Why Coding Matters

pic-1By Reid Moule.

Despite any individual beliefs or opinions about value, the world is changing. Some changes are understandable and even predictable and occur on the larger stage of social, environmental and political life. Others are incremental, peripheral and are only recognised in hindsight. Change in education tends to be not necessarily at the periphery, but generally is of an incremental nature.

There have been a number of movements over the last ten years in education. Games in learning has been one movement, the use of iPads, apps and smart boards another. Each of these movements has at its base a strongly held belief by its adherents about how children learn. One factor that is evident in all the research is that engagement appears to be a pre-requisite to what psychological research calls ‘flow’ (Appelton et al, 2006; Nystrand & Gamoran, 1989).

CodeKids, an educational program I developed, emerged from a wish to teach children about technology. It began with few preconceptions or assumptions, but with a strong belief in the need to be research-based and an even stronger belief in the need for it to be engaging. There is a swathe of research that clearly demonstrates that humans learn more efficiently and effectively when they are enjoying the process, so it began with that objective (Cusea, 1992; Redish, 1997). Another objective was that the program needed to be of a spiral nature, as much of curriculum development is (Johnstone, 2012). The third objective emerged after examining what was happening globally.

At this point, coding was impinging on the global consciousness. A driver of the debate about coding in education was England, as it had decided to replace ICT and instead adopt coding as a curriculum objective. Suddenly, everyone was talking about the need to teach coding. I looked at the curriculum that England had developed and followed the conversations that were occurring between government, education and business in England in relation to its implementation.

I read all the research around approaches to teaching coding, looked at what the Universities were doing and how they were resourcing schools and teachers. I looked at what the Raspberry Pi group were doing, what was happening in Italy with Arduino CC and microprocessors, what was happening in America with the work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, the Maker movement and the notion of Makerspaces, which are a modernised version of the manual arts room. I also looked at movements like the Steampunk movement and its relationship to personal expression and art and even the graffiti of Banksy and the music of the Blue Man Group.

I thought back on this when I was trying to outline my reasoning around the structure of the CodeKids program because the program encompasses and includes such diverse areas as packaging design, electronic circuits, mathematics, literacy, social marketing and viral branding, electronic engineering, art, sewing, pattern-making, photography, programming, music, video production, sound engineering, coding and industrial design. The challenge was to create a coherent whole out of this melange of seemingly divergent and unconnected fields, and make the links between these fields in a way that made sense, that illustrated how they were, in fact, interconnected.

The way in which education and academia separate aspects of the human experience into neatly packaged units of educational consumption does not reflect what happens in the real world. Academics are often talented musicians and writers and painters; engineers are often talented linguists. There are few borders to interests and often cross-pollination of intellectual endeavours results in quite startling innovation.

CodeKids is about students thinking for themselves and, in doing so, in a very real way becoming their own teachers. Want is a great motivator. Wanting, investigating and making are iterative processes that transform learning and move education from the hands of the teacher into the hands of the learner (Martinez & Stager, 2013).

But why is an approach to coding and programming so important? It is important for these students because, for the first time in history, computers can read, listen and understand – often better than humans can. Deep learning is creating machines that can effectively and efficiently provide a superior level of service and this will lead to massive disruptions in the developed world’s workplaces because the majority of Western economies are largely service based. Something that is emerging as a movement, via 3D printers and the Maker movement, is the development of a craft-based economy. There is some irony in this.

Imagine a world where everyone can make what they need. Where they can take the raw materials, fashion and shape them to their purpose and deliver a finished product. That world existed in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The craft guilds of medieval Europe, supported by the merchant guilds, allowed artisans to create from the raw materials to the finished products – but it was not the production-line model that is known today. Master craftsmen understood each phase and each step of the process of production.

In the years from the 14th to the 17th centuries, merchant and craft guilds played a major role in the economic and spiritual life of Europe. The merchant guilds were able, through trade, to accumulate great wealth compared to the craft guilds. The craft guilds comprised artisans who largely controlled the process of manufacture (Dyer, 2002; Black, 1984).

