Why Computational Literacy is Critical for a Digital Workforce

Christie McMonigal
Jul 30 · 4 min read
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It is no longer just software engineers that need programming skills — our workforce is becoming increasingly digital and we all need to keep up.

We have a lot to be grateful for in terms of the way Australia is weathering COVID-19, particularly compared to other countries, both from a health perspective and an economic one. Yet, it has certainly had a big toll in terms of illnesses, job losses and unemployment. Some industry leaders have focused on the need for retraining, arguing that people with transferable skills will be better placed to switch to those industries less impacted by COVID-19, such as mining, healthcare and medical, manufacturing, transport, logistics and services. There have been calls for government to invest in the education and training of those who have lost their jobs during the current crisis because it will increase their ability to re-enter the workforce.

Longer term, Australia is also in a good position by OECD standards. And some have argued that there may be an opportunity for Australia to assume a leadership position in the new global order by rebooting technology-led manufacturing. As Alex Jamieson from AJ Financial Planning said recently:

“IT and advanced manufacturing could be big winners for Australia.”

Certainly lifelong tertiary learning is now a mainstream concept, as it should be. However, if we are to talk about re-skilling the unemployed, or those whose skills have become redundant, we also need to look at foundational learning from K-12, as this is where the real difference can lie in building the computational literacy and critical digital skills our young people will need to thrive in the workforce of the future. If we don’t get this right, we will forever be playing catch up and reacting to, rather than planning for, disruption — in all its guises.

In our area of work, which encompasses classroom-ready resources for teachers to tackle the digital technology curriculum, as well as coding Challenges throughout the year, we have seen a shift. Not only is Digital Technologies (AC:DT) finally a compulsory subject in Australia, more teachers and parents alike, are starting to understand that coding is a valuable skill for everyone — not just STEM nerds.

I have previously written about a number of different careers that are enhanced by programming. They show that programming and digital skills are becoming more pervasive across many industries and they are vital skills for getting ahead in your career.

The shape of the tech world is always changing; being able to learn and change along with it is the most useful skill there is. Having a functional understanding of even one programming language is enough to give you the skills to keep up with the constantly changing world of technology. It doesn’t matter what language you learn, what matters is that in learning that language you have built the foundations to learn any programming language and understand new technology as it evolves.

Malyn Mawby, ex-software designer and current Head of Personalised Learning Roseville College, puts it best when she says:

“Technology is ultimately about people. A software designer doesn’t just make stuff — the work is purpose-driven, it impacts the lives of other people. We need to realise that whether we are developing technology or using it, we are all creating and using the data that is central to the digital world of today. Whether we know it or not, we are all part of its design.”

Imagine a world where we didn’t teach maths, science or literacy at school. We all know these things because society considers these concepts to be foundational, basic concepts for life. Yet we are all living in a digital world and most people do not know about the basic building blocks of this software-rich world. When we really examine this, it’s easy to see how this is an unsustainable position to be in.

Computational thinking at its core is about problem-solving and we all need to embrace this idea. Learning is a process of creating and refining mental models we abstract from our perceptions and experiences. Ultimately, we all use the skill of abstraction every day — that’s how we learn how to conceptualise and summarise complex ideas and processes.

As technology becomes more entrenched in our lives and in our work, computational thinking and coding will become ubiquitous — not just in the sectors mentioned above. And that is a good thing because anyone can come up with new ideas about processes that can solve current problems through technology and automation. But to reach this level of ubiquity, we need to start from the bottom up, not the top down. Our young people need to start programming at school, so it becomes as natural as writing or doing algebra.

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