Editorial - It's too late for me, but not for your students

4th October 2013 at 01:00

A few weeks ago I had a meeting with a pair of coders, members of the brilliant team who build our brilliant website. They manipulated some code before my very eyes.

To say I had no idea what was going on would be an understatement. But what I witnessed did get me thinking: I had never before considered the idea that coders code the internet using the internet. Indeed, the code they use to code has been coded by coders. Bear with me.

Rarely has my ignorance of how the internet works been clearer to me. At this point it is barely worth pointing out that I am not a digital native - I missed out by a few years. I do use the internet, though, all the time. It is everywhere in my life, professional and personal. I even - very occasionally - manage to make it do the things I want it to.

But I don't understand it. I have no idea how an email can leave my computer and instantaneously arrive on the other side of the world. I don't know where "the cloud" is. In truth, I don't even have a clue how the flickering screen in front of me works.

This is important. Because as cogent as the popular arguments in favour of teaching coding in schools are (the digital economy is expanding, this area is where many future jobs will be, etc), an even more powerful case can be made, one that is about alienation.

As mad as it may seem, please indulge a brief flirtation with a Marxist analysis, just for a moment. The failed economic determinist argued that workers in the Industrial Revolution were enslaved to the economic system because they had become a cog in a wider machine that they could neither understand nor comprehend. They had become alienated.

Jump forward a century or two. Is it possible that those of us who are submerged in digital technology but don't understand it are in danger of finding ourselves in a similar situation to the 19th-century worker?

Education is the key to making sure this doesn't happen (see pages 26-30). In its broadest sense, a decent education should aim to give its students an understanding of the world around them.

For example, studying the humanities gave me an understanding of what I see in the country and the city. Thanks to my chemistry and physics lessons, I have a rudimentary idea of how the explosive nature of petroleum drives a car forward. I vaguely get photosynthesis. My pathetic attempt to master languages (including Latin) helped me to grasp the very basics of how the spoken word developed. And I can confidently state that I can't do quadratic equations.

However, I'm unable to state whether or not I understand coding, because I have never tried it. That's not the fault of my school (coding was in its infancy when I was conjugating French verbs); the fault is mine alone. But today there is no excuse for a young adult to leave school without having had a chance to learn coding. None whatsoever.

As we know, the internet is everywhere, so it's probably a good idea to make sure that the next generation's understanding of how it works is based on more than just The Matrix (as mine is). Coding is not just important for the fabric of the internet. It's essential for the fabric of society, too.


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