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In the last month, Code.org attracted its first wave of negative national media attention.

Newsweek ran an article criticizing the program for teaching “a dying art.” The writer argued that technological advances would destroy the need for programming skills in another decade or two, because humans will be able to use human languages to tell computers what to do.

Then Politico came down hard on Code.org for its privacy policy in an article titled “data mining your children,” pointing out that the organization collects tons of information on student behavior, shares it with vaguely defined “affiliated parties” and does not mention anonymizing the student data.

Until now, Code.org had elected not to comment on the criticisms but co-founder Hadi Partovi opened up to Pando about it. He chalked up the furor around privacy issues — the most serious allegations made — to a contentious Gawker article littered with misinformation. Gawker’s ValleyWag implied that Mark Zuckerberg ran Code.org and in exchange for programming curriculum the organization was demanding student data. Educational technology publication EdSurge picked up the news and ran with it, and all of a sudden the nation’s eyes were on Code.org’s handling of student data.

Partovi huffs a little with frustration. “We didn’t expect people to take a ValleyWag article so seriously,” he says. 

Of course, although the original privacy coverage might have been overblown, subsequent stories were not. Politico rightly pointed out that Code.org’s privacy policy was ambiguous, lacking the specific details that could allow parents or schools sleep easy at night. For example, it says that affiliated third parties may be given student data, but doesn’t define what those affiliated organizations are or in what format (explicit or anonymized) that data will be.

“Simply protecting data isn’t enough in today’s world; being incredibly clear about how we’re protecting the data is important,” Partovi admits. He says it’s been a learning moment for the organization, and it immediately expanded its policy following the Politico criticisms.

At the moment, a new privacy policy is available on Code.org’s website and is open for public comments. After July 15th, the organization will take the recommendations into consideration and finalize the document.

“What’s important to note is our actual practices haven’t changed but the level of clarity about those practices is higher,”  Partovi says. 

As for Newsweek’s claims that Code.org is teaching a skill set that will be outdated in ten to twenty years? “ I don’t think the author understands what Code.org is doing,” Partovi says. “Maybe [he] didn’t get beyond understanding Code.org more than the four letter name.”

Partovi agrees that teaching an individual programming language doesn’t make sense since they change rapidly. But Code.org doesn’t teach languages. It teaches computer science — how to think like a computer programmer. “[Our tutorials] use drag and drop programming, where you drag and drop the commands,” Partovi says. That way, students learn how loops, functions, variables, and if statements work without having to know specific language syntax.

He disagrees with the theory that in twenty years computers will be able to program themselves. “I’d put it at 100 years or many decades away,” Partovi says.

In the meantime, it’s hard to argue that students won’t benefit by having a basic understanding of computer science and thus access to the career opportunities these skills afford.

Code.org has some serious political and financial heft behind it, with tens of millions in funding and backers like Reid Hoffman and John Doerr. The broader its reach grows, the more likely it is to be attracting a critical eye. And rightly so. After all, the organization’s purported mission is to add a brand new tenet to our educational system – not exactly an insignificant task.

[Image via Nat W]