Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Hackety Hack - Coding for Kids

There's been a bit of buzz lately about a new program called Hackety Hack, which some say may be to programming what Harry Potter was to literature...an appealing and easy "way in" for kids and non-expert adults to learn some basic programming skills and perhaps begin to participate in computing at a more fundamental level than "web 2.0". After reading about it on Terra Nova and then BuzzWord Compliant, I check out the official Hackety Hack site to see what all the fuss was about. Here's an excerpt from the product description:

"In the 1980s, a language called BASIC swept the countryside. It was a language beginners could use to make their computer speak, play music. You could easily draw a big smiley face or a panda or whatever you like! But not just BASIC. Other languages like: LOGO and Pascal were right there on many computers.

In this century, you may have dozens of programming languages lurking on your machine. But how to use them?? A fundamental secret! Well, no more. We cannot stand for that. Hackety Hack will not stand to have you in the dark!!"

Nate Combs has linked the program to two background documents that can give you a better idea of where all this kids coding concern is coming from. The first is a short piece written by one of the program's creators, called The Little Coders Predicament, which mourns the inaccessibility of computer code in today's world of pre-packaged, WYSIWYG. The second is a much cited article called "Why Johnny can't code", which appeared on Salon.com last year. Here, David Brin describes how,
"[Q]uietly and without fanfare, or even any comment or notice by software pundits, we have drifted into a situation where almost none of the millions of personal computers in America offers a line-programming language simple enough for kids to pick up fast. Not even the one that was a software lingua franca on nearly all machines, only a decade or so ago."

Both documents seem inspired by Seymour Papert's early visions of assuring kids first-class entry into the information age through LOGO. The program seems well-intended, and I appreciate its emphasis on how blogging, emailing and MSNing alone do not a computer programmer make. Computer literacy is a shaky concept when it comes to kids, particularly "cyberkids" whose skills are seen far exceeding those of their parents and adults, even while their understanding of the underlying technologies and business mechanisms might actually be quite superficial. The program's entry (or potential entry, I should say) into kids' digital culture is also quite timely, given the current, massive interest in child-generated content and "web 2.0".

1 comment:

Nate Combs said...

I like your distinction between "literacy" and "understanding". We may be reaching the point of having a lot of younger folks who are literate with the medium (in vague terms), and yet ironically we may also find ourselves with fewer folks capable of problem solving in the medium - just at a time when it is becoming a great deal more complicated. I wrote another post emphasizing the latter here.