Making creators of the digital world

Barely a week passes without mention of how artificial intelligence will transform our lives. Self-driving cars will make taxis a thing of the past according to some pundits. Computer-generated news stories will replace journalists, as is already happening in some particularly formulaic corners of the press. Even banking is seeing the spread of AI into investment decisions, loan approvals, and trading.

So, what are we supposed to do if the careful craft of journalism, or the experienced decision-making of banking, are at risk of automation? After all, they are hardly like the professions that have traditionally been at risk from technology: jobs in factories or warehouses.

The answer seems to be, for anyone preparing for work in the future, to focus on creativity. As much as a computer can learn to recognise a pedestrian about to cross the road, algorithmically identify an investment opportunity, or rehash the key points of a financial story or sports game, it is unlikely that the kind of artificial intelligence that we will develop will be able to truly think in the way a human does, and it is unlikely that it will be able to exercise the kind of creativity that the human mind can express.

Creativity will be the key to being prepared for the future. The ability to come up with something new, to communicate and emphasise with people, and to solve complex problems that defy the logic of a computer, will be the defining skills that will only grow in importance over the coming years.

But with computing permeating society, the meaning of creativity is also changing. The ability to think computationally, to translate problems from the analogue to the digital, is something that is essential for everyone to learn.

Here’s the problem though. Paradoxically, in a digitising world, we are facing shortages of young people with science, technology, engineering and maths skills. These essential STEM skills are the tools that we need to equip young people with, to succeed in creating the future. If we don’t address this, we will be failing to give tomorrow’s workers the fundamental skills they will need to face the challenges that artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the proliferation of devices, present.

So, if computing is so important, what do we need to do to give young people the right skills? This week is EU Code Week, and it is true that coding is one part of the answer. Knowing how to control a computer and take advantage of the myriad possibilities it offers is important. But just learning how to write a program in Python, or make an interactive website with HTML and JavaScript, isn’t enough.

There’s an exercise that some ICT teachers use to help kids understand how instructions need to be given to a computer. The teacher becomes a robot, and the pupils have to direct it to make a sandwich.

Nothing in this example involves coding, but everything in it is relevant to the way that computers work, and how you need to think about things before setting cursor to screen. Computational thinking means understanding the way that computers work through problems. It is a fundamental part of computing, and the key to learning how to perform that translation from analogue to digital that will be such an integral element of creativity in the future.

“Computing is valued as a subject that contributes to the intellectual and personal development of young people: it stimulates creativity, critical and logical thinking, problem solving, and facilitates understanding of how digital technologies function. In other words, computing transforms students from consumers to creators of the digital world.”

–‘Creating the Future’, ECDL Foundation, 2017

The basic fact of learning anything complex is that it needs to be broken down into understandable parts. Just learning coding, just learning computational thinking, or just learning basic digital literacy skills like working with files and folders, are all, on their own, insufficient. A well-rounded digital education brings all of these elements together, and prepares young people for the challenges that tomorrow’s workforce will face.

Find out about ECDL Foundation’s Computing module on our website

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