The B.C. government unveiled plans Monday to introduce computer coding in its school curriculum, addressing a chronic skills shortage in one of the few areas of the Canadian economy that is doing well – technology.
"Every kindergarten to grade 12 student will have…the opportunity to learn the basics of coding," Premier Christy Clark said at the opening of a two-day provincial government-backed summit on technology in Vancouver.
Ms. Clark announced the change, first revealed Sunday by The Globe and Mail, as part of a broader strategy to deliver more support to the province's tech sector. It's a shift for a government whose economic agenda has largely focused on natural resources, though B.C.'s flourishing tech sector employs 86,000 people – more than forestry, mining and oil and gas combined. The government unveiled the first piece of the strategy last month, creating a $100-million venture fund to finance startups.
Canadian political leaders have increasingly championed the digital economy after largely overlooking the sector in recent years. With oil and other commodities trading at multiyear lows, the economy teetering and a new class of startups gaining traction and disrupting traditional industries, Canadian politicians are hearing they need new, effective approaches to foster innovation and support tech startups.
A group of successful Canadian tech entrepreneurs, for example, recently warned Ottawa that a Liberal election pledge to fully tax stock-option gains above $100,000 would stunt their ability to attract talent.
Meanwhile, a chronic skills and talent shortage is expected to worsen, with Canada forecast to be short more than 180,000 information, communications and technology workers by 2019, according to one recent report.
"Computer science skills … are increasingly critical as technology is where all future job growth lies," said Jeff Booth, CEO of Vancouver's BuildDirect Technologies Inc., a web platform for ordering construction materials with 330 employees. "There is already a war for talent in technology that has companies like ours searching the world for the best engineers. … It's very possible that computer coding and other technology skills may become as critical as reading and writing."
Last week, during a visit to Google's new Canadian operation in Waterloo, Ont., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged, "We need to do a lot better job of getting young people to understand what coding is and how it's important."
The new B.C. coding curriculum will be introduced across all grades over the next three years, featuring new standards in mathematics and sciences and a new and redesigned "applied design, skills and technologies" (ADST) component to improve students' abilities to solve problems and think creatively.
The way students are taught will change starting in kindergarten, through "exploratory and purposeful play" that stimulates an aptitude for ADST. As they age, B.C. students will learn about computational thinking and learn the various aspects of programming. By the end of Grade 9, the government "students will also be able to experience basic coding," a government source said.
Ms. Clark said it's her goal to ensure coding education "doesn't just become an opportunity for every child to take part in, but to ultimately make it mandatory for every child from kindergarten to grade 12 to learn about coding and how it works.
Students in middle grades will learn how to code, debug algorithms and use various coding techniques, including visual programming, while high-school students will have the opportunity to specialize in particular areas of technology.
B.C. follows Nova Scotia, which announced last October it will introduce coding to the curriculum this fall. Coding was also recently added to school curriculum in Britain and is coming in Australia.
While most Canadian provinces offer some computer-science classes and technology in classrooms, the net result is a patchwork, bolstered by outside initiatives aimed at addressing the coding deficiency in schools, such as Google-backed program Codemakers, which seeks to expose 100,000 Canadian children to programming.
Members of the Canadian tech community praised the coming B.C. initiative. "Providing a science, technology, engineering and math curriculum early in a child's education is fundamental in advancing Canada's innovation agenda," said John Ruffolo, CEO of OMERS Ventures, a leading Canadian venture-capital fund. "Hopefully, the rest of Canada will follow [B.C.'s] lead."
Canadian tech entrepreneur and investor Jevon MacDonald said, "It's amazing to see different provinces taking the initiative to include computer programming in our public-school curriculum," and called on provinces to jointly develop national coding education standards. "This would mean that no Canadian child would miss out."
Tobi Lutke, chief executive officer of Ottawa-based Shopify Inc., one of Canada's most successful startups, said it's essential to vanquish "one of the greatest generational divides in history" by encouraging widespread computer literacy. "To the initiated, computers can solve nearly any workflow problem," he said. "There is a reason why almost all entrepreneurs are 'techies' these days – they are the only ones that can teach computers new things. It's an unfair advantage and entirely unnecessary. Computer programming is not hard and it is a whole lot of fun.
"Essentially every company in the world is either turning into a software company or is in the process of dying because of a software company," Mr. Lutke added. "In this great reshuffling of the business world, we need Canada to end up with a good share of the newly created and scaled companies. There is tremendous upside for Canada in making computer literacy part of the core curriculum. … Whoever figures out how to teach computer literacy first will have by far the most prepared work force. It's hard to overestimate the potential of that."
The B.C. government announced other initiatives to support the tech sector, including making it easier for tech firms to sell to government.