Coding is the literacy of the 21st century, according to Bill Shorten. It is so important the Abbott Government has allocated $3.5 million to support a ‘coding across the curriculum’ package in schools.
Mind you I have to slip in here that our prime minister, Tony Abbott, decried the Labor Party’s elevation of the status of coding until many loud and derisive voices pointed out his own government’s promise of significant investment in it.
Since Shorten’s declaration, the teaching of coding in schools has attracted much commentary. It is something many people have an opinion about it seems. So here’s mine.
The idea that everyone needs to taste, explore and tinker with coding is easy to understand, but as to coding being the ‘new’ literacy of the 21st century, well I am not so sure. I think I would prefer science was the new literacy. This would, of course, include coding.
Someone said to me this week that because of the enthusiasm and focus on design and coding in schools their children are now convinced they will work in a design job or in the industry. I always worry when hype takes over and things become the new sexiest thing to do, even when I cautiously believe in their importance.
An educator I greatly admire, Alice Leung, recounted to me how her students were recently interviewing Dr Karl Kruszelnicki when this topic was raised. Dr Karl suggested that knowing how coding language works should be as important as learning to read and count. Alice points out that he was talking about “knowing how coding language works” and that is very different to being proficient in coding. There are many different coding languages, and they change all the time. You can become adept at one of these languages if and when you need to use it. But a taste of the basics (pun intended) to understand how coding works could be advantageous to all.
Many years ago I learned Basic, which is a simple coding language. I never use it now but I still appreciate what learning it taught me about the logic and computational thinking that goes into programming. Schools should be aiming for students to know enough to be able to appreciate and understand what coding does.
But I do wonder why learning about coding should suddenly be the responsibility of schools. Coding really isn’t an everyday practice in the way reading and maths are. For the majority it’s probably more like understanding a car engine. You don’t need to be able to strip an engine and rebuild it to drive a car but if you basically understand how a car works you can drive and maintain it efficiently and effectively.
Yes we all do indeed use the products of coding. But no-one needs to know coding to play digital games or do a Google search. In my field, many people are adept at using academic searches but know nothing about coding. I don’t use a skerrick of my knowledge of coding when I shop or bank online.
Only the greatest devotees of a game would want to dive into programming, modding and theory crafting for example in games like World of Warcraft. The masses around the world are just content to play their game or use their app.
I just don’t believe knowing coding heralds an everyday advantage for everyone. To me it should be somewhere on the learning smorgasbord along with, but perhaps a little above, engaging in watercolour painting. I would not extol it as the great new literacy.
Maybe for most learners coding should be more like learning a second language, we should all taste it, and some of us will go on to immerse ourselves in it yet others will go no further than a basic cultural experience.
I have to admit I am a huge fan of groups like Code Club Australia whose mission is to support learning code, but through well structured, specialist led, after school, programs. I do think computational thinking and logic could be vital learning. The logic is perhaps more important than the specific language.
But, as you probably know because you are reading this, opinions on this topic are diverse. Recently I had quite a lively response to my views on coding on my Facebook page. This is what several respected educators had to say on the topic (shared with permission).
Tamara Rodgers (Evans High School), “I want information to be the new literacy. The ability to analyse, process, and create ideas from and into multiple sources. This can then be applied to ANY field – coding, science, arts, music, social interactions.”
Gerhard Moliin (RMIT GeeLab), “As already many times mentioned, coding is not for everyone, what about design thinking? Art? Writing? The best software companies have experts in all those areas who are able to communicate and work efficiently together, because they understand each other’s area. If we just learn coding and everyone has to code nowadays, how will they be able to work with designer, artists etc.?”
Malyn Mawby (Abbotsleigh), “Drawing the line is difficult and I think curriculum writers tend to err on the side of ‘more’ – and I mean that for all subjects including maths, english and science – there’s so much that’s worthwhile to learn but do we really need to learn everything in school?”
Dean Groom (International Football School), “They need to decide: do they want to use the machine (know how it works, what it can do technically, socially) or are they happy to be users. The issue is not education/curriculum but ongoing cultural amnesia where people are not supposed to think or be concerned about media and technological data flows.”
Natalie Denmeade (freelancer), “These days with cloud computing and task focused apps it is much much easier A 3 yr old can do it! The interfaces, input and software/UX design are improving every day. The future is voice controlled / body input Virtual Reality. Computers will be so smart they will laugh at our ‘coding’ ability.”
Jason Zagami (Griffith University), “Likewise having an understanding of coding allows students to do basic programming and engage with and create new technologies such as the Internet of Things, computer games, online information collections, and a huge range of existing and emerging technologies that can be utilised in every aspect of their lives.”
All of that said I am left with two big questions that come with the idea of teaching coding in schools. Where should coding be positioned in the already overcrowded curriculum? And bottom line, where do we get the teachers with the knowledge and passion to teach it?
Dr Bronwyn Stuckey, is a Specialist in Gamification, Community of Practice and Open Badges. She has been engaged in educational community and gameful practices in learning development for the past 15 years. She has worked to explore virtual worlds, games in learning and how we can cultivate identity, agency, citizenship, leadership, and community. Bronwyn earned her PhD in researching the core factors supporting successful online communities of practice. Since leaving lecturing and learning design in the higher education sector (OTEN, UOW, QUT, UWS) her research, consultation and design have been in gamification and game-inspired designs for professional learning and communities of practice.
Bronwyn has consulted in K-12, adult and workplace learning contexts in relation to communities of practice, games based learning and aspects of gamification. She is a co-facilitator of the Open Badges Australia and New Zealand (OBANZ) community and has for the past 2 years researched the efficacy of open badges in re-imagining and re-framing academic learning programs and contexts. She is a postdoctoral research fellow of the Arizona State University Center for Games & Impact and is global leader in the gamification for community and identity cultivation. Bronwyn is also lead member of the Sydney Education Technology Group working to support edutech startups and to make Sydney the hub of educational entrepreneurship.