Who is winning the IT education race?

Steve Evans

Wednesday 18 February 2015

There is a revolution underway in IT education across Europe: it’s no longer about teaching the basics of Microsoft Office. Instead, there’s a real desire to teach children the basics of coding, which will have a positive effect on future workforces.

The race is on to find the next Mark Zuckerberg, the next Yang Yuanqing, or the next Bill Gates. When looking at the rise of many of the world’s most famous tech entrepreneurs, one thing that sticks out is how early their interest began.

In fact, in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell interviews Microsoft founder Bill Gates and learns about how he started programming on computers at high school at the age of 13, eventually amassing over 10,000 hours of programming time, which Gladwell argues was key to the success Gates later enjoyed.

It’s clearly something that governments and schools are finally beginning to accept and invest in; introducing people to coding and other computing skills at a young age is the best way to help the next generation of tech entrepreneurs and develop the skills needed to compete in our digital, interconnected world.

In England, an initiative launched in September 2014 aims to introduce young children to coding. As the BBC reports, the new national curriculum for computing aims to “ensure that all pupils can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science”.

One of the keys to the new curriculum is moving technology lessons beyond basic Microsoft Office skills, such as how to use Excel and PowerPoint and other applications like Photoshop. Instead, children aged 5 to 7 will learn to “understand what algorithms are, how they are implemented as programs on digital devices, and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions,” “create and debug simple programs,” and “use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs.”

France, too, is looking to gives its youngsters a coding boost; education minister Benoît Hamon has detailed how the country will start offering the option for kids to learn the “principles of programming languages” and how to “build applications using simple algorithms”. The classes will be optional and take place outside the main educational curriculum, initially being offered to primary school children, but with the aim of spreading the scheme to secondary school children.

However, it is actually Estonia that is leading the way in Europe when it comes to teaching young children about technology. Back in 2012, the country introduced coding lessons to all pupils aged 6-17 and it is now a integral part of the national curriculum.

One of the key aspects of Estonia’s focus on computer skills is that it is not strictly about teaching children and young adults how to code. While that is clearly an important aspect, the focus is more on developing an understanding of the technology we use in everyday life; the how, what, why and so on of technology. Coding skills also help develop analytics and problem solving abilities, which can be applied to all walks of life, not just tech development.

It is hoped approaches like the one Estonia has taken, and similar initiatives in England, France and other European countries, will make diving deeper into technology a less intimidating activity and drive interest in the subject.

Away from teaching in schools, other initiatives are springing up that aim to help people of all ages develop their coding skills, such as Code Academy, Code.org, the Khan Academy’s Hour of Code and CodeWeek.eu, which has a heavy focus on Italy and Spain.

Tech companies are also helping develop computer science skills: GitHub recently announced that it will be offering developer tools – such as a database API, a text editor and a cloud application tool – to students, free of charge.

All this points towards a bright future for computer skills across Europe, and that’s good news for businesses throughout the continent and the world. It means people will reach the workplace ready for the future and familiar with all the necessary skills needed to succeed. Skills that today may seem specialised will soon be typical, meaning skills shortages will be a thing of the past and relevant salaries will come down. Businesses will also have to spend less capital on training workers.

Getting people interested in technology – how it works, what it can do, and so on – at a young age is the best way to develop the skills they will undoubtedly need later in life. Now that governments, educational institutions and technology companies have started to invest in the education of younger people, it will not be long before businesses are reaping the benefits of a highly-skilled, more passionate workforce.