RLST Post #13: Teaching the Web

[Editor’s Note: These blog posts are from a class at Lawrence University, RLST 245: Apple, Google, Facebook, which examined those companies from a religious studies viewpoint. We were required to keep a blog for the class. The class was taught by Martyn Smith, and I highly recommend it to any Lawrence student.]

My Thoughts:

I’ve always been a huge proponent of teaching people to code. (Full Disclosure: I do it professionally). Most people these days carry around processors in their pockets, capable of doing millions if not billions of calculations per second, and most people have no understanding of how they work. Although I understand that a functional knowledge of these devices is not necessary to use them, the more a user knows about how the machine works, the better experience they’ll have with it.

I also know that learning to program is learning a new way of thinking. Programming forces you to logically construct the instructions that you’re trying to get the computer to do, which is a skill that has great cross-disciplinary effects.

An aside: HTML is not programming. HTML is markup language, which is simply a way of laying out content. I agree that learning HTML would be excellent for everyone, especially anyone working on or with the internet, but I’d like to advocate learning real coding like Python, C++, Java, etc.

Last year, I worked at Valley New School, a local project-based learning school, with the intent of teaching coding to the students there. In starting that, I taught four students some basic python programming over six weeks, which for a lot of them was a first introduction to any coding. At the end of the project, they all agreed that it had been fascinating and useful knowledge.

I read the other day on Hacker News about code.org, a site championed by an absolutely enormous number of celebrities with the focus of giving students the opportunity to learn to code.  I’m behind this 100%. The more people we have who are technologically literate, the better our society will be equipped to handle the emerging era of technology.

A Response

Chris, in his humorously-URL’d  post “HTML”, argues against mandatory coding. We discussed in class the pros and cons of learning to program in the Lawrence Freshman Studies class:

Somehow in the midst of our conversation, It was uttered that HTML basics should be taught at the freshmen studies level.  This is truly offensive to me.  I have long been a proponent of the Freshmen Studies program here at Lawrence, because i hate the idea forcing people to learn things that they don’t want to.  But more importantly, i found it offensive because I have no need to know how to write CODE.  I don’t believe that anyone forces people to learn how to write sonnets here at Lawrence, so why should we be forced to do such a thing as write code.

–Christopher Schmidt

I’m very interested by this approach to freshman studies, because it’s the opposite of what I imagined the course to be. In my mind, Freshman Studies is an introduction to critical thought, with a focus on learning about a broad variety of disciplines. I truly enjoyed learning about Einstein’s Special and General Relativity, which we were required to read my freshman year. The fact that the program pushed us outside our comfort zone was fascinating to me.

I think my point is that nobody really has a need to learn anything outside our major, but it is by “staying hungry” for that knowledge that drives liberal arts thinking and produces successful, creative minds. Why did Mark Zuckerberg make millions off of facebook? He was the first one to combine the ideas of exclusivity with the necessary technical knowledge.

If Shakespeare had only known how to write sonnets and plays, he would have nothing to write those sonnets and plays about.

Chris is right – perhaps it is wrong to force someone to learn how to code, but those of us who do learn how to code are going to know a lot more about the world than those who don’t. And for a college trying to teach its students about the world, perhaps a little mandatory introduction to digital electronics would help open people’s minds about it.

And maybe we would have more compsci majors here 😛


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