Tech Exec Turned Lawmaker Wants Computer Coding To Count As Foreign Language

Jan 27, 2016

Former Yahoo exec Jeremy Ring helped build the modern tech landscape. Now the Florida Senator wants high schools to teach computer coding.

Senator Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) wants computer coding classes to count towards foreign language requirements.
Credit college library/ flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/collegelibrary/

Back in the day, Margate Senator Jeremy Ring launched Yahoo’s east coast office from his New York apartment. Now he wants to launch Florida students into the tech world. Under his plan, high school students could take computer coding classes for foreign language credit. Ring calls computer literacy essential.

“Any industry that you may work in today, whether it is law, construction, journalism, medicine, whether you’re going to politics, it doesn’t really matter, sales. You need to have a technology understanding in order to compete in life,” he said.

In a broad sense, coding lets people tell computers what to do. There are different coding languages like Python, C++ or Java, and like other languages, they have grammar and syntax. Different languages lend themselves to different uses: HTML for websites, or Ruby for apps. Like writers and great cooks, programmers use a set of tools to solve a problem. There are many different solutions, and infinite ways to get there. Senator Ring says that’s where the creativity comes in.

“I’ve always believed, and stronger than ever now, that computer coding and technology is really more of a liberal arts than it is a STEM. And I know that changes the entire paradigm of what we’ve always thought about technology, but we really should look at it today as a humanities, almost a social science,” he said.

But the proposal is making some educators nervous. Teachers and students value multicultural education in a hyper-connected world. But some worry coding students will skip over German and French on the way to building the next startup. But Ring says he’s not replacing anything.

“We get a lot of questions: are you replacing foreign language? And I can emphatically say no, we’re not replacing foreign language. You can still take French or Spanish or German or Mandarin or whatever it may be. Or, as an option, you can take C++ or Python or another computer language,” he said.

Governor Rick Scott calls Florida a business paradise, but Ring says tax cuts alone won’t attract tech.

“If Florida wants to compete, and get companies like GE, and we’re not talking a manufacturing plant, we’re talking headquarters. Headquarters, ok? If that’s what we’re talking about and we want to compete, we have to compete with an innovation economy. There’s no other way. GE just said that to the entire country. You want companies like us, you have to have an innovation ecosystem,” he said.

Caroline Joiner represents the policy group Tech Net.

“The need for programmers well-versed in the latest computer coding languages will only continue to grow. By 2020, there will be a million more jobs that require computing skills than there are qualified graduates to fill them,” she said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praise the plan as innovative and forward-thinking. But some feel uncomfortable viewing students as future cogs in the tech machine. Senator Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth got philosophical in a previous committee hearing.

"I think it’s centered on whether or not the outcome of an education that we provide, a public education that we provide, should be centered around getting a job. And obviously you’re more likely to get a job coding than you are being able to speak French. But I think it goes back to the debate of why we provide an education to begin with," he said.

The bill has one more committee stop before heading to the Senate floor.