Coding as a (second) Language


There is global interest in teaching programming in schools. Initiatives that come from outside education, like, which is backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, are trying to get more students learning a second (or third) language, but it's not one that is spoken. But I also see a backlash of those who say that writing code is a terrible way for humans to instruct computers and that newer technology may render programming languages "about as useful as Latin."

I support some middle ground. Teaching some coding as part of regular language study in English and world language classes.

This week I am giving a presentation at the NJEDge.Net Faculty Best Practices Showcase that I titled "Code as a (second) Language." It's not about becoming a programmer. Learning about code, like learning about grammar, is about understanding how a system of communication works below the surface.

There are several "computer science, meets humanities" programs. One is at Stanford University, which offers a new major there called CS+X  which is a middle ground between computer science and any of 14 disciplines in the humanities, including history, art, and classics. 

What are the cognitive advantages to learning a second language? Learning any system of signs, symbols and rules used to communicate improves thinking by challenging the brain to: recognize & negotiate meaning, work within structures and rules, and master different language patterns.

As a longtime language teacher - and shorter term coder - I know that code-switching (and that is the term) occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation. That can be done between English and French, but also between English and Java. 

Whether you are working in a traditional language class or a programming class, memorizing rules and learning new vocabulary strengthens overall memory. Multilingual people are better at remembering lists or sequences. Language study & coding forces a focus on knowing important information & excluding extraneous information. We have all heard and read beautiful” and elegant language, such as in a Shakespeare play or great poem, but programmers and mathematicians also talk about beautiful and elegant code and equations.

logoThe conference this week is about STEAM -- STEM plus the arts, including language arts.

Engineering and other STEM subjects are appealing to students in part because they often include hands-on, real-world applications. Many students also feel that these majors lead to better job prospects. Of course, learning to think like an engineer could be useful no matter what students decide to pursue. An increasing number of high schools offer introduction to engineering courses that are project-based, an inquiry-centered. 

There is a Code as a Second Language National Initiative that brings tech professionals and software engineers into schools to introduce students to coding in classes, but also in after-school sessions and events like coding jams. 

This is all great, but my interest here is bring the coding found in STEM courses into languages classes. 

How is a programming language comparable to a spoken language?

My idea is not without precedents. Natural language processing looks at syntax, semantics and models of language analysis, interpretation & generation. Human language technology continues to grow. On a large scale, products like Google and other search tools and Apple's Siri and speech drive commercial uses. The field of computational linguistics is one that grew out of early machine translation efforts and generated mechanized linguistic theories.

There are many programming languages we might use, depending on the grade level and applications. Although JAVA is the most popular programming language, and the AP computer science exam uses a Java subset, it is more than many students will have time to learn. There are coding options that I have written about here for using simpler languages (such as SCRATCH) and tools to aid in writing programs

Although Java might not be the coolest language to use these days, you can do many things with it - including tapping into the current interest by young people for Minecraft. Using mods for Minecraft makes Java more beginner-friendly.  

Language teachers can work with STEM teachers, especially in K-12 schools, to show students the connections between concepts like syntax and help bridge student knowledge of the two fields and also understand commonalties in communications.

The 2016 NJEDge.Net Faculty Best Practices Showcase is a venue to showcase faculty work, work-in-progress or posters to the New Jersey Higher Ed and K-12 communities. Registration and Information on the presentations at

View the "Coding as a (second) Language" slides via Slideshare by Kenneth Ronkowitz


The Maker Movement Connects STEM and STEAM

Hackerspace billboard.jpg

                      Photo: Dave Jenson - We're working on it!, CC BY-SA 2.0

Maker culture has been growing, but it contains a number of subcultures. For me, maker culture now includes hackerspaces, fab(rication) labs and other spaces that encourage a DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to innovation.

These spaces are found around the world and some probably existed prior to the use of the makerspace label. Like-minded people use these spaces to share ideas, tools, and skills.

Some hackerspaces and makerspaces are found at universities with a technical orientation, such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon. But I have found that many of these spaces are quite closed spaces that are available to only students in particular programs or majors and perhaps not to the entire university community or the wider surrounding community.

So, spaces have also emerged in K-12 schools, public libraries and in the community.


The NJEDge.Net Faculty Best Practices Showcase is an excellent venue to showcase your work, work-in-progress or posters to the New Jersey Higher Ed and K-12 communities. This month I will be part of a presentation along with Emily Witkowski (Maplewood Public Library) and Danielle Mirliss (Seton Hall University) titled "The Maker Movement Connects STEAM Across New Jersey."  STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) gets plenty of attention these days, but this particular conference is focused on teaching innovations in STEAM - that's STEM with the needed addition of the Arts, including language arts and the digital humanities, and drawing on design principles and encouraging creative solutions.

