An obvious question arises in the consideration of computational thinking. How and to what extent do computers per se relate to computational thinking?
A first point is that the term ”computer” can refer to a mechanical or an electronic computer, or to a human computer (indeed, the first connotation of the word ”computer” was that of a human who performed mathematical computations). So a computer is an essential aspect of computational thinking to the extent that it is an agent that can deterministically interpret a set of instructions in an unambiguous manner.
A more common interpretation of the question relates to whether or not a competent computational thinker is necessarily facile with the use of modern information technology to solve problems and to do other useful things. Workshop participants observed that information technology has advanced dramatically throughout its history, and rapid change is likely to characterize future information technology. Moreover, computers and computation will become increasingly important to society and across a number of disciplines. As one participant put it, “I think we are here today to think about what everybody should know” in the face of such rapid change.
Many participants argued that the ability to develop facility with new technologies is a part of computational thinking. Computational thinking in this view involves finding the right technology for a problem and applying the technology to resolve the problem. This might require learning how to use the appropriate technology, debugging the solution, and communicating the outcome. For example, to represent a complex phenomenon such as an ecosystem, the moves in a chess game, or the trajectory of a baseball, the computational thinker might explore alternative technologies, select a candidate, and test its effectiveness. This skill is essential in undergraduate programs, useful in everyday life, and growing in importance in precollege courses. In this view computers and other computational devices enable computational thinking.
One participant argued that what makes computational thinking especially relevant is that computers, whether mechanical or human, are the agents for executing “computational thoughts,” and computers have become partners and collaborators in discovery. Further, unlike household appliances or an automobile, computers are relevant to a vast number of different applications, such as searching for information, developing a budget, tracking individuals, composing music, and so on. While not disagreeing with this sentiment, others at the workshop argued strongly that because computers are not restricted to mechanical computers but instead can refer to human agents, computational thinking becomes relevant to individuals outside the context of mechanical computers—and thus to a much larger cross section of society.