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On students' computer literacy (or lack thereof)

The current pandemic has forced lots of institutions to switch to online and remote teaching and learning. I too had to adapt my teaching methods. And, as previously said by basically every educator since the beginning of the lockdown, the digital fracture will only increase in this situation. This means that some students will struggle to follow the courses because of factors they cannot control or influence.

One rarely mentioned aspect is the difficulty for educators to help students solve the issues they often face with their own machines. And it is in times like these that I wonder: how much do our students really know about computers?

I have recently stumbled upon MIT’s “Missing Semester” course, where some smaller yet important aspects of Computer Science are covered in this pot-pourri styled course. The motivation behind this course is described here. Basically, we teach our CS students lots of complex theories and concepts, but do not spend much time on computer literacy. And unfortunately, I have already witnessed computer illiteracy a few times, sometimes in some really twisted ways.

What is really disturbing is that these students grew up with computers, smartphones, and tablets. This generation is supposedly tech savvy. But seeing students not knowing how to make ZIP archives or to take screenshots on their laptops is a reminder that there are so many levels of using and knowing their computers. And do not get me started on 32/64 bits operating systems, environment variables and path, or the CLI in general.

So this leaves me wondering: should we have an actual course dedicated to computer literacy? Something a little bit more structured and with contents that can appeal to any student and not just CS ones? A more interesting question might be: when should we be teaching such a course?

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