Melissa Sariffodeen
Co-Founder & CEO - Canada Learning Code

Computer Science Must be a Part of our Foundational Skills

Takeaways

  1. Jobs will look different in the future, as there will be much more interaction between humans and computers to complete tasks and workflows. So, to remain competitive it is crucial to focus on how we can leverage the power of tech and how humans can work alongside computers—and this starts with digital literacy.
  2. To build the digital workforce the future economy will require, Canada needs a multi-stakeholder approach to encourage lifelong learning and education in digital skills, in which employers, government, and educational institutions all have a role to play.
  3. A pan-Canadian computer science strategy should set a common framework and provide educational institutions with guidance on how to make computer science, including digital skills, foundational in Canada, but also allow for flexibility for provinces, territories and teachers to educate to their specific priorities and needs.

Action

The Prime Minister must dedicate leadership to sustain Canada’s future digital economy workforce by supporting, investing in, and amplifying the importance of learning digital skills. Technology touches every part of our lives. If we want to be solving the problems of tomorrow, we need to ensure the technology represents the people it serves in Canada: women, youth, Indigenous people, newcomers and people with disabilities. By doing so, we will create better and impactful solutions.


What is the importance of being digitally literate today and how will this evolve in Canada’s future economy?

Technology is changing the face of Canada’s economy and the future of work. 85% of the future jobs that will exist in 2030 do not exist today.So, there are two important factors to being digitally literate. The first is from an economic standpoint: companies will increasingly use technology to stay relevant and competitive. 

The second reason being digitally literate is crucially important relates to the individual. In some capacity, emerging technologies will impact nearly all household activities. From using a single application to manage one’s utilities, to driving a car and paying bills, there will be a component of tech integrated into most aspects of our daily lives.  

“Technology is changing the face of Canada’s economy and the future of work. 85% of the future jobs that will exist in 2030 do not exist today.”

Although there is a fear that automation and robots are taking over many people’s jobs, the opportunity also exists to learn the skills and competencies to access these tech-driven jobs. This is why digital literacy should be considered part of our foundational skills. In the same way that we learn the science of electricity and water condensation at school, both youth and adults should learn how the technology they use daily is built, how it works, and gain a better appreciation for the digital tools that enhance their lives. And, because technology moves so fast, digital literacy should come in the form of a lifelong learning journey for all Canadians.


What are the most significant trends, forces or technology-based contributors to this shift, and what impact do you see them having on the future of work and the Canadian workforce?

In my work with executives and with the Future Skills Council, we look at how disrupting technologies will affect jobs and how to plan for this major shift by creating new opportunities for Canadians. It’s clear that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will affect the labour market. Experts in the space often talk about how these advanced technologies will enable much more different disruptions than we have seen in the past. They categorize AI and machine learning as general-purpose technologies (GPT), meaning they change how every other existing technology works. 

With the capabilities of AI and machine learning, automation goes beyond the physical world. People often imagine the future with robots mowing lawns and cleaning the house. But AI and machine learning can also automate cognition and thinking, disrupting new fields of work, such as the work of an auditor who filters and reviews financial data. 

This means jobs will look different in the future, where there is much more interaction between humans and computers to complete tasks and workflows. So, it’s important to focus on how we can leverage the power of technology and how humans can work alongside computers—starting with digital literacy. 


What role do you want to see key groups, such as governments and companies, play in increasing Canadians’ digital literacy?

Lately, we’ve seen the emergence of industry players investing in youth as a strategy to widen their workforce pipeline. They help bridge the gaps in digital literacy with internships, co-ops and work-integrated learning programs, with the intention that a percentage of these students will become part of their future workforce. Some also invest in youth from a pure foundational skills perspective; they understand the overarching benefits that having the next generation equipped with critical skills can bring in terms of problem solving, resiliency and creativity. 