With the coming of the industrial revolution, this control over the whole process of production was viewed with suspicion by the merchants and led to the introduction of the great disconnect between the worker and the work via the production line. Greater efficiencies were a key focus in the production line, leading to the scientific management of the workplace. This was called Taylorism, named after Frederick Taylor (1880), one of the first human resource managers, and was a theory of management that analysed workflows. Its main objective was improving economic efficiency through planned increases in labour productivity.

By the 20th century, production was now large-scale and, in order to produce, significant investments in plant, machinery and labour were required. As society progressed into the mid-20th century, there was another massive shift in human experience and capacity – the invention of the computer.

These are not the only changes. Over the last 50 years, manufacturing has moved offshore from the developed countries to China. As manufacturing became more sophisticated, it drove competition within China for trained workers, which in turn has seen wages rise significantly as demand for trained labour grew. In order to exploit cheaper alternatives to China, companies moved parts of their manufacturing supply chains to India, and the same process unfolded. Now multinational businesses from the Western economies are looking at re-shoring, bringing manufacturing back to their country of origin, but with a difference. Robotics.

Over the next ten years, society is looking at a radical re-organisation of industry, with serious ramifications for employment and for education. Industries that use robotics, and that will be all of them (note the current replacement of Australian workers by robotics in the mining industry), require trained, skilled coders.

The evidence supporting the claim that workers are being displaced by technology comes from the disconnect that has occurred between rises in productivity and wages. Over the last ten years, wages have been dropping whilst productivity continues to rise. According to Bernstein and Raman (2015), from the end of the Second World War up until the early 1990s, wages and productivity were linked and moved in the same direction. The disconnect cannot be explained simply by the approaches countries take to managing their economies. Even diverse economies like Sweden, Germany and the United States have experienced this hollowing out of the middle class and the non-linear relationship, this decoupling of wages and productivity. There seems to be an underlying issue and many economists believe that this issue is technology. The net effect of this disconnect has been a decrease in demand for low-skilled information workers and a massive demand for workers with engineering, creative and design skills.

Changes in a raft of other areas (such as robotics in agriculture, big data, new materials like graphene, developments in nanotechnology, 3D printing, and the re-conceptualisation of the human genome from a socio-medical entity to a sophisticated software language leading to a gaming approach to healthcare) will require people who understand the relationships between the hardware, the design features or usability and the code. Coding, and that overview, will become necessary skills in order to navigate and be a part of that emerging new world.

Technological development and innovation has accelerated dramatically in the last five years. One of the major drivers of this acceleration was the invention of the smartphone. The focus on the production of chips and sensors for phones due to the global explosion in demand for this technology has led to the economies of scale that allow for the production of many millions more sensors and chips, essentially kick-starting the emergent interest in robotics and coding at a school level.

Global connectivity has also led to a hothouse environment for ideas around product development and small-scale manufacture that, at its simplest level, is a child connecting little bits of electronics together and discussing that with other children in other countries face-to-face via Skype. It is the convergence of a wide range of technologies and opportunities, massive shifts in historical factors that, until now, precluded the CodeKids approach because the technology was either too expensive or just not available. The globalisation of knowledge via the Internet is also a major factor, as it allows almost instant contact with experts in a range of fields, no matter where they may be located.

Children’s main learning experiences come through direct experience with materials. With a range of devices that can be used for fabrication, like 3D printers, Raspberry Pi and MakeyMakey, children have new ways of making things that naturally lend themselves to design thinking and innovation in ways that did not exist just a few years ago. Using recycled materials and interactive elements, projects can be reprogrammed, repurposed and modified to meet new needs. For the first time since the craft guilds of medieval Europe, the ability to produce manufactured goods at an individual level is able to be realised through 3D printing, electronics and craft.

Today, the pace of change is such that there are new understandings, new technologies and applications almost daily. With this rapid pace of change comes a new responsibility for education – to be aware of these changes and of their implications as teachers and for our students as learners.

For a full list of references, email admin@interactivemediasolutions.com.au



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