From Year of Code to digital literacy

The Year of Code is good, but digital literacy is more fundamental, more valuable, and more embracing.

Once upon a time our schools in the UK taught our children how to use word processors, spreadsheets and PowerPoint. This is now regarded as an embarrassing low in our recent educational history. In effect, we taught our children how to be office workers, and taught them nothing about technology itself.

In 2011 the Livingstone-Hope Next Gen report was published, explaining why that thinking was wrong, and there began a drive to teach children programming, so that they would actually understand how technology works. Today we have the Year of Code campaign, encouraging the same thing again. It’s a good step forward… and it makes me sad at the opportunity lost.

Photo by David SmithIn this post:

Why be a software developer?

I love coding. I also love working with great software developers. They do wonderful, exciting things, they’re smart people, and I always learn lots from them. If you want to be a software developer then you should chase that dream.

But if you don’t want to be software developer then I have two pieces of advice.

First, don’t try. It’s hard work to get good, and before you get good you’ll spend many, many hours banging your head against (virtual) brick walls trying to work out why the simplest things don’t work. It’s frustrating, demoralising, and if you don’t inherently love the work then you won’t get through that.

Second, there are still an awful lot of other really important, stimulating, valuable things you should learn about the digital world, and which you might have a real talent for, which combine not just technology, but psychology, sociology, and more.

There is more to tech than codingPhoto by Cliff

There are lots of software developers in the world. But there are even more users of technology. So if we’re going to teach our children something then let’s teach them the most valuable thing we can: digital literacy.

Here are some real technical issues that real people have had to deal with in their daily lives. They all require digital literacy, and none of them require being able to write software:

  • Google’s mail service tries to display relevant ads next to your emails. It decides what’s relevant by reading each email. Is this an invasion of your privacy? Why?
  • The NHS wants to collect data from every patient’s GP health record, but it will remove any information that allows your health record to be linked to you personally. The data will be passed on to selected third parties. Do you think it’s possible for a third party to use that NHS data to identify you? How?
  • Your bank calls you to check some account details. How many security questions would you expect to have to answer before they can confirm they’re talking to the right person?
  • You run the PR department of a company, and you want people to discuss your new product, WonderProd. Someone has suggested that you could push tweets with the hashtag #wonderprod straight from Twitter onto your website’s home page. What could possibly go wrong?
  • You want to sell your mobile phone. Someone says that for security you should make sure you remove your SIM card first. Are they right?
  • You run a school, and you know it would be good to publish data about forthcoming events electronically, so that the information can be fed into other systems that publicise events. Your weekly newsletter contains details of events, so you upload a PDF version to your school’s website. Will that do the job?
  • Your organisation is going to employ someone to write a small system for a core part of your business. The contract says they should retain rights to the source code. Is that okay? Why?

I’ve written previously about the place of coding in education. You might like to take a look. Read also the post from Terence Eden—who talks about understanding computer science without the details of specific programming languages—and Chris Thorpe, who describes the goal as “computational thinking (breaking stuff down into small logical chunks), curiosity, making stuff and understanding how the world of technology works”

Even the orchestrators of Year of Code know that you can be digitally literate without knowing how to code, because they stuffed the advisory board with digitally literate people who probably can’t code—and certainly didn’t need to know how to code to get to their diverse positions of influence. That isn’t a criticism of those people, by the way. Just the opposite: they are not just digitally literate, they could be described as the digital literati.

“Learn to code” is too specificPhoto by Philip Howard

The two UK initiatives I’ve mentioned above that have driven the “learn to code” agenda are aiming for very specific outcomes.

Here’s what the government press release says about Year of Code:

The Chancellor of the Exchequer and Education Secretary have today (Tuesday 4 February) announced a new £500,000 fund to train teachers in software coding, so our schools can inspire the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

The Livingstone-Hope Next Gen report sets out to solve this problem:

there are severe misalignments between the education system and what the UK video games and visual effects industries need

The motivation is about entrepreneurialism and focusing schools on filling jobs (specifically for the software industry, if not the video games and visual effects industries). These are very specific goals, and I would suggest they are too specific to get the desired results, given that (a) the gap between curriculum change and school leaver is huge, and (b) the economy and surrounding society has a habit of reacting unexpectedly to politicians’ very specific changes.

For example, this agenda does not equip children for a recent shift in the startup economy: opportunities that are coming about from the rise in hardware devices like those produced by Nest, now acquired by Google. Sure, those gadgets need software, but creating them requires a much more rounded skillset and imagination than will be gained from learning to code.

