Is Programming the New World Literacy? This Week’s Hour of Code

  December 11, 2013

Have you ever gotten to know an illiterate person? Have you spoken with them, listened to the challenges they face, and realized all the opportunity they are cut off from simply because they cannot read? It’s startling.

Especially in a country like the U.S., being able to read is fundamental to any hope of a successful future, but it hasn’t always been that way. In 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, only about 30% of European adults were literate. By 2008, UNESCO reported that 83% of adults worldwide could read and 98% of American adults were literate.

Back before 1440, it probably didn’t matter that much if you couldn’t spell your town’s name or read the local bulletins. You’d still enjoy the fullest benefits your community had to offer. Reading was more like a specialized skill for a few professions…until it went viral with the printing press and became an essential skill for functioning at the most basic level.

Will the capacity to read and write software code follow a similar trajectory? and Computer Science Education Week’s Hour of Code campaign happening this week claim that it will, and schools across the country are incorporating an hour of basic coding curriculum with games, art and apps to capture the interest of most any kid and introduce them to the world of software development. Computer Science Education Week put together this year’s Hour of Code. It’s held annually the week of December 9th in honor of Grace Hopper’s birthday. Nothing short of a bad ass, she was a remarkable U.S. Navy rear admiral, computer scientists, and one of the world’s first programmers.

My daughter’s a bit young for Hour of Code, aimed mostly at middle and high school students, but fellow parents of elementarians can still encourage participation using resources on Khan Academy also put together a special curriculum for the week in addition to their ever-entertaining regular programming lessons.

As excited as I am about this, I do wonder if the correlation between reading and programming literacy is a bit overblown. Especially with all the celebrity shine adding feel-good attraction, it’s easy to get caught up in the movement. I admit I am, and don’t plan to back away. I want my kid to fall in love with programming, and am totally inspired by the opportunities is could open up for her. If you haven’t seen this, watch it and try not to find the nearest kid and preach to them about the joys of CS.

As a group of programmers and software testers in the fray of the industry, I wanted to pose this question to you; do you think the software industry is really as influential as CSEdWeek and are making it out to be? Check out this clip from

Are we truly entering an era where coding illiteracy could eventually leave you at a disadvantage comparable with reading illiteracy today?

When you really look into it, it’s easy to draw parallels between the software revolution and “the golden age of literacy.” And initiatives to encourage interest in computer science backed by some very smart people are popping up in all progressive education circles, joining the call of older STEM programs to recognize the growing opportunities and risks inherent in our increasingly techno-enhanced global economy. Proponents insist on a push to teach our youth to program in order to ensure future workforce readiness and national competitiveness.

After working in several industries, and researching many more, I do see software as an integral and driving aspect in the future of them all. I can imagine a world where not being able to look at some lines of code and at least loosely decipher the meaning would be a great ignorance. Yet, as someone who’s seen the poverty-inducing reality of reading illiteracy in my community, I can’t totally get behind the analogy, and that is likely why I’m pushing the issue a bit. Logically, I get it. Just like reading was once a skill of a small subset of the population and often allocated to particular professions, software coding is following a similar trajectory.

Even if we could predict the future and say absolutely that coding illiteracy will leave your children homeless and unloved, I have another concern about the overly driving home the urgency of learning to code for future success. If we push computer science on kids with the explicit or subtle message that they will be failures if they don’t learn it (like so many other STEM subjects), will we damper any natural interest? It’s a delicate balance to inspire rather than push, to encourage and provide opportunity rather than emphasize certain types of learning over others, and to prepare for the future rather than squash natural aptitudes.

How easy is it for that impulse to find the nearest kid and, rather than preach about the joys of software development, preach about how they must learn to program or fail? As parents and teachers, we know that sliding from inspiration to worry is as seamless as the setting sun. Vanessa from Girl Develop IT totally got me in the above video. Who wants their kid or any kid to be the “victim of other people’s choices?!”

So, I wonder: Is the fear that my kid will be left behind without discovering an interest in software coding needless or overly myopic? Is programming really the new world literacy?

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