Coding is extremely fashionable right now. A mate of mine works for a hot New York City start-up called codecademy that teaches people to code for free online, and has got a LOT of positive press.
Tony Abbott suggested learning coding was unnecessary, got laughed at, then had to back down when he realised his own government was also funding coding in schools.
Is learning to code important?
Well, the market for software has exploded and there are millions of apps for sale right now. Some apps make enough money they can have a $40 million ad campaign starring Kate Upton. But most make very little money.
When I look at software I have on my computer and phone, I see relatively little that is boutique, and lots that is mainstream – Firefox, iTunes, etc. The replicability of software means we don’t each need one made personally.
That suggests the coding universe exhibits the characteristics of a one-to-many market, like acting or professional sports, rather than a one-to-one market like lawyering or medicine.
The key characteristic of labour markets in professional sports and acting is that a few people make a lot of money in them, while a large coterie of fringe dwellers hopes for a big break and makes next to nothing. App-making is the same.
Further eroding the need for coding skills is the fact coding can substitute for itself.
Good back-end coding makes it possible for non-coders to do things that used to require coding skills, like run a website (like this one), an online store, or even make an app. There are dozens of sites that let you make an app with simple drag and drop techniques.
Don’t get me wrong – there will be coding jobs in Australia in the future. Lots of them. Some of those jobs will be very well paid. We should continue to have great computer science programs at high schools and universities open to those who have passion for coding
But will there be enough demand to warrant teaching coding to everyone?
There will be even more plumbers in future and I don’t hear anyone saying we should teach the fundamentals of unclogging in Grade 5.
Let’s not forget writing code can be fiddly, repetitive and boring. This is not the sort of activity that will ignite bored kids imaginations. I did a term of writing code as an elective in 1995 and hope to never again cross paths with an assignment operator.
Coding requires an analytical mind and a grasp of language. Ensuring literacy and numeracy are in place is a higher priority than teaching coding. With the fundamentals in place, learning other things is easier.
We ought not fool ourselves that adding a subject is costless.
Adding to a school curriculum is easy for politicians. They don’t face the opportunity cost, don’t realise students are really only paying attention for a couple of hours a day, and don’t understand half the kids aren’t properly literate.
Teachers at the coal-face, however, know the trade-offs are real. The 2014 Federal Government review of the Australian curriculum highlighted that:
“the greatest concern was the content load expected to be delivered at primary school.”
We should push back on this fanciful policy.