Since the advent of electricity, every generation has had to adapt to evolving technologies transforming the world around them. In 2014, this is especially true for those growing up in an “always-on”, digital-by-default environment. Never before have there been such great possibilities for digital engagement. But just consuming technology can only take Europe’s youth so far.
To extract their full potential, young people need to understand how new technologies work. Only then will they be able to fully understand the increasingly digital world they live in – and shape it to their liking. To do this, one of the things they will need to do is to learn code.
For years, learning to code has been thought of as peripheral, geeky or just too difficult. We can’t let false perceptions hold back Europe’s youth any longer. The reality is that coding can be as easy as learning algorithms through a game of playground hopscotch.
Digital skills are life skills. Learning to code teaches essential abilities such as computational and abstract thinking and it is just one of a wide range of digital competencies which can help Europe’s children grow their creativity, flexibility and problem-solving skills.
Nor is it just a question of greater personal proficiency.
Digital literacy is fast becoming the most sought-after asset in today’s labor market. 90% of all European jobs require some computer skills, and ICT specialist employment has grown by 4% in the last decade and a half. Despite this, there is a growing gap between the number of European ICT vacancies and the number of skilled workers available to fill them – a gap predicted to reach 900,000 unfilled positions by 2020.
And the application of these skills goes far beyond the tech industry.
Two-thirds of ICT jobs exist in non-ICT industries – from the manufacturing and automotive sectors, to healthcare and retail – and the transferable, creative skills learnt through coding are applicable across a range of professions. With young people today facing unparalleled levels of unemployment, supplying them with the right level of digital training can help them onto the job market and propel them into interesting and exciting careers, from developing apps to managing an online business.
Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet. In Europe’s schools, computer science is more often than not seen as marginal, instead of being considered a foundational subject, like languages, mathematics or science. Less than 15% of European students have access in school to the kind of high-level ICT teaching they need to develop collaboration, self-regulation and critical thinking.
Europe’s policymakers are already making great strides in tackling the issue. Countries such as England, Estonia and Greece are already instituting coding lessons into their national curricula. In France, President Hollande announced last month that the country would be implementing a new “grand digital plan” for education starting in school year 2016. And earlier this summer, the European Commission issued a joint letter from the Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes and Commissioner for Youth Androulla Vassiliou, calling for coding to become a core subject in all of Europe’s schools. But none of this can happen without industry support.
Empowering Europe’s young people by providing them with high-level digital skills is part of Microsoft’s commitment to helping youth build the future they want. When we launched Microsoft YouthSpark in 2012, we set out to create education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for 300 million young people over the course of three years. Working together with governments, businesses and more than 350 youth-serving nonprofit organizations, after two years we have created opportunities for 227 million young people in more than 100 countries.
As we enter the third year of the initiative, perhaps most importantly, we are expanding access to computer science education on a global scale. As technology has become an integral part of people’s daily lives in nearly all regions of the world, we’re seeing a growing demand – from students, parents, teachers, governments and nonprofits – to teach youth not only how to use technology, but also how to create technology….to become the innovators and drivers of growth and opportunity in their communities.
That’s why we’ve responded to the European Commission’s call by spearheading an industry-wide coalition which will act as a taskforce to promote coding education in schools across Europe. With our partners Liberty Global, SAP, Facebook, and Rovio, driven by European Schoolnet and supported by Code.org, we are launching a unique online platform in Europe to provide teachers and students with access to coding resources and training.
If our industry can provide such resources and show our support in a tangible way, young people’s digital curiosity will have a chance to flourish. Several Microsoft initiatives are already focused on tapping into young people’s digital creativity, whether they’re creating games with Kodu, a simple visual programming language, or taking part in the International Hour of Code – a challenge we’ve set in partnership with Code.org, to get 100 million students to try coding for just one hour.
Creativity thrives in collaborative environments – so for this year’s EU Code Week, we’ve brought together the national finalists of the European Kodu Kup, a new regional competition inspiring kids to take their first steps in coding by creating their own games. At the European Coding Camp here in Brussels, the eight teams have had the chance to hone their expertise and collaboration through coding challenges and eSkills trainings, working together for their chance to win big.
The world’s youngest citizens are the most digitally-savvy yet. They are naturally curious and enthusiastic about how technology can alter their lives for the better. We can’t let this go to waste. Policymakers, educators and industry – we all need to match this enthusiasm, by lending our support, our resources and our expertise.