Category Archives: user + control

Computing our future

I've been privileged to be attending the Google CS Outreach Partners Summit in Sydney over the past couple of days where the conversations have focused on how we can promote computational thinking and coding in our schools for students of all ages. It's a timely visit, particularly as the Hour of Code is gaining momentum currently around the world.

Lots of reference has been made at the Summit to the Australian Federal Government's recent announcement that they will spend almost $1.1 billion in the next four years to promote business-based research, development and innovation, which includes money to be set aside to help students in years 5 and 7 learn coding. (I wonder if we'll hear a similar announcement on our side of the ditch in Auckland next Monday?)

Google has, of course, been providing support for programmes like this for a while now, including the successful CS4HS and CS-First programmes – plus they offer a huge amount of other resources and support on their Google For Education website. And so too does Microsoft, with their Virtual Academy, and their support for Hour of Code, and computer science student resources (app) for example. 

Despite this, however, the uptake of interest in computer science and digitally-related careers lags well behind the level fo demand – with CS and digi-tech yet to be appropriately recognised within the curriculum of many international jurisdictions. 

computing our futureSo it was of interest I read a publication recently released by the European SchoolNet organisation, titled Computing our Future (PDF downoad) – documenting what is happening in this area across the European context. 

The preface to the document includes the following:

The challenge for the Education sector is to upskill the future workforce, but more importantly to empower young people with the competences to master and create their own digital technologies, and thrive in the society of today. We believe that teaching and learning how to code, in formal and non-formal education settings, will play a significant role in this process.

I like the fact that the focus is wider than simply preparing kids for future employment, and includes the notion of 'thriving in the society of today'. 

While this report is austensibly focused on providing an update on what is happening in the various countries in Europe, there is a lot of valuable material in here for educational leaders who are considering the place and value of computer science and coding in the curriculum – particularly those who may be at the start of their journey of thinking about this. The document includes some really useful graphics and definitions that will be helpful. 

Of particular interest to me is section 3 of the document which looks at integrating coding into the curriculum (very timely in terms of the NZ context). Among the 21 countries in this report, coding is already part of the curriculum (at national, regional or local level) in 16 of them. Countries generally have multiple reasons for integrating coding in the curriculum – reinforcing the understanding that this is about much more than simply preparing kids for future jobs as programmers, in fact, the aim of fostering employability in the sector is key for only eight countries. The majority of countries aim to develop students’ logical thinking skills (15 countries) and problem-solving skills (14 countries), thus addressing 21st century skills. More than half of the countries, namely 11, focus on the development of key competences and coding skills. 

Key questions I'm pondering:

  • how should computational thinking, computer science, coding (interchangeable terms to some degree) be included in our NZ curriculum for the future?
  • what are the key messages we must develop to ensure this is not simply about preparing for future employment – but about developing essential skills, knowledge and competencies to thrive in the digital world of the 21st century?
  • How can we best utilize the abundance of resource already available to support what can happen in schools – but needs to be distributed more widely?


Digital Makers

Nesta-digital makersThe idea of encouraging young people to become creators with technology rather than purely consumers has been present in education circles for some time – but in recent years the impetus to see more of this happening in schools has increased, particularly given the high demand for technology-realted skills, including coding, in the current and future workforce. 

Young Digital Makers is a report just out from Nesta in the UK that highlights the opportunities and identifies gaps and next steps for young people to create with technology across the UK.

The report explores the emerging field of digital making for young people in the UK. It charts the organisations providing opportunities for young people to make things with technology; looks at how these opportunities relate to what young people learn in school; and explores the attitudes of young people, parents and teachers towards digital making.

The rationale for the focus on digital makers is described in the report as..

For most young people digital technology is an everyday part of life. Many are avid consumers of digital media. However they often don’t understand how to manipulate the underlying technology, let alone how to create it for themselves.

As technology shapes our world, young people need to be able to shape it too. As skills and work become increasingly technologically mediated, the need for digital skills is paramount with some calculating a potential £2 billion loss to the UK economy from unfilled roles requiring such skills.

