torstai 14. huhtikuuta 2016

Programming will change the world

But it’s about more than just the code.

Our society has become increasingly dependent on information technology, and the need for skilled computer programmers and other IT professionals is going up at an ever increasing rate. The effects of this are finally reaching the schools around the world as more and more schools and/or whole countries are introducing programming into their curriculums. This is most exciting news indeed. As a programmer myself, I’m all for teaching coding in schools, but I’d also like to propose a little extra while we’re at it.

But why even bother teaching programming to every single student, one might ask; not everyone is going to pursue a career in IT. And not everyone will be so successful or interested in programming, no matter how practical it is. Just like crafts; knitting or making furniture might be fun and marginally useful, but it’s not for everyone. So why bother?

Well, the answer is deceptively simple: even basic knowledge in programming allows one to see the everyday devices we use in a totally new way. These devices will transform from being just ‘things’ with pretty lights to actually having a deeper meaning and logic behind them. And by knowing how the devices work it is easier to invent new ways to use them, or simply improve the old way.  And this new insight isn’t limited just to those devices, rather it goes on and on...

...and on. There’s even potential for a cultural revolution! One of the very fundamental facets of programming is logical thinking, a thing that - at times - feels almost forgotten in today’s society. A high percentage of the overall population settles on doing things along the well-established ways. Maybe they are powerless, or just don’t ever question whether there are improvements to be made. Hopefully this will change as children are taught at an early age that it is ok, even expected of them, to reason with the world.

Programming has traditionally been a niche for very small groups of people; one of the main points of the current pro-programming movement is to get the masses involved. For example in Finland the master plan is to teach every single student to write simple pieces of code, or at least be able to interpret what some other piece of code does. It takes just a single person to invent and implement something great with the power of code. Just think of the impact any one of the persons like John Carmack, Linus Torvalds or Tim Berners-Lee has made. Now imagine how many more inventors like them there are yet to come.

But while it’s awesome to teach everyone to code, it might also be worthwhile to spend some of that time on other aspects of computing. I already mentioned how knowing programming gives one the key insight in how computers work. How about we complement the programming classes by teaching the students about information systems on a general level. The leap from instructing a turtle to draw pretty lines to building actual real-world applications and web-scale services is HUGE, so let’s just stick to the basics.

In the case I’m sounding overly negative, I’ll have to repeat that I am very happy that programming has got a slot in the curriculum. I just rather think that it would be in the best interest of the general population to shift the focus a bit from pure-ish programming to more concrete things. Currently - as far as I know - schools have no lessons on how the internet, computers or information systems work, even on a basic level. I think that this kind of general knowledge is also important, just like knowing how the electrical network or a modern democracy works. It gives insight.

But then again, especially first and second year students might have no chance at grasping such concepts. So, ok, maybe starting with pure programming and only later introducing those practical things is the way to go. For the students that really open up for programming, there is always the possibility to host extra-curricular activities to get them going further. But then again, this might push programming back to being a niche.

Oh well; the funny thing is, these things are hard. Good thing that there are good people working on these things, like the folks at Koodi2016. Go and check out the good work they are doing.

Text by Valtteri Mehtonen, a student in Independent Study in English course

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