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Let’s not make this coding debate the B.C. government’s new LNG strategy

Christy Clark's government just announced its promise that every K-12 student in British Columbia will get the opportunity to learn coding, part of the larger #BCTECH Strategy unveiled at a flashy summit this past Monday.

Looking past the pearly-white photo-ops and hand-shaking stiff shirts, one can quickly figure out that it is the B.C. Liberal government's good ol' party trick of yet another comprehensive job-creation strategy to gain political points for the next election.

In 2014, the Clark government created the Skills for Jobs blueprint and, because the prospects for liquefied natural gas remain uncertain at best, we now have its stepsister – the #BCTECH Strategy.

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As a British Columbian, I think that we citizens are all for ensuring we have an economically vibrant province. But could politicians please just stop using education as their political pawn?

Understanding computer science and how to code is important in our digital age. Coding is about creating a set of instructions that computers can understand. Code is the language that powers our websites and apps. Learning how to code comes with many benefits. Like writing and drawing, it allows us to express our creativity and provides us with the ability to create what we imagine. Coding teaches computational thinking – the ability to break down and resolve problems in a systematic way.

And now, because of an overheated technology industry, it also has magically become synonymous with "job security" and "billion-dollar unicorn startup."

The B.C. government claims that teaching our children coding will help close the talent gap we are facing in the province today. The #BCTECH plan states that it will find "solutions for talent supply [by] includ[ing] a curriculum that emphasizes tech-related skills and alignment between our educators and our technology sector."

By the same logic, if we were short on butchers and our economy depended on it, would we teach every child how to butcher? Learning computer science should not be about fulfilling immediate short-term needs. Technology is constantly in flux. Education is certainly not meant to be a factory that produces job-ready coders to fulfill those ever-changing industry demands, so let us not treat it as such. We need to educate our children so they are wholesome, creative and critical thinkers in our society – teaching computer science and coding will help create those individuals.

The Clark government is not new to embedding political strategies deep into the education system. LNG was touted as the "one of the most extensive human-capital public policy reforms in the province's history." There were sweeping and potentially damaging changes in the education system. For example, the K-12 curriculum was retooled so that students were exposed to hands-on curriculum earlier. There was a youth expo named GameChanger at the LNG conference with high school trade competitions. Critics have pointed out that environmental sciences seem to have been purposefully neglected in the new K-12 curriculum. Postsecondary institutions were told that they would receive proportionate operational funding based on their commitment to meet work-force targets.

The government's apparent support for teaching students coding is actually a positive step. But we should not take it at its face value. Computer-science education for the next generation is too important for the province and the country to simply gaze away. We need to ask our government the hard questions where details are vague: How will teachers be trained to support this curriculum knowing that the United Kingdom fell short when it implemented its version? Does every child have access to appropriate technology and infrastructure to facilitate coding when there are communities still on dial-up Internet? Is there a pathway from K-12 to postsecondary computer science like what is planned in Chicago? Is there funding and a tactical strategy carefully laid out as with similar initiatives in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia? Should coding be made "mandatory," like what was announced off-the-cuff, or should it stay optional?

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Our province, our country and the next generation of British Columbians have so much to lose when our government is not held accountable to thoughtfully execute its grand announcements, especially this one. Please, let's not make computer science the new LNG.

Melody Ma is a Vancouver-based web developer and software product manager. She is a kids coding advocate and volunteer who lead the 2015 B.C. Hour of Code campaign, in addition to creating, with support from the B.C. government, the largest B.C.-wide youth coding event, Codecreate.

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