Coding is the language of the future, with the power to create and modify the computer programs and websites that increasingly shape our day-to-day lives. While millions of people in the United States spend hours each day engaged with interactive technologies, relatively few truly understand how they work; and fewer take an active role in developing software and websites.
Still, some organizations are advocating more be done to teach young people about computer programing and coding. It is no secret that younger generations, born into an age of smartphone apps and near-ubiquitous Internet access, tend to be more enthusiastic and adept at using new technologies than their parents and grandparents. The key word here is "using" technology, as opposed to creating new programs and reimagining existing processes.
Today's children tend to be passive consumers of software and web pages created for a profit by private companies. Currently only 1 in 10 U.S. schools teach children to code, according to nationwide research by programming advocate Code.org. If school-age children want to learn how to code themselves, it is usually by their own initiative and on their own time. Recent evidence suggests that a lack of students studying coding now could become a serious economic problem in the near future.
Code.org claims that computer programming jobs are growing at twice the national average, while less than 2.4% of college students graduate with degrees in computer science—fewer than 10 years ago. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2020, the U.S. will create 1.4 million jobs in computer science related fields. If current trends continue, U.S. citizens with the necessary skills and experience will fill only 30% of these jobs.
This means that U.S. companies would be forced to outsource valuable coding jobs to India, China, Eastern Europe, and other countries with growing IT sectors, while thousands of Americans remain unemployed or stuck in low-skilled, low-wage positions. So what can the U.S. do to address this problem? In his latest State of the Union address, President Obama issued a "new challenge to redesign America's high schools for the demands of a high-tech economy", by focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes and promoting partnerships with colleges and employers.
There could be advantages to promoting a focus on STEM subjects in general, and coding in particular, even earlier than high school. In a recent video from Code.org, many prominent technology advocates, including Bill Gates, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, suggest integrating computer science into K-12 classes, striving to make the subject interactive and fun by using simple programming languages and initially focusing on game design.
Several independent groups are seeking to help address America's shortcomings in computer literacy. Elementary teachers across the country use the Logo program, originally developed by Seymour Papert in the 1960s and available for free online in four languages, to teach children the basics of coding by instructing a turtle to move across a computerized grid.
Engineers at MIT developed a basic programming language called Scratch to introduce beginners to coding concepts. Progressive nonprofit groups like Code For America seek to bring experienced coders from the private sector into lower-paying government jobs, in an effort to streamline operations and incorporate technological know-how into the public sector.
Governments and private organizations abroad are also embracing the need for early coding education. In Estonia, home to only 1.3 million people and one of the world's first e-enabled governments, a public-private partnership called ProgeTiiger will channel 70,000 euros into an effort to teach schoolchildren aged 7-19 to code. The pilot program will involve course materials and specialized training for teachers, and explore methods of tying programming concepts to traditional subjects like math and logic.
In the U.K., computer manufacturer Dell has partnered with the British initiative Apps for Good to send volunteers to schools, helping students develop their own smartphone apps to solve common problems. A nonprofit group called Code Club hosts a network of after school clubs run by professional software developers, which utilizes peer-to-peer learning as students stay in touch with each other and continue to share information and ideas.
In the U.S. and abroad, the benefits of teaching children to code extend beyond purely economic considerations. Children's personal and professional lives will increasingly be shaped by computer programs. Without the ability to code, they will become passive consumers at the mercy of programmers working for technology giants, unable to construct or meaningfully interact with the virtual reality that surrounds them. Like any language or skill, the ability and enthusiasm to code is best developed early in life. By incorporating computer and web programming into the public education system, the U.S. stands to benefit not only in terms of economic competitiveness, but also in the overall quality of life for its citizens.