IFeL blog

Structure, Dialogue and Autonomy

Coding – the new Latin

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Good news from the BBC, in British schools ICT will be replaced by a creative computer science educational programme. To quote the education secretary: «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 animation». Harsh language of the politician and yes, the article has received a thousand comments on the first day, obviously a controversial issue – and the quality of the discussion would be far better, if all contributors had been through such a computer science programme.

The decision seems to be based on last year’s Next Gen report by Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope, which highlighted the poor quality of computer teaching in schools and was promoted with a great slogan: «Coding is the new Latin». Mr Livingston says: «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.» We are glad to see this so called «seismic shift in computer education». Anyone who has ever taught coding knows, how much good this does for understanding the «wicked ways» of computers and the like.

Yet there is more to it. The slogan Coding – the new Latin invites to reflect on «Coding» as a cultural technique, just as we used to think about and argue for «Latin» in schools. The following list may help with this. I wrote it in German some years ago and translated it in today’s context.

It parallels some thoughts about Latin and Coding as cultural techniques – an opportunity to reflect on the intricate ways of societies and the like.

Latin Coding (and ICT)
1 We need to know, how to navigate in a historical sphere. 0 We need to know, how to navigate in a digital data sphere.
2 We need to understand that there was culture before us. The dimension of history (how long ago, what constellations…) leads to another understanding of our present world. 1 We need to understand that a long history led to the solutions we are working with today (and a vast history of communication cultures).
3 Another language, another history can’t be completely recovered or envisioned. 2 The infinite amount of data out there can’t be envisioned (nor recovered).
4 There are streaks of a common history. Latin was the lingua franca of science. 3 There are streaks of a common information society. English is the basic common language of the information age.
5 Language has a history.
The continuity of the historical and linguistic tradition is problematic, also because of destroyed sources, linguistic change and the many wrong but naturalised translations.
4 Computer Technology has a history.
It is changing so fast, that it threatens its own achievements (efficiency, potential of identical copies…) by producing new and different versions, interfaces etc.
6 Every statement is linguistically structured; the real world is filtered through this language filter. 5 Everything mediated by media is linguistically structured; the medium is itself an important momentum of its message.
7 All texts must be read and interpreted (hermeneutics). Every reading gives a text a new and up-to-date meaning. 6 All data must be read and interpreted (media literacy). Data don’t imply that two readers might understand the same. Media processing adds another dimension to this.
8 Language is both use and formalisms. (parole – langue). 7 In digital data spheres, orientation works analogous to language.
Media are structured like languages.
9 Grammar is a structure behind language that helps to make languages work. 8 Design-laws are structures behind media language. They help to make media language (and interfaces…) work.
10 Language works only with a (more or less) correct syntax and the proper use of words. 9 Software works only with a correct code-syntax and based on the precision of the solution.

Lets end with some good wishes: May the new curriculum be cool for the children and constructiv for the teachers. And may more and more politicians follow the exemple of the Britisch education secretary and also New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who takes a coding course – which is another sign that the times are moving on and certainly good for the quality of political contributions. We were surprised though to read, that participants in the course receive an interactive lesson each week, by email.

May that course grow from mail to moodle or a similar environment, into a full-blown distant-learning adventure based on some didactics beside all the tech, we’d be glad to help with ideas.

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