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Computer coding for children

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By Anthony David

Find out about the Raspberry Pi, a low-tech and affordable piece of hardware designed to encourage young people to learn about computer coding.

Raspberry Pi
Image by Jared Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

There is little to suggest that within the new draft Primary programmes of study that there is much that is new. We seem to be harking back to a golden age of reciting times tables, learning poems by heart and preparing for our grammar tests. But there is one aspect that suggests that something old might be about to have a 21st Century revamp – computer coding.

When I was young I forldly typed code into my ZX Spectrum. Even if it crashed there was huge satisfaction in seeing the lines of code filling the screen. This often involved copying game codes and then tweaking it to make it my own by changing colours, adding different characters or renaming existing elements (my brother always renamed the ‘boss baddy’ after me, I’m not sure why…) It was fun and kept up busy. This was a golden age of coding that has gone on to serve the UK well. Companies such as ARM now design chips that are used in most mobile devices including the iPhone and iPad. British coders designed the internet and designed the first economy home computers. But in recent years England has been left well behind the rest of the world when it comes to this important and, frankly, lucrative part of business.

In January Michael Gove announced a renewed emphasis on IT within schools. To kickstart this, he removed the current standards and effectively said that schools could have a creative free reign over the subject for the next two years. However, what he did say was that there will be emphasis on coding.

This is great news – but where do you start? Coding is a challenge at the best of times and what machines can schools use write this code on? Timing is everything and into this void of speculation steps an unlikely low-tech duo: Raspberry Pi and Code Club.

Raspberry Pi

In March a tiny computer company launched its very low-tech computer, the Raspberry Pi. This piece of kit looks like it has come straight from an enthusiast’s drawer: it has no casing, there are bits soldered all over the place and it is tiny, no bigger than a pack of cards. The principle creator, Eben Upton, initially prepared for sales of around 10,000 computers in the first year, mainly schools and enthusiasts. Then the BBC got hold of the story and 10,000 units were sold within the first six weeks.

Ian Livingstone, a co-author on a report on ICT in education, suggested that every pupil should have at least two of these devices, one for home and one for school. That would put production in the region of 15 million for this country alone. So why has this tiny, low-tech device proven to be so popular?

The idea behind a tiny and cheap computer for pupils came in 2006, when Eben Upton and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, including Rob Mullins, Jack Lang and Alan Mycroft, became concerned about the year-on-year decline in the numbers and skills levels of the A-level students applying to read Computer Science in each academic year. In the 1990s most of the students applying were already experienced hobbyist programmers, but the landscape in the 2000s was very different – a typical applicant might only have done a little web design.

Raspberry Pi
Image by cowjuice, via Wikimedia Commons

Something had changed the way pupils were interacting with computers. A number of problems were identified: ‘secretarial skills’ in the ICT curriculum with lessons on using Word and Excel, or writing webpages; the end of the dot-com boom; and the rise of the home PC and games console to replace the Amigas, BBC Micros, Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 machines on which members of an earlier generation had learned to program. Eben Upton and his team felt that they could do something about the situation where computers had become so expensive and arcane that programming experimentation on them had to be forbidden by parents. They aimed to find a platform that, like those old home computers, could boot into a programming environment. From 2006 to 2008, Eben designed several versions of what has now become the Raspberry Pi.

But what are the children going to learn? Raspberry Pi is just one half of the equation. On the other side sit code developers and leading this particular group are a London based team called Code Club.

Code Club

Code Club, the brain child of Clare Sutcliffe and Linda Sandvik, was set up with the aim to inspire children to learn to code. The idea is to create a nationwide network of after-school coding clubs that will be run by a volunteer. Each volunteer will teach from lesson plans devised by Code Club. In order to get started, volunteers will download a start-up pack which includes lesson plans and advice on how to approach their local school to pitch the idea to the head teacher.

Clare Sutcliffe says: ‘We were becoming frustrated at the fact that coding isn’t taught to kids at a young age. We’re taught physics at school because our world is ruled by the laws of physics. Now we are in a digital age it would be strange not to teach children how we program computers to create the applications and tools we use every day.’

Code Club decided to narrow down the age range so they could get the project off the ground. The launch is being aimed at children aged 10-11 years old initially. From a school’s point of view this offers an opportunity and reason to teach up to Level 6 maths in a way that has a genuine purpose.

Clare Sutcliffe of Code Club comments: ‘If we tried to create this for all age groups at once then we’d never even launch! At age 10-11 children have the necessary numeracy, literacy and logic skills to learn the concepts of coding. Some might argue that they have these skills even earlier than that.’

When the curriculum goes live, Code Club plan to launch with a ‘hack day’ to create awareness of the initiative. The aim of the hack day is to hack projects that can then be completed by children at their Code Clubs. The best hacks will then be deconstructed into lesson plans that volunteers can teach over six weeks. At the end of the project the children will have a working hack project.

‘It’s about teaching children that they have the power to change the environment around them by designing the programmes they use for themselves,’ Clare Sutcliffe says.

Both Raspberry Pi and Code Club are too new to decide whether they are able to impact on education or whether they are simply fad ideas. Furthermore, there still remains the need for training in schools.

We will wait and see, but in the mean time, is it possible that Mr Gove has found a useful and cheap way for schools to enter the ‘coding world’?



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