In January 2018, Mounir Mahjoubi, the French Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, was determined to promote computer programming education for children. At the beginning of January, he cited a plan for a coding test at the baccalaureate level. The goal was not to groom experts, but simply to familiarize the majority of students with the fundamentals of programming, since they’re likely to be confronted with coding later on in life. The proposition immediately sparked debate, both in its substance and in pedagogy. 

Sphero, learning by playing

The first response, in physical form, comes from the United States. Sphero, a company launched in 2010 in Denver, Colorado, is trying to make programming attractive to children. More than 20,000 schools are already using the company’s products to teach coding basics to their students. In 2018, having launched several games with robotic elements and coding opportunities, the startup created Sphero Bolt. A newer evolution of a preexisting model, the sphere is controlled by an app, explained cofounder Adam Wilson to VentureBeat. “You don’t have to program if you don’t want to – we encourage you to play around with the products – but there’s a stronger programming dimension with Bolt (compared with other products).” Another novelty: Bolt is also equipped with infrared sensors allowing several spheres to communicate with one another.

Physically, Sphero Bolt is a sealed plastic sphere with an array of sensors, like an accelerometer, a magnetometer, and a gyroscope, allowing it to control and measure speed and direction. This control comes from a smartphone or tablet app linked to the sphere via Bluetooth. That’s what gives it the “programming dimension” cited by its creator and in a publicity video. On the sphere, a screen made of 64 LEDs gives you the power to program different shapes, but also to indicate if a task was correctly executed by the “programmer” – with a smiley face, for example. 

Its educational potential is being recognized in the US. It was at the request of teachers that Sphero gave Bolt a more autonomous battery. That allows them to use the tool all day long, and to equip it with several applications. 

A discipline with detractors

In France, teaching programming to children has very vocal opponents. Laurent Alexandre, an AI specialist, says that to be a “low-end coder would be a passport to unemployment.” According to him, that’s the ultimate end of generalized coding education. Specialists, or talent developers, will not have learned coding at school, but rather in specialized trainings after getting an education focused on “very high-level multidisciplinary minds.” Laurent Alexandre believes that coding is not just a new language one can acquire, because while everyone can become bilingual with enough work, not everyone can become a master coder. For him, the role of the school is to introduce basic digital culture, but more so to mold critical minds capable of understanding and contextualizing technological and artificial intelligence progress. It will be artificial intelligence, after all, that someday soon will be coding basic applications and software for us. 

That point is precisely what interests Chris Wanstrath, CEO of GitHub. According to him, the idea is not just dangerous, it’s downright useless to try to teach coding to an entire generation when “the future of coding is not code at all,” he said, as IDG Connect reports. The man who once worked toward teaching and sharing code with his platform now believes that “autonomous (programming) is a very real thing.” Future software developers are going to have to develop a new set of skills.

The benefits of coding

But until then, what? Political leaders and a number of digital players believe that learning to code helps to define one as a citizen. “Very early on, children have to understand what data is, how it’s stored, how it’s transferred, modified, deleted,” Mounir Mahjoubi said in January. The underlying question is: how can we really understand the new General Data Protection Regulation or become trained in cybersecurity, for example, if we don’t understand the data? More than just understanding the world, learning programming comes with two considerable advantages. On one hand, it allows us to insert ourselves in the work force, and on the other to develop a complex intellectual architecture. A torchbearer for these ideas is the NGO Code.org, which used testimonies by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates for a video advocating generalized coding education.

Charlotte Bottemane is all in. The Ironhack school’s growth manager explains to the site Les Numériques that “coding is an intelligence, a manner of reflection. It’s a way to become proficient in digital. It’s also a way to open up to a new economy.” Learning to code means learning to think in a certain way, to appropriate a logic that, even for someone who isn’t destined for a career in programming, will leave you better able to enter the job market. In short, the rigor needed to write lines of code can only be seen as a positive by companies. Moreover, learning to code gives you the chance to be a player in a world caught in a digital revolution. “Knowing how to program or to code means knowing how to create Internet pages, apps, software, pilot robots, machines, cars, trains, tools,” says Sophie Hirat, market director of education at Econocom. Using this idea, private companies are encouraging coding education. They stand to benefit from an increased pool of coders, but also from informed decision makers, an even more valued asset nowadays. 

With what tools?

Numerous schools for teaching coding to children (and to adults) have been established in recent years. It was necessary to develop new tools. Internet sites and apps dedicated to coding emerged, aiming to make learning code more progressive, even fun. France Culture reported several initiatives specially designed for teaching coding to children. Among them is Magic Makers, which claims they can make children have fun learning code by helping them create video games, stories or robots. And there are “coding snacks” to make it more attractive.

Teachers can also make use of more tangible tools, such as the Sphero Bolt, but also the creations of the French company Speechi, namely catapulting robots and robot centipedes. Thierry Klein, creator of Speechi, explains in a Ted Talk: “For 15 years, schools have tried to teach children how to use digital technologies […] but they haven’t taught them how machines are programmed, designed, developed, imagined.” According to him, schools should teach programming so that children will be able to understand the principles that infuse society today. The robots, then, are designed to make the approach to programming more fun and accessible. Depending on what the children do, for example, a robot dog will move or not move.

The trend seems to point toward teaching coding in school. Knowing how to code, in addition to padding a resume, helps one to form an intellectual architecture and a civil conscience adapted to the modern world. To this end, teachers have more and more innovative tools at their disposal to make the learning fun.