Standing still in a changing world. The fight to keep BC's kids competitive in the age of code.

Before I get started, the usual disclosures. What follows is a personal political opinion and is not speaking on behalf of, or endorsed by, any organization I am associated with. 

The announcement.

If there was a theme to the recent BC Tech Summit, it was the cliche line, "These are not the doors of a billionaire Richard!", a quote from the hit TV show Silicon Valley. The summit, an $850 a ticket meetup for big business and the subsidy sector was seen as a failure by many tech observers.

The presentations varied between the worst qualities of Qualcomm's Born Mobile CES keynote and infomercials for Baron-IT products... and then the Premier's announcement speech talked more about how we should all be chasing the dream of owning a Ferrari, rather than promoting the ideals of a prosperous life involving family and civic duty. It was simultaneously insulting and cringeworthy in so many ways, but mostly it was just counter-productive -- big announcements on corporate welfare, foreign workers, and unicorn-mania all came off as a big screw-you to the revenue-generating and tax-paying small tech businesses and high-technology workers of BC.

There were a couple positive announcements in the mess however:

  1. 1. The BC Developers Exchange (DevX) is experimenting with more open and lightweight procurement models (which I'll cover another day in a separate post as the project launches)
  3. 2. Tech education for kids, and the promise that a mandatory curriculum in "code" will be embedded into the K-12 system.

The former DevX announcement was ignored by the media. I mean really, who in the MSM -- between the layoffs -- is going to take the time to parse what is potentially the largest government procurement shift in generations.

The code-for-kids controversy.

Code for Kids hit the MSM in a big way. Clark promised to educate kids in "code" and the BCTF reps were having none of it. A media storm erupted with comparisons to empty LNG commitments and the teachers were out on the radio slagging the idea. "Not everyone needs to learn to code" was even uttered by a prominent educator. The BC NDP jumped on board and criticized the premier for the announcement. They brought up the digital divide (a real problem, but presented as if every kid in BC was learning by candlelight)... and said it was evidence of why this plan was unfunded and unworkable.

To date, for clarity, the plan is simply this: We're going to teach kids to "code" in the existing K-12 system. Nothing more. Nothing less.

The usage of the word "code" in this context is carefully chosen. It's not synonymous with "programming" or "encypherment", but rather incorporates the same expanded deriviation of the word as you would find in "building code", "code of ethics" or "genetic code". It's a broad term that encapsulates all the foundations of digital literacy, of which programming is a very small, almost insignificant slice -- and thats why its such a buzzword right now.

In reaction to the controversy -- which I can only pin on a fear by teachers that they're all going to lose their jobs to a legion of web developers -- the Education minister put his foot in his mouth saying "You don’t actually have to be sitting in front of a computer to learn coding," .... "There’s lots of different ways to do that."

Now, the Minister isn't wrong, teaching coding has nothing to do with more screen time or the ability to download feature films on school internet backbones -- but as so often happens with statements made by people who actually know what they are talking about... it came off as idiotic and counter-intuitive. The NDP pounced:

"In response to the lack of funding behind the Christy Clark government’s commitment, the Minister of Education actually said, with a straight face, that students don’t need computers to learn computer coding. That is like telling a kid to learn to ride a bike without a bike."

This is where I started to get really grumpy. As an open-source programmer and a community advocate I spend so much of my time giving back and working on these issues -- I've spent years sitting on boards arguing over the structures for community investment programs, organizing Hackathons for kids, writing tech books, engaging in infrastructure research and connecting with civil servants and politicians in this space.

Occasionally we get through to both the politicians and the kids. 

Occasionally we can create millions in funding for non-profits. [Disclosure: I am on the Board of Directors for CIRA]

So to see BCTF and New Democrats pushing back against a long overdue commitment to teach code in our schools is upsetting to me and I suspect to the thousands of other folks trying to work on these key issues of digital literacy. I'm sure for the NDP, partisanship plays into it a bit, but this is not an issue to make a wedge of -- the outcome is simply just too important.

