Programming as a New Literacy

| December 29, 2010

I’ve just read Douglas Rushkoff’s shortbook Program or Be Programmed, wherein he shares “Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” Though his portrayal of various “biases” of digital technology (e.g., timelessness, abstraction, depersonalization) is polemical, he succinctly describes major challenges of new technologies in 144 pages.

His main point is to describe a new literacy – a digital literacy he says we must achieve to continue to shape our world in positive ways. He argues that the consequence of not being able to “program” (or, he allows, at least being familiar with the scope and power of programming) would be to allow digital technology – and those who wield its powers – to overdetermine our lives.

I am sympathetic to this message, but reading his argument served as a good exercise to review the larger picture – and consider how well this kind of story about “digital literacy” hangs together.

One area Rushkoff’s book helped me reflect on was the design of online learning environments. In line with his descriptions of digital biases, current learning management systems are often positively shaped around the “advantages” of digital technologies. Asynchronous discussion boards are favored. Students are asked to use their real identities. There is “space” for collaboration.

So far, so good. But Rushkoff helps us ask: what about the “speed” of dialogue and collaboration? It seems to me that instructional designers (teachers or their assistants) could make the mistake of hoping that student interactions (with the course, and with other students) only increase. Or, similarly, that the administrative evaluators of such courses favor more frequent interactions.

As Rushkoff points out, such desires could be our ill-considered adoption of digital biases, and in fact, slower, less-frequent interactions could be preferable. While he harkens back to the “early days” of online bulletin boards, and points to the “depth” of discussion that came out of less frequent “logging in and signing on” (p. 24), I think it could more simply be a case of “less is more” – that writing and editing take time, and focus can help one achieve better communication. I wonder, therefore, how we could sharpen the design of online discussions to favor more reflective engagement.

There are already great examples of this online. From the way sites like the New York Times aggregates Comments, to the way tools like Disqus track one’s diverse contributions, there is a lot of good thinking about shaping online discussion. How could educational designers incorporate these and other strategies into a “course” experience?