Coding in Australia: The small Debate

27 Jun 2015 4:14 AM | Anonymous

This blog post is the second of  a new ICTENSW initiative to include guest bloggers who are examples of innovative educators, and their thoughts on technology.  This blog post is from Dan Bowen,  who is an innovative educator, and ICTENSW member, who tweets @dan_bowen

The reason I have put pen to blog on this subject is not as an educational advisor or tech person but as a Dad of three young kids under eight. Coding and computing seems to be polarising and confusing people in Australia even at the top.

Take this recent news item as an example. Bill Shorten suggests that “Coding is the literacy of the 21st Century, and every young Australian should be able to read and write the global language of the digital age”.

Tony Abbot in response suggests that “He [Bill Shorten] said that he wants primary school kids to be taught coding so they can get the jobs of the future. Does he want to send them all out to work at the age of 11? Is that what he wants to do? Seriously?”
So what going on? The lack of knowledge in the media and the need for quick sound ‘bytes’ have meant that this entire discussion moves the public eyes to that of coding. Just as a quick introduction, there is more to computing than coding. Similarly do we believe that teaching music should always be about one genre or teaching art is all about painting in watercolour. The Australian curriculum for digital technologies is an excellent curriculum and has had in depth review. As we are all aware it has been implemented in many states locally but NOT ALL and has been subject to several debates of late including this one from ICTENSW. However underpinning this curriculum area is a plethora of creative, problem solving and broader concepts that are skills that every employer deems critical in the current and future workplace.
As someone who has spent time looking at curricula in different countries around Europe and now Australia, it’s clear that for a country to maintain its competitive edge it is not about the code – it is about the application of the code, the process of development, the problem solving and creativity to build solutions that matter (and work).
Being able to program is one of the major skill sets you may need but to move the economy forward we need to develop digital entrepreneurs and more effective software developers in Australia and globally. Countries cannot ‘app’ or ‘program’ themselves out of a recession. And I think this might even prove to be a false economy. I have worked on several projects over the years where the creative talent has been sought away from our shores. The Photoshop developer from Singapore, the web developer from his basement in the UK, the moodle technical support from a China and the digital music developer (who is also a full time student) from the US, I could go on.
‘Coding entrepreneurs are needed – a workforce that innovates’
Coding entrepreneurs are needed. We need a workforce that innovates and has ideas. We need to develop the creative and innovative – NOT the robotic. For example: when we think of the creation of worldwide products three concepts spring to mind:
The fruit syndrome – innovation driven in the US, for example the Apple iPhone, but mass produced in China and Asia. Programming and hardware can be a cheap commodity in many cases. We will never compete with the millions of coders coming out of the emerging markets so the ideas are where it is at.
The Italian Job – A quick quiz. Pizza and Espresso were invented in Italy, by whom? I bet you don’t know. But you would know they are now known and developed by Starbucks and Pizza Hut. We need to be thinking as a developer making the products more scalable and possibly more targeted to customers’ needs. Making things better and for a better world.
Flappy bird syndrome – Two years ago a low graphics game was removed from several ‘App stores’ even though the creator claimed it was making him $50,000 a day on advertising. Quick wins are few and far between. This is the same mentality as telling our kids they will be a soccer player when they grow up (even though there is more likelihood that they will play for an EPL team than create a one-off app that will make them millions).
So where does this leave us? Ideas matter, original thinkers matter, BUT everyone coding well doesn’t matter. Having an appreciation of code and the processes of abstraction and decomposition of problems, I would argue, are even more important.
What shortage of programmers?
The UK and Australia do not have a shortage of computer programmers. They do have shortage of good software developers. This is something we need to work on in the curriculum. And for development there’s much more to it than just programming. It can take years to develop the skills and knowledge needed to build reliable, maintainable, secure and scalable software.
It is not the ability to write clean new software, but the ability of the software developers to adapt existing software which can keep pace with and even lead the competition – that is the key to success in industry. Generating a lot of mediocre programmers will result in the need for more developers to correct legacy code that was written poorly. Finally, in industry, to keep up the pace, most development teams are overstaffed, and we know that a majority of software projects fail to deliver any real value when developed like this.
Bubbles and sound bites, such as the Year of Code, although very good could flood the market with average or below-average programmers. When the market is flooded with non-competent programmers then it is very difficult and time consuming, as well as risky, to identify really good developers and maintain the advantage.
So how can we develop entrepreneurship and software developers? Here are some ideas:
Implement the digital technologies curriculum properly and if that can’t be done every state to take it on board and do it consistently;
Teach ALL kids to appreciate code – and not be afraid of it;
Teach MOST kids the basics of coding, process and project management. This group includes the students who will have the entrepreneurial ideas and will deliver innovation;
Teach SOME kids to develop code efficiently and in detail so they become effective developers who can code for scalability, re-use and maintenance;
Upskill the media commentators and government officials to understand the breadth of software development and design and highlight that it is not all about coding!
And here are three final thoughts:

There have been many mathematicians with far greater mathematical knowledge than Einstein. However, his application of the knowledge allowed him to innovate and see things differently. His elegance in developing solutions and theorems provided a springboard to future generations of mathematicians to develop them further, for example with quantum and string theory.
The OECD school rankings do not (as yet) measure creativity and innovation and will certainly not help any economies innovate themselves out of a recession.
Most people reading this will be very pro-technology but we need the majority to start thinking about the Australia and the economy that we want to build for our kids. It’s all very well living in a beautiful country but we need jobs that create products, excite people, innovate and actually motivate for people to lead the world rather than be led.

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