However, one challenge companies debate is the case of “frictional employment”, where employers train employees who can then take their newfound knowledge and leave. To counter this, the federal government should put policies in place that incentivize companies to create different types of digital training programs for the entirety of the Canadian workforce.Companies could decide how to deliver the training, which can take a number of different forms: from intensive course certifications to micro-credentials.

“The federal government should put policies in place that incentivize companies to create different types of digital training programs for the entirety of the Canadian workforce.”

To succeed, we need dedicated leadership to sustain Canada’s future digital economy workforce. Which is why I urge the federal government to continue to support, to invest and to help amplify the importance of learning digital skills, for both youth and adults.  Technology touches every part of our lives. If we want to be solving the problems of tomorrow, we need to ensure the technology represents the people it serves in Canada: women, youth, Indigenous people, newcomers and people with disabilities. By doing so, we will create better and more impactful solutions.


What role must our education system and educators play to ensure that our youth have the skills required to be successful in Canada’s future digital economy? 

There is a broad consensus that the Canadian education system has a major role to play in ensuring that our youth have the digital skills required to be successful in Canada’s future economy. Now, the focus is on figuring out where to start and what the new criteria should be. For example, what do we need to teach students in kindergarten through grade three? What do we need to teach high school students before they enter post-secondary studies? 

It’s important to highlight the complexity of this journey: Canada has 13 different provinces and territories, each with their own jurisdiction over education. And, historically, educational institutions have not had the flexibility to adapt as quickly as the needs of the economy. With that said, there are central guiding principles and a shared vision to succeed and thrive in a digital economy. 

“The pan-Canadian Digital Literacy strategy should aim to offer educational institutions enough holistic guidance but also enable an ecosystem within which provinces and territories can focus on their specific priorities and needs.”

In our work, we are reviewing those guiding principles to contribute to coordinating a national strategy that would set the roadmap that link students to the jobs industry needs.The pan-Canadian Digital Literacy strategy should aim to offer educational institutions enough holistic guidance but also enable an ecosystem within which provinces and territories can focus on their specific priorities and needs.Teachers are critical in shaping what happens in their classrooms, while having the support of a common framework that a national strategy could provide. 

While the details will vary in each province and territory, it’s about changing mindsets with tactics and the right policies in place. Therefore, the education system must also shift towards a lifelong learning mentality, and guarantee that the right resources and support are in place for students to get the skills and knowledge they need to work for the jobs of the future. 


How must our classrooms evolve with the proliferation of technology, and how must we support teachers in delivering a technology-enhanced educational experience to their students?

Technologies such as virtual reality are shifting the classroom environment. Students can put headsets on and navigate through new environments, such as going on artic adventures. Workflows have also evolved with digital tools. My nephew, for example, logs into Google Drive at home to access his homework, submit his assignments, and even complete tests. 

But the most profound shift that is happening, and will continue to happen, is the orientation of the classrooms. We have reached a point in time where most students, who are digital natives, are now more well-versed in technology than teachers. Students are increasingly becoming lead learners and well-qualified to bridge their own skill gaps.

“The historical role of a teacher at the front of the classroom who guides the class is moving to an environment where the students are driving their knowledge with the support of the teacher, the content and the lesson.”

And so, the historical role of a teacher at the front of the classroom who guides the class is moving to an environment where the students are driving their knowledge with the support of the teacher, the content and the lesson.With the right digital literacy, teachers will be able to further personalize education on a student-to-student basis. 

The shifts that computers, technology and computer science are driving in the classroom are promising and exciting. If students enjoy learning digital skills and show an interest in them, it’s important to support that development. There is a big difference between a child or teen binge watching Netflix on a computer and learning to code or building a game. When I was 11, I started teaching myself to code and my parents would discourage me to develop further digital skills because they didn’t understand what I was doing, or why I was spending so much time on my computer. So, my advice to teachers would be to recognize that not all screen time is the same, that there are digital skills that are important to nurture, and to embark on their own lifelong digital skills learning journey, too.