Getting to the bottom of things.

Not satisfied with the suggestion that our kids schools are candle-powered, I filed an FOI request to determine the actual state of affairs. I was trying to get to the bottom of just how many schools have computers and internet access in BC and was hoping to scope out the state of the digital divide. Are we tech-forward? WiFi-fearful? or are the kids really reading dead trees by candlelight?

This isn't my first attempt at tracking down the digital divide -- when the Connecting BC Agreement was launched I went looking for a Broadband Map of BC backbones and the state of our last mile availability. Long story short, the telecoms wouldn't share the information because -- and this is an epic policy failure -- they consider it confidential, proprietary information. Why is it confidential? Because a competitor might connect an area they don't serve!

My FOI request was filed with the province (Education, Premiers Office and MTICS) to have them produce their statistics on the digital divide in BC schools. I suspected the kids weren't out there reading by candlelight, but the extent to which the digital divide affects BC schools should have been illuminating.

The FOI request came back a few days later, well before the 30 days I had expected. It was an easy answer, all schools in BC have access to the Internet, but the number of computers in each school is not tracked by the province. There were no responsive records to the computers-in-schools portion of the request.

School District Autonomy

I was incredulous at the response -- how could the province not know how many computers are in our schools? This seems like basic stuff, and certainly core to any policy objective around digital literacy.

Turns out, there's a really good reason the province doesn't know this data -- the School Districts are autonomous in this regard. They're given a budget and expected to achieve outcomes, but are not otherwise monitored in how they achieve those outcomes. Provincial exams don't kick in until high-school and the province apparently cannot step on the toes of the districts.

There's a key policy change needed here, basic stats about the state of our province's education system should not be out of reach for our provincial ministries. An answer suggesting they don't track basic information should be scandalous, not considered collaborative with the school districts.

State of Computers in our schools.

I went searching on open sources for any evidence of computer levels in BC schools. Between globs of information about how schools, districts and neoluddistic parents had fought against Wifi and technology being introduced into our schools, I managed to find some info about our region.

In the context of reporting about upgrades to the SD63 school district, VicNews' Natalie North reported that there were some 2500 computers in the SD63 school district, and a 'typical school' like Stelley's had about 300 computers connecting to their server. Source.

Far from reading by candlelight, at least in Saanich, our kids have access to technology and should have no problem learning to code -- either in the lab or on the playground.

Unpacking Teaching Kids to "Code"

When the Education Minister says it doesn't take a computer to teach kids to code he's totally right. You don't seat a Kindergarten class in computer lab and tell them to follow along with the instructor. Instead, you upgrade hopscotch to teach computational literacy. A little later, you use a deck of cards to teach conditional logic. In later grades, you reconfigure the math classes to teach Boolean Algebra, De Morgan's laws, and Computational Logic... you teach Bayesian Algorithms, and how to make decisions using probabilities. You teach computational joins and set theory adjacent to existing education in Venn Diagrams. You teach digital citizenry and new media literacy in English class -- kids today don't need to learn formal memo writing, but they sure need to understand how to parse new media, evaluate a body of conflicting information and learn from online sources. They need to know how resume writing has transitioned into portfolio building, digital presence, networking and reputation. None of this has anything to do with screen time. It's about thousands of small changes to existing educational outcomes to create a curriculum supporting digital literacy. It's about teaching foundational understanding of the technology and digital culture that underpins our modern society.

Learning to "code" has nothing to do with learning HTML or JavaScript or any sort of vocational training in Java, C# or Python. If you think teaching code in K-12 exclusively or even majorly involves sitting students in a computer lab or teachers becoming developers, designers or engineers -- frankly you're doing it wrong and simply don't have a clue.

So where does one get started learning "code"? Well, is a good start ... Khan Academy, MediaSmarts, Maker Movement, Mozilla Webmaker, Lego Mindstorms, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and the list goes on. Don't even think about picking up a book on the programming language of the day.

