Money for old code?

Friday 15 March 2013 15.42
To teach or not to teach Code in school?
To teach or not to teach Code in school?

The argument in favour of teaching code in schools is more complicated than first appears, writes Niall Kitson.

Seeing as its Seachtain (Coicis?) na Gaeilge I got thinking about the future of the Irish language in the 21st century. In particular, I remembered a study sent by pan-European research body Meta-Net, that listed Irish as one of 21 European languages at risk of ‘digital extinction’ owing to its poor footprint, with support for Irish across areas such as the availability of speech and text resources rated 'fragmentary' or 'weak'. Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, if a language can’t be found on a mainstream website, is it dead? Even more pertinent, in the context of a knowledge economy can the state afford to make compulsory a minority language at the expense of equipping students with a modern, commercially relevant skill set. Is it acceptable that a knowledge economy suffering a skills gap be saddled with another generation of kids struggling with Irish grammar when Google is crying out for developers with knowledge of HTML 5, CSS etc etc?

It’s Commerce versus Culture; C+ versus the modh coinniollach.

The case for dropping Irish (or at least making it an optional subject) is compelling. According to a report in BusinessInsider.net, Ireland leads Europe in terms of reliance on the tech sector. An average of 7.2% of the workforce is employed by a technology company, a figure rising to 9% in the South and East. The arrival of Facebook and Twitter, along with stalwarts Mircosoft and Apple, are contributing to the creation of so many jobs that the EU has stepped in with a plan to fill the estimated 900,000 unfilled tech vacancies across Europe come 2015.

The pragmatic view of education would be to get as many qualified candidates on the market as quickly as possible - even if it requires disrupting existing teaching methods or the national curriculum. With Government committing to providing 100Mb/s broadband to schools around the country the infrastructure is in place to encourage the adoption technology-reliant teaching styles, getting children used to using ICT at a young age in a way that mirrors what they already do at home and online. With after-school clubs like the CoderDojo movement operating in 23 countries (70 in Ireland alone) it's clear the appetite to learn programming. Compare and contrast with the Irish language today, spoken by a minority and useful only as a requirement for public sector jobs.

So, out with the Tóraíocht and in with apps? If only it were that simple. In fact, one reason Code should not be taught in schools comes down to the question of what code to teach and how long it will be in common use.

According to a survey from Micro Focus, current trends in technology - particularly the rise of mobile apps and operating systems- has seen some computer languages verge on obsolescence, despite their immense commercial potential. Taking the example of COBOL, the survey of 119 third level institutions found faculties were ditching the language in favour of contemporary options like Java, C++ and C#. This is despite COBOL's prevalence in software used by the financial services sector and projected 10-year lifespan. Some 73% of educators surveyed said they had no plans to teach courses on legacy languages despite 71% admitting there was life in COBOL yet.

As for students, Micro Focus found that educators thought 39% of their charges considered COBOL uncool, 13% thought it had been phased out completely and 15% probably hadn't heard of it at all - this for a programming language that has been around for just over 50 years.

Similarly, programmes developed with languages on the brink of obsolescence will be faced with the 'bit rot' problem where the ability to support software will be become a valuable skill - particularly as the number of legacy systems in operation expands.

Drawing parallels between COBOL and Irish may seem frivolous but there are some commonalities. Unfortunately for COBOL, or any kind of code, it will never have the same cultural importance or resonance. Code does not help define a culture, a nation or bind a people together. Code’s lifespan is limited by commerce, language by the will of the people it serves. For these reasons Irish should not lose its position in the education system, but if subjects like Woodwork, Business Organisation, Art and Technical Drawing are provided then Code must be introduced.

Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie