Computer coding is being touted as a “foundation skill” of the future that this generation of children will need to get jobs.

The teaching of digital literacy in the classroom is a global education trend on the rise. The inclusion of “coding” – the algorithmic language of computers – in school curriculums around the world exemplifies a shift away from the focus on instructing children how to use computers, applications and programs towards teaching them about how computers are built, how they work, and how to instruct their function and behaviour through coding.

The subject received a great deal of attention in Australia recently when Federal Opposition leader, Bill Shorten announced that if elected, coding would become an integral part of the national curriculum and taught in every primary and secondary school by 2020.

Why is it happening?

As computer technology becomes increasingly embedded across many aspects of life, business and industry, many have come to consider digital proficiency as a vital “foundational skill” upon which the jobs of the future – indeed the prosperity of nations – will depend.

By teaching coding in schools from an early age, it is widely believed that children will acquire the skills necessary to create, design and adapt technology to meet future requirements as well as unlock talent to address the “skills gap” that already exists between the growing number of technology jobs available and the people qualified to fill them.

However, while economics is a major justification for the introduction of coding, others say a moral obligation exists to properly prepare children for the technology-focused world and job-market they will inherit.

Where is it happening?

Estonia and the United Kingdom are leading the charge: coding has been taught in Estonia since 2012 and was introduced in the UK as part of its national curriculum in September 2014. Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy and Greece include coding in their school curricula, while Luxembourg, New Zealand and Singapore are in the process of introducing it.

The Code Club network, founded in the UK, also runs volunteer-led after-school programs that have taught coding to thousands of children in countries including Brazil, Ukraine, Norway, and Hong Kong.

In the United States, coding is reportedly taught in one in 10 schools. However, numerous initiatives are underway including “Code as a Second Language”, aimed at minority groups, and Google’s “Made with Code” program, geared toward girls in an effort to address the stark gender imbalance that exists in tech industries.

For example, while women make up 50 per cent of the total US workforce, they occupy only 25 per cent of tech industry jobs; even in the “home of technology innovation”, Silicon Valley. Coding “boot camps” for university graduates have also sprung into existence to fulfil current job industry needs.

What about Australia?

Mr Shorten declares that all Australian children should have the opportunity to learn “the literacy of the 21st century” so that they can “design, create and operate the apps and computers” that will drive Australia’s future economy.

However, while some say Australia has been slow to respond to this trend, some schools have already begun to teach the subject: Tasmania, for example, is set to become the first state to introduce coding into its primary school curriculum; code clubs exist as extracurricular activities in a number schools, and in Victoria, “Algorithmics” is a freshly minted VCE subject for students wishing to pursue computer science.

Some say there is a broader issue at play: the dearth of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates. Many hope that by introducing coding into schools, more students will be attracted to STEM subject areas – including Information and Communications Technology (ICT) – thereby ensuring a more solid “pipeline” of students and university graduates to better meet current and future demands.

What do proponents say?

Many argue that coding should be taught on equal terms with reading, writing and mathematics in schools because the jobs of the future will have more deeply embedded computer technologies that span business and industry from fashion and farming to medicine and manufacturing. They say that success in the digital age will utterly depend upon the ability of children to solve problems and create solutions in algorithmic and programmatic ways.

Others say digital literacy has flow-on benefits across disciplines: that it helps students become more articulate, improves their problem-solving skills, enhances their critical thinking and logic skills in ways akin to the benefits of learning a musical instrument or foreign language.

Are there challenges?

In Australia, a major challenge in implementing coding on a national scale is the shortage of teachers trained in the field, a factor exacerbated by a scarcity of STEM teachers in general. It is reported that around 60 per cent of ICT teachers and 40 per cent of science and maths teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects.

Furthermore, an increasing number of students are opting out of STEM subjects. According to Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, only half of all year 12 students are studying science, down from 94 per cent 20 years ago.

Citing the example of Morse code in the past, some argue that computer coding taught today is not worthwhile because it will quickly become obsolete as technology and computer programs evolve. The counter-response is that if taught properly, the coding skills learned will be highly transferable and easily adapted from one language to another.

In conclusion

While it is widely acknowledged that not everyone will wish to become computer scientists or software creators, it is nonetheless argued that acquiring coding skills will make for smarter farming, enhanced tools for trade and manufacturing, and more efficient business practices. Many say that digital literacy has benefits for everyone in a world in which technology features so profoundly in everyday life.

Colleen Ricci – The Age – JUNE 7 2015