Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Hour of Code

On December 9th 2013 when the Amazing Grace Hopper would be 107 years young -
As mixed opinions pour in about this campaign (nothing can never really placate those critics), it makes us wonder what the Hour of Code is trying to achieve. Is coding knowledge really that important, or should the societal norms of division of labor continue and coding be left to the geek Gods? Yes technology has come a long ways since, but do we need to learn coding? Do we need to understand how the apps that do magical things like automatically fold laundry actually make it happen? This post is a personal reflection on the topic. You can choose to agree, disagree, read through or entirely ignore it.

Let me start by saying that so far I am not aware of an app that folds laundry, and second, the “smartness” of smart phones, tablets and much of what computers can do today is NOT magic. However, to someone born in the 80s, 70s or before, a lot of present day technology would seem fascinating. We know its not magic, its all very scientific, its a result of several logical steps put together to achieve a certain functionality. But to think we grew up in a time we relied heavily on postal service to stay connected, or paid $5/minute for a trunk call,  it is certainly awe-some be able to do a FaceTime  or Google Hangout, all for no charge.  We cannot help but marvel at the rapid technological advancement over the past 15 years.

For my 5y and 1.5yr olds however, issuing a print command from my phone to the printer over wifi, or streaming content from a tablet to the TV is quite the norm of day to day life. The marvels of technology as we may call them are things that they take for granted. Like them, most of the next generation - millennials and later - were born when the Internet was already mainstream or when the iPad was already invented. As such it is no surprise that they take these advancements for granted and end up being the natural consumers of technology that they are. Similar to how we took electricity for granted but most of our previous generation (at least in India) did not have electric connections till they were well into adulthood.

And so, for both those who marvel and those who take it for granted, it could be a good idea to create awareness about the inner workings of computers, the basis of almost all day-to-day technology, and set their notions right. When Grace Hopper was a child, she dismembered several alarm clocks in order to figure out how they work. It is quite fitting that the campaign that teaches us to break down computing similarly, is launched on Grace Hopper’s birthday. What could be a better tribute than creating widespread coding awareness in the honor of the “first lady of computing”.

While it is great that this initiative will demystify computer programming for many curious adults (like will.i.am or Ashton Kutcher), the larger point is that for young ones around the world, computer education needs to evolve as rapidly as the trends in computing. Education needs to be relevant as well as current. The US Department of Education coined the term STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to keep up with Technology education. A great concept, except that Technology in itself is a very broad term. I am not sure if “Technology” education should encompass Computer Science or keep it separate but it is important that education about computers become more mainstream. The challenge may be that there may not be enough educators in the field just yet. And so it may be worthwhile for leaders and experts in the field to start a campaign like the Hour of Code and make the T in STEM more meaningful.

I recently attended an open house at renowned and reasonably expensive private school in my neighborhood. It was going very well until they started to boast about how they were so technology focused that every kid grade 6 and above needs to have a MacBook and in lower grades a ChromeBook, but when I asked if they are introduced to programming or basic systems the answer that I got was that “we’ve recently installed a 3D printer” (in other words my question went unanswered with more boastful shallow statements). For the staff and students at this school, having the latest cool gadget is the same as being a technology focused school. They seemed of good intent so maybe they just lack the guidance or resources to impart computer education. I have heard similar concerns from parents of older children across the country. The Hour of Code is exactly the kind of thing that this, and many other schools across the world can benefit from. It was started by code.org which not only is committed to bringing computer education in schools but comprises of people with solid experience in the industry. It is a perfect example of how the world is more connected than it ever was before and how hungry everyone is for knowledge. It is fun, its a great exercise, it certainly teaches coding and who can’t relate to Angry Birds? Which is a brilliant use case by the way. I tried the first few puzzles with my 5yr old. She thoroughly enjoyed the game and was happy to “tell the computer” what you want it to do in a few simple steps.

That is the beauty of the Hour of Code. It is simple, elegant and to the point. As the debate about whether computer science should be taught to little kids in schools continues, I find it extremely exciting to work on the Hour of Code with my little Angry Birds fan, thereby hoping that she will learn to break down problems into smaller chunks, appreciate that it takes many steps for those Angry Birds to define their trajectory from catapult to green pig, and hopefully eventually learn not to get mad when the my phone occasionally fails to find the printer on the home wifi network.

So if you haven’t done your Hour of Coding yet, go ahead, give it a try.

Here’s to Grace Hopper!