A new generation of coders

The question of what children should be learning in information and communication technology (ICT) lessons is one that increasingly preoccupies teachers and educators.

Last August Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, publicly attacked the UK saying it was throwing away its “great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming[1] in schools[2]. A few months later the Next Gen report, published by research and networking charity Nesta, into the future of the video games industry criticised ICT lessons, saying many focused on how to use software – rather than how to write it – and called for children to be taught computer coding in schools. While the government has said it is carrying out a review of ICT teaching, it recently closed Becta, the technology unit which had been tasked in the past with carrying out such reviews, leaving a question mark over the future direction of the subject.

Only 150 schools in the UK currently offer computer studies. In January this year the Guardian launched a campaign, in partnership with Google, to improve and upgrade the teaching of ICT.

Last month, as part of the initiative, the Guardian hosted a two-day “hack day” event for pupils from four UK schools: Cavendish school in Eastbourne; Woodkirk Academy in West Yorkshire; St. Cuthbert’s high school in St Helen’s; and Dorothy Stringer high school in Brighton. Modelled on the Guardian hack days, in which developers set aside their normal work for a couple of days to work on creative projects, the 20 pupils – all aged between 13 and 15 – were given the challenge of creating a website or application with the theme “open access” in just over 24 hours. To encourage collaboration and focus on the projects, the pupils were placed in mixed-school groups. Developers from Google and the Guardian were also on hand to offer advice and guidance to the pupils.

Apart from some basic knowledge of the programming language Java – via a series of webinars delivered by Genevieve Smith-Nunes, who teaches at Dorothy Stringer high school in Brighton, most of the students had little experience of computer coding. “We deliberately didn’t just pick kids who could already code because we wanted the event to be open to all,” she says. “Often it can only be the really bright kids – and the ones who are already experimenting with coding – who get to go to this kind of event, but we wanted it to be open for children of all abilities and levels of experience.”

The seven resulting projects included an online community for sharing and editing photos; a collaborative calendar that allowed users to upload and share blogs, links and photos; a website for children to rate their teachers’ lessons; an app to help students who were having problems with maths; a web service that could compress or remove images to make it easier for internet users with low bandwidth to view websites; a web app that automatically refreshes updates on the social networking site Twitter; and a social networking app for android phones that allows users to gather tweets about a particular area so they can get the feel of a place.

By the end of the two-day event, most students had a good working knowledge of a number of programming languages, including Java, Python and HTML – in Smith-Nunes’s words “cramming a year’s worth of learning into two days”.

“It was brilliant to get the chance to work with real developers. I’ve always been interested in working with computers, but the experience has really inspired me to achieve this,” says year 10 pupil AJ Jafer, whose group was behind the “rate my teacher” project.

Year 9 pupil Molly Fildes, agrees. “The whole experience … coming to London and learning new things like HTML was brilliant. It was a bit daunting at first, as we were given a brief and had to just get on with it. While the teachers and developers were around to help, we had to work together to find solutions.”

According to Silvano Luciani, developer programs engineer at Google, these are exactly the kind of skills today’s young people – and the next generation of computer coders – need. “This is the future of the economy. It’s an information society and we need to grow kids who actually enjoy the process of learning and are willing to share what they have learned. This kind of event helps them see that programming it’s not just a job and a salary – it’s also a lot of fun.”

Nicola Jordan, business studies teacher, St. Cuthbert’s high school, St Helen’s, expressed similar sentiments: “It’s vital for students to have access to these kind of experiences. It allows them to work collaboratively and develop problem-solving skills,” she said. Jordan pointed out that the current ICT curriculum in schools is limited because schools are not always able to train staff to use new software. “Foundation office skills like Word and Excel are important, but young people also need to explore their creative side,” she added. “Hopefully this is an experience they can take back to the classroom to enthuse others about coding.”

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