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Coding is not a magic bullet

By Faisal Kidwai | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2018-11-08 10:04
Pupils learn robot programming in Yi'an District of Tongling, east China's Anhui Province, July 19, 2018. [Photo/Xinhua]

Robots will take over our jobs, all manual work will disappear, only the highly skilled will stand a chance in the employment market of the not-so-distant future. These are some of the dire warnings experts are issuing.

If this is the future, then what's the solution? One solution many are offering is to start teaching computer programming to children as early as possible, as coding is where future jobs lie. But are they right? Proponents say learning to code has many advantages. First, it boosts self-confidence, as computer programming is considered tough to grasp. Second, it improves critical thinking and computational skills. Third, learning coding enhances creativity. And last, knowledge of computer programming will make future generations employable in a marketplace with no space for low-skilled workers.

It goes without saying all children should be encouraged to take up activities that improve career growth, boost critical thinking and creativity. It is also true computers are playing a much bigger role in our lives. But the key question is, should we give preference to Python and C# over other subjects? Even if all children learn coding, what's the guarantee they will find jobs? After all, it is quite possible tomorrow we might make programmers redundant by creating a program that codes. Given the advances we are making in artificial intelligence, this scenario is not out of the realm of possibility.

Another crucial point missed by many advocates of coding is human beings are very adaptable. It wasn't very long ago people used to travel by boats and horse-drawn carriages, but then motor vehicles came and changed transportation forever. The advent of cars and trains did leave many unemployed, but other job opportunities opened up. Moreover, computers are not the first machines that have threatened to make other technologies outdated, although they do pose the biggest threat both in scale and impact.

So the solution is not to herd all children toward computer programming. What both public and private sectors should do is take a comprehensive view and implement policies that broaden children's horizons.

For starters, governments and companies should provide access to computers to as many children as possible, especially in schools. While many countries have made great strides in this area, including China, there are still many students around the world who do not have access either to computers or internet. Bridging this digital divide, which is also incidentally the theme of a sub-forum of the fifth World Internet Conference, is of utmost importance if we want to arm children with the tools they need to thrive in the future.

We also should increase the number of girls enrolling in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as these subjects open doors to high-paying jobs. Although women have played a pioneering role in the technology world, such as reportedly world's first computer programmer Ada Lovelace and the creator of many video games Zoe Quinn, representation lags behind their male counterparts in this industry.

And finally, schools should encourage students to experiment, think out of the box, take risks and worry less about scores. There are innumerable examples of people who did not do well in school but went on to achieve great things. Exams should not be the be-all and end-all. Plus, it is wrong to assume only those children who excel in math or science are analytical. A student of language or fine arts can be as sharp as a student of computer science. A good example is linguist Noam Chomsky, who did not major in any STEM subject but has one of the sharpest and most analytical minds in the world.

Therefore instead of treating computer programming as something that will open all the doors in the future, the focus should be to provide the best tools possible to children and then let them decide their own path. At the end of the day, this is all parents and teachers can do.

The author is a journalist with more than 18 years experience in media.

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