Is the world built by coders?
Finnish comprehensive schools will include programming in their mathematics curriculum from 2016. Programming has become an increasingly popular subject over the last year. News stories reveal high demand for programming courses targeted at people of various ages. Programming is referred to as a right, an obligation, a civic skill, the general knowledge of our time, and a matter of equality.
As a researcher, I have been eager to find out what programming is like to learn, what the reasons are for learning it and in what kind of society this new “civic skill” or “general knowledge” will be required. Another interesting aspect involves finding out who gets to define this new skill and what their starting points are in promoting it. Media educators, youth workers and researchers have yet to contribute to the public debate on the matter.
In addition to learning programming online, teaching is available through courses, clubs and camps organised by libraries, media centres, various organisations and software businesses. Depending on the learners’ age, these have taught programming through playing, in the form of “dry runs” by editing code, by getting to know robots, by moving something – usually cute bugs – on a graphic user interface, or by designing and building an application, a game or a website. In some courses, the participants have had the opportunity to try out the latest technologies such as the Internet of Things, Google glasses or 3D printing.
Three main reasons have been given by the media and guidebooks on the issue for the need to learn how to code.
Firstly, programming studies promote equality. If code is only understood by a few, power will be concentrated with a few people. Everyone has the right to learn programming because the future is being built by computer users. Everyone should have the right to participate in this building process. This statement is considered irrefutable because opposing it would mean opposing someone else’s rights.
Secondly, learning to program can be justified by the skills it teaches: logical and creative thinking, precision, perceptive abilities and problem-solving skills. These skills are unquestionably an important part of the comprehensive school curriculum. However, we might ask whether programming is the only way to learn these skills or the best way to teach them. Advocates of programming courses will answer “yes”, justifying their opinion by the fact that students themselves want to add more information and communications technology to the curriculum. Programming is believed to be a solution to making school feel more interesting for pupils and more relevant to their daily lives.
The third justification lies in the education of IT experts and Finland’s national economy. Some think that coding courses will fix a lack of IT experts in the labour market. It is also thought that it will teach children skills that will enable them to find jobs later. In addition, it is believed that general programming education will attract more females to male-dominated IT professions. The underlying assumption is that the software industry will be the saviour of Finland’s national economy. Introducing programming to the curriculum is therefore considered indispensable to preventing Finland from falling behind in the global economy. However, this claim is exaggerated: programming is taught at an earlier stage of schooling in only Estonia and the United Kingdom. South Korea is progressing in line with Finland, while Singapore and the United States have only begun to consider the issue. In other words, Finland is a pioneer.
The need to teach programming has seldom been questioned in public debates. Despite this, remarkably little discussion has been held on the contents of the programming curriculum. The Finnish Broadcasting Company recently reported that the Ministry of Education and Culture turned to businesses while preparing to launch coding courses. Senior Advisor Jarkko Moilanen explained the Ministry’s cooperation with the private sector by stating that the resources of the whole of society are needed in order to implement change. Cooperation with the sector’s experts is therefore justifiable when adopting a new approach. But will the new programming education serve the interests of the private sector at the expense of other, competing interests?
Public comments on programming education have yet to touch on themes such as assessing the importance of technology. The relationship between humans and technology, let along pupils’ ability to critically assess technology, has not even been mentioned. Critical technology education is my name for an approach that takes account of questions such as these. It brings a new perspective to the public debate by examining the ways in which technology shapes our perceptions and thinking. Its purpose is to increase our understanding of technology in a way that enables us to imagine and create alternative scenarios while enhancing independent human agency.
If the scenarios of an increasingly technology-oriented future are realised, everyone will need to understand the impact of technology on their personal lives and society. In my opinion, this new civic skill must encompass more than simply learning about programming languages and their logic. We also need to be able to determine what kinds of technology we want in our lives.
It is important that we create a programming education model that covers all important questions pertaining to this new civic skill, particularly since Finland is a forerunner in programming education and will probably act as a model for other countries. New skills should be widely discussed by experts from various fields. Youth workers and media educators should participate in this debate, as they are familiar with the relationship between young people and technology and know what kind of support young people need in order to understand their technological environment.