HTML as a 3rd language?"Coding is the new Latin of the 21st century" said Alex Hope, CEO of Double Negative, a company specialising in cinema effects, two years ago. He pointed out the monopoly of a minority in this new field and the necessity to popularise it, while at the same time urging governments to address the issue.
This is already happening in the UK where IT is now a GCSE subject. However, in France the draft bill on Schools (presented on 23 January 2013) focuses on the place of IT in digital education - a new teaching mission. Although it is now more or less accepted, the introduction of IT education was an uphill struggle. First, because the subject was not recognised early on; especially in Europe where the school's monopoly on education and strict curricula hamper many innovations. Also because IT suffers from an image of being a complex science, not ‘natural’ and constantly changing despite the fact that computers are becoming increasingly easy to use.
Why do we have to know how such user-friendly computers work? Why can't we just be an informed digital consumer? Because it is essential to become creators rather than remaining consumers, explains Douglas Rushkoff, author of the book Ten Commands for a Digital Age. For Rushkoff, the equation is simple – or binary according to others: "create the software or be the software", "programme or be programmed", "create or consume". The question posed by IT education is not whether to enter into the digital age but whether we should shape the digital age.
Coping with upheavals linked to digital technologiesFor the defenders of programming training, it is essential to understand to what extent digital technology has changed activities and human abilities in spite of ourselves. With computers and digital technology, we replicate the cognitive process. Yet, it is the programmes that dictate our interactions with machines Therefore, those who understand programming understand how to transform the world. Using digital tools without understanding the underlying mechanisms means living in an environment where the parameters and the cognitive effects of these parameters are defined by others. The benefits of learning programming i.e. ‘knowing how to code’ is to be able seize power back from the machine in order to understand and control the upheavals linked to digital technologies. The Académie des Sciences, author of a 2013 report on the subject, highlights the urgent need to reduce this usage divide. It also highlights the need to reduce the gender divide in programming (a traditionally male activity) as well as tackling the social divide.
Digital literacyWhile many agree on the usefulness of learning programming, we must define the point of balance between the need to teach the general principles useful for understanding the consequences of digital technologies and "the injunction for us all to become programmers" according to Hubert Guillaud. Similarly, opinions differ as to the method and content: how should we teach programming? As a technique, as a science or as a new form of literacy? The American Academy of Sciences promotes "computational thinking", a from of reasoning based on programming principles but disconnected form from machines.
The choice of programming language and learning methods divides the protagonists in the debate; many programmers train themselves given that the majority of methods are far from satisfactory. However, trials are taking place: at the Code Academy, which was set up by two Columbia students and at 42, the school set up by Xavier Niel in France. Both are free and open to all (almost); both schools offer online courses but here the similarities end. One relies on the free will of the students while the other relies on less intense sessions. The languages taught also differ; the Code Academy teaches a little of everything while 42 favours UNIX. Although no studies have compared the two styles of teaching, the two trials will, no doubt, shed light on future choices. The principles have been defined, now we just need to define the parameters.