Marc Prensky has a new drum.
Programming: The New Literacy
I believe the single skill that will, above all others, distinguish a literate person is programming literacy, the ability to make digital technology do whatever, within the possible one wants it to do — to bend digital technology to one’s needs, purposes, and will, just as in the present we bend words and images. Some call this skill human-machine interaction; some call it procedural literacy. Others just call it programming.
As a long time programmer, I’m not sure how much I buy into this definition of programming. One of the issues I have is that there’s not *a* programming skill. While it’s true that Excel Macro Language, BASIC, Bourne shell scripting, C, Fortran, and python all have a certain commonality, there are levels of abstraction and limits on access inherent in each device.
We talk about “programming a vcr” but that’s not, at least in my definition, programming. It’s knowing which settings to set. While a certain amount of that knowledge does constitute “programming” as well, the limitations on abstraction — the idea that you can get the device to do something OTHER than record a program at a certain time — make this exercise in programming the moral equivalent of turning the little dial on your toaster to make the resulting output more or less dark.
Yes, the vcr example is more complicated, but the end result is not actually varied.
In the article he admits that by “programming” he is really referring to the ability to follow menu prompts on devices but he does get into the idea that creating content in Flash is “programming” … which is an interesting and, frankly, arbitrary distinction on content creation. I won’t argue that Flash is an interesting tool. I have several issues with the tool itself – not the least of which is that creation in that medium has a substantial cost threshhold to participation. But why Flash? Why not Photoshop? Or Word? Those tools are likewise complex, complicated, and require a level of knowledge, insight, and abstraction that is equal to Flash. They also have huge barriers to production, limiting access to the relatively well-to-do.
I particularly liked his comment near the end where he discusses how to inculcate this notion into classrooms:
Can we do it by bringing working programmers into the schools? Not likely. Most of the good ones are busy programming and have no desire to teach.
I suppose I’m not one “of the good ones” because while I am very busy programming, I very much want to teach. Unfortunately, the only way I can teach is to teach at the university level because the barriers to my entry into the K-12 classroom are too high. And that’s with a PhD in Educational Technology.
Is programming a literacy? Is it THE literacy? Is programming anything more than specialized language? Does knowing which button on your cell phone takes the picture contribute to your literacy? Or has Prensky — father of the Digital Natives — once more taken a position that’s too simplistic to have relevance?