In New Zealand we have yet to see this emphasis emerge as a serious focus in our education system, yet the need is the same. We do have the emergence of the Maker Movement present in initiatives such as Maker Crate, Fab Lab and Mind Lab – and there is evidence of programmes developing in some schools, usually led by the enthusiasm of a particular teacher. We have yet, however to design and implement a national level initiative that  makes this sort of experience a part of what every student has while at school. 

Coding is a key part of this thinking, and in the UK this also is receiving large scale government and business support. There, Samsung, Microsoft, ARM and the people behind Raspberry Pi are collaborating with publicly funded UK broadcaster the BBC on the Micro Dot device in an effort to provide 1 million UK children a free computer for coding.

Such initiatives prompt me to consider how seriously we are thinking about the future of our young learners in NZ schools, and how well we are preparing them with skills, competencies and knowledge required to participate effectively in the knowledge age. We are a small, island nation of just 4.5 million people, over 10,000km from our key markets, contributing globally in a world that is increasingly digital and where the traditional approach to exchanging goods and services will be challenged considerably in the lifetime of the current generation of school students. With or without any form of national initiative, schools need to be promoting maker opportunities for their students, combining with local businesses and the community to ensure they can provide authentic, rich experiences that develop the foundational knowledge and skills required. 

Teaching kids to code

I have a 15 year old son who is in year 11 at high school this year. Since age 10 he has been keen on learning how to program computers, beginning with Scratch while he was at intermediate school, and moving onto building his own mods for Minecraft and teaching himself a bit of Java by watching videos on YouTube in more recent years. He had to wait until this year however, his third at high school, before a course was available for him to participate in at school, where he could receive credits for one of the areas he is passionate about learning in. 

He's not alone – I know if several families with kids who are keen to learn how to 'make the applications' that others use on their devices – to understand what makes it work and to be able to problem solve for themselves anything that may go wrong. Some schools do a great job in providing courses that allow students to do this, a lot of is is extra-curricular. For the most part, however, there isn't too much emphasis on teaching programming in our schools – at any level. There are, of course, many reasons for this. While it's true there are kids out there wanting to do this, there are often not the numbers in any one school to make it a viable option to offer. Second, we simply don't have the number of teachers with the necessary skills and knowledge in all of our schools who can teach it competently to be able to staff all of our schools.  

A story I read this week titled Teaching our kids to code: an economic and social justice issue prompted this post as I reflect on this issue. The article reports on the work of entrepreneur and investor, Hardi Partovi, who wants all high schools to offer computer science classes because it represents a growing cluster of job skills. To fix the problem Hadi launched, a non-profit foundation dedicated to growing computer programming education. The front page is worth a look with its extensive list of high profile people adding their support for the initiative – and the video above is from the site. A quote from the article sums up the motivation for the site:

[] is packed with stats that make the case for coding. For example, did you know that coding jobs aren’t just in tech?  In fact, almost 70% of them are in other sectors–most businesses need people that can code.  However, there are fewer schools, teachers, and computer science students in the US than 10 years ago. By contrast, every high school graduate in China must take 4 credits of Computer Science–and yet in the US it’s not even on the menu in most schools.

This is where we need to start thinking more creatively about how we address the issue of providing coding courses in school. In the case of my son, the course he is now doing comes courtesy of Code Avengers. Each child in his class is provided with a log in, and the teacher becomes the mentor, guide, encourager etc as they work their way through the tutorials and assessments at their own pace. Not only does the use of this site provide the essential, instructionally-designed resources to support the course, the fact that it is online and bale to be accessed from home or school enables the students to complete the requirements at their own pace and from their own place – personalisation at its best!

The desire to 'take control' of the code and modify, adapt or simply build something from scratch is something we need to foster and encourage in our students if we're to successfully develop a generation of knowledge workers who can contribute to the economic future of NZ. This applies to more than simply learning to code – as illustrated in CORE's user+control focus in the Ten Trends for 2013