Future of Learning – Talking to the Machines.

December 6, 2016 Natasha Gunn

Communicating comes naturally to most of us.  

Communication is fundamental to the development of human society. We learn and practice the Michelangelo, Abstract, Boy, Childcomplexities of language from the day we are born. In a world where the importance of written and spoken communication is paramount, learning multiple languages is common in most modern school systems. In recent times, ‘code’ has emerged as a new language of the world, one that breaks through ethnic and geographical divides so prevalent in other dialects. Despite this, there isn’t the diversity you would expect speaking code.

But what about when we need to talk to machines?

To put it very simply, ‘code’ is the language used to tell machines what to do. We aren’t talking about one simple universal language either. There are a variety of different  languages, HTML, C++, Java and XML, to name a few. Take a moment now look around the room. How many things can you see that rely on code? No doubt the most obvious example is the screen you are reading this from right now. Think about your day to day life; the traffic lights you drive past, the self-checkout at the supermarket, the phone in your pocket … examples of code are everywhere. Pretty much everything powered by electricity uses code in some way. Programming has become the building block to modern life. Demand for people who can tell machines what to do is growing exponentially every day and we are struggling to keep up.

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So who should be learning to code?

There’s a big debate on whether learning code will become as integral to a child’s education as learning other languages. While there is a lot of speculation for the future, current evidence is clear. An estimated 1 million technology jobs will go unfilled by 2020, according to a report put forth by Microsoft in 2012. It’s hard to imagine what exactly the future will be like, I’ve already experienced expansive change since being a child when the internet and cell phones didn’t exist in my realm of possibility. Developments in VR and 3D printing are just two examples of a new world being around the corner. We will not just need people who can build computer programs, we’ll also need translators – people who can express creative innovation in a language a computer can understand. We’ll need teachers who can inspire kids to try new things, tap into the infinite possibilities.

Oh boy! Another boy’s club!

Evidence suggests there is already a shortfall of people who can program and as jobs requiring programming skills increase while conventional education systems struggle to catch up, this shortfall will continue to increase. Not only that, other discrepancies exwoman-214786_960_720ist such as the disproportionate number of boys to girls that learn to code.  According to company diversity reports from 2015 women make up less than 20% of people employed in technology positions in the largest 10 tech companies based in the U.S.

Right through my education and beyond I’ve never taken an opportunity to learn code.  I’ve played computer games since the 90’s, I love tech and enjoy learning new things and it’s definitely a skillset I could utilise, but for some reason, up until recently it’s never really taken my interest. If I’m honest, it wasn’t because I was a girl and felt threatened in a man’s world, it was more that I saw it as too hard. I perceived computer programming as tedious and complex. Something that would take years to learn before I could see any results.

Breaking down the barriers.

binary-1327493_960_720My attitude toward code changed about a year ago when I heard a computer science teacher speak at a conference. I was engaged as soon as she asked us all to get our smartphones out because we were all about to become ‘coders’ in 15 minutes. Sure enough, the interactive lesson worked and I had created a simple animation on screen. This changed my focus from the process of programming to what I could create as the end result. It was there I realised I had perceived computer programming hard because I was treating it like science or maths rather than a language.  For me science and maths take a lot of effort and aren’t really something I’d do for fun.  However, languages are my thing, and code is an outlet for creativity. All of a sudden, I had the motivation to learn code.

In the past coding has been seen as an exclusive skill, accessible to a few nerdy tech geeks with nothing better to do than bury themselves in the computer.  As a result, many people, like me, tend to regard code as a less of a discipline and more of an arcane magic accessible to a select few. Silicon Valley and the media have created an image of the young lone wolf entrepreneur making his millions overnight with their latest innovation. People like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg provide credence to the myth. In more recent years, largely in response to the increasing shortage of skilled programmers, efforts have been made to demystify coding and encourage a wider and more diverse uptake. Online public learning platforms have been instrumental in making coding, or the ability to learn to code, more accessible. Since 2013, more than 140 million adults worldwide have downloaded a starter coding lesson from the industry-funded Hour of Code, a non-profit initiative that aims to increase access to coding skills.

Take an Hour to Code, I dare you!

Initiatives such as Hour of Code have done a lot to raise the profile of coding, rebranding the skill as a fun and creative endeavour that focuses on the creative output rather than a tedious and difficult process. For someone like me, who is closer to the code as magic level of understanding, the Hour of Code was a great way to introduce some basic concepts. In less than hour I’d built my own game that I could then share online with my friends. Granted the game was a simple pixelated knight who to score a point had to bounce in the right direction to hit the dragon flying in a repetitive loop. Simple and not about to launch my new career as a game developer, but fun and an effective way to introduce some simple basic concepts. Breaking down the activities into 10 simple ‘puzzles’ is a really effective way to provide the learner with some quick wins. As a result I enjoyed the experience enough to start working through the other courses offered from free from the site.

If you don’t have an hour, just take a minute.

Take a minute to google ‘learn code for free’ and you will be inundated with options. Skip the ones promising miraculous results in only a short time and look for the sites that offer a decent introduction to the world of code.

Code.org is a great place to start.