The gender gap argument

Another criticism heard in opposition is that "code" is the domain of boys, focused on rockets and killer robots. But the reality is that these folks are just wrong. Girls more often outperform boys in digital literacy, and in-fact women even invented the field [see Ada Lovelace et al] -- but somewhere along the line this 'code is for boys' mythos emerged and has had disastrous social consequence. Think "code is for boys" and you need a stereotypical gender-targeted approach to break through the preconceptions? Try these options out...

Hour of Code - Frozen
Adafruit GEMMA V2

More importantly, History Class needs to teach girls about Ada Lovelace.

The curriculum

Teachers are also decrying the lack of a curriculum, but are, of course, also ignoring that if the province pushed one upon them they would be riotous about being told how to do their jobs. The province can set the high-level requirements and be accountable to competitiveness, digital literacy rates, etc... but our educators have to step up in order to implement the new commitments. They have to adapt to a changing world like the rest of us, and without the expectation of add-on funding and formal retraining -- the job is changing, but all our jobs are changing and teachers must adapt as well.

So where can educators find the curriculum? Well, an example can be found here and is a good start, but every community is different and integration into local priorities and learning outcomes will be key.

The money

So I hope I've established that our students are not learning by candlelight, and that learning code is not about spending time in the computer lab. What about the arguments about a lack of funding for this commitment?

I won't wade into the political minefield that is the BCTF vs Province relationship -- there's enough bad blood on both sides of that equation that to pick sides is impossible. One can't even wade into Districts vs the Ministries, after incidents like the OpenStudent debacle or some districts refusing to balance their budgets, the sector is a mess. No one holds the moral high ground.

What I can say is that there is money and resources available, at least in the NGO space. Most members of the Canadian tech sector are now involved in some level of community investment work, telecoms like Telus have massive community investment programs with money firmly aimed at bridging the digital divide. Small businesses are organizing around NGOs and are holding Hackthons and Hour-Of-Code meetups., khan and the like are offering free and open courses and curriculum to use.

So long story short, If you need computers for your school, get in touch -- there's a massive amount of NGO resources trying to help you, both with direct grant-funding and with time and human resources available to teach kids to code.

Why is "code" important / we're not all going to be computer programmers.

The final anti-argument goes something like "we're not all going to be computer programmers so we don't need teach kids to code, thats what college is for"....

We truly are entering the age of code -- not since the industrial revolution will the nature of work have changed as much over the course of a single generation. In the next few decades, if a job can be automated, it will be. If a job is a known commodity, it will be handled by the arbitrage of trade. Robots will self-assemble, reconfigure and create their own processes. Cars will eventually drive themselves. Mining, Biology and Finance will be robotic. Manufacturing and product creation will be bespoke, not institutional, and craft will dominate, spurred by the democratizing influence of technology. Even traditionally offline tradesmen, like mechanics and woodworkers now spend much of their time configuring flow-jet cutting machines, CNC milling machines, laser cutters and the like. Apple Farmers are now relying on tech to water and feed their orchards -- and this, not in some tech-forward experimental field, but found upon Gulf Islands like Gabriola. Traditional media is dying, replaced by new media. Traditional print and TV media personalities fail to achieve the readership of bloggers and Youtube stars -- ask your kids about Bethany Mota, Zoella and PewDiePie -- then take a look at their reach statistics. Podcasts like Serial garner up to a million unique listeners per episode. 

What all this means the language of work will change -- is changed. The ability to learn how to learn without being formally taught will be the most important skill-set for the coming generation. It's hard to explain the pace of this change, and its acceleration, but equipping the students of today for change is going to be the key to future competitiveness. Countries that teach kids "code" will lead the transition to the cognitive economy of tomorrow while countries that don't will find themselves uncompetitive in the new cognitive world.

"Code", therefore is the foundation of the new economy, and our kids better be ready for it. It's time to stop fighting change and pushing back against digital literacy. We must make this commitment a reality for every BC school and every BC student.