There is an open debate in the UK, and all over Europe, on the importance of teaching kids to code. The assumption is that kids should learn to code already in primary schools and this will enable all our nations to be more progressive and advanced.
I actually completely disagree with this view, and weeks ago I posted a Twitter and Facebook message:
“Everybody believes that the key is to teach our kids to code. I think this is wrong. The future must be to teach our kids product design.”
This message became fairly popular and received numerous comments on both my Facebook and Twitter stream. It’s clear that many of the people that I respect and trust believe that coding is a bit like Latin (in Italy many kids still learn Latin in secondary school). This is less about the need to master the skill (no body speaks Latin in these days…even the Pope is slowly giving up) but more because it helps (or better said supposedly should help) kids to develop a way to think. There is an argument that Latin, and by the way, ancient Greek too are a great way for pupils to practice logic and deeply understand the construct of a language.
My friend Jens, CEO and Founder of Wooga, in his FB comment to my post said clearly that, he believes that to teach coding to kids helps them to understand what a computer is and the logic behind it. Basically the Latin and Greek argument mentioned above applied to technology.
My argument is simple: if we truly care about helping our kids to unleash creativity through technology, this is much less about learning the logic of how a computer works at the coding level, and much more about exposing our kids to how to think through users experiences.
The centrality of the concept of user experience in the future of computing has been my main motivation when I decided to invest in Murat Mutlu, CEO and Founder of Marvel. Therefore, given the topic I decided to further debate the topic with Murat:
Roberto: I have a view that coding is a skill of today but I also think it will be out of date tomorrow. What I mean is that our educational system, especially the part focused at primary and secondary schools, should help in educating kids that will get into the market in 20 years. Will the capability to code be still relevant in 20 years?
Murat: I think the current movement to getting kids to code is definitely a step in the right direction, but I feel like it’s not so much about forcing kids into development at such an early age but allowing them to understand the creative possibilities of technology.
Roberto: Mmm.. unleashing creative possibility of technology! It sounds like the right way to look at things. This is totally in sync with what I hated the most of my school years: a constant attempt to push knowledge to me with extremely limited attention to my creative needs. Some of my smart friends tell me that the word education is originally a latin word: ex duco that means: bring it out! Therefore, why the hell we keep going thinking that education should be about push it in?
It looks like this coding thing is a new attempt to recreate a well known old approach. Is really coding the best way for our kids to unleash their creativity on technology? Is that fun?
Murat: Yes exactly, there’s no doubt that any type of coding is a difficult thing to be thrown into, I think it would be more beneficial to say “look these are all the things that you could make, which part of the process are you most interested in?”. Giving kids the power to create, using their imagination with the objective to bring something to life. This should be the way.
Roberto: Empower kids to create: yes this must be the right approach. I look at Minecraft. What is it? Yes of course it’s a game. But it’s also, and more importantly, a tool for kids to create what they want in the digital world. Why instead of enforcing what we think is right, can’t we just look at our kids behaviour and learn from them what is right for them to learn? This, at the end, is the main reason why I loved so much your project. Could MarvelApp be the key tool to unleash kids creativity in software development?
Murat: That is the vision. When we originally started Marvel, we wanted to build a tool that lowered the barrier to bringing your digital ideas to life. We want to inspire the next generation of makers, entrepreneurs, developers and designers. Whether that’s a child in school or a first-time founder, anyone should be able to jump into Marvel and have an interactive version of their idea in minutes.
We’ve recently seen Marvel being used in hundreds of schools and universities like here and here. It’s amazing to see kids thinking about user experiences and product ideas so early. Just give them the right tools and step back.
Roberto: If I say that Marvel is the next PowerPoint, do you think that would be a fair way to describe it? I believe our generations have been able express their ideas via slides and now thanks to Marvel ideas can become actual user experiences. Is this a fair representation of the status quo?
Murat: I think it’s an evolution, I think that people now need to ‘feel’ their designs and ideas, not just see them. The difference between seeing your concepts on a PowerPoint to actually having them on a device being able to play around with them is immense.
Roberto: I wonder therefore, if user experiences are the real basic dimension to understand and experience the creative possibilities of technology. I am thinking of Lego. Kids learn how to build cars with Lego. Is user experience the basic brick around which kids should experience technology? Do you have a view on this?
Murat: That’s a great way to look at it. Learning the fundamentals of the interfaces you interact with on a daily basis is like the layers in Lego, whether that’s the development or design layer, everything is connected and built upon each other.
Roberto: Interesting. Ok let me push the envelop here and play a bit of Sci-Fi. What about if we say that in 20 years the only thing that will really matter will be user experiences? I somehow can envision a world in which humans design the user experience and machines develop all the code to actually make those user experiences realities so that billions of people around the planet can enjoy them. If this happens my nephew won’t be happy if he has wasted all this time learning to code!
Murat: In 20 years time I think we’re going to see a completely different way of interacting with machines. If you look at Siri, Google Glass and similar technologies they completely redefining what an ‘interface’ really is. Is it your voice? The movement of your body? Is the future of Marvel allowing you to prototype with your voice? It’s going to be a complete different ball game.
Now we’re already seeing things like The Grid which uses artificial intelligence to build tailor made websites for you based on a few parameters and continues to adapt as you add content.
Only a few days ago I was reading a great post called ‘The End Of Design As We Know It” which talks about algorithms that will design and code based on a few inputs.
Roberto: Ok good point. However, even if the way how to interact with machines will vastly change, isn’t that interaction the key on how to unleash the creativity of technology? I wonder if the future of product development will be based on what we could today call advanced prototyping tools. Building user experiences is the new coding.
Murat: Yes I totally agree, the interactions with tech and providing the tools to explore the curiosity that comes with it will be how we teach and unleash that behaviour.
I believe that prototyping and building experiences using these tools will eventually be indistinguishable from the real thing, in fact they will be the real thing, only created in minutes, not days and weeks. The impact would be huge. It’s an exciting time for this space, I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Thank you Murat. Hope your product will help many kids to get inspired by technology and as result of that Europe will develop a class of new outstanding product designers. Hopefully few of them will also become world famous Entrepreneurs!