Cracking the Code: Is Computer Programming the New #Education and Employment Panacea?

A recent article in the increasingly indispensable International New York Times highlights the increasingly important position being assumed by computer programming in education curricula around the world. From America’s Hour of Code project – which claims that it has managed to get 28m people to try their hand at coding – to tiny Estonia’s ProgeTiiger technology teacher training effort, sitting in front of a computer and inputting dry lines of text is in vogue in an almost unprecedented way.

And this is not a development to be underestimated – nor undervalued. Coding is something that is entirely necessary for what we broadly recognise as modern life: everything from the App Store to the deliveries of basic utilities is underpinned by competence in computer programming. Removing software engineering capacity from the economy would be akin to asking for a transfer to the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, numerous major economies – including but not limited to the United States and the United Kingdom – routinely run computer science graduate deficits. Getting more people into coding is therefore helping rebalance the composition of the labour forces in these countries towards a more sustainable configuration.

However, for all the wonderful work that these coding projects are accomplishing, we feel compelled to ask the following question: are initiatives such as Hour of Code and ProgeTiiger merely treating a symptom rather than the actual root cause of the computer science shortfall?

Computer programming requires the ability to understand and manipulate computer languages. Computer languages are symbolic systems which are broadly incomprehensible unless one has a reasonably sophisticated level of linguistic and mathematical competence. It is the latter two skills which are really at the heart of successful coding. Exposure to coding at an early age may be an excellent idea, but it might not necessarily prove decisive in producing computer scientists who can code well enough to make a profession out of it; conversely, a solid grounding in languages and mathematics can open up the entire gamut of high-end employment opportunities.

In this context, it is worth noting that while the last couple of decades have produced a generation with more exposure to computers than anyone sane can really stand, various respected entities are consistently forecasting a shortfall of symbolic analysts in the years to come: Kenichi Ohmae’s old hunting ground McKinsey & Company have posited a global gap of c.40m vacancies by 2020 in precisely the sectors which a technology-defined world should be producing a surplus of candidates for. Focusing on instructing students to instruct computers while ignoring more prosaic structural deficiencies is not going to help bridge this chasm anytime soon – or help young people carve out a viable future for themselves in an increasingly harsh economic environment.

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4 Comments

Filed under Education, Technology

4 responses to “Cracking the Code: Is Computer Programming the New #Education and Employment Panacea?

  1. Great article!

    It’s a positive development if more people learn coding, as not only does it enable people to use brain cells, but can provide people with invaluable skills that can lead to success in the work environment.

    However, this year sales of tablets will almost match those of PCs around the world, and that means even more people will see the purpose of computer technology to exclusively consume rather than produce. Spending a disproportionate chunk of one’s time pfaffing about on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Skype, and news websites, enjoying technologies and content produced by the sweat and talent of others, unless done primarily to learn or to generate an income, is a waste of precious time.

  2. You’re right that a solid grounding in languages and maths would be better, but we live in a very short-termist, short-sighted world where clearly someone has decided it’s better for everything to become more vocational. It boils down to the basic question of ‘what is education for?’. Is it about improving people, civilisation etc or is it about producing work-units for the economy. Clearly it’s a balance, but increasingly we get the balance wrong.

    • Exactly! The question of what education is actually for is one that is asked all too rarely; the fact that even a G7 country such as the UK can routinely ‘discard’ 50% of its students at the age of 16 with few questions asked illustrates that a bit more thought on this subject is urgently needed.

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