To code or not to code?

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To code or not to code?

Digital agency and the skills gap

In 2016, Deloitte Centre for the Edge and Geelong Grammar School hosted a series of roundtables looking into digital skills and the challenges of the digital workplace. The project that emerged from those roundtables took over three years to peel back layers of assumptions to discover that it’s likely that our graduates are suffering from a lack of discernment, rather than a lack of digital skills.

The project generated three reports, which you can find below, each capturing the findings at a particular stage of the project.

The research highlights that while digital skills, knowing how to use digital tools, are important, knowing when and why to use them is more important. The problem many workers experience is not a lack of skill in how digital tools are intended to be used, but a lack of judgement of when it is appropriate to use digital tools. The solution, then, is not teaching graduates more digital skills, but to foster in them the predilections, attitudes and behaviors, that enable them to understand how to productively integrate these tools into their work and the workplace.

The good news is that this does not require us to ‘blow up’ the current education system—it’s a subtle change. We need to go into non-digital subjects in existing curricula and ‘reframe’ them, tweaking learning plans so that the students are situated in a digital workplace that presents them with an open problem to solve and access to a range of digital tools with which to solve the problem. It’s not a question of changing curricula, but one of changing how we enact them.

Digital agency and the skills gap

The concluding report from the project, which pulls together the results from across the project to provide an overview of the journey and the findings.

The report provides a view of project’s journey, from the initial provocation through the roundtables, the more recent workshops, to the development of the project’s conclusions.

Revisiting the concept of learned helplessness, the report shows how the solution to learned helplessness is not to teach students more digital skills, but to foster their digital agency, their capacity to act independently and make their own free choices in the digital workplace. The concept of digital natives is explored in light of what the project discovered, resulting in a new model of digital competence in the workplace the identifies four archetypes: the digital naïf, digital pragmatist, digital explorer, and digital evangelist.

Finally, the report develops a progression capturing how one’s digital agency changes over time, and explores how digital agency might be fostered in both students and workers, and the changes this implies.

Digital agency and the skills gap

From coding to competence

The second report drilled into the findings from the round tables. It was clear after that first report that “should everyone learn how to code” was the wrong question to be asking.

This report unpacks the concept of learned helplessness highlighted in the report. Drawing on Centre for the Edge’s work on how our relationship with technology is changing, the report shows how learned helplessness is likely not due to a lack of skills. We’ve transitioned from workplace that includes digital tools, to one that is defined by them. Many of these tools formalise decisions in algorithms and then automate them. The result are tools that are more than mere instruments, as they have a degree of autonomy and agency. Nor are they ‘digital humans’ though, as their autonomy and agency is limited. They’re something in between.

The report synthesises a new set of ‘digital attributes’ for the worker. It acknowledges that existing terms of art such as digital literacy and digital competence are suitcase terms, terms that have a diverse set of meanings and concepts packed into them. Then it introduces the concept of a predilection a bundle of attitudes and behaviours to capture how we relate to and interact with these new digital tools. Finally, it refines how the project uses ‘literacy’ and ‘ability’ to provide the following attributes of the digital worker:

  • Digital literacy: a worker’s understanding of the language digital media in the workplace, such as how to interact with laptops or tablets
  • Digital abilities: the knowledge and skills required to use particular digital tools
  • Digital predilections: the attitudes and behaviours that the worker uses to integrate digital tools with their work habits, and to navigate the digital workplace.
From coding to competence

To code or not to code, is that the question?

The first report in the series, discussing the impetus for the project as well as the methodology and results of the national series of roundtables that started the project.

Rather than react to the urge to “teach everyone how to code”, refining the definition of ‘coding’ and ‘digital literacy’ to creating something teachable. Instead, the project chose to unpack the phase to find the intent behind it.

Two findings emerged from the round tables. First, that “everyone should learn how to code” should be interpreted as a desire to equip students with the skills and dispositions to enable them to make the best use of digital technology in their work, which may or may not involve ‘coding’. Second, that a short, compulsory introduction would be beneficial as a way of demystifying coding, as it was seen as something of a black art.

Published: October 2019

To code or not to code, is that the question?
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