Is it necessary to teach poor kids to code?

Coders_Dieter Telemans_Panos
Copyright: Dieter Telemans/Panos

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Idit Harel got something of a hostile reception when she announced to a room full of social entrepreneurs that it is necessary to teach kids in poor countries to code. “Coding is the new writing,” she said.

The response was indignant from most of the entrepreneurs assembled yesterday for a session on technology in education at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, United Kingdom. You’re suggesting that, for the poorest kids who can’t even read, we should be prioritising teaching them how to code? was the sentiment of many.

I, for one, couldn’t believe Harel, who runs an education firm called Globaloria, would equate coding with writing. But when I asked her about it later on, she told me she had meant what she said. And after a chat over coffee later, she had me just about convinced she was right — although I might disagree over a few semantic points.

“People assume that you have to have the 3Rs [reading, writing and arithmetic] before you get to what I call the 3Xs: exploration, exchange and expression,” Harel said. “But that’s not the case.”

Harel said she knew this through her experience with Globaloria, which she founded. The firm gets children to play computer games before showing them how to begin modifying the game — for example changing the colours on their character — using computer code. Often the kids can’t read well, if at all, Harel explained, but they get engrossed in tinkering with the game world and, in the process, they begin to pick up more traditional literacy, too.

It sounded incredible to me that kids could do this without being able to read, but Harel has a bundle of evaluations that she claims prove the approach works.

People assume that you have to have the 3Rs before the 3Xs: exploration, exchange and expression. But that’s not the case.

Idit Harel, Globaloria

Globaloria operates in poor communities in the United States where many kids are illiterate. Several of the entrepreneurs at the Skoll World Forum pointed out the difference between this setting and much of the developing world, where laptops and internet connections are absent. Harel later admitted she did not think her approach could be used in the poorest countries, but insisted there are many nations where it could and should be applied.

Felipe Spath, a Colombian entrepreneur who attended the session, agreed. Spath co-founded Th1nk, an organisation that provides educational technology in rural areas of his country. He explained that many poor children have access to laptops and quickly learn how to use them without much traditional education.

A delegate from Tanzania said she had shown a number of girls in her locality how to open and start up a laptop. Within five days, these children were able to comment on news articles online, she told the forum.

This, Harel told me, is the point. When children gain basic computer literacy they can read and comment on articles and understand that someone might actually reply to them. And it’s not such a grand leap from this to starting up a blog or building an online campaign that enables them to make their opinions heard. Without these skills developing world kids are confined to an adulthood shut out of online discussions, Harel said.

It sounds compelling, but it was at this point that I started wondering how far Harel’s vision tallies with her “coding is the new writing” marshalling call.

If you want to be able to write, you need to understand a whole language. But if you just want to be able to make your voice heard online, you arguably only need to understand a few principles and tricks of coding — say how to embed media content in your personal blog or switch its fonts.

When I put this to Harel she agreed. It’s not about being a coding expert but rather understanding enough so that you can participate, she told me.

So was it perhaps semantic differences that prompted the hostile reception she received from the entrepreneurs? If so that’s a shame. The insight that the ‘3Rs’ don’t necessarily have to come before the ‘3Xs’ is a fascinating one — and probably something the development community should start thinking about.