Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

Computer illiterate generations – what should we do?

There has been a lot of discussions during the last years about the IT education of young people. Today, the topic once again popped out in Finnish news when Finnish Broadcasting Company wrote a news piece (Google Translate to English, quite decent) about the level of IT education in Finnish elementary schools. One of the maybe most popular blog posts about the situation globally is Coding2Learn blog’s Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why It Should Worry You which is simply brilliant.

In Estonia, a long vision program Tiigrihüpe started already in 1990s with aim to provide better infrastructure and education regarding technology. Year ago they started a new program within Tiigrihüpe called ProgeTiger.

The Tiger Leap Foundation has launched a programme called ProgeTiger which teaches programming, web applications and website creation during classes or in hobby clubs to students from grades 1 to 12. –ProgeTiger

They are going to provide all kids in elementary school with some understanding of programming – not to create software engineers or hackers but to give kids better understanding of the world that is more and more run by computers.

I do support this kind of progress. I think it’s vital to teach basic programming skills and computer understanding in schools to new generations. Couple of points why:

You use dozens of devices daily. All those devices are run by computer and if you have no idea how they work, you have less understanding about what they can be used for (both for good and evil).
Understanding how Internet and applications within work makes you more capable of doing things there. It also gives you better awareness to hoaxes, phishing and basic security.
Programming develops logical reasoning and problem solving – skills that are useful in all fields of life, not only IT.
It’s also fun and creative but I think that’s not a real good argument for making something mandatory.

Often these discussions these days rally around programming. And it’s a big leap to take in the education system so I also want to take another kind of approach to make things better:

I believe most (almost all) schools that have computers for students and teachers to use, have very strict user right restrictions in them. When I was back in school, it was very limited what you could do with the computers. You could open a browser, “create” something in Microsoft Office tools and… well, that was pretty much it. Often even the teachers didn’t have any rights to install software, alter settings or do elementary computer stuff.

Our network infrastructures in UK schools is equally to blame. We’ve mirrored corporate networks, preventing kids and teachers access to system settings, the command line and requiring admin rights to do almost anything. They’re sitting at a general purpose computer without the ability to do any general purpose computing. They have access to a few applications and that’s all. – Coding2Learn blog

What is this supposed to teach our kids about using computers?

How about we remove those restrictions? What if we just give students and teachers full rights on the computers, let them install software and experiment with different OS settings. Let’s give them possibility to try things out, install different operating systems (which I also think should be taught in school for everyone) and see what happens. As an admin you can always create disk images to run fresh installations nightly to make sure the computers are usable on the next day.

The more I’ve been involved in teaching and education, I’ve realized that elementary school should be a place where kids could try things without a fear of failure. When you break something, you learn that you did something the machine wasn’t prepared for. You learn the limits and it broadens the area where you are comfortable in.

Linda Liukas, the founder of Rails Girls, said it perfectly in her speech in Railsberry 2012:

“I love Tumblr and Facebook but they are doing something profoundly evil for my generation. They are putting us in to a mode where we only like and reblog stuff – so we consume and curate but never actually create.” – Linda Liukas

Syntax Error

Sign up for Syntax Error, a monthly newsletter that helps developers turn a stressful debugging situation into a joyful exploration.