Encoding literacy

Is coding the new frontier of education for the next generation?

If anything indicates that children growing up in the 21st century are having a fundamentally different childhood to previous generations, it’s the rise of coding camps for kids.

Having recently just scraped through USyd’s infamous COMP2017 course, I was curious about how the abstract concepts of programming are taught to children as young as six. And so I decided to put myself through the same lessons as my eight-year-old cousin, who participates in an after school coding program.

My cousin is learning through a game called Coding Monkey, where students write instructions to make a monkey collect a certain number of bananas. The game reveals that coding is simply a set of written instructions, executed by a computer. It teaches children the importance of syntax before introducing them to problem solving.

For the first task, students use an online ruler to measure the distance between the monkey and the banana, and then instruct the monkey to ‘step’ that distance. As the game progresses, the kids consider new directions and angles, which in turn requires them to write more code. For instance, students have to make the monkey ‘turn’ around to face specific objects.

The game introduces children to computer science terminology. Early on, they learn about libraries, which are collections of built-in commands and functions like ‘SUM’ and ‘MEAN’ that execute specific instructions. As many computer science students would know, the hardest part isn’t learning all available libraries, but rather, how to apply the libraries to achieve a set goal.

And that’s where problem-solving skills kick in. Students can’t rely on being able to watch the monkey follow their code, and then continue on the next stage. Instead, their instructions must work one step at a time, carefully thought out ahead of time. Students have to visualise how the monkey can reach the banana—measuring angles, distances and directions— before they can write any code.

The program also gets students to rewrite sample code with incorrect logic, challenging them to think about the problem in more depth.

Rather than getting students to rote learn a concept, I was impressed with Coding Monkey’s ability to contextualise the mathematics and science involved in programming.

There are a number of other reported platforms that have been successful in introducing coding to beginners. Some coding camps involve programming robots out of Lego kits, while the Apple-based application ‘Swift’ is targeted towards adults and guides users to design their own apps.

Whatever the method used, we can be sure that we are at an interesting stage of the history of coding literacy. Annette Vee, assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, predicts that familiarity with coding will become as second nature as writing in her book Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing. She argues that coding will become a mainstream phenomenon, in the same way mass literacy developed in the late 19th century, and will one day become a mainstream subject taught outside Computer Science departments.

While current economical constraints and logistical hurdles make it difficult for the government to introduce coding programs in state-run schools at the moment, platforms like Coding Monkey are going a long way in democratising coding knowledge.