And generating highly employable software developers does not necessarily create a better society. Just ask the San Francisco citizens throwing stones at the buses full of Google engineers. The software developers may be plugging gaps in the economy, but plenty of people in that economy only see that they are being priced out of town.

Photo by ClayGiraffeSchools—particularly for the earlier years—will always be more effective when they are creating more rounded, more widely-educated children. Those children will become individuals who have more flexibility and options not just as they leave school, but as they move from one job to another in an ever-changing society.

A bit of Year of Code flag waving

I don’t think Year of Code’s advisors are anything less than well-intentioned. They are smart people. Some of them I am lucky enough to know personally, and I respect them greatly.

Here is my friend Dan Crow writing about why he thinks Year of Code is important:

This is not primarily about equipping the next generation to work as software engineers, it is about promoting computational thinking. […] Even if you never become a professional software engineer, you will benefit from knowing how to think this way. It will help you understand and master technology of all sorts and solve problems in almost any discipline.

I’ve also been fortunate to have worked with Emma Mulqueeny. She has worked tirelessly for years encouraging young people to code. This is what she says about her motivation in a post about Year of Code—albeit a post announcing her departure from the advisory board:

I was actually trying to do a real thing here and invest my life since 2009 in working out what we could really do to meet the needs of the self-taught programmers, fill more jobs, include more kids, assist with learning and have a load of fun on the way with a worldwide community of young people

Clearly the jobs ideal is in there, but it seems to me her motivation is much more about promoting coding for those who have already shown an interest: for the fun and for the community.

The real goal is digital literacyPhoto by United Way of Massachusetts Bay & Merrimack Valley

Dan, Emma, and I’m sure many others there, recognise that teaching children to code is not the goal. Dan talks about the wider goal of “computational thinking” (the same as Chris Thorpe). Emma talks about having fun. Coding helps with computational thinking; computational thinking is part of the bigger goal of digital literacy. Perhaps we can wrap this up in what Terence Eden reminds us might be called “computer science”.

But while digitally literate people like Emma and Dan know this, it will by no means be obvious to non-digitally literate people. If you call a campaign Year of Code the message that people are going to take is that teaching children to code what we should be aiming for. In the press release Chancellor George Osborne says “In the 21st century, the ability to code and program a computer is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s an essential.” Parents will listen to this, read the title, and of course think that learning to code is the end goal. In truth, learning some coding skills is a good waypoint towards the bigger, more useful, more embracing, more valuable goal of digital literacy. This is a goal which benefits our citizens, society and culture. The economy will benefit as a by-product, too.

Lessons from teachers

The other night I listened to a wonderful radio programme called How to Teach Maths. Alex Bellos described how the old maths agenda of algebra and times tables learned by rote has given way to a much more creative and accessible approach in which children are taught what numbers mean and how maths helps them navigate related problems.

Lynn McClure, of the NRICH Maths Project at Cambridge University, explained:

Children learn conceptual things by playing around with concrete objects. […] We know that in times gone by they didn’t do any of that, they just went straight into what the numbers looked like and learned what the calculations are, so being able to work at a practical level, before you’re expected to record things, is one of the examples of how things have changed. […] It’s more about children having a number sense […] knowing what the number landscape looks like.

Photo by Jeff TurnerThe programme went on to hear from parents of those children, who said that their own fear of mathematics was not shared by their children. Some of the parents went back to their children’s teachers to see if they, too, could be taught in the new way to overcome their fear and ignorance.

It seems to me that the teaching of computing could learn from the teaching of mathematics. We need to give our children a technology sense, knowing what the digital landscape looks like. They need to learn computational thinking, before learning how to record that thinking, and they need to know how that digital landscape fits with the things and life we see around us. It’s all part of digital literacy.


Here’s the summary for the busy executive:

  • Coding is great, but it’s not for everyone.
  • Being digitally literate is more valuable, varied, and embracing than being able to code.
  • Digitally literate people know that…
  • …but non-digitally literate people won’t, especially if you call a campaign Year of Code.
  • Focusing on producing software developers for the economy is unlikely to get the best results.
  • There are many more ways to prepare our children for the digital world than through coding.

Photos from David Smith, Cliff, Philip Howard, ClayGiraffe, United Way of Massachusetts Bay & Merrimack Valley, and Jeff Turner.