Coding for capitalism

College dropouts seem to be setting the tone for education.

Trent M. Kays

Last year, Code Academy challenged Internet users to learn coding. Over one year, inexperienced users could become capable coders. The Code Academy courses were weekly lessons of reading, watching and emulating. These courses were not engaging or intellectually deep; they were utilitarian.

The premise behind Code Academy’s 2012 Code Year is that anyone can and should learn how to code, and Code Academy is the place to learn it. Unfortunately, the arguments surrounding coding as a digital literacy are often colored with hyperbole. Both the proponents and opponents of coding as digital literacy run the gamut of fiery and passionate opinions. Often, these opinions seem to be all or nothing; there is little room for middle ground.

The lack of middle ground stems from a fervent ideology that programming, coding and other computer languages are the ultimate future. These languages are the only way to truly understand the technology influencing our lives. While my attitude on many aspects of education is stained with certain zealotry, it does not extend to coding. This isn’t to suggest that coding is not valuable, but just like math, drama, biology and history, coding isn’t for
everyone.

My experience with coding is uninspiring. I’ve tried to learn how to code by participating in the 2012 Code Year, and I dropped out after a few weeks. Unfortunately, the type of learning Code Academy required wasn’t accessible enough for me. Call me old-fashioned, but I like having direct access to an instructor. I like being able to turn to or email one of my course mates for help. In addition, the lessons felt too fast; there was no room for reflection. If you fell behind, there wasn’t much you could do.

Code Academy serves specific types of learners, which is OK, but let’s not pretend everyone can and should code. This type of technoutopianism is dangerous and foolhardy. I laud anyone who wants to learn to code, and I think programming languages should be offered in high school as electives. Perhaps these languages could even be a part of foreign language options. Instead of taking French, a high school freshman could take C++ or Java. However, such languages shouldn’t be forced on any student. It takes a certain type of thinker to program.

Despite the dangers of technoutopianism, capitalists, billionaires and luminaries incessantly bombard us with the same message: Coding will save us. It will save our children from digital ignorance. It will save us from an uncertain future. It will save us from unemployment. It will save us from everything, except the boogeyman. Wanting to save us, another organization has seized this moment to proselytize: code.org.

Code.org is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “growing computer programming education.” As an educator, I support this statement. While this organization is dedicated — in their way — to education, there’s something else driving this push for ubiquitous coding knowledge.

Facebook, Microsoft and other technology giants need more programmers. With the support of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and others like them, code.org seeks to provide those programmers. These directives are disheartening. In their way, people who know nothing about education are setting the tone of public education in the U.S. While imperative for people of varying experiences to comment on education, there’s more at work than the simple omission of a coding course.

Just like in many other industries, technology industry leaders want more people to help make them wealthier. Thus, they direct educational institutions and organizations to make the skills they want available to students. Directing might be a strong word, but what else would you call it when you put your entire financial authority behind something? It’s hard to ignore.

Importantly, though, one doesn’t need to know how to code to be digitally literate. Digital literacy is the ability to understand online social connections, to interact fluently with computers and Internet tools and to understand the global ramifications of interconnectedness. People don’t need to know how to repair a car engine in order to drive the car. Similarly, you don’t need to know how to print and bind a book in order to appreciate and read one.

Digital literacy is something that is needed for people to productively use the Internet. The ability to code isn’t required to understand the Internet, computers or any other 21st century tool. It is, however, required if we want to construct some things on the Internet. Indeed, technology industry leaders should be commended for their passion in arguing for coding in public education. It’s worthwhile to make learning to code available to anyone who wants it.

But only 40 percent of the global population is online; yet, the big push from corporations that could make a difference is to code. What about expanding Internet access globally? What about strengthening the network in rural areas? What about working on a national Wi-Fi network? All these things are more important and needed before a coding utopia is realized.

Everyone should have a chance to learn. If you’re good at coding, that’s great. If you’re not, that’s fine, too. We should focus on the interests of individuals — not the wants and needs of capitalists and their corporations.