Get with the program

4th October 2013 at 01:00
The arguments for and against teaching coding in schools increasingly resemble those for and against teaching Latin. But the subject is here to stay, Richard Vaughan writes

There was a time, not so long ago, when computer programming was the preserve of the socially awkward. Its devotees shunned mainstream hobbies in favour of sitting in darkened rooms, hunched over a BBC Micro, writing code. The stereotype of nerdy young men (and they generally were men) hanging out in the school computer lab punching away at a keyboard may have been crude, but it was accurate.

Then, a few years ago, everything changed. As computers increasingly became a part of everyday life, programmers came to be seen less as social pariahs and more as members of the elite. A new world order was created. The geeks inherited the earth.

Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple are some of the biggest companies in the world, and all were started by visionary people who could code. It is therefore no surprise that politicians and educationalists all over the world are keen to jump on the "everybody must learn to code" bandwagon. Just as young people were advised to study Mandarin when China was rising as a global economic superpower, today children are told that they will get nowhere without learning the programming languages Python and Java.

In fact, in an interview shown last year at the Cannes film festival, the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, said: "I think everybody in (the US) should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think. Computer science should be a liberal art." It is the same argument that has kept Latin on the curricula of elite schools around the world for centuries.

In response, the people in charge of education systems - particularly in the West - are tearing up their playbooks and placing computing at the heart of their decisions. Earlier this year, US president Barack Obama - during an online question and answer session in a Google Hangout - said it "made sense" for the learning of computer programming languages to be a requirement in US high schools, just as foreign languages are.

And in England, education secretary Michael Gove has thrown his full support behind computer science as a discipline. In 2012, Gove announced at education technology conference Bett that he was scrapping the existing information communications technology (ICT) curriculum, labelling it "too off-putting, too demotivating, too dull". It taught students how to use Word and Excel rather than how to create their own programs; to be users rather than makers.

Within a year, the minister had sanctioned a new subject, computer science, which will be compulsory from the ages of 5-14. So highly does Gove rate computing that he even placed it in the English Baccalaureate suite of subjects, giving it the same weight as English, maths and the sciences.

Paying the price?

In his now famous Bett speech, Gove said: "[Microsoft co-founder] Bill Gates warned that the need for children to understand computer programming is much more acute now than when he was growing up. Yet as Google chairman Eric Schmidt recently lamented, we in England have allowed those running the education system to ignore our heritage, and we are paying the price for it.

"Our school system has not prepared children for this new world. Millions have left school over the past decade without even the basics they need for a decent job. And the current curriculum cannot prepare British students to work at the very forefront of technological change."

While few in the English education system will be strangers to the recent reforms, the speed with which computer science has gone from the periphery to the core has been breathtaking. And this is being mirrored around the world.

So what is fuelling this newfound passion for computing and programming? The answer is simple: jobs. Statisticians at the European Commission have predicted that there will be between 700,000 and 1 million unfilled IT roles in Europe alone by 2015. At a time when youth unemployment is at 20 per cent in the UK, 40 per cent in Italy, 56 per cent in Spain and 62 per cent in Greece, it is easy to see why politicians can ill afford to ignore a job market begging for skilled workers.

Google is uneasy about the slow take-up of computing in England at A level and among undergraduates. "It is something that Google, from top to bottom, feels very personally about," Peter Barron, Google's director of external relations, told TESS earlier this year. "Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects are hugely important in themselves, and Britain's future depends very heavily on them.

"That is why it was surprising and concerning to see, in the past few years, the stats showing that there has been a drop in the number of young people studying the subject (computing)."

In the US, the picture is the same. Obama's budget request for 2014, which as TESS went to press was yet to be ratified, involved a sizeable redirection of cash into Stem subjects and teacher training, with computing taking the lead.

Similarly, in Australia, high schools in the state of Victoria and elsewhere are considering offering computer science after a trial last year, in an attempt to halt the long-term decline in take-up of technology subjects at university.

But it is not only politicians who are eager for the students of today and future generations to learn computer programming. Parents are also keen to ensure that their children are not missing out on learning what they see as an essential skill for the workplace. If schools are not offering the subject - and most still aren't, certainly not for pre-16 students - parents are placing their progeny in after-school groups, such as Code Club, and specialist summer camps where children can learn to write computer programs.

In the US, the tech-camp business is booming. More than 20,000 children every year spend their summer learning the skills to enable them to code. Even in the UK, where summer camps have traditionally been less prevalent, coding camps are cropping up as parents and their children grow more concerned by the lack of opportunities to learn the skill.

The Fire Tech Camp, which hosted its first summer session at Imperial College London in July and August, is catering to this demand, and has attracted children from as far afield as Denmark and the Middle East. Seventeen-year-old Aidan enrolled at the camp because his school does not offer any computing. "I came up with a program that creates the largest palindromic numbers using just three digits," he says, sounding bored. "But there's a bug in it."

