Digital Literacy – Do Media Workers Need to Learn Code?

Coding has become a pop culture phenomenon. That much is clear when big names like will.i.am and Shakira, President Barack Obama, basketball star Chris Bosh, Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg, and others appear in videos like these two to promote initiatives that teach coding to kids:

Although it is most certainly very useful for some people to know how to code properly, digital literacy’s new popularity raises questions for people in media industries, including: 1) how much is hype? and 2) what actual skills must be learned to “keep up” with developments?

What Hype?

First, it’s ridiculous to say code literacy is “just another fad.” But the videos mentioned above do compare in exuberance to other “digital revolutions” from desktop publishing in the late 1980s to Web 2.0 of recent years. Such terms heralded a wide range of new technologies, business models, and cultural trends. Some were spectacular successes and others complete failures. Teaching and learning to code, then, is certainly a trend to watch, even if there’s little sense in declaring a new digital era.

Online Instruction via MOOCs, Apps, and Other Platforms

The second issue depends on how you define digital literacy. If it’s basically knowing how to write a few lines of code, there is now an entire industry around teaching and learning that skill. Organizations like Code.org, responsible for the above videos, play a small part. It promotes a more inclusive approach to computer science in school curricula through initiatives like the ‘Hour of Code’ – small introductory lessons to computer science – and 2013’s edition of the Computer Science Education Week. Though directed towards the very young, the “hour of code” concept has been taken up by groups more focused on lifelong learning, among them the non-profit online education organization Khan Academy.

Khan Academy and EdX are ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs), much discussed as apparently poised to disrupt traditional education, including university-level computer science. It will be interesting to see how such platforms evolve, especially since there are wildly different models for the many online initiatives that teach coding.

Elite research universities like MIT and Harvard lose little by providing these resources for free. They contribute to their brand profile but don’t cut into principal revenue sources. Meanwhile companies like Coursera offer many online courses for free – but charge fees for some certifications. Another example, Codecademy – while similar to Khan Academy in offering free tutorials and even its own free mobile app – is actually a for-profit structure. It’s a service in search of a business model. In 2012, one of its founders alluded to developing their course offerings as a kind of “job service” social media platform in which Codecademy turns a profit by connecting employers with promising talent.

Teaching and learning to code is part of a dynamic and competitive industry. But digital literacy is more complex. These initiatives say that knowing how to code is inherently valuable. At some level, though, this skill has a very limited shelf life. It requires lifelong effort for an individual to maintain. It suggests that those with vested interests in teaching and learning how to code are counting on a desire among the uninitiated to try to “keep up.” After all, for many in media industries, it may be more important to know how to work with people who code than to know how to code. Meanwhile, the notion that code represents a panacea for everything from innovative digital content to solving the world’s ills is already facing a backlash.

How Do Media Workers Keep Up?

Let’s come back to the question of what kind of skills people working in the media might need. A 2011 study by the Cultural Human Resources Council (CHRC) determined that media workers may need digital business skills more than code-writing ability. These include:

“…marketing, finance, strategy, business affairs, project management, intellectual property and IP rights management. Such areas are perceived as being even more critical than the technical training required to make use of the emerging technologies.” [p. iv]

These findings cast a different light on the trend to learn to code in creative industries. It may, in fact, represent an attempt to gain the kinds of entrepreneurial and project development skills that fuel the software developers who create apps and social media platforms – but in this case for people working in cultural industries. If so, training through MOOCs or similar services isn’t likely the best solution. The need identified by the CHRC demonstrates why digital literacy must be understood as more than simply writing code. It must also account for purpose. When celebrities like will.i.am say ‘I want to write code!’, it is as much about declaring their business savvy and status as social entrepreneurs as it is about a desire to improve their coding abilities.

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