January 22, 2012

Gateway to the next level

(Originally posted as a comment on Hacker News.)

Haley Mlotek posted an article about her experience with Ladies Learning Code.

This is pretty great. Its first-order effects would be good enough: a successful class that turns people from mere users into content creators. Great!

But the second-order effects may be more important. Nearly anyone, when first introduced to computers, is "just" a user---they use the computer in the ways that are taught to them. Those of us that progress into general programmers generally had some transition phase where we were sort of "just users", typing something in or following instructions, but those things we typed in were our gateway to the next level. For me, it was typing in BASIC listings from magazines on the family Apple IIe in the mid-80s, and then figuring out that I could tweak them and make the programs do new things that weren't in the original article. For some of my students these days, it was typing in WoW macros and then learning to tweak their own.

A couple years ago, I had a student whose original entree into programming came via a web design class mostly involving HTML and largely done using a front-end app (Dreamweaver maybe?). But it was a start, and it inspired her to learn more about HTML and then eventually to take AP CS and major in it in college. I think her sex and her gender are only statistically relevant here---there most certainly are girls that play video games and will want to write macros, and there are boys that can will be well-served by an HTML-first curriculum. But she suspected, and I agree, that teaching people structured content creation will have long-term effects of increasing the ratio of females in all areas of CS.

But whether that speculation is accurate or not, let's not be dissing this person's experience because it's not programming-y enough. We don't need to be gatekeeping the secrets of the High Priesthood here; everyone needs to start somewhere. And whether Ms. Mlotek eventually goes on into "true" programming or not, she's more computer-empowered than before, so we should be happy for her, and if not her then others who go through this program, both male and female, will find their way into programming and other CS disciplines. And that is something we should all be happy about.

"Autotune... it's the audio equivalent to 'Snap to Grid'." --xpaulbettsx

Posted by blahedo at 2:21pm on 22 Jan 2012
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