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Thinking About the New Literacy

In the report Learning in the 21st Century, writer Alvin Toffler is quoted saying, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."So what will literacy look like as we go further into the 21st century? What will it mean to learn, unlearn, and relearn?

I think a recent article in Edutopia magazine is a start to addressing these questions. The article, Programming: The New Literacy compares the idea of programming to that of scribing. Author Marc Prensky reminds us that at one time written language was a skill that was reserved for only a few. When the need arose to communicate with written language, you needed a scribe to create the message and another scribe on the other end to decipher the message. How will programming be handled in the next century? Will be choose to simply pay someone else to do the job for us?

In a small way, programming is already in our daily lives. As Prensky explains, even VCR's need to be programmed. Do we do it ourselves or do we have a child do it for us? Children seem to have a natural curiosity and understanding for these tasks. They are the digital generation. Like, Toffler, Prensky notes the importance of learning one programming language and then moving on to another higher level language to accomplish tasks. This sounds like an example of learning, unlearning, and relearning.

Tell us what you think. What will literacy in the 21st century look like? How do you think Computer Science and programming fit into this idea of literacy?

Dave Burkhart
CSTA K-8 Representative


At Georgia Tech students must take a computer science class before they can take physics, since the physics class requires them to program simulations. All of the students at Georgia Tech are required to take computer science, even business majors. It is already seen as a required skill.

Prensky has a pretty expansive definition of programming. Following his thoughts each car driver should be his/her own mechanic, or even the assembly line person building the car. However, if you're looking for a reason to give heightened priority (and associated increased funding) to teaching programming in K-12 schools, then you might want to give thought to Prensky's thoughts. But expand "programming" to include more like skills like programming your cellphone or your avatar in SL? Sounds like a tough sell to most school boards right now. But at least Prensky is raising the issue for discussion. More attention and discussion is a good thing.

I think young people deserve to be exposed to programming software as the "power" medium for controlling automata, and a clear distinction made between this interface and the "consumerist" interactions with technology designed for programming illiterates (user interfaces).

I'm realistic enough that programming is not for everyone, but my gut feel is that a critical mass of 15% experiencing firsthand the power of software-writing is a "healthy" level for a society so dependent on IT for everything it does. As we've seen with international identity theft rings operating with impunity, public policy is not doing a good job of keeping up with technology. It really should be anticipating technology with forward-thinking policy to maintain the rule of law in a rapid-changing situation. Clearly, the ranks of government decisionmakers are not yet infused with CS-savvy thinkers.

I think Dan Reed (previous blog) has the right approach....lower the ante to learning useful CS knowledge, by infusing non-CS courseware with relevant content. In the project I'm doing, we're developing Algorithmic Geometry as a topic for math-competent 11-12 graders, where students learn to rapidly translate their problem-solving thoughts into automated algorithms (Java). We use a minimalist language subset (mouse-driven graphics, no lists, no iteration), and focus on how best to represent geometric objects and properties in software, and how to reuse previous work through layering. The idea is to get kids to experience the power of programming as part of the math curriculum, without having to bite off the "AP CS" commitment.

unlearning is an alien concept for even the most apt computing student.

Computer literacy is very important nowadays. As we go along the modernization of the world, we must also know how to protect and keep our privacy intact.

It is not bad to keep our real identities, especially when engaging in internet marketing. There are many identity thieves around the internet. We must be careful.

As a graduate student, learning is more than just bits from the internet. You are challenged to find research data to support your position. As I have set out to start an internet based business, I find that people on the internet think they know anything about everything when they only know a little about some things. I am working with my children to love reading books just like my parents did when I was young. It is important to start their knowledge bank building early.

VCR's? How old is this article?

I think literacy in the 21st century would really include programming. Technology has been fast evolving these days. The internet is being wildly used as a large marketplace and learning spot. There are online MBA, literature, grammar even doctoral courses in the internet. I believe more people will have further knowledge on programming in the 21st century. Schools will consider using computer programs as a creative and fun apparatus for learning. Online learning portals will be extensively used by students for their research projects. I believe that it will continue to grow over time. But I still do hope the books will not be extinct. With all the ebooks, kindle and ipad, people can already read books through their gadgets. I am a book lover. I wouldn't want the world to arrive in that situation.

Thanks for the post! Very impressive comment from Jim Richardson and I really agree with him that technology has been fastly evolving in the 21st century and there are a lot of ways to learn it's just that hard bound books are minimal since most people depend on ebooks.

Well, It really should be anticipating technology with forward-thinking policy to maintain the rule of law in a rapid-changing situation. Clearly, the ranks of government decisionmakers are not yet infused with CS-savvy thinkers.

before the 90s computers were up and coming...today technology has well and truly taken over and if you are not "technologically or computer literate" then you are going to have a tough time of it...as a result computer programming and being tech savvy will undoubtedly become a part of 21st century literacy

Well, I believe more people will have further knowledge of programming in the 21st century, Thanx for the wonderful sharing.

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