The importance of learning how to code in today’s Europe

Posted on 04. November 2015

by Hanna Engblom

hanna-engblomI have a confession to make. I have, for a very long time, wanted to learn how to code. I have, however, been too afraid to try, convincing myself that I probably need to either be nerdier than I am now, or a maths prodigy in order to master it. However, I have realised that a) I have nothing to lose and b) it’s more a necessity than a choice at this point. Let me tell you the 3 main reasons why we all need to learn how to code.

1) Competitive advantage

Over the last few years Asia, in particular, has come a long way in teaching children how to code, while Europe has just begun to realise its importance. The ability to code will be a huge competitive advantage in the future and Europe can’t afford to fall behind on this issue. Many experts within the field have spoken out on this issue. Emil Valdelin, public policy manager at Facebook, has said that “In order to remain competitive, the EU needs a workforce with developed digital skills, and this needs to begin at an early age”.

Countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and India have come far in teaching school kids the basics of programming. The EU was surprisingly dormant on this issue, until a report was released in 2013, concluding that “European nations are harming their primary and secondary school students, both educationally and economically, by failing to offer them an education in the fundamentals of informatics. Continuation of this failure would put the European economy at risk by causing students to lag behind those of many other countries, including emerging but increasingly competitive countries (India is the most obvious example but by far not the only one)“.

Since the release of the report, the European Commission has urged member states to introduce coding in their elementary schools curricula. While some European countries – such as Estonia and the UK – have done so, the majority of member states are yet to follow suit. The sad fact is that fewer than 15% of European students have access to high-level ICT teaching in school, while in some member states such as Greece and Croatia, less than half of students have access to the internet at school at all. Even in countries where students do have access to technology, less than 30% of 10-15 year olds are taught by “digitally confident” teachers.

The potential of coding is so big that some stakeholders have argued that coding should be considered as the newest EU language. When asked whether coding should be taught in elementary school, the professional hacker Steve Clement answered that computer programming is comparable to reading and writing – it’s something most of us know, but few of us become best-selling authors. Everyone should learn how to code, even if we don’t aspire to become professional hackers or IT moguls.

Teaching the children of Europe how to code should also be of interest for economic reasons. A great success story in this respect can be seen in Israel, which at the turn of the century developed one of the world’s most extensive computer science curricula for its high schools. Now Israel’s tech companies attract more venture capital and investors than any European country.

An article on Debating Europe asks if the lack of interest in coding among young Europeans is one of the reasons that Europe is lagging behind the United States in terms of tech start-ups. The European Commission has recognized this problem, and has noted that if the countries of the EU do not put more effort in getting people interested in ICT, the EU risks facing a shortage of 825,000 ICT professionals by 2020.

In light of this, the European Commission has been backing up several initiatives aimed at encouraging interest in coding among children and youth within the EU. Two years ago, in October 2013, the EU CodeWeek was organised for the first time. It started out as a grass-roots movement aimed at promoting and demystifying the art of coding, especially among young EU citizens. It’s run by volunteers who act as CodeWeek Ambassadors, promoting coding in their respective countries. Everyone can participate in one way or another, by organising and attending workshops, seminars or other events on coding. Last year more than 150,000 people participated in 4,200 coding events in 36 countries.

2) Regain the power

In one way or another, everything around us nowadays is based on technology. The metro is run by computers, as are the traffic lights. The stock market relies heavily on technology in order to function, as does our communication with each other. It’s therefore important to understand how technology works in order to use it safely and “regain the power” of our computerised lives. However, it’s also important to pay attention to what kindof IT knowledge is needed. The aforementioned 2013 report states “For a nation or a group of nations to compete in the race for technology innovation, the general population must in addition to digital literacy understand the basics of the underlying discipline, informatics “, i.e. it’s not enough to know how to type, search for information or create Word documents, but we must also learn the science behind IT, such as algorithms and code.

Many schools, for example my own elementary school in Finland, made a big mistake regarding this when they started to introduce us to IT in the second grade at the end of the 90’s. They taught us how to use certain software (many of which are nowadays obsolete), instead of how to understandcomputing. As John Naughton points out in his article on theguardian.com, “We made the mistake of thinking that learning about computing is like learning to drive a car, and since a knowledge of internal combustion technology is not essential for becoming a proficient driver, it followed that an understanding of how computers work was not important for our children. (…)What we forgot was that cars don’t run the world, monitor our communications [or] count our votes. But networked computers do all of these things, and a lot more besides”. The key is not in knowing how to use the Office-package, but understanding how it works and how you could create similar software yourself.

In a world where cyber threats and cyber terrorism are becoming more and more common, it’s essential that every computer user learns how to properly use ICT in a secure way. In order to fully grasp this, every individual has to learn at least the basics of computer science. The consumers need to regain the power. As Giustina Mizzoni of the CoderDojo Foundation puts it “Acquiring and understanding of computer coding is extremely important within our society if we want to create a European Digital Single Market. Without it, the majority of citizens will remain passive consumers and will be at the mercy of programmers and technology giants”.

3) Keeping up with the youngsters

Today, 90% of professions require at least some ICT competence. While it might have been a competitive advantage ten years ago to know your way around the Office-package, it’s simply not enough anymore. Even elementary school children nowadays know how to make a decent PowerPoint presentation. Heck, many elementary school children probably already have better computer skills than I do!

If more and more schoolchildren learn how to code, it means that when they join the workforce they will have invaluable skills that many of us from the older generation do not. The cold hard fact is that we will become obsolete and pushed off the playing field by this new highly computer-literate generation – if we do not make sure to update our computer knowledge as well.

While it’s great that school children learn how to code in school, the question is: How can the rest of us learn how to code? The answer is simple: by enrolling in MOOCs, or “massive open online courses”. By enrolling in one of these free courses, provided by some of the world’s leading educational institutions, you can easily learn the art of programming from the comfort of your own home. Websites such as edX, Coursera and Udacity have a range of free online courses in computer science.

If you feel that you simply do not have the time to take an online course, there are some other great websites that provide free online coding classes in an easily accessible (like CodeCademy and Rails Girls) and playful way (like code.org, Touch Develop, Scratch and Code Combat).

In a Europe where unemployment is rising, many companies are practically fighting for people proficient in programming. The European Commission has estimated that the creation of a European Digital Single Market could produce €250 billion in additional growth, as well as counteract rising unemployment rates. Who knows, maybe code could lead us out of the recession?

If you’re still not convinced and need more reasons to learn how to code – take a look at this brilliant article “We Can Code It! – Why computer literacy is key to winning the 21st century” by Tasneem Raja.