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Why learning to code at a young age is not a panacea for technological illiteracy

COMP 202 is designed to be an introductory-level course at McGill, just like BIOL 112 or PHIL 210. However, instead of focusing on evolution or history, its content revolves around the foundations of programming. Alas, when students are entering university without a set direction, computer science isn’t as popular as the aforementioned courses to dabble in. I shied away, looking toward the familiar courses of math and psychology. Why did COMP 202 fail to catch my eye? I had a few preconceptions of computer science: not only did I think it wouldn’t be applicable to my field of interest, but it also seemed to me to be largely directed toward males. Most of all, it was terrifyingly far out of my realm of understanding.

The thing to realize about computer science is that it teaches not just the fundamentals of programming, but perhaps more importantly, the fundamentals of understanding problems and how to solve them. By learning foundations such as logical thinking, abstraction mechanisms, and algorithms, the skills one gains from a computer science course are becoming increasingly applicable in our society. Educators and students alike are catching on to the benefits of studying computer science and improving technological literacy.

In Estonia, a program is being introduced to teach web and mobile application development to students, including writing code and producing software, as early as first grade. Estonia’s society is already moving towards complete technological integration, with many activities such as banking being solely online. This program plans to shift Estonia’s population from “being consumers of technology to developers of technology,” according to the program’s manager, Ave Lauringson, in a statement published on the tech blog Ubuntu Life. The hope is that this will advance the country as a technological hotspot.

However idealistic this plan may seem, there could also be negative results. Laurie Hendren, Associate Dean in the Faculty of Science and a professor in the McGill School of Computer Science, pointed out that there will be challenges for the proper implementation of such a program. In an interview with The Daily, she expressed her views that a program of this type could be beneficial or detrimental, based on how it is executed. The main problem she sees with a program of this type is who will teach it. “My guess is that the current teaching cohort does not understand [the subject matter] well, because they were educated in a different era where this was not part of what they learned,” she stated. In order for kids to find programming fun and to not be deterred from continuing education in computer science, Hendren suggested that “[the program] might require more than just training the [current teachers], but even integrating in some people who have been educated in computer science.”

Along with the importance of the method of educating children in the field comes the visible gender inequality within computer science. Hendren estimates that while she was studying computer science in university, 40 per cent of the program was female, which is roughly double of what it is now. “When I went to university, there was no computer science in high school, so everyone arrived to university equal and considered if they wanted to be a computer science major or not,” stated Hendren. “There wasn’t this bias that computer science is only a guy thing.” When earlier education in computer science focuses on applications that appeal to the interests typically associated with males, such as video game development, it can deter female students from studying computer science courses at a higher level. This, again, draws upon the importance of the specific methods of how computer science is taught to youth.

Although there is a gender gap, there has been an increasing trend of people entering into computer science over the past five years – according to Hendren, the number of people who have taken COMP 202 in that period has doubled. Though the proportion of males to females is far from ideal, there is a more recent trend toward equality in numbers. Joseph Vybihal, a faculty lecturer in the McGill School of Computer Science, organizes a summer camp at McGill, “Be A Computer Scientist for a Week,” which focuses on teaching computer science to students in grades 10 and 11. In the past few years, he has seen more young women gaining an interest in the field. The camp is composed of three streams – one involves developing games, one focuses on programming robots, and one deals with applications in medical computing. When asked about the division between genders, Vybihal commented, “it depends on the stream – gaming has more boys, robots are equal, and the medical stream has more girls.” This emphasizes implementation methods and the type of content necessary to spark interest in computer science, regardless of gender.

Even at the undergraduate level, there are benefits to exposing students to possible applications of computer science, even for those whose focus is outside the field. Tara Sullivan, an Economics and International Development Studies major at McGill, interned at a mobile technology company this summer. “I was an Arts student surrounded by technology-science people. Whenever they had spare time, they would be trying to develop new apps or programs,” Sullivan stated in an interview with The Daily. “It sparked my interest into the field because I could see there was an end goal to learning the trade.”

On a broader level than educating students in computer science, Jonathan Sterne, an associate professor in the Art History and Communications department, emphasized the need for technological literacy and education within society as a whole. In an email to The Daily, Sterne argued, “what makes a country [fall] behind in terms of technological literacy isn’t the number of programmers per capita it produces.” Canada produces fewer programmers per capita than some other countries, yet Sterne doesn’t believe this is the real issue. To him, technological literacy extends beyond how many people in the population can write software. “If it’s a basic understanding of how your information is being used online, and how the services you use actually work and make money off your activity, then pretty much everyone is ‘behind.’” In order to correct this, computer science and technological literacy need to be taught to both the young and the old – the young should learn fundamentals, while those more senior should be exposed to what already exists so that they can remain integrated in a society that is technologically ever evolving.

In light of the increasing number of programs being created to improve technological literacy in youth, one must realize how essential it is to also improve technological literacy for all members of society. Not everyone is going to go on to become a computer scientist – I know I won’t – however, with technology permeating every aspect of our lives, having a fundamental knowledge of technology is becoming necessary for anyone, in any field, at any age.