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Should Computer Science Be Required In Higher Ed?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

An April 12, 2012 post, Why Don’t We Make Learning a Computer Language a Requirement in High School? in the FeldThoughts blog by Foundry Group managing director Brad Feld, framed this question by equating computer programming languages to foreign language learning. The basic premise is that, while we require foreign languages in public schools and at many universities, we do not require the study of any programming languages or computer science courses at any level of education. In fact, some schools, such as the University of Florida, are actually cutting their computer science departments entirely (Salzberg, 22 April, 2012). While I personally think computer programming is unnecessary as a core requirement in education, technology literacy education in general is not.  Given that a majority of our social, political, communication, economic, and other systems rely on advanced technologies, information and communication technology (ICT) literacy should not only be a core component of education at all levels, it should be a central value of our society.

The Importance of Technology in Higher Ed

Sending college graduates out into the 21st Century workforce without a firm grasp of not only how to obtain, process, and synthesize digital information, but also of how to turn that information into new knowledge that is shared back through digital channels, is doing a huge disservice to the students, potential employers, and society as a whole. To be a literate individual in the Information Age means to be fluent with advanced information and communication technology. Colleges and universities are not providing this foundation for their graduates unless they require that every student formally learn the most effective ways to leverage these technologies so that they may use them to transform themselves and the world they live in.

  • Colleges and universities have an obligation to prepare their students for lifelong learning and for the leadership roles they will assume when they graduate.
  • Colleges and universities must demonstrate the use of the most significant approaches to problem solving and communications to have emerged since the invention of the printing press and movable type.
  • Information technology can help colleges and universities fulfill their missions to help students connect ideas and disciplines broadly, think critically, act responsibly, and communicate effectively.
  • Twenty-first-century workers must be well prepared and confident in managing technology and its role in all segments of the economy.
  • Prospective students and their parents need to understand the importance of information technology and expect it to be integrated into the curriculum.
    Adapted from, Liberal Arts Education and Information Technology: Time for Another Renewal (Kelley, 2000)

There is a need for college graduates, almost without exception, to be able to present and share their thoughts and ideas on a global level using digital technology regardless of the field they end up in after graduation – business, science, engineering, computer science, journalism, public service, foreign relations, not-for-profit management, etc., as all have a substantial reliance on technology in their day-to-day operations.

What College Students Need to Know About ICT

Technology is easy to integrate into a curriculum because it can make learning fun and engaging, but it also presents a moving target for educators because of the constant changes and advances that it undergoes. New software, hardware, and even whole categories of devices and services appear daily. This constant state of flux is one of the reasons that incorporating a technology core into a college curriculum is so difficult. Almost by its very definition, studying technology and providing students with the concrete skills that are so often the focus of those seeking "accountability" in higher education is impossible. Rather than a finite set of tools and apps that the graduate can whip out to remedy any situation involving technology, a core integration of ICT literacy at any level of education needs to incorporate soft skills in addition to concrete knowledge of specific tools and software.

The tools and software are the vehicles through which these deeper understandings of technology are delivered. The actual tools will change from day to day, month to month, year to year, subject to subject, and even teacher to teacher, as new innovations become available and new uses for existing technologies are imagined. Each instructor should be free to use the technological tools of their choosing that best work within their discipline. What will not change however, are the associated skills and understandings that will accompany the use of technology in higher education. The key areas of technology literacy that all college students should master before entering the workforce are:

  • Social Dynamics – Students need to use technology in ways that increase communication and support the creation and dissemination of new ideas. In the classroom, educators should incorporate technology that allows students to collaborate with each other, the instructor, and experts beyond the walls of the classroom. Understanding the basics of message design, information architecture, and presentation best practices are all skills that professors can impart to students that will serve them in any field they pursue after graduation.
  • Systemic Interactions – Our political, social, economic, and other systems have all been integrated through technology and students need to be aware that there is a complex web of interactions between these systems that they can tap into if they understand the intricacies of how they work.  For example, cultivating entrepreneurial thinking in students can allow them to see the ways in which ideas from one field can be turned into economic opportunities, public service initiatives, or other efforts that bridge systems and linear ways of thinking. A deep understanding of the interplay among systems and the ways in which technology mediates these relationships is a powerful takeaway for students.
  • Active Nature of Knowledge – Through technology, the basic concept of knowledge is changing.  No longer is there any single, definitive source of knowledge or information about a given topic. Knowledge is now, more than ever in the past, a social construction. Projects like Wikipedia have allowed for societal or cultural understanding to mediate what reality is. Definitions are no longer fixed but rather can be changed based on what the majority of individuals thinks. This is a powerful new paradigm for understanding the world around us, but also one which can be leveraged by the ICT literate student to change the very nature of meaning. Allowing students to participate in that knowledge creation within the classroom, and to share their knowledge with the world sets them up to be able to leverage technology to shape the world in new and exciting ways.
  • Critical Awareness of Relationships of Power – Finally, because of the power of ICTs and the ubiquitous nature of connected media, students need to be made aware of the power of the media, the reality that it creates, and the inherent biases and prejudices that may be replicated and enhanced through technology. New "information" spreads across the globe in milli-seconds. Teaching students to be not only critical consumers of information, but also self-critical creators of information will help them to produce a technological world that is built on cooperation and societal advancement rather than exploitation and self-interest.

Adaptability is the Answer

Outside of technical colleges and universities, we are not seeing a move towards centralizing technology in the curriculum. At best, it may be seen as an interesting add on. At worst, it is viewed as an irrelevant (to education) piece that students already have a firm grasp of. While it is true that most college students have an understanding of the basics of hardware and software, technology itself is much more than that, embodying a set of cultural knowledge and practices that go beyond any individual piece of technology. This knowledge is far more important to students’ long-terms success after graduation. Our institutions of higher education have an obligation to prepare students to be leaders in the world, and being tech-literate is a necessary skill for the 21st Century leader. It is far past time to move technology to the core of higher education.

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