Greg Linch’s April 30, 2010 post at the Publish2 blog improves upon my May 2009 post on computational thinking in journalism by placing it in the context of the larger conversation about the skills and habits of mind that journalists now need. He also offers helpful suggestions about specific computer science concepts that journalists ought to understand. Linch lists abstraction, debugging, defining variables, and commenting code as examples of computer science concepts that parallel traditional journalism skills and functions.
Linch’s taxonomy is of interest not only because of its relevance to the practice of professional journalism but also because of its implications for both the journalism and computer science professions. While journalism faces a crisis because of the collapse and transformation of its business and technology models in recent years, computer science has suffered for decades from an anemic pipeline for future computing professionals.
For the last three years, I have been a co-PI on a National Science Foundation-funded demonstration project designed to test the hypothesis that middle school students could be attracted to computing via interactive journalism. We focus on what my colleague, PI Ursula Wolz, refers to as the “isomorphism” between journalism and computing, especially: information access and dissemination, process description and decision-making for results presentation.
Our results have been heartening: students report positive attitudes about both journalism and computing, and teachers report feeling empowered in their efforts to impart skills and knowledge to their charges that will be essential to their future success. It is notable that four of our seven participating educators are language arts teachers. Even more significantly, the teachers have taken ownership of the IJIMS after-school program, and they have brought several of the tools and techniques from the project into their classrooms. It is also worth noting that the students with whom we have been working are largely from demographic groups underrepresented in both the journalism and computing fields.
As a result of this research and her decades of experience in computer science education, Wolz has participated in two meetings at the National Academies on the subject of computational thinking. At the February, 2009 meeting, a portion of the conversation among leaders in the computer science concerned the relationship between computer science and journalism. The entire report, which is available online, is worth reading, but this excerpt suffices.
“Wolz argued that journalism mirrors many of the processes involved in working with computers, especially programming. ‘In journalism, one must pitch a story, research it, interview, collect data, shoot video, write, edit, send it to the editor, re-write, add sidebars, resubmit, fact-check, debug the story, and loop until the editor signs off on it. If one assumes that the computer acts as editor, then one can take note of a very familiar series of activities involved in computational thinking.”
By the way, other participants in the workshop likened journalistic processes to software engineering. Certainly, project management skills and the ability to function in self-managed teams are essential to both fields.
So far, we’ve established that there are parallels between journalism and computing, that journalists benefit from an understanding of computational thinking and that journalism can be a vehicle for introducing computer science concepts at the middle school level. There is however, another area for potential discussion and collaboration: scholastic journalism education can serve as a useful platform from which to build a model of developmental education for computational thinking in the K-12 curriculum.
Jeannette Wing, the originator of the concept of computational thinking, has noted that just as we need to identify a progressive series of concepts that children must master throughout the K-12 years in order to become fluent computational thinkers, just as we do in reading, math and science. For example, a child ideally learns what numbers are in kindergarten, arithmetic in the primary grades, and introductory geometry and algebra by middle school as a preparation for more complex math in high school. In language arts, we can identify a similar progression from learning letters to writing the five-paragraph essay, imitating common forms of poetry and fiction, and the term paper.
In the K-12 context, scholastic journalism is practiced in the classroom and as an extracurricular activity. In the classroom, it is most frequently articulated within the language arts and social studies curriculum, but it can be successfully employed as a teaching strategy in inquiry-based science and math classes, as well as in the context of a strong writing across the curriculum program. At the elementary level, teachers often have students do reports on current events, or create “magazines” and class “newspapers” without identifying those activities as journalistic in nature.
Computational thinking can be infused in these curricula with relatively minor enhancements. Tools such as MIT’s scratch programming language, as well as the emergence of such software platforms for K-12 collaboration as Pbworks.com, Ning, Teen Second Life, afford teachers a plethora of tools for creating learning activities centered upon journalism and civic media. Activity guides such as CS unplugged offer ways of teaching computer science concepts relevant to journalism that appeal to multiple learning styles. If we combine the traditional journalism-like class activities with some of these available and emerging tools, interesting possibilities emerge.