Net Results: Digital economy begins with teaching kids coding

‘Learning how to programme teaches you how to think,’ said Steve Jobs

The world loves a geek-schoolchild-to-tech-millionaire story. Such tales bring together the perfect mix of surprise and wonderment (and usually, a little bit of envy). The kid who codes and spends a lot of time in nerdish pursuits, dreams up the perfect app, game, or other bit of software, then sells it on to end up with more money than most of us can ever dream of, all before said child can legally vote.

We've had such cases here in Ireland – students that invariably are incredibly bright, friendly, and inspiring. And we read about them abroad, too, where their success at such a young age startles the nation. The latest along these lines is 17-year-old Nick D'Aloisio in Britain. We learned this week that he had sold his nifty app Summly, which summarises the content of webpages, to internet giant Yahoo for an estimated £18 million.

Yet stories like this can be seductively misleading. They can give the impression that a younger generation of schoolchildren, adept at coding, is just waiting to burst forth from our schools with clever ideas and high-tech skills.

But nothing could be further from the truth. First off, anyone with any sense realises these extraordinary childhood success stories represent anomalies. These are gifted and skilled individuals, the standouts in a crowd, who succeed against the odds – of ever having learned to code in the first place.

Nearly all of them are self-taught computer coders. They do not represent the top end of a critical skill set routinely offered in schools. Most schools in this country, in Britain, and in the US for that matter, still do not teach even basic levels of computer coding. How can this be in the 21st century? How can this be when we have national leaders across all recent governments, who regularly stand up and speak about digital jobs being essential to our economic growth, jobs that typically require a grounding in coding?

And yet, we – and to be fair, most other Western countries – fail year after year, to make any of these skills part of basic learning at the secondary (much less the primary) level. We wring our hands at the paucity of students who make computer science a career choice, yet we do almost nothing to stimulate an interest at an age when a passion is most likely to be ignited.

Into that gap, have stepped a number of private initiatives to get kids coding. In this country, there is the wonderful Coder Dojo volunteer movement, which has now spread internationally. A range of online options for learning code are also available, such as www.codecademy.com.

One of the latest is Code.org, an initiative supported in a brilliant video by figures such as Mark Zuckerberg, will.i.am, and Bill Gates. Code.org's goal is to get coding into the US educational system, but offers free lessons online as well. The video points out that only one in 10 US schools currently teaches coding.

I would not think it is even that many in Ireland. Every politician and decision-making educator in the country needs to go to the site, and watch that video.

Because honestly, when are we going to take these skills seriously, as something that needs teaching from early on? Today’s children will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code. Sending them out without any familiarity with that language – much less the chance to encounter, and perhaps fall in love with an area in which tomorrow’s good jobs lie – is idiotic.

Early coding skills may also be a central part of a successful entrepreneurial mindset. Last year, I listened to venture capitalist Roger McNamee of U2-backed Elevation Partners, tell a Silicon Valley audience that Ireland needs to put coding onto the school curriculum – not introduce it at third level – if it wants to generate homegrown, successful companies.

“The common characteristic of successful people in the Valley is when they started programming – it’s 14, on average,” he said.

But the benefits of learning to code are much wider than simply hoping for the next teenage millionaire. It makes for better, more capable students in any discipline. That's according to Steve Jobs. The Code.org video opens with a quote from the Apple founder: "Everybody in this country should learn how to programme a computer, because it teaches you how to think."

We could all do with better thinking, couldn’t we? If you’re a grown-up, why not try to learn a bit on coding online? And get your kids or grandkids coding online or in the nearest Coder Dojo?

And then, suitably enlightened, start to pressure the powers that be to get this essential skill into our schools, if we really are going to be serious about that digital economy, and about our future.

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