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Caroline Neuenfeld

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Why digital ability is more than coding

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Coding is all the rage. Four years ago, President Obama gave his backing to the "Hour of Code" which aims to encourage people around the world to get into computer science and coding. Another NGO that promotes coding and is financed by Silicon Valley giants is www.code.org. In Germany an initiative called "Jeder kann programmieren" (Anyone can code) was founded. And there have been more and more calls from politicians and managers that coding should be made a required subject in school curricula. 

Schulfach Programmierung

What’s behind these calls? 

Do their proponents want to ensure that kids are taught the skills for tomorrow's job market early and thus foster the next generation of software developers? No doubt, there is a huge demand for software developers right now. Think about Marc Andreessen's statement "software is eating the world": Software seems to dominate every aspect of life, from finance to fitness, from travel to shopping. Apps not only run tablets and smartphones, they also manage smart homes and vehicles. Traditional industries are being radically overhauled modernized by software. We've gone beyond the point where only major corporations needed developers and programmers. These days, even small and medium-sized companies need them. Demand for innovative software that is tailored to specific target groups has never been higher. 

Studies predict that, at some point, parts of almost every job will be automated. But no one yet knows exactly what tomorrow's job market will look like - what jobs will remain, what jobs will be newly created and which ones will be taken over by machines. Today, we can only guess what machines will be able to do in 10 or 20 years' time, let alone what programming languages will be in use. Maybe there won't be any at all. In June 2016, technology magazine "Wired" speculated that, as artificial intelligence and self-learning machines progress, we will soon cease to program computers and, instead, train them like dogs.  

The better machines become at understanding language, the more advanced the underlying intelligence, the more likely that spoken language itself will become the key programming language, according to one opinion.

Alternatively, are calls to make coding a required subject in school curricula intended to ensure children and young people are overall properly prepared for digitization? If so, these calls should go farther. It is clear that digital skills are very important, perhaps even the single most important step to guarantee young people's future job prospects. But coding is only one of a range of digital skills. Anyone who successfully learns the basics of coding at school can program. But then what? As an isolated digital skill, commanding a programming language is only of limited use to participate in the digital world, to be at home in it and help shape it.

School subject digital studies

Instead, I would call for "digitization" to be made a required subject at schools so children and young people become confident and competent digital citizens and learn about the "bigger picture" and the correlations in our digitally connected world. A subject "Digital Studies" could be set up as a sort of interdisciplinary course and provide a broad understanding of the "emergence" and social and economic impact of digitization. This should of course also include training on how to use digital devices. Furthermore, it should also cover media skills, such as the ability to select socially acceptable digital content and to assess the objectivity of content; digital autonomy and how to use social medial and "digital-free" periods, as well as basic knowledge of data security and data protection. In my opinion, economic education should also be included: the job market of the future will be even more defined by innumerable new business models and new forms of economic activity. To get along and be successful in this world, people will need at least some understanding of economic and financial correlations.

Whether the acquirement of basic knowledge in coding is part of one’s "Digital Studies" should be left up to individuals to decide. An elementary  understanding of how technologies work can help children and young people to use digital products and services in a responsible and mature way. For most, this basic understanding should suffice, at least within the school context. And one does not necessarily need to master software development for that. 

For these reasons, learning a programming language should not be a required part of the curriculum but instead an option. An extra subject for anyone burning to puzzle over algorithms and dreaming to develop the next killer app. It's not everyone's cup of tea and that's fine. Even in the digital world there is a need for linguists, philosophers and artists.

Group of students sitting on stairs.

Computer Pisa

Does school prepare children adequately for digitization?

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