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We Do Need Digital Fluency, But We Don’t All Need To Code

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (Photo by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

An event last week had me feeling a little worried about how we’re bringing up our child. The occasion was a panel discussion featuring Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe over the subject of “digital fluency,” and it didn’t just stick to the workforce-training issues you’d expect to hear about from the commonwealth’s salesman-in-chief.

Instead, the panelists turned their attention to a much younger population of potential programmers.

“We have to teach coding as early as kindergarten… maybe let’s say first grade,” said Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code.

Other panelists concurred in broader terms. Capital One’s chief enterprise services officer Frank LaPrade said: “You learn English, you learn how to paint, you learn how to read, you should learn the implications of technology at an early age.”

McAuliffe didn’t go quite as far, but he left no doubt that technology has to be infused into our children’s education: “I want a Crayola book that has STEM on the front of it,” he said, referring to the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math.

I wasn’t sure how sold the governor was on having coding in the curriculum, so I asked him afterwards: What’s your definition of digital fluency?

“A code writer and a code understander would be the basics of it,” McAuliffe said. And that kind of education should start early: “Maybe kindergarten [is] a little early, maybe first or second grade.”

I found myself nodding in agreement more about his next sentence: “We need to, at a very early age, get our children excited about STEM-related activities.”

That’s the thing: You don’t need to know how to write or read computer code to be an informed user, an enlightened customer, and an empowered citizen. But you do need to know enough not to be stuck viewing technology as a mysterious black box. And getting kids curious about how all this stuff works is something that should happen at an early age.

(Our daughter, almost five, has yet to write a line of code. But she does enjoy making letters appear on my laptop’s screen by tapping away at the keyboard, assumes that all screens are touch screens, and recently pretended to send me a note by spinning the click-wheel dial on my old, long-defunct iPod. She also likes trains and spaceships. I contend we’re bringing her up in a way the governor would approve, in other words.)

My own definition of digital fluency doesn’t involving mastering a programming language’s syntax, but it does involve mastering at least an abstraction-level knowledge of how programs respond to your input and how data travels across the Internet.

It requires grasping how much data a site, service, or app will collect from you, what it will do with it, and who will end up with it.

It demands the ability to assess online threats rationally, versus panicking over incredibly rare scenarios that you will probably only see happen in movies.

It means you know how to take your data and your business from one service or app to another, so that you don’t ever feel like you’re being held hostage by one company.

It includes you remembering to back up your data. (You do back up your data, right?)

Having said all that, however, I might as well admit here that before the Capital One event started, I took an online digital-skills test offered by a partner of the financial-services firm—and instead of acing it, I only got 13 of 15 questions right. So the chances of this post being correct may be no greater than 86.7 percent.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.