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Programming an Essential Literacy for the Future

Charles Severance at the University of Michigan talks about his mission of teaching everyone programming and the importance of protecting the internet.

Everyone recognizes the importance of being technologically literate in our modern society (as Marc Andreessen said in 2011, “software is eating the world”). Most educational efforts, such as coding apps and the Hour of Code, are focused on school-aged children–which should be a top priority. But what does this mean for adults: is knowing how to use email and a word processor enough to be technologically literate, or does everyone need to know how to code?

Professor Charles Severance (“Dr. Chuck”) at the University of Michigan’s School of Information is a big advocate for digital literacy and thinks everyone should learn basic programming and understand the history of the internet. This will give people to have the tools to understand a wide range of technologies and value our digital freedoms. And, more concretely, being technologically literate is important for jobs:

“I believe that the number of middle class jobs that don’t have any aspect of technology is going to go to zero.” 

So it is Dr. Chuck’s mission to do his part to help teach as many people as possible (ideally everybody) about programming. “We are reaching people who have always felt that they are shut out of the technology economy,” he says.

A Programming Course to Use, Re-Use, and Re-Mix

Dr. Chuck teaches Programming for Everybody (Python) on Coursera, and it is quite popular, with a cumulative enrollment exceeding 500,000. It is geared towards complete beginners and is also designed to equip people to take advantage of other programming classes that are out there (Khan Academy, Code Academy, etc.). He also asks participants to answer short essays on questions like the following: 1) What is difficult about programming? 2) How might your life be changed by programming? 3) What is the likelihood of the singularity? The reason for this is to get people to engage their whole minds while they are learning, not just the analytical side.

Programming education is a mission for Dr. Chuck, and he wants others to use his materials, teach with them,  translate them (this is already being done in 30 languages),etc. All of his teaching materials, including his code auto-grader, can be downloaded and used under a Creative Commons license to be re-used or re-mixed for any purpose. Dr. Chuck is very emphatic about encouraging the use of his materials, he pleads: “Please reuse my stuff!”

“I found every aspect of this course–the open source textbook, the lectures (and Dr Chuck himself), the assignments, the supportive learning community–encouraging, helpful, clear and fun.”
-Review by Lindley Walter-Smith 

The Real Purpose of the Internet

Dr. Chuck’s claim to fame is that in the early days of the internet, he recognized its significance early on, and was on hand to interview and write about some of its main inventors. He’s been following the development of the internet ever since. Although he admires it as a technical innovation, he makes it clear that the value doesn’t reside in the technology, but in the human interaction that is enabled by it:

“It’s not about technologies. It’s not about computers. When we can get the computers to get out of the way and get people to think and interact, that’s what the whole thing is all about.” 

Dr. Chuck practices what he preaches. He travels around the world and in whichever city he is in, he holds in “office hours” at a specified time and place. He sends a message out to all of the students who have enrolled in his course (yes, that’s 500,000) and usually about 8-20 people make it. Dr. Chuck brings along a GoPro camera on a selfie stick (no, he’s not a shy academic), and records the introductions, like the recent one here from Milan:

Dr. Chuck then posts these videos in the MOOC so that other participants can also experience a little bit of the personal interactions. This models a great approach of combining the powerful scale and pedagogy of MOOCs with the personal attention and small group interaction that has been shown to provide the best learning experience.

The Need to Protect Against ‘Dark Forces’

Keeping close tabs on the development of the internet has given Dr. Chuck some expertise in this, and he teaches another MOOC, Internet History, Technology, and Security on Coursera. It is self-paced so people can take it at any time. And many people should.

Dr. Chuck thinks, and most of us would probably agree, that it is very important that the internet remain a free public good. However, despite a recent positive ruling on net neutrality, he is a prophet with a dire warning about its future. He elaborates:

“I have a profound fear: there have been dark forces trying to take freedom away from us on the internet from almost the beginning. Over the next 20 years, we’re going to lose what the internet is–corporations will own it, governments will take it over, and they’ll ruin what is now an amazing, fair, creative, open space.” 

Thus, another reason Dr. Chuck is such a passionate evangelist and educator. “I’m trying to teach as many people as I can about what we might lose”. The more citizens become informed about the internet, the more we will understand and value the great ecosystem that has been built, and be vigilant about keeping it open and free.

So do your part in becoming a responsible digital citizen of the future. Take Dr. Chuck’s Programming for Everybody (Python) and enter the technology ecosystem, or take Internet History, Technology, and Security and become better educated about the important ecosystem

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