14. October 2011 · Comments Off on Coding for Kids – barcamp · Categories: Technology

Coding for Kids barcamp
If the Tech City Talk I attended on Monday was a clear statement of the problem of where the next generation of tech innovators will come from, then Wednesday night’s Coding for Kids barcamp was a great start to try and find the solution.

One thing is for sure, there’s an enormous amount of energy and goodwill to throw at this challenge. Both judging by tonight’s barcamp but also from conversations with  the wider tech and creative community.
Most of the evening’s discussions were focussed on the practicalities. We want to give kids the opportunity to code to see if it captures their imagination, (just as you would for say, a musical or sporting activity). It would appear the first problem you might have is that coding would still seem to have a bit of an image problem, particularly for girls. So, two potential ways emerged to get around this – put  a different spin on it, e.g. by placing it in the context of music or gaming,  or catch ’em young (aged ~9) before they’ve learned to be cool
There was some interesting debate about whether school was the right setting to teach kids to code. It could be some time before the curriculum includes coding so in the meantime is it right to put this burden on schools who are already under enormous pressure to meet their targets? However, if kids coding, at least for the interim, is to be taught in a ‘Computer Club’ setting then the school would seem one of the most obvious community hubs for this to take place.
The involvement of parents in getting their kids to code was debated in one session. It’s essential that the opportunity and encouragement to try coding should not be restricted to those with parents who can code. But there could be interesting opportunities to encourage parents and their kids to learn and discover together.
We’d need “teachers who can code or coders who can teach” was how one attendee succinctly put it when talking about how the necessary mix of teaching and coding expertise could be sourced.  Following the ‘Computer Club’ model, the solution would appear to be pairing teachers with volunteer coders from the local community, i.e. parents, local businesses, universities. And obviously there has to be a way of sourcing these volunteers – a codingforkids volunteer network.
Then there was the question of the equipment needed – with discussions over fears of struggling with slow running Windows PCs in schools and getting any necessary software installed. One possible solution being booting off Ed/Ubuntu USB sticks with any required software pre-installed. There was lots of talk about the Raspberry Pi  too – although when using them in school we’d still need to trot down to the computer lab to find screens and keyboards to plug them into.
Then once you’re set up, what will you actually teach? Loads of resources on the web were mentioned and there was no shortage of opinions on what was the “right” technology (language, tools) to use. But the “right” technology to use will be the one you have the resources to  teach and there was a great suggestion of providing “starter packs” for given age/language combinations  containing frameworks, ideas, guidelines, advice, code samples etc.
It was a fantastic evening, brilliantly hosted and put together by @hubmum and @katybeale. As well as the various breakout sessions there were inspiring and entertaining guest speakers and one of the many highlights was hearing from some of the kids from Young Rewired State.
Right, now I just need to decide on what my #codingforkids pledge will be.
Coding for Kids Wiki

10. October 2011 · Comments Off on Who Will Build the UK’s Future Digital Economy? …who ?…WHO ? · Categories: Technology

Imperial CollegeEric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman, visited the UK in August and told us in his MacTaggart lecture that we’re rubbish in the UK. We don’t nurture young talent in technology and we’ve lost our reputation as a nation of innovators.

So a lot of people in the UK seemed to have agreed with what he said and a lot of people (who should know better) seemed to have just ignored it. Going by tonights’s Guardian Tech Weekly talk at Imperial College London, Mr Schmidt seems to be spot on in his assessment.
The talk was chaired by the Guardian’s Aleks Krotoski and featured a discussion with a panel comprising David Willets (Minister of State for Universities and Science),Jeff Magee (Principle of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College),Dan Crow (CTO of Songkick) and Emma Mulqueeny (Founder of Rewired State and Young Rewired State). It’s the first of a series of talks on the first anniversary of “Tech City” looking at some of the “bigger issues behind the headlines”. Tech City being an inevitably London-thing to create a UK Silicon Valley – be nice if it was a Plymouth-thing,a Glasgow-thing a Middlesborough-thing or, even better, a East Midland Development Agency-thing – ah well. The Panel
So what is the problem ? David Willets summarised it quite neatly by saying that we have “thrown away our great computer heritage”. He went on to add that the ICT curriculum has “drifted to a consumer rather than a creator model”, but he thinks we can turn it around and it’s not a permanent loss, (lets hope he’s right). Aleks Krotoski later followed up with some depressing statistics reflecting the decline in the number of students studying IT-related subjects at all levels.
And what are the consequences ? Pretty alarming according to Dan Crow and Emma Mulqueeny. Dan told us how hard it is to recruit in the UK. Emma told us that it was hard to find to kids who can code because they’re not being taught how to code in schools (which David Willets found shocking) but are teaching themselves. When this young self-taught talent is found, the UK industry isn’t engaging with them, instead they are being snapped up by Silicon Valley.
Dan also went on to point out the difference in attitude in coders from Silicon Valley and the UK; it’s not just about knowing a programming language – it’s about having a entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to change the world. He went on to say that in the UK mediocrity is valued over failure, whereas in Silicon Valley failure is respected as a mark of someone who has actually tried to do something. David Willets added that this is because Silicon valley creates a “low risk environment to do high risk activities”.
There was some discussion on Eric Schmidt’s comments “luvvies and boffins” not mixing. Yeah – there’s probably some truth in this but I reckon this has come on leaps and bounds since I did Computer Studies at Sheffield City Polytechnic.
The talk finished with a Q&A session with the audience. Most of the questions were asked by academics which I couldn’t really follow. Then a guy form a start-up asked “what age should we start teaching kids to code” – good question. Jeff Magee responded with thoughts around when children were able to understand abstraction. Emma Mulqueeny responded with “aged 9″ – good answer.
It was an enjoyable and thought provoking evening. It seemed to be a clear statement of what the problem is and a call-to-action rather than a laying out of what the solution might be – but it’s inspiring to see that there is a growing movement of committed and energetic people who want to take this on. As someone who works in technology, is a school governor and a parent of two  primary school aged children I left with a slight sense of panic over what we should be doing. Part of the solution seems to be in waiting for the ICT curriculum to sort itself out but in the meantime perhaps we should do what those Silicon Valley dudes do – try some stuff out and not be afraid to fail.

Podcast now available here