How Much Does Coding Literacy Matter

hands coding
Coding has become a “must” skill in a number of successful scale-ups as computer programmers operationalize the smooth and agile flow of information, making a plethora of solutions possible. Given its escalating role in bringing new economically viable businesses to life, what are we doing to better equip society and should policymakers escalate coding education as a new national priority?

Last week’s blog about the Golden Years and entrepreneurship prompted a number of offline discussions. One welcome observation noted that I had failed to comment on how valuable it would be if more seniors in America learned to code, turning an important sector of our population into actual creators, and not just the consumers, of digital solutions. Vivek Wadhwa’s article in the Washington Post, “Why teaching grandmothers to code isn’t a crazy idea” brings up a number of excellent points on the matter. It got me thinking.

Deliberation between educators and employers as to the role of education in preparing people for the work place over the decades has understandably been a never-ending balancing act between the virtues of a traditional education not driven by vocation, and the demands of young people entering the workforce, discovering they have an increasingly dated set of skills in the eyes of employers. Talking to those graduating college in my own extended family, I am surprised by how little thought they gave to what they wanted to do in life when picking what to study.

In all walks of life, information now flows more fluidly as a result of software updating everything in real time - from the availability of a concert ticket to requesting a taxi through mobile services like Uber and Gettaxi. It is coders who help these and many other entrepreneurial ventures disrupt even the most traditional industries, like music, health, retail and more, and who keep large companies on their toes. Coding has even enabled Bitcoin, a new global currency, to develop.

The issue is whether coding should now be taught to everyone – like learning to type or the basics of digital communication. Open-source coding projects have been combing the world for talent and creativity, and democratizing several fields in the process, including civic services, procurement processes and education. We now hear of the bottom up “hacking” education to tailor it to the needs of today’s digital economy. Even the “tucked shirts” running top down institutions are trying to engage in this way (think online courses or MOOCs).

Coding’s influence can be felt in a number of surprising industries including the entertainment industry, where a Grammy® nominated music producer, Ebony Oshunrinde, is coding new beats. Perhaps most importantly, coding has increased the demand for data mining skills as companies and governments try to make sense of gathered data in search of new insights. Clearly, coding has already transformed the landscape of many fields. Entrepreneurship is perhaps the most obvious with hackathons happening on a weekly basis around the world offering fun social coding events accessible to all types of people.

So is it time to put coding firmly on policymakers’ agendas?  Most public school systems date back to a time when the scale of the coding phenomenon was unimaginable. There is an argument that says the marketplace will sort this out. As coding emerges as a core skillset for startups and entrepreneurs, a growing volume of unemployed youth around the world are already motivated by the massive demand for employees - and the handsome income prospects coding jobs offer.

In the face of this skill scarcity, new communities are emerging to respond to the demand. For example, the women-in-tech debate has regained attention. Girls Who Code points out that females use the internet 17 percent more than their male counterparts, in highlighting the human capacity allowed to lay idle in the current gender gap in programming and many volunteers have been filling the coding gaps around the world, such as the growing army of “Dojos”.

Large companies and organizations have also been making investments in code literacy efforts, including the Khan Academy, Dropbox, Rovio, Amazon and Apple. Google, for example, has recently announced a collaboration project with Codecademy, a fast growing venture launched in 2011 to offer free online coding lessons. Richard Branson has been among the investors in this company run by 24-year old entrepreneur Zach Sims. Google has also designed the Made with Code initiative to inspire millions of girls to experience the power of code in realms of music, 3D-printed wearable fashion and more.

And the Google Summer of Code (GSoC) offers post-secondary student developers ages 18 and older stipends to write code for various open source software projects, while the Google Code-in (GCI) is a contest introducing pre-university students, ages 13-17, to the many kinds of contributions that make open-source software development possible.

A global examination shows that policymakers overseas are making huge efforts at reforming their education curriculae to embrace the technical competencies today’s economy demands. For example, Buenos Aires is one of the first cities in the world to make a statement about its digital future, tying programming into every school in the city. New Zealand, Germany, Australia and Denmark recently did the same and this September, computer science will become part of England’s primary-school curriculum. Israel made it part of its high-school curriculum more than ten years ago. In contrast, only about 10 percent of high schools in the United States offer computer science classes, according to Code.org stats.

I am not a Coder, but I am learning from my non-tech kids who view coding as just another language they must learn, whether or not they intend to become programmers. They don’t think of their technology class as specialized, but rather another basic class alongside Spanish or Math. As TEDx presenter Mitch Resnick put it: “the point isn’t to create a generation of programmers. Rather, it’s that coding is a gateway to broader learning.” Simply put, coding is a channel to help people bring ideas to life through technology. We have to stop thinking of it as the domain of just the smart geeks and start viewing it as a common language that helps more of us test ideas and be part of improving all our lives.

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