Teaching codes at school: upraising skill level for digital natives

Learning computer code at school is another challenge for digital natives. The subject is a key issue in the ongoing debates about introducing digital sciences in basic schools curricula in many European countries.

For digital humanism and digital humanities, the question of "coding instruction” in schools is considered to be a predictable natural result of a common awareness that this new type of learning may represent a strategic turover for the new generations. The code is everywhere and becomes essential for understanding a connected world. It is no longer the exclusive task of experienced programmers, designers, researchers and ICT experts, but gradually becomes an accessible object taught in schools and colleges, in scientific, literary and artistic domains. Basic programming knowledge will soon become a transversal skill priority not only in scientific and professional work spaces, but also in scientific, technical, literary and humanistic fields of study. But the question that seems to intrigue a lot of people is about the need for humanities and social science students to learn how to encode. The real question that indeed every instructor - in the humanities or other disciplines - must first ask, is not whether or not students should learn to encode. It is rather, what should they learn by doing so. Is it an understanding of algorithmic thinking to better understand how tasks can be summarized in a series of steps? Is it a familiarity with the basic components of programming languages, so as to be able to understand how the code is structured and produced? Or is it the knowledge of a specialized programming language, with a specific application in a particular area? Or is it merely the understanding of a new operating model of digital technologies designed for new generations.

In our undestanding, learning the computing code is a "natural" requirement that makes part of a historical change of technical systems. Bertrand Gill, a French specialist of history of sciences and techniques, defined such phenomena as a set of consistencies that are developed at a given time between different technologies. Those consistencies establish a point more or less sustainable of technological developments. Adoption of a technical system, according to Bertrand Gill, necessarily involves the adoption of a social system so that corresponding consistencies are maintained. We also find this assertion in the philosophy of Simondon who confirms that technical invention is not to create an object from scientific principles. It is more a process of "concretization" of an object correlation with its associated environment. Thus, learning to encode would be an implementation of a form of consistency with the current technological environment that is strongly marked by the spread of free software and free access to source codes.

Yet, although a consensus appears to rally the purposes of teaching the code, some ambiguity still persists in the choice of a common language to describe it. The uses vary between "digital literacy", "informatics", "programming", "code", etc., even if all converge towards the original idea to shift digital learning from simple use of office softwares to more sophisticated understanding of the design process and structuring of resources. The goal is initially to foster the development of transversal skills able to convert learners and citizens into actors who produce resources and manage services. Such phenomena has already happened: none would have imagined in the days of static Web (Web 1.0) that beside Webmasters, general public would one day be able to produce his own content online. Yet, with Web 2.0 and Web 3.0, everyone is able to create collaborative and dynamic web content with the most sophisticated and most complex applets settings. The Web as a technical system had then crossed the walls of laboratories and got adapted to a new social system as a public good. So why not computer code, mainly that with intuitive interfaces anyone can now program snippets of code in JavaScript or CSS stylesheets? Let’s also recall that we are already engaged in a new form of "knowledge based" society with intelligent information systems and semantics which is proper to man. This emerging society requires new forms of new media and new forms of sociality that future generations would be more able to assimilate and evolve. These generations would however need to cross the barrier of codes to gain autonomy, liberty and above all innovation and creativity.

It is within the contours of this hypothesis that we think to explore a series of conjectures first through the reflexive analysis and then through an empirical study of a research project in progress. This project proposes a synergy between teaching & research to structure digital resources of social and human sciences (SHS) using international standards for text and corpus encoding. Resources are processed, analyzed and collected in corpora by teachers, pupils and students in several disciplines in a way different from classic Office software’s procedures. This will particularly provide students with more educational skills, with the support of their teachers, using innovative SHS text encoding practices conformant to international TEI Guidelines (Text Encoding Initiative). These encoded resources would demonstrate the huge interoperability potential of multidisciplinary digital humanities, tagged and described using a standardized computer language. They especially would demonstrate the flexibility of "digital natives" to acquire innovative techniques much more easily than the generations called "Digital hybrids", those who learned digital technologies belatedly.

Ultimately, encoding the human sciences is a collective work of teachers, students and researchers who are building a set of practical and educational tools that take advantage of existing knowledge and resources. For this project, we plan to change the way we see learning by implementing a cooperative encoding mindset in each pilot class. We start from the assumption that for everyone (teachers, students, lecturers, etc.) most knowledge comes from the networks. Almost all of what students need to know is retrievable from Internet to a point we can believe that there is no more need to create content, but to structure, monitor and share all resources they find online. The main goal of the project is to show a set of observations:

  • First to show that it is possible for students since high school (or college) to deploy their skills of "Digital Natives" in order to greatly accelerate the construction of cultural heritage applying crowdsourcing;
  • Then to show that digital humanities can be a lever of educational innovation at all levels of learning through innovative processes and educational tools adapted to the processing and analysis of resources and collections;
  • Finally to show that it is possible to create synergies between multidisciplinary profiles and expertise to produce a good understanding of innovation articulated between teaching, research and development.