Editorial: Computer programming in high school? Not for everyone

Published December 19, 2013 1:51 pm

Make programming an elective
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Should Utah students learn computer programming in high school? Maybe, but don't expect most of them to use it.

Software is everywhere. Computer programs govern our jobs, our money and our entertainment. They manage the crucial infrastructure to keep society running. That is behind the push by a state education task force to require all high school students to take an advanced computer course that includes some coding.

Like the law of cosines or the Magna Carta, coding is not something most people will specifically apply in their everyday lives, but it does make them more intellectually enriched.

What's important is that people learn the logic of computer programming, and learning a programming language is probably the best way to do that. High school students already get training in spreadsheets, which demand similar logic. Programming compiles those operations into higher level applications.

There are caveats. For one thing, computer languages are not timeless. Yes, people still use the venerable Fortran, a programming language invented in the 1950s, but most coders work in a constantly evolving environment. There is little guarantee that a student could practically apply the language learned in high school.

We also have a finite education system in a state that constantly battles its student-to-taxpayer ratio. Adding something like coding means eliminating, or at least reducing, something else. In this case, there is another task force recommending that Utah students learn more social studies instead, and that also produces the kind of well-rounded students who are prepared for lifelong learning.

And here's another challenge: coding teachers. Coders are in demand, and that may make it harder for education's salaries to compete. To meaningfully launch software programming instruction across Utah's 140 high schools would require qualified people, and not every science or information technology teacher is ready to step into that role.

That brings us to the best reason for coding class in high school: identifying and encouraging future coders. As Gov. Gary Herbert has noted, there are growing opportunities for high paying technology jobs that don't require four-year degrees. Coding is one of those.

But that doesn't have to mean another across-the-board requirement for busy students. Instead, the effort should be on making programming a more widely available elective. That will help many young minds discover the coder within.