Procedural literacy

The educational technology and digital learning wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This page has been written during a seminar at Tecfa: Semactu 2010-2011.

See also


Beyond the questions about a New Millenium Learner (NML), digital natives (see also natifs numériques), a digital divide (see also Inégalité numérique) and educational technology in the web 2.0 era is a questionning about changes in our educational culture and its social implications. What should be part of a basic, common knowledge base in the 21st century? Should there be an alternative approach to the knowledge society in times where knowledge is available from many different sources (Pedró,NML conference)? What skills should be acquired?

In 1990, the United Nations General Assembly declared an "international literacy year" and started a 10 year program to reduce illiteracy (Bawden 2001). This has raised the interest and awareness on the meaning of literacy in an information-rich society.

More precisely, what kind of literacy is needed in a culture where information technology - and technology itself - is ubiquitous?

First interesting views were found in the article "Procedural litearcy: educating the new media Practitioner" by Michael Mateas who calls for procedural literacy as being part of the general culture a new media practitioner should have. Several other authors (Sheil 1983 and 1993, Proulx 2002) join the idea and propose that procedural literacy should be part of the basic culture of any digital device and/or web 2.0 user if he is to be truly literate in the present time, stating that his education is not complete without an “understanding of the interplay between the culturally embedded practices of human meaning-making and technically mediated processes”(Mateas 2005).


The term "procedural literacy" is one of the latest expression of a long series of definitions of literacy that include information-, computer-, media- or digital literacy (Badwen 2001).

Although the expression "procedural literacy" is recent, calls for a true literacy of computation have been made already in the sixties, at the very beginning of computer development (Mateas). Papert's work on the programming game logo (Papert 1980) is only one of many educational programs and research projects that still develop today and that are intended to transmit a general understanding of the programming language. This language should be treated as “a universal representational medium for describing structure and process” (Mateas 2005).

This call is echoed for example in France where in the eighties there was a discussion around "numeric alphabetization" (Proulx 2002). Finding a realistic model with defined educational objectives is the central question for teaching computer literacy. These issues are discussed from the eighties on and are the subject of an agenda of cognitive science research (Sheil 1983 and 1993). The development of internet gives these consideration a new dimension and again has driven discussions on how to teach general computer or procedural literacy.



Literacy is the condition of being able to read and write, being learned, having a commpetence in or with something (Bawden 2001). Thus, literacy means being able to receive, sort, understand, and transmit information and it is closely linked to eductation as well as to the skills and competencies for a successfull social life in a particular culture.

Defining literacy as opposed to illiteracy often carries the concept that illiteracy can be "cured" and that literacy can be measured accurately. But the concept of literacy is a relative concept since it is progressive ans has a close relation with a particular culture.(Bawden 2001).

Literacy was born with the first sumeric alphabet, it has followed the development of languages, of hieroglyphs, of books, and it has spread together with printed media to a greater part of our society. In the web 2.0 age, literacy has many names: Media literacy, digital-, network-, IT- or computer literacy. There seem to be a consensus among most researchers that 'information literacy' is a more general expression that encompasses different competencies linked to searching, finding, evaluating and transmit information. Using digital devices is part of these competencies as well as understanding how the information is processed, being able to find and sort information and at a higher level of literacy, snthetise and reuse it.

Thus, literacy has to do with a person's role and competencies in his culture an society and thus always has a political dimension. Today, literacy implies the ability to search and find the right information (wherever it is), to collaborate but also "having a competence" with technology in general and information technologies in particular.

Procedural literacy

Procedural literacy means going beyond "black box programs" and programming languages themselves to develop an understanding that “the space of computation is bigger than the particular view of it embodied (enforced) by any particular programming model”(Mateas 2005). Being literate in computation or acquiring procedural literacy means an awareness of the constraints of specific tools (or programming languages) and being capable of considering a larger space of computational possibilities.

