iCurriculum – Next Generation Coders

Recently the government have announced their proposed new curriculum for schools, aimed at restoring the English education system to its rightful place as one of the best in the world. One of the interesting things included in this is a new focus on computer skills, specifically around the ability to program:

Computing will teach pupils how to write code. Pupils aged five to seven will be expected to “understand what algorithms are” and to “create and debug simple programs”. By the age of 11, pupils will have to “design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems. (Sean Coughlan, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news, 08/07/2013)

This is an interesting shift in focus in the education system and has a number of far reaching consequences. This is something that is probably long overdue, considering the impact that the internet and apps have on almost all our lives. In America coding has been a part of the curriculum for a long time. In fact, the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a scene in one of the early series which clearly shows Cordelia writing code for a program as part of her school work, which raises the question “why has it taken so long for us to catch up?”

One of the interesting things I see a lot in my job when interviewing for content managers is what we refer as ‘the myspace effect’. One of the key skills we look for is a basic understanding of HTML coding and currently the most common way people say they have gained this experience is through the short lived myspace phenomenon. Most of this occurs from the under 30 age range but it is an interesting insight into how one site has influenced a generation of people to learn the basics of coding. This is, in some way, the first step towards an acknowledgement that coding is fast becoming a common skill. Indeed, the days of ‘geeks’ being the uncool kids who spend their school break times locked away in dark rooms, tapping away at keyboards, wearing thick rimmed glasses and talking with whinny voices are long gone. Geek is the new chic, largely thanks to the Americans who has managed to make technology cool. Apple, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Apps, Zachary Quinto (yes, as weird as it seems, Hollywood actors being openly geeky has helped a lot) have all contributed to a shift in the way the world, and particularly young people, regard technology and coding.

So on to the new curriculum. I have my own reservations about how ambitious the government are being. If they think all 11 year olds are going to be able to write full programs then they are misguided, but if this is to be pitched at a lower level where children are taught the value in assessing a system holistically, identifying problems and solving them then this can only be a good thing. The ability to problem solve is a good one to have and exposure to technology is only going to help in a world that is increasingly filled with gadgets and devices. It used to be that if someone didn’t have typing skills then they wouldn’t be able to get a job in admin. Then it became that you needed Office Suite skills, and now you need to have internet skills and experience using mobile devices or coding skills. It is intellectual evolution in action and it won’t slow down either…Moore’s law for technological skill and understanding.

But what does this curriculum change mean for schools and more importantly for us, the digital practitioners? As a governor at my daughter’s school, which is a small school but that will be effected by this change, the major concern for me is the provision of the new curriculum. This will require schools to make investment in more technology and more importantly the skills to teach this. By the very nature of the teaching system, most teachers will not have come from a generation where they have the ability to teach coding, so new staff will be required. The interesting thing is that this will open the doors for the younger ‘myspace’ generation to potentially take some of those roles and thus that generation will help move us into the next age. Another concern is the mismatch between children from better off families against those with less money. This sort of curriculum will require extra-curricular work and those children in the less well off homes will struggle to get the opportunities to work with the technology. This will probably result in a shift towards children widely getting their own devices; the world of glass is coming.

So what about us, the digital practitioners? The most significant thing I foresee is the dilution of coding skills. Currently coders tend to work for agencies or corporations and any websites or software projects of any quality tend need to be undertaken by them. But in recent years I have noticed that a lot of our potential clients are already talking to friends they know who can put a website together for them. This is certainly the case for smaller clients and that is happening now, in a world where coding is still considered to be a specific skill set. So what will the effect be of coding skills becoming the norm in the next few generations?

Something we will need to be prepared for is that the internet will become more accessible for the majority of people. There will no doubt be many that forget their coding skills the moment they leave school, just as I can’t remember much of my algebra now. But there will also be plenty of people who are able to continue and expand their skills. The digital industry is going to have to capitalise on the specific ‘quality’ aspects it offers, such as in depth knowledge in user experience design. The bigger agencies will continue to work with the big corporations, but the smaller agencies, who rely on a succession of small and medium projects, will be the ones that will have to specialise and grow, or suffer. My prediction will be that small businesses will use ‘friends’ to produce sites rather than small agencies. The effect will be that the lower end of the market will probably stagnate. The digital industry will become more focussed on the top end of the market, with WordPress and the like being used by individuals to provide cheap and easy websites. Of course, all of this could well change when the web goes through its next evolution. Either way, we should all keep an eye on this keenly as our world will be effected by it.

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