21st century skills

Computational technology causes the world to change rapidly.

Almost 30 years ago I got my first job as a computer programmer. At the time, only larger companies with a big administrative overload used computers. Or rather, “a computer”, because it was rare for a company to have more than one. There were no personal computers, no Internet, no mobile phones. People still used typewriters.

In those 30 years, the way people work and live has undergone huge changes. That is exceptionally clear when looking at the kind of work that people do. Mailmen, for instance, delivered the mail twice per day when I was a kid — now they deliver mail twice per week, which means that the contingent of professional mailmen has been decimated. Bank offices are closed because banking can be done much easier online. Information desks can be manned by digital avatars or be replaced by online information systems. Large department stores go out of business because people make their purchases online, leading to an enormous decline in the need for having salespeople. And though this has currently caused a small increase in the demand for people who work in transportation, we can see self-driving cars on the horizon, replacing the need to have any chauffeurs at all.

These are all “low profile” jobs, but “high profile” jobs aren’t safe either. I have taught programming to professional journalists, who told me that computers are taking over large parts of their jobs, writing basic articles and doing automated background research — they wanted to take my courses because they realized that without skills in digital technology, they would be out of a job in a few years time. Programs have been developed that take over a menial but oh-so time consuming part of lawyers’ jobs, namely researching case histories. Computers can write music, produce paintings, and even sculpt — why would you have someone hammer away at a block of granite for six months when a 3D-printer can produce a sculpture with a few hours of work? Even designing and running scientific experiments has been offloaded to computers in some research domains.

In the 30 years in which I have been a professional worker, I have seen the job market change from hardly incorporating computers at all, to a situation in which the need for human employees has been reduced considerably — regardless the job. And that change has not come to an end yet.

This does not mean that there is no place for humans in the job market. It does mean, however, that only humans who can make contributions that a computer has a hard time making on its own, can be assured of a job. In the near future, employability will be invariably linked to the ability to integrate the power of humans and computers in a way that enhances both of them.

The problem is that to be able to use computers to improve the quality of one’s work, it does not suffice to be able to use a word processor or spreadsheet. One should actually be able to expand the capabilities of computers from the perspective of one’s chosen profession. For example, a journalist who can only run a fact-finding computer program that someone else wrote, is not needed. However, a journalist who is able to expand a fact-finding program so that it can come up with facts from new sources, is an asset.

To be able to employ computers in such a way, one needs the skills to think and solve problems like a computer programmer. Having taught students computer programming for many years, I know that this does not come naturally to most. To acquire the necessary skills, students need to spend several intensive courses on the topic.

Considering the fact that universities and colleges are supposed to prepare students for the job market in which they have to function for 40 or more years, and considering the fact that in the very near future (if not right now already) the ability to incorporate the power of computers in any job is a necessity to being a valued worker, one would expect that “computer programming” is one of the basic courses that any student needs to take. Unfortunately, it is not. Typically, basic required courses are “scientific writing”, “philosophy of science”, and “statistics”, but “computer programming” is still seen, by most education programs, as an optional skill. It is not.

In my view, any course program that does not make “computer programming” a required course, is doing its students a disservice, as it is not preparing them for the job market. Actually, I would prefer it if secondary, or even primary schools would incorporate such courses, as programming skills tend to be easier to learn at a younger age. The reason is that they need a particular way of creative thinking, which is harder to acquire when one is already used to solving problems in the reproductive ways that are normally taught at schools.

All students, regardless of their chosen topic, need to learn how to program. Not because we should raise a generation of computer programmers — professional programming is a specialization that only a few people need to be able to do. But the ability to create programs provides students with the skills to think and solve problems like a computer programmer, to gain insight in the possibilities and limitations of computers, and to leverage the power of computers in a particular domain in a uniquely human way.


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