Web 2.0, open source and procedural literacy

Unlike some authors like Prensky seem to state, digital natives, even immerged in web 2.0, are not more literate in computational or digital competencies than any other user of information technologies (Wecker 2007). Their use of computers is varied and often unspectaculer (Selwyn 2009). Computer or procedural literacy is an issue that concerns all members of our society.

On the other hand, an interesting outlook is the open source movement. Unlike any set or closed program structure ("black box software and programs"), source code is accessible and can be modified. A community of programers of different levels interacts around these programs, allowing "beginners" a kind of apprenticeship through exchanges with more experienced programmers and/or users. This movement develops a true cultural and social significance, creating bridges between users and programers and gaining political significances inside the world of information technology (Proulx 2002). This community could be one way to acquire procedural skills and procedural literacy in its competency- but also social and critical thinking- or political dimensions.

Educational issues

Lack of understanding of a computer's underlying conceptual structure alienates users from their environments and hinders any effective use of information processing devices. Procedural reasoning though is not widely appreciated as a basic cognitive skill and there is still some research to do on how procedural literacy should become a part of todays multi-literacies (Sheil 1993, Proulx 2002). Another issue here is the question wether the computer himself should be used as a cognitive tool to acquire procedural literacy and to identify the level of computational knowledge necessary to acquire literacy in these technologies.(Proulx 2002). Numerous definitions of the different "skill based literacies" that are a part of todays literacy can be found, including procedural literacy. Nevertheless, the development of educational programs teaching procedural literacy is not widespread and while these competencies are seen as part of the 21st century skills listed for example by the Buck Institute for Education, it is still not clear how these skills should be integrated in a remodeled structure of education suiting the new millenium learner (Pedró 2009).


The logo project for children, developped in the eighties, is a precursor in this field that has followers until today.

Many applications that are set and stable, made for a broader public, also offer some programmable interface (Proulx 2002).

Using game or interactive art programming is one way to teach computer literacy (Mateas 2005). It introduces students to the concrete craft practice of programming and its unforgiving requirements for extreme attention to details and focus on procedurality; it also spans the culture divide between the humanistic - artistic and scientific-technical worlds.

Programs like the Rapunsel programming course adressed to middle school girls or the Media Computation Course for Non-Majors (Guzdial 2003) could show the way for integrating and recognizing procedural literacy as an important part of literacy in our time.


Procedural literacy in an era where we are using a wide range of technologies in our everyday lives, at work , on the go or at home, is a central competency that should be part of literacy today. If we are to be familiar with the way computers and information technologies think and function, if we want to feel at ease with them and use them in an optimal way, if we want to learn and get ahead in our lives and careers, we need to be literate.

Literate meaning being able to "read and write the world."


Badwen, D.: Information and Digital Literacies: a Review of Concepts. Journal of Documentation, vol. 57, No2, pp 218-259, March 2001

Guzdial, M. : a media computation course for non-majors

Mateas, M. : Procedural Literacy: Educating the New Media Practitioner. On the Horizon, Vol. 13, No1, 2005

Papert, S.: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, Mindstorm, New York: Basic Books, 1980.

Prensky, M.: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, On the Horizon, MCB University Press, Vol. 9, No5, October 2001

Proulx, S.: Trajectoires d'usages des technologies de communication: les formes d'appropriation d'une culture numérique comme enjeu d'une socuété du savoir, ANN. Télécommun., 57, No3-4, 2002.

Selwyn, N.: The digital native - myth and reality, Aslib Proceedings, Vol. 61 Iss: 4, pp.364 - 379, 2009

Sheil, B.A. : Teaching procedural literacy, Presentaion abstract, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, 1983.

Sheil, B.A. : Coping with complexity, information technology and people, Vol.1, Iss.4, pp295-320, 1993.

Wecker, C.: Computer literacy and inquiry learning: when geeks learn less, Journal of computer assisted learning, 23, 133-144, 2007.


Buck Institute for Education: 21st century skills

The new millenium learners: a project in progress Pedró, OECD/CERI 2009

The new millenium learners Conference 2009