Despite the decades that have passed since it was announced, the goal of teaching computer skills in schools and universities has not been achieved. Various interpretations have been put forward to explain this failure. They range from inadequate teacher training to the non-competitiveness of teachers’ salaries. To remedy this situation, some have suggested the adoption of the latest educational technologies, while others have proposed the use of gamification. However, these explanations and therapies do not withstand a more in-depth analysis.
A paradoxical failure
On the one hand, computer-based education struggles to take off, even in contexts with a well-established multidisciplinary vocation accustomed to integrating diverse perspectives and knowledge. On the other hand, the dissemination of digital technologies and their related services in everyday life, the world of work, and leisure time is increasingly extensive and uninterrupted. This digitization involves more and more professions, even those originally less technological. It eventually influences lifestyles, the economy, civic participation, and professional prospects – a transformation that both causes concerns and brings benefits. It is natural to wonder how it is possible that a delay persists in widespread and basic knowledge in a discipline so important for people’s lives.
Perhaps it is because some fundamental difficulties have not received the necessary attention. These difficulties are the following.
Between established practices and prejudices
The first fundamental problem is compartmentalization. It is often assumed that computer skills are possessed and, therefore, transmitted by expert computer professionals almost exclusively to other individuals training in the field, and only rarely (in a simplified form) to non-computer professionals. The most apparent consequence of this forced compartmentalization is cultural isolation. Knowledge is transmitted only within a narrow domain, and it is encoded in practices, attitudes, and cultural exchanges. It resembles the traditional ivory tower. It is rare for the education of a computer professional to include cultural openness to other disciplines unless it does so for instrumental reasons in anticipation of a technical support function. Furthermore, it is even rarer for the teaching of computer science to non-computer professionals to adequately consider the specificities of the cultural and professional background of the recipients.
A second challenge is the formalization of the qualification as a computer professional. Formally, a computer professional is a specialist with the appropriate certification acquired only through a curriculum. This definition is a kind of ‘original sin’ that has reinforced the historical isolation of the discipline. In reality, the best and most effective way to acquire computer skills, even at an advanced level, is through self-taught practice independent of previous educational paths. Self-taught practice has allowed groups of researchers and professionals in fields, including the humanities or other areas outside the strict domain of computer science, to develop high-level computer skills.
The third obstacle is the traditional socio-cultural connotation of computer science enthusiasts. These are predominantly males who share a general inclination toward scientism and a belief in technology as the solution to any problem. Put simply, they are the stereotypical figures of the nerd, geek, or hacker. This strong connotation has deliberately promoted the exclusion of those who do not possess the above-mentioned gender and cultural characteristics, thereby reinforcing the prejudice that "computer science is for males" and the belief of many female students that they are "naturally unsuited" for computer science.
To address the above-described problems, prepackaged solutions are not sufficient. Simply adopting the latest software for digital education is not enough. A new approach must be taken.
What to do? Making computer science accessible to all
The first step in a new approach is overcoming compartmentalization. Computer science does not belong to one sector; rather, it cuts across many sectors accessible to everyone that can benefit from digital skills. This is already the case of other skills like legal, economic, and statistical abilities, which are horizontally spread across a wide range of different disciplines. Similarly, computer skills should not be distributed haphazardly from a single center. Instead, different disciplines can develop their own computer skills and a digital and technological culture tailored to their specific needs and state of the art. Those teaching computer skills to sociologists, for example, can be computer professionals, sociologists, or others, but they must primarily understand how sociologists can benefit from these skills without relying on external support. The same applies to scholars in other disciplines such as political scientists, economists, organizational experts, doctors, historians, and artists. Computer skills should spread horizontally, not vertically, except in a few highly specialized cases. Every discipline can already establish its core digital skills, these being shaped to meet specific teaching and research needs and reach high levels of excellence.
Secondly, a new approach should recognize that students in political and social sciences, economics, management, etc., are capable of acquiring at least intermediate to high-level computer skills without necessarily undergoing the long (often tedious) and largely abstract basic training in traditional computer science. They can learn to write code, harness the richness of open-source systems, work with data, define models, and even design a well-structured visual and communicative system. All of this is within their reach if they are provided with a focused educational path aligned with their cultural and professional context. No student of humanities or social sciences needs to become a computer scientist to acquire good computer knowledge. The level and type of skills will depend on the professional profile and the course of study; but even now, the majority of students in humanities and social sciences are capable of acquiring significant digital skills, provided that traditional computer science curricula are not imposed, but individual disciplines instead develop their own set of tools, their own ‘informatics’.
Finally, it is necessary to break down the negative cultural habits and stereotypes that reduce the learning opportunities for many students. What is needed is genuinely inclusive computer science. Digital technology does not justify any form of discrimination to entry. It is not an exclusive domain for young male pseudo-engineers. A humanities or social sciences discipline that, as just advocated, defines its own informatics, would help eliminate the above-described stereotypes that, on the contrary, persist with traditional computer science.