This is part of the column run by THINK accelerate. This peice is by Tim van Dijk, Founder YOU++, based in Helsingborg.

Just 15 years ago, when I was in elementary school, we had 5 dusty old computers for the entire school, and they only worked half the time. Policy makers, industry leaders, and educators did not give a second thought to teaching computer programming, especially not in primary school.

That was the past, and times are changing. Today, in order for a knowledge-based economy like the Öresund region to remain competitive and spur future economic growth, it is essential that we raise a new generation of digital literates. With the aim to contribute to this mission, YOU++ – a startup based in Helsingborg – is developing an online coding education platform for kids.

The European Commission projects that Europe will face a shortage of 900.000 ICT practitioners by 2020, a numbers that suggests that today’s students are not adequately prepared for the demands of tomorrow’s labor market. But the merits of a digitally literate population go far beyond filling vacancies in the ICT sector. Digital literacy allows our kids to grow from passive technology consumers to active technology creators. By teaching them the rules, they get to break the rules, escape the digital boundaries set by other people, and contribute to technological innovation. The best way to achieve this, is by mandating coding as a tool to teach existing subjects at compulsory school.

Digital literacy and coding are often used interchangeably, but it is important to realise that being digitally literate is not the same as knowing how to code. For the next generation to be digitally literate, not every child needs to be a programmer at the next big high-tech startup. Digital literacy means to have a fundamental understanding of how computers operate, how technology can be created and controlled, and ultimately how to participate in – and contribute to – our digitised society. Knowing how to code is merely one, rather advanced, aspect of digital literacy.

Coding if for digital literacy what practicals are for science. In biology, we make students perform frog dissections; not because we want them all to become brain surgeons, but because it helps form a deeper understanding of the anatomy of organisms. Similarly, coding is a way to get below the surface level of the computer screen, and form a deeper understanding of how technology works. Digital literacy is the goal; coding is the means. It just so happens that coding is the most accessible, effective, and powerful means.

Coding also serves as a catalyst for developing transferable, or soft skills. The essence of coding is computational thinking, the thought process of breaking down large complex problems into smaller digestible parts, and formulating repeatable solutions. Through computational thinking, coding requires analytical skills, creative problem-solving abilities, logical thinking, pattern recognition, endurance, and precision; all major transferable skills that are invaluable in any career path.

The proponents of mandating coding in education often suggest that it be introduced as a separate subject, replacing things like crafts and languages, but teaching programming languages as separate subjects should not be the intention. Programming languages evolve or become obsolete, and the exact vocabulary of a specific language is ultimately unimportant.

Instead, we should leverage coding as the ultimate tool to teach existing subjects such as math and science more effectively. Coding enables a type of personalised, formative learning that is unthinkable without technology in the classroom. Most importantly, it provides a constant and immediate feedback loop, which is shown to greatly enhance learning and is impossible to achieve with pen and paper.

Moreover, the limitless possibilities and trial-and-error of coding stimulate creativity, curiosity and confidence, and because the subject matter is directly applied to a visible problem, using coding as a learning tool gives students insight into why they need to learn what they learn.

The absolute best place to start with coding education is compulsory school. Compulsory schools provide equal learning opportunities for all children, regardless of socio-economic background, gender or ethnicity, and therefore they are in a unique position to provide all children with the opportunity to create their own economic futures.

The good news is that in Sweden the required technology infrastructure in education is already largely there. The next step is to put all that hardware to good use. This requires coordinated efforts of policy makers, researchers, and industry to provide the right regulations, pedagogical content, and resources to assist the educators. With YOU++ we contribute by providing a learning platform that makes it very easy for teachers to integrate coding education into their regular lesson plans, with or without IT skills.

Countries like the United Kingdom and Australia are already paving the way when it comes to teaching coding in their elementary schools, and if the Öresund region is to remain the competitive region it is today, we better follow their example, and soon.