The keynote speaker at the Showcase is Georgette Yakman, founding researcher and creator of ST?@M. The acronym, in this context, represents how the subject areas relate to each other: Science & Technology, interpreted through Engineering & the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements. The A stands for a broad spectrum of the arts going beyond aesthetics to include the liberal arts, folding in Language Arts, Social Studies, Physical Arts, Fine Arts & Music and the ways each shape developments in STEM fields.

The Rhode Island School of Design is a good example of having a STEM to STEAM program and maintains an interactive map that shows global STEAM initiatives. John Maeda, (2008 to 2013 president of Rhode Island School of Design) has been a leader in bringing the initiative to the political forums of educational policy. 

Our Showcase presentation presents three aspects of the maker movement: in classrooms, in libraries and the community, and in higher education. We are part of the NJ Maker Consortium which brings together educators and librarians in K-12 and Higher Ed. The consortium looks to provide local support, networking, and training for individuals working to establish or grow makerspace programs on their schools or library branches.

In 2016, the second annual New Jersey Makers Day has expanded to a two-day event, March 18 and 19. This celebration of maker culture occurs in locations across NJ and connects all-ages at libraries, schools, businesses, and independent makerspaces that support making, tinkering, crafting, manufacturing, and STEM-based learning. 

Northeast Connect Conference

I put in my registration for the Northeast Connect Fourth Annual Conference: Leading and Inspiring Change for Successful Learning Friday, on November 14, 2008, at Montclair State University.

I see by the schedule that I have a before-lunch slot for a presentation I titled "Tear Down The Walls." That edupunk title probably sounds more revolutionary than the presentation deserves, but as learning spaces continue to evolve and web tools further erase the physical walls of classrooms, libraries and other educational settings, it seemed appropriate.

I'll be looking specifically at our use of LibGuides, a web 2.0 content management and information sharing system. It was designed with libraries in mind, but is being used by us at Passaic County Community College (and other schools) as a collaborative web tool. This hosted service offers opportunities to create and share reusable content, tagging, widgets, embedded video, polling, commenting, RSS, and easy integration with other tools like Delicious, Digg and Facebook with a very gentle learning curve for users. The LibGuides community allows PCCC to collaborate with more than 300 institutions using it worldwide.

The conference keynote is Curt Garbett who will base his talk on the book Who Moved My Cheese? Why have a business speaker at an education conference? Actually, I'm not a big fan of business creeping into teaching. When we view students as customers and talk about the return on investment in creating an online course, it usually makes me angry. Nevertheless, I will sometimes write here about the long tail and other business concepts that have applications to learning. It makes more sense to have Garbett if you know that the 1998 book has sold 5 million copies - many of those copies handed out by managers to their employees - and that Who Moved My Cheese? is subtitled "An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life." Inspiring change is the conference theme, so I hope his presentation will address the educational take on this.

Conference attendees are all invited to a special post-conference party 5-8 PM with music, food, and drinks - all in the name of "networking," of course.

For more information and registration visit

Higher Ed Experts

Higher Ed Experts is a professional development & social networking site aimed at higher ed professionals working in Web, marketing, PR and admissions. It's headed by Karine Joly who I have referenced before here for her excellent blog (She also writes for University Business magazine on Internet technologies.)

As Karine says: You can register to become a member (membership is free yet loaded with benefits). You can enroll to attend one or more webinar series or apply to become a webinar speaker or even post job ads for your institution for free.

Higher Ed Experts (HEE) has a one hour webinar coming up as part of "Crisis Communication 2.0 Week" featuring Mike Dame, director of Web communications at Virginia Tech who will share his experience and lessons learned during the tragedy last month in Blacksburg. My son attended VT during that tragic event, so that caught my eye. It's part of a 3-webinar series that is priced at $250 including $100 that will be donated by Higher Ed Experts, in the name of the higher ed community, to the Memorial Fund at Virginia Tech. The June 26, 27 & 28 series also features Joe Hice, AVP at the University of Florida and Andrew Careaga, director of communications at UMR. That's another reason why I'd like to get as many attendees as possible. So, I thought I would give you an extra incentive to share the news with people that might be interested.

There is also a free inaugural webinar (for the first 300 HEE registrants - still open as of this writing) on "How to go viral with your videos on YouTube: What makes a YouTube success? Is it within your institution's reach?" That's on June 14 and features 2 presenters: James Todd, writer and producer for the Office of News and Communication at Duke University, who is responsible for his institution's online videos available on YouTube and other video sharing websites and Dr. Michael Wesch, Kansas State University Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology. He's the author of the most viewed (2 million+ views) higher ed YouTube video, "Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us" which I blogged about earlier and have included in my own YouTube playlist for visual design course. (Yes, you can find educational video content in YouTube, but the instructor will probably need to be the compiler - at least at first.)