National Computer Science Education week is winding to a close, and President Obama is highlighting the occasion by appearing in a video series with Code.org encouraging young Americans to spend one hour learning code using free online lessons targeted at their age group. Obama is not alone—some lessons are hosted by tech stars like Mark Zuckerberg, and a number of athletes, musicians and actors have appeared in other videos promoting the project.Their intentions were obviously good, but Obama has taken some flak for treating coding as a panacea for the country’s educational problems. The Atlantic Wire makes the case:
There’s no question that learning to code offers benefits. I know how to code; I’ve written about how a little more tech familiarity would do Congress and journalists some good. But there is a long, annoying path from “regurgitate code examples for an hour this week” to “‘program’ your phone” — one which bears far more limited rewards than coding advocates would have you believe.When we say we want kids to code, we’re saying one of two things. Either we’re saying that we want them to learn a skill that will offer them employment, or we are saying that we want them to become familiar with the logical constructs that go into coding. In the case of the homeless man, McConlogue was aiming for the first goal. What the president is hoping to do isn’t clear. He states both as goals; “Computer literacy is important,” he writes, but then also says that thing about making video games.
Obama’s case (and Code.org’s) may indeed be exaggerated—it’s certainly not the case that every child needs to become a programmer. Nonetheless, basic computer skills are extremely likely to be a necessity for even non-tech related jobs in the future, and the level of knowledge considered “basic” is likely rise as well. Not all kids need to be programmers, but a general understanding of how computers work is still worthwhile for non-programmers, just as non-mathematicians still make of basic math on a daily basis for the rest of their lives. It’s certainly not crazy to suggest that kids could use a bit more technological education then they’re currently getting, even if they never consider programming as a career.The bigger problem is that most American children are still doing time in an educational system designed for a world that’s quickly disappearing—and it’s a system that has been alarmingly resistant to change. Computer education is an afterthought—if it is included at all—in many primary school curricula around the country, despite the fact that computers have become a central part of nearly every industry. The educational status quo is simply not viable any more.