The next Mandarin

The first impression given by Aidan does not exactly explode the programmer stereotype. He is part of a group of about a dozen teenagers (all boys) who, rather than wasting their summer holidays lounging in the sun or slumped in front of the television, are spending it learning how to code.

And as the older teenagers work on the more complicated practice of writing code, other groups of children aged 9-14 - boys and girls - are learning robotics, how to design their own apps and even how to create their own games.

Camp founder Jill Hodges, an American former hedge fund analyst, started the camp to offer extracurricular computing courses to her own children and others because they were not being taught the subject at school. For her, some level of computing knowledge and the ability to write code are not just "nice to have" - they are essential for every student today.

"(Learning to code) will be more important than learning Mandarin. It's not so (young people) can become computer programmers, it will be because they will need to have this computer literacy in whatever job they do," she says. "These are the tools needed to be able to get on in the workplace."

For Hodges, the UK still suffers from a "cultural problem" where jobs in engineering - and she includes computing in that - are placed alongside manual labour and assigned less value than elsewhere in the world.

"I disagree with it, but it's like a technical-vocational versus classical-liberal education. There is certainly a perception of that," she says. "In America, the brand of tech is much more entrepreneurial. We think of tech, we think of people like Steve Jobs; (in the UK) we think of tech and we think of people who fix your email when it's broken. Although I admit that is a gross generalisation."

As if to prove Hodges' point, Beaver Country Day School, a fee-paying school outside Boston in the US, subscribes so strongly to the view that coding is one of the liberal arts that it is introducing the skill across its whole curriculum, from maths to English literature. Students will not be able to graduate without being proficient in programming.

Beaver Country head Peter Hutton believes this is a logical move in order to provide students with "real life" experience. "[Coding] already is the universal language," he says. "It's another step in creating valuable educational experiences that provide our students with `real' work and life problems - authentic types of projects that they have complete authorship over.

"It will be fully integrated into our curriculum in English and art, as well as maths and science. We hope within a couple of years that you won't realise you're doing it."

Although he admits that integrating coding into every lesson is a challenge, Hutton and his staff are already seeing similarities in unlikely areas. "I was talking with our English department to see how it might be possible, and our head of English thinks there are a lot of parallels between code and poetry," he says. "It will help kids to see that poetry, like code, is trying to deliver meaning in a very efficient and elegant way. There are patterns in both. So we will see if we can then get kids to write code that will generate poetry."

Emperor's new codes

When people start to compare code to poetry, shouldn't alarm bells start ringing? Indeed, the whole movement behind programming and computer science seems to have gone so unchecked that it makes one wonder whether the emperor has been duped into wearing new clothes made of code.

This is certainly the view of Bob Harrison, education adviser for tech giant Toshiba and chair of the UK Department for Education's expert group on computing. He stresses that he is talking in a personal capacity, but he has strong views about what employers actually need. And it isn't coding.

"Coding is dull," he says. "That's why it's outsourced to India and China, because they can get it done for a fraction of the cost. It's important for kids to see coding, but that doesn't mean everybody has to be a coder. Problem-solving is a real skill, but if you ask employers what experience and skills they want, coding is very, very low down on the list.

"Coding has become the new Latin; all of those skills and that way of thinking could be transferable. But there is no research to show that."

Harrison believes that the UK government and others like it are jumping in feet first when it comes to promoting computing, without thinking of the needs of employers and young people. "Toshiba doesn't employ any coders here because it's the one thing you can get done far more cheaply outside the UK," he says. "Rather than creating a massive army of mediocre coders, wouldn't we be better off creating a much smaller cohort of really, really good coders? The IT industry needs writers, graphic artists - we need technologists."

Such thinking goes very much against the tide. In the UK and the US, the "maker movement" is growing. Its advocates believe that the idea that society can continue to consume and be blindly led by technology, with little understanding of how it works, is outdated, lazy and even too "Western".

The company Technology Will Save Us describes itself as a "haberdashery for technology and education", helping people to "produce rather than consume" technology. Operating from offices in the East End of London, it provides kits to schools that enable students to build and program anything from a basic computer console to stereo speakers. Its philosophy is that making stuff is crucial - and that includes computer programs.

"When Apple started out, it sold kits that allowed people to build their own computers," says Bethany Koby, co-founder of Technology Will Save Us. "They eventually moved to a model where they said, `We'll make it for you.' They closed the technology in a sleek, shiny box and made it as effortless and easy to use as possible. Rather than having to write code to start your computer, now you can just swipe your finger. This is the progress we have created.

"I'm not saying that's bad, but we're now in a situation where we don't know how things work. Not making stuff is a very Western perspective. We think that should change, and coding is part of it. Whatever you want to do, be it journalism, or working in the food industry or whatever, if you know a little bit of programming, you're in a much stronger position."

Push the button

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Alan Turing

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Hold an assembly about

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