When I began the required reading for this blog post, I scoffed at the headline “Is Coding the New Literacy?”. I scoffed nearly as hard as I cringe whenever I hear will.i.am open his mouth (anybody need logo design tips?). However, after reading the article, I began to see the great similarities between the rise of literacy and the rise of programming. Initially, both were implemented at a large scale in order to solve large problems. Additionally, at the beginning of their widespread acceptance, both were only seen as a suitable skill for men (ironically enough, the modern publishing industry is over 75% female; perhaps those who think that women “just don’t like programming” will eat their words in my lifetime). Today, reading and writing are essential skills for most world citizens — to be illiterate is to be unemployable. In 100 years, will persons without coding skills also be unemployable? And if so, does this mean that computer science should be a required portion of school curriculum?
Those who argue for a mandatory introduction to programming claim that the next generation of citizens (Generation XYZwhocares) must learn programming skills in order to find a job in the new digital economy. With automation replacing many blue-collar and white-collar jobs, this is a valid concern. Those who dismiss mandatory coding classes claim that “everybody must code” is a political hypetrain; the average consumer will never be required to code in their daily life. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes.
If computer science education is to be implemented across America, administrators and bureaucrats will face many challenges. The primary challenge for schools will be talent acquisition. It is very difficult to find a teacher who is competent in computer science skills, competent in teaching skills, AND (perhaps most importantly) is willing to take a major pay cut from what they would earn in industry. We know how to teach people to teach math, science, and the language arts. We are still figuring out the best way to teach computer science to children. Another challenge is getting schools to focus on curriculum instead of equipment. Most schools and school districts prefer the easy way out: purchase an overpriced cart of locked-down iPads from a vendor and let the taxpayer eat the cost. Then, they can slap a picture of a preschool kid holding the iPad on all their marketing brochures. Hey parents, would you rather send your kids to the tech-desert school where they will grow up to be unskilled laborers, or go to the school with the fancy iPads guaranteed to land them an $80k job straight out of college? Ironically, many experts warn that early technology exposure teaches children to be consumers instead of creators. Perhaps the school should invest money into some old Pentium III desktops instead?
When evaluating the efficacy and usefulness of programming courses, many people ask two questions:
- can anyone learn to program?
- should everyone learn to program?
I think these two questions are irrelevant. Regardless of their respective answers, what we need to do is EXPOSE young children to programming, and the ways that it can affect their lives. We need to show them how programming can make their lives easier, or allow them to connect with their peers in new and exciting ways. This exposure must be incorporated into the normal school day to ensure that all students, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic background, have the opportunity to pursue a passion for computing and technology. This would solve many of the problems in the tech industry, especially underrepresentation of women and persons of color.