Coding is still struggling for time in the classroom

Ireland needs to move more quickly to get IT and coding lessons on to the school curriculum

 

The debate surrounding the introduction of computing classes in Irish schools has been simmering for the past two years, fuelled by the popularity of the CoderDojo movement, and companies citing a lack of skilled graduates to fill ICT positions.

With 900,000 ICT vacancies predicted across the European Union in 2015, bridging the skills gap could present Europe’s young with some great opportunities, according to Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton.

He says governments need to adopt the right skills strategies in order to bridge the gap between employers’ needs and education.

Core subject
Fourteen-year-old Harry Moran believes one way to fill this gap is by making ICT skills a core subject at school.

“Coding and IT skills are becoming an essential part of a lot of jobs. Computing skills are not just needed for jobs in the tech sector – doctors, journalists, bankers etc all need them,” he said.

Moran, who learned how to programme through CoderDojo, created the chart-topping PizzaBot app when he was 12, making him the world’s youngest Mac app developer and world’s youngest iOS developer.

While he believes part of the success of the CoderDojo movement is down to the fact it is not compulsory, with children attending only because they want to be there, he says IT and computing are nonetheless very important life skills.

“IT should be compulsory at primary level and optional at second level. Although a lot of people like it, it’s not for everyone. That said, you will need basic computer skills for every job, so children would have many more opportunities if they had the skills.”

He says children should start learning basic typing skills from the age of six, followed by Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint presentations and finally coding.

“The most basic languages, like HTML, are quite easy to pick up. Every programming language follows the same set of rules. Once you know one language you can learn others much easier.”

He says one way to make everyone interested in coding and computing is by making it fun.

“If they are going to put programming into the education system, it should be done in a free environment. The school pupils should be able to make what they want to make as opposed to being told what to make always. Schools should follow the CoderDojo method of teaching programming and make it fun.”

Limerick student Tommy Collison believes coding and programming should also be taught in schools though it should not be compulsory.

“I’d be very slow to admit anything should be compulsory at primary or secondary level. When subjects are compulsory, like Irish, people often hate them,” he said.

“That said, primary schools should teach pupils to be proficient at using a computer. Basic computing skills should be strongly encouraged, as computing is the lingua franca of the working world. Computer proficiency is required across a wide range of jobs.”

Collison – whose older brothers John and Patrick were recently named on Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 list – says many school-leavers feel some of the subjects they learned have not been helpful in their future careers, something that could not really be said for basic IT skills.

He says offering coding as an option in schools would attract only those with a real interest, helping to cultivate a new generation of highly successful programmers like his brothers. Their company, Stripe, is currently heading towards a $1 billion valuation.

Seismic change
Tech entrepreneur Jerry Kennelly believes Ireland is no longer a land of saints and scholars, but one of coders and scholars. Kennelly, who sold his company Stockbyte to Getty Images for $135 million in 2006, said parents need to wake up and be aware of a seismic change taking place, one that will enable Ireland to make an economic impact on the world.

“We are not producing people that understand their role in the world – the education system has become a points race that doesn’t lead to empowerment or self-belief or in unleashing creativity.

“This is real. It is not about kids just playing computer games, there is a tangible result at the end of it. This could be an economic game-changer for Ireland. The entrepreneurial globe is far more impactful than anything official Ireland is doing.”

One country that has already taken action is Estonia. Last September it launched a pilot programme for teaching coding in the public school system.

When fully rolled out to the whole school population, 100 per cent of students between the ages of seven and 16 will have had the opportunity to code at school.

Ireland will follow Estonia in 2014, according to Ciarán Cannon, the Minister of State for Training and Skills, with students being offered short courses of 100 hours duration under the new Junior Cycle Reform programme.

“The enthusiasm shown by parents, by children and by many teachers in our schools for these [CoderDojo] coding classes shows that there is very significant demand out there for such an opportunity. My department proposes to respond to that demand at post-primary level under our new Junior Cycle Reform programme.”

Coding courses
One of the courses currently being developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is on programming/coding. It will be available for schools from September 2014.

The Department of Education says there has been some progress to date with regard to the introduction of coding in schools.

In 2011, the former National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE), in co-operation with Lero (the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre) and the Computer Education Society of Ireland, supported a programme of teacher professional development in Scratch programming, during which it became clear that there was considerable interest in and potential for use of Scratch in both primary and post primary schools. (Scratch is a child-friendly programming language developed by MIT.)

Last year, the former NCTE and Lero rolled out a programme for teachers countrywide focused on using Scratch. In total, more than 450 teachers availed of training on using Scratch in the classroom in 2012 alone.

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