To prepare humanity for the next 100 years, we need more of our children to learn computer programming skills, regardless of their future profession. Along with reading and writing, the ability to program is going to define what an educated person is.” — Salman Khan, Founder, Khan Academy
It’s simple: our lives are becoming digital at an accelerating rate. Rather than just consuming technology, it is critical that we teach the next generation to create with technology.
Coding is not only for those who dream of becoming software developers or IT specialists. It is for every person who works, creates, shops, or completes any task online. Basic coding literacy helps kids engage with their technical environment in any capacity.
VPLs and TPLs
First, how do we define code? The two major languages are visual programming languages (VPLs) and textual programming languages (TPLs).
- Words and numbers
- A written approach to logic
- Visual cues
- A graphics-based approach to logic
- Code blocks
Computer engineers work with TPLs and favor their high level of customization. Through TPLs, engineers build websites, software, mobile applications, machine learning modules, and more. The creative scope is unlimited.
But most engineers agree that learning the characters and symbols of a programming language is not the end of the journey. Speaking a language is not enough: you need to learn how to communicate your ideas. When coding, the engineer communicates ideas using complex skills like logic and computational thinking.
VPLs ask the question “what-to-do” rather than “how-to-do” and offer relative ease for the developer. The author is allowed to use logic and computational thinking to solve a problem rather than waste resources remembering the programming languages’ syntax intricacies. Simple-to-follow arrows and other symbols guide the developer, with no prior coding knowledge needed.
Visual programming languages are a visual representation of a text-based language, meaning someone had to code the blocks that the block-coder uses. With visual-based programming, the creativity is bounded by the blocks pre-programmed by the block code author.
Whether teaching a 5 year old or a university student, visual coding is the language of choice. VPLs are a standard place to start coding for kids but are also valuable programming languages within themselves. While some VPLs, like block code, may be seen as acceptable only for a beginner or as a stepping stone to “real coding,” the truth is in the code: VPLs are a vital player in the future of coding.
A vision for visual coding languages
While operating a computer used to require a PhD, now a 4-year-old can expertly scroll through an iPad, accessing games and programs in the blink of an eye. Just as we no longer require advanced education to operate our Internet, our kids do not require advanced coding skills to achieve computer literacy. The demand for text-based programming is not disappearing any time soon, but for the average person, VPLs are a perfect coding language.
Some key benefits to VPL include:
- Faster Development Time: The language is quick, simple, and smooth. The author can communicate ideas quickly without needing to worry about a forgotten semicolon. This enables diverse professionals to use code to complement their expertise, rather than be their expertise.
- Great for Beginners: The graphics-based language simplifies programming to its essentials, removing the preconceived idea that programming is outright hard to understand and even more challenging to master.
- Simple Relationship Building: Imagine a manufacturing plant that uses robots. The robots would need to be programmed, and teaching manufacturing employees block code is the most efficient way. VPLs do not require hundreds of code lines — nearly eliminating the time and expertise needed for debugging.
How are VPLs used in the “real world”? LabVIEW is a visual-based language used by professional research labs all over the world. Similar to the more well-known Scratch, LabView uses visual representations of important concepts like loops, if/else logic, variables, and functions. LabVIEW controls intricate and expensive equipment, helping researchers collect complex data with extreme levels of precision and accuracy. You could not call this one an amateur program! A lab-technician does not want to worry about forgetting a semicolon or bracket: VPLs are easy to visualize and edit without having to worry about the syntax. Researchers, and many others, simply need something that can do the job, and do it fast.
Similar to researchers, as most professions continue to delve more and more into the tech world, a new cohort of users (doctors, plumbers, construction managers, etc) will be required to understand and use some form of code. They will likely not use TPLs and instead favor the simpler VPL, a format more appropriate for their needs. And “simpler” does not necessarily mean “less valuable.” Professionals will use block code to perform complex tasks, like surgeries, repairs, and equipment operations.
How will future doctors, plumbers, and construction managers develop the desire to code? Introducing VPLs early and often in schools will allow students to interact and create their own content. Taking an active approach to teaching computer literacy and computational thinking through VPLs can help motivate students to want to continue learning and using code. Specialized to their curricula, kids will walk away with several advantages, including desire to learn more, commitment to computer literacy, and enthusiasm for coding, all while having fun in the process.
Anyone can learn to code!
Teaching kids to code in a way that is accessible, simple, and enjoyable is crucial to the development of future technology.
“We must work diligently to democratize computer science learning so that no group is denied access to this fundamental knowledge. Not only is this an issue of civil rights, but computer science as a field desperately needs diverse and multiple perspectives.” — Jane Margolis, Senior Researcher and Author, UCLA.
The first step in democratization is lowering the barrier to entry so that more people can conceptualize and create. VPLs encourage that accessibility through simple, user-friendly interfaces. Computer science, a field historically available only to the privileged elite, can be accessible to everyone. Every profession will benefit from a rising generation who is confident in engaging deeply with technology.