Read, write, code

Coding is arguably a skill that’s as important as the three Rs: children who learn programming become more logical, creative and employable. So why isn’t it on every school‘s curriculum, asks Jessica Holland

It was spring in Dubai, and the parks were full to bursting with children snatching what brief freedoms they could before the school week began again. Save for one group of 10- to 16-year-olds who, each Saturday, could be found at the Impact Hub in Downtown Dubai, diligently working on designing their own apps and websites from scratch. This isn’t just child’s play, it’s serious stuff, a course that starts with learning some basic programming languages and analysing what makes web platforms fun to use, and ends with a 24-hour hackathon during which the kids get into teams, put together a product and submit it for judging.

“The world is becoming more and more complicated,” says Ali Asghar, who had the idea for The Coding Circle when trying to find a way to keep his children occupied during the summer holidays. “Kids who can solve a problem by writing a simple programme or simulating a scenario are going to have an advantage compared with kids who can’t.”

The idea that it is crucial for children to learn computing proficiencies from a young age – including how they are programmed, not just how the pro-
grammes can be navigated – is one that is increasingly promoted by educational leaders around the world. In countries as diverse as South Korea, Estonia (the birthplace of Skype) and the UK, where computer science became mandatory between the ages of five and 16 last year, programming is widely taught from a young age.

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Global coding contests, such as the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest and the Wikimedia Hackathon, are sponsored by tech giants such as IBM

India and China are growing hubs of web-development talent, with young people taking the opportunity to pick up skills through hackathons and online course providers such as Codecademy, EdX and Coursera, as well as at school. China, where programming is mandatory at high-school level, is one of the countries that dominates world coding competitions such as the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, partly due to rigorous training programmes and a high level of motivation among students.

A global grassroots campaign called Hour of Code, with an online seminar series at code.org, persuaded millions of students around the world to try coding in December, with the aim of demystifying the process and showing that anyone can learn the basics. Nearly 78,000 programming events were organised in conjunction with the initiative (including one hosted by The Coding Circle in Dubai), and public figures including President Obama and Bill Gates threw their weight behind the movement. 

The campaign has also led to a backlash by some who feel that the benefits of coding, and the ease with which it can be learned, are being overstated. Magazine think-pieces, such as Slate’s ‘Maybe Not Everyone Should Learn to Code’, have argued that programming computers is a specialised skill that not everyone will have the desire or capacity to master. It take years of focused study to become good enough at programming to get a job as a developer – comparable with becoming fluent in a foreign language – and the process demands a great deal of willpower and dedication.

Just as a world that’s full of cars doesn’t require everyone to learn to become an automobile mechanic, a world in which digital technology is all-pervasive doesn’t mean that we must all become coders. Some people are just better suited to languages, or design, or other sciences, or the arts.

In a 2014 issue of Newsweek, another argument against the coding craze was formulated. The languages in which code is written become out-dated over time, reporter Kevin Maney said, and the US military’s science lab, DARPA, is currently working on a project to invent computers that can be ‘taught’ rather than programmed. So, creating an app in future could be as easy as telling your laptop what you want it to do – the computer would then search code databases for the raw code to stitch together to make this happen.

Just as a world that’s full of cars doesn’t require everyone to learn to become an automobile mechanic, a world in which digital technology is all-pervasive doesn’t mean that we must all become coders

There has been little progress made in getting computers to understand a fraction of the complexity of human language, but there’s plenty that’s wrong-headed about the programming backlash. Coding is difficult and specialised and the languages change, but typing strings of characters is only one part of what you learn when you successfully design a simple app. You first need to identify a problem, break it down into parts, design a solution and figure out a step-by-step method of telling your computer what you want it to do. You need to understand how the web works and how software and hardware interact. You need to have insight into how people will intuitively navigate a website, game or app. Writing code is a small part of the picture.

 “IT skills are no longer the wave of the future,” says Janee Johnson, Executive Director of Computer Explorers’ UAE branch. “They are the wave of now. I personally do not believe in iPads, YouTube and gaming 24/7, but learning coding, programming, graphic design, mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, app development and more will give children an edge in their own futures.”

At the end of a course at Computer Explorers, students will often share their finished projects with the rest of the class, and, Johnson says, “you can just see the pride and satisfaction in their presentation”. The atmosphere, she says, is “wonderfully alive”, which defies the stereotypical idea that coding is a subject for the solitary and the introverted.