and dull". He will begin a consultation next week on the new computing curriculum.

He said this would create young people "able to work at the forefront of technological change".

The education secretary said the inadequate grounding in computing offered by the current curriculum was in danger of damaging Britain's economic prospects. He called for a revival of the legacy of British computer pioneer Alan Turing whose work in the 1930s laid the foundation of the modern computing industry.

"Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum. Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word or Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations," he said.

Computer games entrepreneur Ian Livingstone, an adviser to Mr Gove, envisages a new curriculum that could have 16-year-olds creating their own apps for smartphones and 18-year-olds able to write their own simple programming language.

'Slaves to the interface'

Mr Livingstone, co-author of last year's Next Gen report which highlighted the poor quality of computer teaching in schools, told BBC news: "The current lessons are essentially irrelevant to today's generation of children who can learn PowerPoint in a week.It's a travesty given our heritage as the most creative nation in the world. Children are being forced to learn how to use applications, rather than to make them. They are becoming slaves to the user interface and are totally bored by it," he said....

In America, the problem is also at last being officially recognised:

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg takes coding course   
The mayor is joining more than 180,000 people currently taking part in Code Year, a campaign to encourage more people to programme.

"My New Year's resolution is to learn to code with Codecademy in 2012!" he wrote on Twitter. Participants in the course receive an interactive lesson each week, via email. The campaign promises that participants will be "building apps and websites before you know it"...

It is not clear what Mr Bloomberg hopes to do with his new computer skills, but his decision to learn comes at a time of renewed interest in encouraging people to programme. In October, the Next Gen report into the teaching of computing in UK schools was published. Co-author Alex Hope told the BBC that coding should be "the new Latin".

Back in the dim and distant past, Latin, with its rigorous grammar, was taught as a method of developing clarity of thought and expression.   The mental discipline of programming has similar general benefits that extend beyond vocational and technical skills. 

A basic education in computer literacy

Raspberry Pi to bring low-cost coding to every child
Can a £15 ($25) computer solve the programming gap?
BBC Video about new low-cost programming gadget

'The idea behind a tiny and cheap computer for kids came in 2006, when Eben Upton was lecturing and working in admissions at Cambridge University. Eben had noticed a distinct drop in the skills levels of the A Level students applying to read Computer Science in each academic year when he came to interview them. From a situation in the 1990s where most of the kids applying were coming to interview as hobbyist programmers, the landscape in the 2000s was very different; a typical applicant now had experience only with web design, and sometimes not even with that. Fewer people were applying to the course every year. Something had changed the way kids were interacting with computers.

Eben and colleagues from the university like Rob Mullins and Alan Mycroft (both now trustees of the Raspberry Pi Foundation) batted around ideas about what had happened in schools to cause this change. A number of problems were identified: the colonisation of the ICT curriculum with lessons on using Word and Excel, or writing webpages; the end of the dot-com boom; and the rise of the home PC and games console to replace the Amigas, BBC Micros, Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 machines that people of an earlier generation learned to program on.

There isn’t much any small group of people can do to address problems like an inadequate school curriculum or the end of a financial bubble. But we felt that we could try to do something about the situation where computers had become so expensive and arcane that programming experimentation on them had to be forbidden by parents; and to find a platform that, like those old home computers, could boot into a programming environment.
Over the next few years, Eben, having left the university for industry, worked on building prototypes of what has now become the Raspberry Pi in his spare time.

Raspberry Pi

By 2008, processors designed for mobile devices were becoming more affordable, and powerful enough to provide excellent multimedia (a Raspberry Pi can play Blu-Ray-quality video), a feature we felt makes the board desirable to kids who aren’t initially interested in a raw programming device. The project started to look very realisable. Eben came together with a group of friends and old colleagues with a wide-ranging group of skills, some of whom were already wrestling with the problem of what to do about producing new young programmers. These people became the Raspberry Pi board of trustees: David Braben, a star game designer and Cambridgeshire entrepreneur with a book of contacts as long as your arm; Jack Lang, a local academic and business angel who worked on the original BBC Micro project; Pete Lomas, MD of a hardware design and manufacture company where our earliest boards have been designed and built; and Professor Alan Mycroft and Dr Rob Mullins from the Cambridge University Computer Lab, who have provided a lot of the educational direction of the project.    More 


Raspberry Pi update 29-FEB-2012

"...The first thousands on release today were funded largely out of the pockets of Dr Upton and his five fellow foundation scientists.

Now they will receive royalties on every Pi sold, and will be able to focus on their main concern - improving what is widely seen as the woeful state of Britain's computer science curriculum.

That was underlined last summer by American Google chairman Eric Schmidt, who said that, as the country that invented the computer, the UK was "throwing away its great computer heritage" by failing to teach programming in schools.

Robert Mullins, Eben Upton, David Braben The Pi has changed in development, as the members of Raspberry Pi Foundation demonstrate.

"I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in UK schools," he said.

"Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made."

Dr Upton believes the Pi could provide part of the solution: "We just want to get kids programming. The goal here is to increase the number of children to apply to university to do computer science and to increase the range of things they know how to do when they arrive."

Here at Chesterton Community College Mr Schmidt's criticism might be seen as unfair, because ICT head Paul Wilson is not a typical example of an information and communications technology teacher.

Unlike many of his colleagues in the field he knows how to code, and once did it for a living. He also runs a popular programming club after school.
Continue reading the main story

But even he admits the current ICT school curriculum means most of his lesson time is spent in learning how to use software rather than teaching his pupils how to write the code that makes that software work.

He estimates just a tiny fraction of the students he teaches will go on to study computer science at a higher level.

His hunch is backed up by research carried out by the Royal Society which last month pinpointed a 60% decline in the number of British students achieving an A-level in computing since 2003...."

- Sean Robsville 


Ari said...

You may enjoy MIT's 'Scratch' if youre looking to introduce programming concepts. I installed it on my son's PC a few years ago for that very reason.

Good article :). Coding builds logical thinking skills with the ultimate checksum of: does it work like i wanted it to.

fish said...

Thank you for share.....

A Range of Computer Programmer Benefits

mahasiswa teladan said...

hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)

Anonymous said...

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