Computing and digital literacy education needs a unified approach

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Coding skills needs to be paired with digital competency, writes the ECDL Foundation

Coding skills needs to be paired with digital competency, writes the ECDL Foundation [Courtesy of the ECDL Foundation]

This article is part of our special report EU Code Week 2015.

SPECIAL REPORT / As EU Code Week comes to a close this weekend, the ECDL Foundation writes that education programmes promoting coding need to be balanced with basic technology skills, which are too often lacking—even among so-called ‘digital natives’.

The ECDL Foundation is an international organisation promoting ICT skills.

The question of how to develop coding skills at school has received a lot of attention recently. Initiatives have been started in various countries around Europe, including moves to integrate coding into the school curriculum. But there is a danger that this focus on coding risks diminishing the quality of other aspects of computing and digital literacy education.

Young people need to be able to develop strong digital literacy skills, and to have the opportunity to learn computing, including coding, yet computing education today is in danger of becoming fixated on coding. This trend might leave young people without the skills they need to progress in school, further studies, and work.

It is natural that e-skills are in the spotlight just now: as digital skills become ever more vital to society and the workforce, efforts to promote digital education are key to maintaining Europe’s competitiveness globally.

European campaigns such as e-Skills for Jobs 2015, and initiatives like the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs recognise that a digitally skilled workforce is a workforce that can meet the challenges of the not-too-distant future. The often-quoted figure reflecting 90% of jobs that will require digital skills this year demonstrates the urgency of the challenge ahead of us, while studies around Europe make it clear that today’s employees are not yet ready to meet that challenge.

>>Read: Special Report: EU Code Week 2015

In one study, conducted by BCS, the chartered institute for IT in the United Kingdom, 48% of employers surveyed did not think that their employees have the right digital skills to meet future challenges. Other studies conducted in various countries, including most recently, Switzerland, highlight a worryingly low level of digital skills.

The problem is compounded by the fallacy that young people are ‘digital natives’, innately skilled in using digital technologies. If we’re to avoid creating a new digital divide between those with digital skills and those without, then we need to take a more holistic approach to computing and digital literacy that will give all students a foundation of digital literacy.

Computing education is important, and coding is one part of that. It can help give students a better understanding of the ways in which computers work, and the possibilities of what can be achieved with technology. Of course it is also a key skill, which some students will want to develop further in their studies, and perhaps use in their careers, in the IT sector and beyond. But coding is just one part of computing.

There is a general assumption that all students need to develop basic scientific literacy at school, but yet we don’t teach them all the intricacies of advanced physics. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect that all students will want or need to study computing to an advanced level.

A balanced approach to computing and digital literacy will equip all students with the basics of using computers, and the digital literacy skills that will serve them throughout their working lives and introduce them to computing, and the opportunities that subject offers.

In short, a holistic approach to computing and digital literacy is essential. Both computing, including coding, and digital literacy need to be taught, ensuring that students receive a high-quality education and develop the competencies they will need throughout their lives. With a unified approach like this, students, employers, and the competitiveness of our economies can only benefit.

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