Taking control: why computer coding should be taught in primary schools

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In my last piece I focused on the first device I bought to use the Ubuntu version (AKA Ubuntu distro) of the Linux Operating System (OS).  I found much online collaborative activity contributing to the use of Ubuntu.  I was looking for an alternative to the Windows OS, which does almost everything for us, making it easy to use and accessible: but with it we give up control to Microsoft and its big corporate, competitive, market-dominating enterprise driven by the profit incentive.

Using Ubuntu requires a little more effort, but with it, comes a bit more control of my computing, and an increase in understanding about what makes computers and their software work. Using Ubuntu is much like using Windows in many ways.  For the first couple of weeks I was able to do most things I wanted with mouse clicks. I was a little wary of taking the step to use the terminal to type commands.  This involves communicating more directly with the OS, typing in coded commands.  However, once I made the effort to do this, I soon gained confidence.

I was reminded of the first computing course I did back in the mid-late 1980s.  Those were the days before the World Wide Web, browsers and the mouse that can click on pre-coded links. Everything had to be done through typing in commands in a form (or language) that the OS could read.  I learned to create my own graphical patterns, and was told this was a very simple form of programming. At the time it gave me a great sense of achievement, and confidence in my computer use.

Back then, there was some optimism that computing use would equip all young learners with the ability to create their own programmes, thereby having a lot of control over their computing use, and stimulating their creativity.  But gradually the big corporates gained prominence, and took a lot of the imitative from ordinary users.  They started to do everything for us.  Now many of us have no idea about how much of our personal information, stored in ‘My Documents’ and other folders, get sent back to Microsoft, and used for marketing purposes.  We have no idea how many back-doors are included in digital devices by the NSA (us National Security Agency) and its 5 Eyes partners.

As a result of my experiences with Ubuntu, I have begun to think about the importance of teaching computer programming in schools. There are growing calls for such teaching. The Australian Labor party leader Bill Shorten, recently announced that it would be Labor policy to include the teaching of programming in schools. In May this year, The Conversation reported:

Bill Shorten’s recent announcement that, if elected, a Labor Government would “ensure that computer coding is taught in every primary and secondary school in Australia” has brought attention to an increasing world trend.

Many foreground that this is necessary for building a successful national IT industry.  However, the benefits for all or most young children learning the basics of computing is far greater than that: it’s about gaining more understanding and control of the use we make of digital devices. While specifics of the various computer languages change, the underlying principles remain pretty much the same. That means once learned they can be transferred to new computing developments.

Much of the current focus on computing in schools focuses on how various current devices are used. On Tuesday, Radio NZ reported that a recent OECD study showed that:

… education systems which had invested heavily in information and communications technology had seen “no noticeable improvement” in Pisa test results for reading, mathematics or science.

“If you look at the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, they’ve been very cautious about using technology in their classrooms,” Mr Schleicher said.

Last year in NZ, the case was put for school students learning to write code. Lee Suckling reported,

Pupils learning code Stuff Lee Suckling
Photo accompanying Lee Suckling’s article on Stuff website.

In a nutshell, learning to code enables pupils to learn the step-by-step commands to make websites, games, and apps. Common coding languages include HTML, Python, CSS and JavaScript: all of which are widespread and versatile.

At the moment, coding is optional in New Zealand schools and the uptake is limited since it was introduced at NCEA level in 2011.

Nicholas Jones reported that students as young as 7 years old are successfully learning to write code at West Auckland’s Marina View School.

I will describe the steps I took to use Ubuntu on a reconditioned laptop.

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Carolyn is committed to economic and social justice. She has researched and taught in film, TV and media studies, sociology and gender studies. Carolyn is actively interested in local history, and its impact on the present and future.

Carolyn currently works part time as a research librarian in Auckland Libraries, which is part of Auckland Council. The views, analysis, and opinions she expresses on this site are her own, and not those of Auckland Council.

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