Columns, Opinions

Lehrer-Small ’20: Promoting digital literacy through a first-year computing requirement

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, November 13, 2019

For most of my career at Brown, I was a computer science naysayer. As an underclassman, I thought the only reason to learn to code was to pursue jobs at tech giants like Google or Facebook. I watched friends and unit-mates struggle through CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science” — toiling overnight on assignments like Doodle Jump and Tetris. They told horror stories of unending lines during TA hours for 30-second pointers. I wanted no part in it. 

Now I feel differently, and precisely because of people like me, the University should require all its students to take at least one computing course within their first year. Such a change would ensure that all students attain sufficient digital literacy and would promote an informed university-wide discourse on ethical technology. You might say: “What? Requirements? At Brown?” Valid point. Before I go too far, let me speak to the skeptics.

Brown has a wonderful open curriculum. But including a computing requirement would not contradict that ethos. The logic of a first-year computing requirement would follow a similar structure as the WRIT requirement – an integral part of Brown’s educational philosophy. Just as the WRIT requirement ensures that all students achieve a basic level of written literacy, a computing requirement would ensure that all students achieve a basic level of digital literacy. The American Library Association’s digital literacy task force defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information.”

In a world increasingly reliant on technology and data, digital literacy is becoming more and more important simply to understand and interact with the world around us – even for those with no interest in Silicon Valley. The bifurcation between “STEM fields” and “humanities fields” begins to break down when we consider the impossibility of disentangling technology from realms such as education, health care and politics in the 21st century. Other universities have recognized this. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to integrate computing into all of its departments, with a focus on social sciences and humanities. In the digital age, it’s time to bridge the humanities and STEM silos and lean into the growing intersections across fields. Brown should follow MIT’s lead and require early exposure to computer and data sciences for students regardless of concentration.

While some may see this requirement as imposing a tech focus on Brown’s curriculum, adding a first-year computing requirement in fact promotes a central tenet of liberal education: exploration. Early exposure to computing would allow students to explore the uses of digital skills within their chosen field, while leaving time for them to further explore those skills in their remaining years at Brown. For any number of reasons, students may enter Brown without fully considering the relevance of computer and data sciences to their future aspirations.

That was me. I grew up in a rural town, and in high school, computer science wasn’t even on my radar. As someone motivated to work in education reform, I couldn’t see how coding would help me with my future goals. But in my junior spring at Brown, a required statistics course that involved work in the programming language Stata changed my view. With a simple set of data, I could uncover a narrative of correlations and begin to explain statistical phenomena. For the final project of that course, I examined school safety data and found that simply the presence of metal detectors in public high schools was associated with an 8 percent drop in student attendance. That experience hooked me on data science and motivated me to learn more statistical programming. But now as a senior, there is little time to pursue a full course of study in data science. Had I been required to explore the field earlier in my time at Brown, I would have had more time to integrate computing skills into my passion for education reform. I suspect there are many students who have had similar experiences.

It’s worth noting that Brown has already moved to make computer and data sciences more accessible, which is a necessary first step before adding a computing requirement. Recently, the University rolled out an alternative CS intro sequence – 0111 through 0113 – which spends more time on each topic and delves deeper into questions of ethics in tech. The department also offers several courses for non-computer science concentrators. Additionally, non-CS departments have increasingly added technology-focused classes. These avenues allow students to find the entry point to computing that works best for them. Brown should create a first-year computing requirement to encourage students to take advantage of these new options and build their digital literacy.

In addition to the universal value of computing for all academic disciplines, we need to promote productive and informed discourse on ethical technology. With good reason, many politicians and pundits critique Silicon Valley for ethical violations such as underpaid Uber drivers, invasive privacy policies and even targeted advertisements leading to systematic voter suppression. But politicians, regulators, activists and other influencers must have a working knowledge of the tech field to better advocate for its ethical role in society. Regulators and politicians must be proficient in these topics so that ethical tech is not a one-sided conversation dominated by industry leaders. With a digitally literate student body, Brown can become an incubator for discussions on the ethical role of technology in fields from chemistry to criminal justice.

Brown, as an institution of higher education, has the capacity to equip future leaders with the knowledge they need to engage in debates of ethical technology development in the 21st century. And so to ensure digital literacy for all its graduates and to allow students to fully understand the importance of computing in their chosen field, Brown should add a requirement for all students to explore computing during their first year.

Asher Lehrer-Small ’20 can be reached at asher_lehrer-small@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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