SPECIAL REPORT / Computer programming brings “empowerment” to the individual, according to digital experts, who say teaching kids how to code will also prepare them for the jobs of the future.
The European Commission is worried that as many as 825,000 digital jobs may be unfilled in the EU by 2020 as employees are unable to find workers who possess the right skills. To put the issue on the agenda, the EU Code Week, a grassroot initiative, has been launched, with coding events all across Europe.
Alessandro Bogliolo, one of the Code Week’s coordinators, believes that the almost one million vacancies that will soon become available, might just be the tip of the iceberg.
“If the one million vacancies refer to specific digital skills – and to the demand from the industry – then coding is something we should focus on earlier because when we speak about coding, we are mainly talking about computational thinking,” Bogliolo said at a Code Week event organised by Microsoft on Monday (12 October).
“Computational thinking” should be understood as the capability of finding a solution which is constructive and can be applied to solve a problem. Therefore, the Code Week and coding is really about empowering people, he said.
Mary Moloney, CEO at CoderDojo Foundation, agreed that learning to code is about empowerment. CoderDojo provides free of charge coding clubs to kids aged between 7-17. At the moment, CoderDojo is in 60 countries around the world, with 800 volunteers and 30-40 kids who turn up every week. The kids get absorbed into technology by learning how to build apps, games, websites, drones and robots – sometimes using 3D printing.
Some will go on to become coders in the future while others will go on to become software engineers, Moloney said. But all of them will go on to become confident, articulate people who can talk about technology and the potential of it and be in a position where they can explore that, said the CoderDojo CEO.
“They can be successful in life and in the world. When they come to us, they are in charge of their own learning, that gives them the power and control back. They find their creativity and their imagination again. They think of coding this way: I have this amazing thing in my head, and now I want to share it with the whole world, if the world would like to see it. That is how powerful it is,” Moloney stressed.
The public role
But apart from the after-school coding clubs, policymakers are also pushing for coding to take place in the school system by integrating them into the formal curriculum.
“Today, most coding activities take place outside of the school classroom, which means that it is mostly kids who have the coding bug, or whose parents are aware, that take part,” said Andrus Ansip, the European Commission Vice-President in charge of the Digital Single Market.
“But we need to reach all children. If programming were taught in schools, more children would get the opportunity to learn the basics,” Ansip told EurActiv in an interview.
Don Grantham, Microsoft’s president for Central and Eastern Europe, said schools need to focus on traditional subjects such as reading and writing, especially in the early stages of education. But coding has to be highlighted as a vital 21st century skill as well, he added.
“We need to rethink our approach to computer science. This is our responsibility as an industry, to continue to work with our partners and the public sector to establish a digitally literate generation. All teachers need to feel comfortable in bringing new technologies to class in order to make learning more engaging and versatile,” Grantham said.
Formal school education has a role of offering possibilities to different types of learners who get access to coding and computers, said Anja Balanskat, a senior analyst at European Schoolnet, a network of ministries of education to bring about change an innovation across the schools in Europe.
“What we see is that the whole discussion about coding has gained a new momentum as a concept by the ministries and that is really interesting,” Balanskat added.
Education ministries at national level indeed seem have heard the message. In total, 15 EU countries have already integrated coding in their curricula, whether at national, regional or local level.
Looking for talent
Despite those efforts, the digital industry continues to struggle in recruiting young talented coders, hackers and programmers because businesses don’t even know where to look for them.
Thomas Paris, business development manager at the Belgian startup Pictawall, mentioned that his company doesn’t care which schools new graduates come from. Pictawall is more interested in seeing which websites an individual has built.
“Right now we are doing a lot of things to find the right people. Sometimes the people we need a not in the most obvious places. So it’s actually difficult to know where to start looking for these people. It’s very hard to find them, and it’s very hard to keep them in a company because they want new challenges every day,” Paris noted.
At SAP Ireland, the software and technology solutions company, new employees ideally need to have a logical mindset next to their business skills, said Liam Ryan, the managing director of the company.
“If you can start coding at an early age, I think it does give you that. If you can programme in one code language that gives you a good start,” he said.
At the Commission, Andrus Ansip reasons along similar lines: “Learning how to code means you learn computational thinking; logical thinking, step-by-step analysis, breaking up a problem in bits and pieces, abstraction, generalisation, adapting an idea and using it for something else.”
“These skills are important in schools and in work.”
EU Code Week raises awareness about a skill that will only become more influential as time passes.
Coding is the language of computers – with it comes the ability to create software, websites, and apps.
The European Commission believes teaching coding can help to reduce the EU’s stubbornly high unemployment figures, not least the youth unemployment rates, and get it back on the growth track.
- 10-18 October: EU Code Week.