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Building and Spreading Knowledge That Matters: Is Computing a Two-Edged Sword, or a Possible Solution?

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The new literacy is digital literacy, and at its heart is coding -- computer programming and computational design. It's one powerful conceptual, technical and analytical skillset that enables humans to work together to invent, share ideas, model and visualize solutions, and provide services over digital networks.

Computational tools, programming languages, and programmable data systems make coding the new common language capability to master; already, it is breaking the barriers of geography and culture to allow people to work together, seamlessly, to accomplish amazing things.

As such, coding could realize an age-old dream. If we can communicate across borders, we can then collaborate across boundaries, and if we can do that, what can't we achieve?!

But is this prospect a two-edged sword, as terrifying as it is inspiring?

God Himself, the book of Genesis tells us, noting the Tower of Babel rising to Heaven, scattered our ancestors over the face of the earth and created a multitude of languages to carve differences among us, for when the people have all one language, nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do. Unfettered capability can run to evil as well as to good.

Is it the same with coding? If it potentially enables collaborative thinking, crafting, simulating, and sharing, it can significantly leverage the diverse knowledge and strategic expertise of people in multiple places, independent of linguistic ties and cultural differences. For example, if someone in NYC codes and posts publicly a prototype for a program to map access to potable water, then shares the code, it can prompt improvements from people in Delhi, Riyadh, Nairobi and Tel Aviv, and see the program extended and implemented to help people in Somalia find their way to clean drinking water. Someone in Boston can teach kids in Ethiopia how to read through coding an app.

All exciting stuff, but we know it could go the other way too. The same tools -- coding, leveraging, improving through teamwork -- can be used to create a violent war game, hack an electric grid, steal data from a bank, or worse.

Two-edged sword, two-edged challenge: How to ensure universal fluency in this new common coding language, and at the same time, ensure that those fluent in the language use it for good?

One way is to teach the world's children to participate in -- even better, to drive -- the economy and culture of their future towards productive goodness. For this, they need to be able to learn not just to consume information and media online, but also to create and produce it. Learning how must be equivalent to their learning to read and write text, and it must start at just as young an age.

Computer Science Education Week (@CSEdWeek | www.CSEdWeek.org) is recognized nationwide this week (December 9-15, 2012). It was launched by organizations and corporations that want to ensure that computing thrives throughout the nation's schools, in all states, to give all students brighter opportunities for learning and collaborating by supporting and celebrating various types of technology platforms and tools, computational design and computer science education offerings for K-12. Initiatives like CSEdWeek address the need to harness the potential of computing through education.

The matter is urgent. The demand for computational thinking and coding skills is the most profound economic requirement of our era -- for the ability to question, prototype, construct solutions, and communicate without boundaries in any sector -- business, education, entertainment, government and health. Instilling the moral imperative to use these skills for good is an even tougher educational goal. It won't happen if the instruction consists of only playing a math game for a few hours a week, or putting textbooks on iPads, or looking at videotaped instruction and PPT presentations. Instead, all kids, from a young age, must become fluent in the new common language, learn to program applications and make original games for solving the world's most pressing problems: obesity, poverty, climate, hunger, water, human rights, peace, or sustainability. Researchers have witnessed how, in doing so, kids grow up practicing using their knowledge and their empathy for others, using coding to both build new knowledge and systems and collaborate towards a responsible global society that the citizens of Babel Tower would applaud.

My friend Doug Rushkoff published a Blog on CSEdWeek website today. He feels that the climax of CSEdWeek the opportunity to address members of Congress and their Staffers in Washington about the important value of digital literacy and computing education.

I agree with Rushkoff and it's absolutely clear to me: a national commitment to teaching computing as the new writing can heighten our students' future possibilities -- boys, girls, underrepresented minorities alike. Let's all take a moment to sign the pledge to acknowledge our sincere excitement about mastering complex technology knowledge and skills and leading the way to brighter future opportunities for all.