Consider your everyday life: how many math problems do you solve? Most of us aren't solving complex or even simple math problems on a daily basis, yet math remains a staple in school curriculum. On the other hand, how often are you exposed to computer technology, and thus all of the dangers (hacking, identity theft) that go along with it on a daily basis? Even so, computer courses are treated with much less importance to their mathematics and other core curriculum cohorts required to earn a high school diploma.
Perhaps the approach would be different if we were more pragmatic. The things we use most in our daily lives would be the mandatory curriculum while the things we rarely do — or never do at all — should be electives. Obviously, math is definitely needed for engineering, physics, statisticians, data analysis, computer science, or Economics. But for the masses that are not in academia, technology or finance, "complex" math problems are outsourced to calculators (computers).
Computers are ubiquitous, even for people whose jobs have little or nothing to do directly with technology. When take my car for an oil change, the technicians use a relational database to retrieve my information. When I applied for a day-pass for a local state park, the worker already had all of my information on their computer screen based on a fishing license I applied for years earlier. Even delivery drivers use computers to change their route in real-time based on traffic and weather conditions.
We are living hand-in-hand with the Internet of Things. Smart phones eliminated the old definition of the technological divide for everyone. Many homeless people have phones and they are equipped with applications that can lead them to resources that can help remain healthily and safe. And if they don’t have access to a cell phone, the local library provides computers labs that are growing larger each year. Computer access is only growing more and more ubiquitous.
How is it that learning and understanding something that is so ingrained in our society is still treated as an elective?
Computer literacy is purposeful, and more than knowing what an "OS" is. here are real dangers. Computers bring us hackers, viruses, identity theft, cyber bullying, and even more sinister acts — we're in the midst of a serious cyber war that we have neither the resources nor the people to fight it.
Yet, most of our schools offer computer related courses as electives; as if it is something that is insignificant to traverse through life. This approach is shamefully misguided. In a world that is only going to become even more deeply tangled in the digital universe, and the threat of foreign involvement cutting the thread that holds American democracy together, it is imperative that computer literacy courses become mandatory grade school curriculum.
Americans are already very good at using technology, but using technology is different than understanding it. I spend a lot of time explaining how to attach documents to email to my high school students, and they know little to nothing about the benefits of file structures (which makes doing simple tasks like saving a retrieving documents a lot safer and easier, by the way). This is not a representation of every student, not even the majority, but enough to raise concerns about the future of our digital safety.
And this problem won't take an elaborate solution, or tons of money to solve. Introduce computer technology into school curriculums early — in pre-school even — and continue them all the way through high school. These courses should span everything from online safety and ethical issues, to coding, design and data analytics. These courses should be mandatory just as the traditional mathematics, history and English courses.
In turn, we’ll develop home-grown computer talent to fill the ranks of a depleted technology workforce and begin to build the type ethical foundation that will lead better practices and legislation that can more efficiently protect the privacy rights of citizens. We need a new digital army to help defend our nation from the increasing cyber-attacks on our society, coming from both internal and external nefarious entities. And we need to start soon. Very soon.
Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.