2012: The year that coding became de rigueur

The jury is still out on whether everyone should dabble in programming, though resources are in place for many to learn

Does true literacy now include the ability to write software programs, just as it does the ability to read, write and do sums?

2012 saw a surge of sentiment in the press and blogosphere that we should think of programming as a vital cultural skill. And the year included many stories about newly emerging massive open online courses (MOOCs), which would provide tools to help people learn to sling some code.

Perhaps the most famous advocate of this idea was New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, despite his busy schedule, vowed to learn how to program himself. "My New Year's resolution is to learn to code with Codecademy in 2012!" he wrote on Twitter at the beginning of the year.

Backed by venture capital firm Union Square Ventures, Codecademy is a project that offers basic Web programming skills in an online format. The project attracted over 400,000 participants, including Mayor Bloomberg, to learn how to program in the year 2012.

"As technology becomes the driving force in our economy, the ability to program and understand programming is becoming more important," wrote Andy Weissman, a partner for Union Square, which raised over $12 million for Codecademy.

Farhad Manjoo, technology writer for online news magazine Slate, also argued that because computers now touch pretty much every aspect of our lives, we should be at least somewhat knowledgeable about how they operate. "The fact that any moron can use a computer has lulled us into complacency about the digital revolution," he wrote. "Theres no better way to learn how computers work than to start programming."

Not everyone thinks teaching coding to the masses is a good idea, however. Bloomberg's proclamation set off a backlash from programmers and others who warned people away from learning the practice, at least if they were pursuing it only to become more well-rounded in their education.

"It's actually damn hard to learn to code if you have no background in engineering or math. And frankly, Codecademy has been no help," wrote Audrey Watters, an education writer, after trying the service. "If you were to sit me down in front of a blank IDE and ask me to build something, I wouldn't have any clue how to begin."

Jeff Atwood, software developer and co-creator of IT question-and-answer site Stack Overflow, argued that it would be a mistake to categorize coding as an essential life skill.

Coding is one of many practices that we humans rely on that, for the most part, only specialists understand, Atwood argued. We have electricians to fix the lights, doctors to remedy our ailments, plumbers to stop the leaking faucets. "If your toilet is clogged, you shouldn't need to take a two-week in-depth plumbing course on toiletcademy.com to understand how to fix that," he wrote.

As the year progressed however, more options became available for those wishing to learn how to code. The Khan Academy, a popular resource for mathematics and science education and interactive video tutorials, also launched a curriculum for learning basic programming and Web illustration.

The year 2012 could also remembered for the rise of the MOOCs. Universities and colleges have offered distance education online classes for well over a decade, but the new generation of MOOCs offer classes for little cost, on flexible schedules, and that require no prerequisites. Unlike services such as Khan's and Codecademy, MOOC classes are fully-fledged college classes; many of them are actual classes that universities repurposed for the Web. They are perfect for the hard-driving autodidact who may have quickly worked through all that Khan Academy offers.

And computer science curricula play a central part in many MOOCs. Coursera, which has attracted over 2 million users, offers a range of advanced computer science in areas such as artificial intelligence and robotics. Udacity offers many computer and networking classes, including those on advanced topics such as software debugging and testing, HTML5 Web design, and parallel programming. And edX draws from classes taught at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in fields as diverse as quantum computation and SaaS (software-as-a-service).

"As we learned from Wikipedia, demand for knowledge is so enormous that good, free online materials can attract extraordinary numbers of people from all over the world," observed technology writer Clay Shirky, in a blog post.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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