Skilled for life: Why Coding and IT are imperative for today's children
A core part of our mission to empower every person on the planet is equipping young people with computational thinking and problem-solving skills to succeed in an increasingly digital world.
One of the ways we are supporting this is through our European partnership with CoderDojo. We are working to grow the reach of the organisation so that every child who wants to learn coding skills will get an opportunity to do so.
Last week at Microsoft we opened our doors for a unique CoderDojo mentor training event. This event was developed to respond to an urgent need that CoderDojo are experiencing in Ireland. Demand for places in existing coding clubs are so high that there are waiting lists in some places due to a shortage of Mentors.
This event was only one of many events and programmes run by Microsoft to help ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to acquire IT skills - from basic IT literacy to coding.
We're currently building up to the Global Hour of Code, which is running the week of December 7. We're offering to deliver a Microsoft Minecraft Hour of Code to as many primary schools who want to receive either in person or through Skype. We're looking forward to reaching as many schools as possible.
When you talk to children involved in dojo clubs, it reinforces how much they can learn at a young age. Many of these children who are coding and addressing real world challenges through their projects are already contributing in a meaningful way to society. Some are as young as seven years of age - they are doing complex coding, solving problems and creating apps - yet, really they are just having fun. The potential of what they will be able to do when they are 17, 27 or 77 is limitless.
The Government's Digital Strategy for Schools acknowledges the need to develop discreet ICT skills. When translating this strategy into policy, I think it's important that we reflect the benefits of exposing children to ICT at the youngest possible age. Research from Tufts University shows that children aged between four-and-a-half and six-and-a-half who took part in computer programming activities ended up with improved sequencing skills - something that will be of use to them no matter what career path they choose.
The Digital Strategy points out a number of opportunities for children to improve their ICT skills in the senior cycle, including through short courses in the Junior Cycle and in Transition Year. These are very welcome, but ideally the groundwork would be laid much earlier so that, rather than learning basic skills, senior level students can get on with executing complex technology-enabled projects and solving problems. As the strategy puts it, "the senior cycle should build on students' previous experience of digital learning through the curriculum at primary level and in the Junior Cycle".
The technology sector remains a very promising one for people looking to build a career. The IT skills gap which exists in Europe is profound, with the European Commission pointing to more than 800,000 vacancies by 2020.
For over two decades at Microsoft we have sought to utilise our skills to equip people in this country with ICT skills with industry-led partnership FIT (Fastrack into IT) to engage and support those who have become detached from the labour market.
In order to help address the issue of youth unemployment, in 2013 we worked with FIT to launch a bespoke programme called Youth2Work with an aim to educate and equip 10,000 young people over three years with technology skills which are in demand by employers. With an investment of €3m from Microsoft, the programme is ahead of its targets - with 7,800 young people trained and 2,200 in training. Moving into year three, the GAA has come on board as a partner and we are currently running a pilot project to introduce Youth2Work to communities in Cavan and Monaghan.
Some children are already learning how to code through participation in coding clubs, or because their school is progressive in this area. But not all. It is critically important that there is equality of access to skills and learning, otherwise there is a risk that the imbalance in our society is not necessarily financially determined, but rather it is skill-based.
Effective use of technology and coding throughout the curriculum will be vital to making sure that future generations can keep pace in an increasingly connected world. Integrating ICT into the teaching process, recording progress through digital portfolios and using technology to support assessment are all necessary measures addressed in the strategy. While making sure that the basic infrastructure is in place in all schools - namely, broadband and access to devices - we also need to support new and existing teachers in their professional development as they move to acquire IT skills and to incorporate technology into the classroom.
Progress is being made but the pace needs to quicken. There is inequity of access and this needs to be addressed. In the meantime, we believe industry has a role to play in sharing its skills, expertise and resources. Microsoft is committed to continuing to do this through our range of programmes, such as Innovation Teachers, Digital Schools, Youth2Work and through continuing to grow and invest in our strategic partnership with CoderDojo.
Microsoft supports the Hour of Code by offering every primary school in Ireland the chance to receive a Microsoft Minecraft Hour of Code. Log onto www.microsoft.ie/code for details