My conversations with colleagues and parents sometimes get into what computer skills schools should teach students. The conversations are almost always contain this bit of dialogue.

“We need to have Microsoft Office on student computers?”

“Why?”

“Because they’ll need it when they get into the real world.”

Setting aside the fact that we have no idea what the “real world” will be 10 years from now, I have serious issues with this conversation.

We should not confuse teaching a specific program (operating system, office programs, whatever) with teaching useful computer skills (or to use education lingo, 21st century learning).

Dan Grover’s most excellent post “Towards a Grand Uniform Theory of N00bs” does an excellent job and summing up the problem.

I think I can speak for most of my generation in saying that computer classes in high schools, colleges, and community centers are universally worthless. Courses for young people are usually taught by out-of-touch adults with a much less advanced understanding of the things they’re teaching than their students. The only kind of teacher likely to be more incompetent than a computer teacher is a gym teacher. But that’s not the problem.

The real problem is that these courses often teach a specific operating system or a specific office suite in an extremely facile manner. They’re glorified typing courses. That means when Microsoft changes the locations of buttons in Word, students’ knowledge is obsolete. Even programming courses in high school (and many colleges) are tied to specific programming languages, not general concepts. A good course teaches a mix of theory and application, but most computer courses can’t even handle application right.

His solution?

To create a computer course for laymen that does not do them a disservice, it should be rooted in things that we can reasonably anticipate will not change. I’m not quite sure what those are but the stumbling blocks outlined in the previous section are a good place to start. It should combine practical computer skills and general information literacy. It should be required and it should be rigorous, not a blowoff course.

Imagine how many fewer bank accounts or email accounts would be hacked if a section on the final exam gave students URLs and asked them to identify the domain name, the subdomains, the path, the port, and the protocol. This sounds like esoteric technobabble at first. But if high school students are expected to know how many valence electrons molybdenum has or how to define trigonometric functions in terms of each other, it’s highly practical by comparison.

Teaching students how a hierarchical file system works would make sense. It could even briefly cover the directory structures on each popular OS at the time and where things go. I have my doubts on how long the idea will last, but I’m betting at least another 15 years.

There’s a good bit more (I encourage everyone to read the article), but his post captures a lot of my background thoughts when it comes to computer education and learning.

Because the fact is that there are shared concepts to our digital world. Form and function work in very similar ways across different systems. Identifying what’s shared and consistent (and rooted) will help students prepare for the next big thing that comes their way.

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