Programming is far from a privilege of IT geniuses and some say it will soon be as important a skill as writing or reading. In Hungary, there are positive examples of how young people should be introduced into the world of coding.
School children sit in a classroom, each with a monitor and keyboard in front of them – the screens show a three-dimensional videogame world, where everything is made up of small cubes. Completely immersed, they move their characters in the world of Minecraft, the most successful computer game of the last decade.
In a rectangular yet charming virtual environment, a village is threatened by bushfire, and the pupil’s mission is to program their helper, a small grey robot, to remove the dry undergrowth and thereby preventing the flames from spreading. They play to learn the basics of coding – also known as computer programming – while learning critical thinking and creativity. Welcome to the world of 21st century education!
Not so typical
Of course, we would not look for a coding lesson as described above in a typical Hungarian educational institution. In Hungary, mainly private schools deal with the playful presentation of coding.
Anyone who acquires this knowledge will not only be a user, but also a creator of the digital world, says Anita Breuer, a Hungarian pioneer of the experiential teaching of coding and one of the founders of Logiscool. This year, the six-year-old startup is already teaching programming to 6- to 18-year-olds in 14 countries around the world.
It is estimated that around 20,000 to 30,000 programmers are currently missing from the Hungarian market, but according to Anita Breuer, the deficit may be much greater if you include jobs that require some coding skills.
Programming tends to be seen as an abstract science that is just the privilege of IT geniuses who, even as teenagers, were having fun hacking NASA’s servers.
Yet more and more people believe that in the all-encompassing era of information technology, robotisation and artificial intelligence, programming will be the same basic skill as writing or reading, and therefore needs to have the right weight in public education.
Program or be programmed
Annette Vee, a Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote a book on the subject, examining the similarities between programming and the social role of literacy.
According to Vee, in the Middle Ages, literacy was a privilege of only a narrow elite, but later it became widespread as it became increasingly disadvantageous if one did not possess these basic skills. Similarly, lack of programming knowledge is a growing disadvantage if we are to adapt to the digital era.
The subject is almost philosophically explored in Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program or be Programmed according to which we must ask ourselves: do we want to control the technology or rather let the masters of technology control us?
Updating this question, we could also ask if fewer people would believe fake news on Facebook if more citizens understood how the social network algorithm works. The answer is probably yes.
But there is a more practical reason why programming should be a part of basic education. According to last year’s report by the European Commission, in this decade you can expect to have a well-paid job if you possess medium or high level IT skills, excellent problem-solving skills and outstanding non-cognitive skills. That is if you are a great team player, communicator, organiser and capable of creative, independent thinking. You can improve in all these areas if you learn to code.
According to a Commission survey, more than 60 per cent of those in jobs requiring both IT and non-cognitive skills can expect high pay in the coming years or decades, while 73 per cent of routine jobs that do not require these skills will be low paid. Based on this it doesn’t take much imagination to picture a society in which there is a widening gap between people who speake the language of computers fluently, and those who only have a superficial understanding of the digital world.
There is plenty to do in Hungary to prevent this pessimistic vision from becoming a reality, as we are below the EU average in terms of regular internet use and digital capabilities. 27 per cent have low-level computer skills and 23 per cent are digitally illiterate. In the EU, after Bulgaria and Romania, we are the least likely to work with computers at their workplace. We are more than ten per cent behind the EU average in this area.
“We are not telling the kid to come to us for programming because it will be indispensable in your future life, whatever occupation you choose. We say come and make your own computer games and make your own applications,” says Anita Breuer from Logiscool. You don’t have to be good at math to start programming, and youngsters born in the Internet age certainly know their way around a computer. You can even learn the language of code if you have a visual or hearing impairment.
Coding demonstration classes have been held at the Hearing Impaired School for years, according to Bálint Marjai, who is head of the institutional unit of this vocational school. Marja, who himself was hearing impaired, became familiar with computer programming in the 2000s. He says coding is an area where disability is not at all a disadvantage, as it requires minimal verbal communication. “Hearing impaired people can be just as good as anyone else.”
Hearing-impaired demonstration classes are organised by the Logiscool Foundation for Digital Knowledge in partnership with Microsoft. According to Anita Breuer, programming can be a breakthrough not just for the hearing-impaired. For example, one of their severely visually impaired students has been coding with them for six years and is preparing for university admission. In their school in Târgu Mureş, the best pupil in the group is a disabled girl.
Coding is one of the most important and profitable skills of the 21st century. If they succeed, surely every child can succeed.