Teaching coding to kids at Hack to the Future
Last month, the BBC went into a school in Preston to help some children get started with learning to code in order to inspire them and help answer some important questions around children, coding and the BBC. I helped with the preprations and went along to assist BBC Learning. This post gives you a little background, describes how it happened, what happened on the day, and why. I personally find the video giving a flavour of the event inspiring and hope you do too.
I'm a computer scientist by trade. I grew up in the 80's and saw the BBC Micro arrive in schools and many more micros arrive in homes in the form from the ubiquitous Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64, through to the less common Vic 20, Sinclair 128, Oric 1, and Jupiter Ace. Bookstores and libraries had books teaching children to write games, artistic software, poetry, databases, monitor sensors, to build and control robots. The BBC had The Computer Programme which targetted a general audience, and published its own book to accompany it. ITV also had a TV show about computers, which focussed on games, and clearly targetted children.
No-one really knew what they would do with their micro, but people believed it would be important. The BBC's stamp of approval on computers, and specifically microcomputers, was a ray of optimism. While many ended up being used for playing games, some for running businesses, some in critical systems, they were also in the hands of children.
When switched on micros unceremoniously dumped the user into a coding environment. It was as quick and easy to type in a 2 line programme that printed "Hello World" as it was to load a game from a tape cassette. Many of the books targetted at kids had games that fitted onto a page or two, and described in friendly terms.
By contrast, loading a program from cassette was a fraught thing. You had to have a tape player with the right sort of connector. You had to get the volume levels just right - too low and it wouldn't be detectable, too high and you'd get distortion. The BBC even experimented with distributing programs over radio late at night. You'd record it off the radio, and later hope that you could load it. This even worked sometimes.
A significant proportion of kids who wanted to play games turned to typing in programs (and the having to figure out where they broke it), as well as trying to figure out why they couldn't load a game from tape. Since tapes were very easy to duplicate, a cottage industry was born from bedroom coding.
In 1985, Marty McFly went Back to the Future, and went back in time 30 years to 1955 which then looked dated and primitive. At the end of the film, Doc Brown went to the future by 30 years - to 2015, and then to Marty's surprise came back and said "It's your kids! We've got to do something about your kids!". Like Doc Brown, we're now 30 years on from when The Computer Programme first aired (Jan-March 1982).
In a way that mirrors Doc Brown's complaint about our time, many are now calling that something needs to be done about our kids. Kids have stopped coding.
Why? Can something be done about it? Should something be done about it? These are questions that have been asked for a while now, and what just a few snowflakes a few years ago, is now an avalanche of questions. Furthermore, many are asking "What could the BBC do today? What should the BBC do today?". This isn't a new question, but one that has been growing for the past few years.
Given that to the children of today in 2012, 1982 looks as ancient and backward as 1955 did to children in 1985, are the solutions timeless, or do they need an update?
So, right now, the BBC is asking these questions, and looking to find answers. Specifically BBC Learning - the same part of the BBC (or at least its spiritual descendent) that was responsible for the digital literacy programme that led to things like the BBC Micro.
One of the questions that has been asked is "If you were going to build a BBC Micro today, what would it look like?". There have been numerous answers to that. Another question is "If you were to focus on a language, what would it be?". If you were to focus on the web, what would that look like? What about electronics? What about robots?
At the heart of the BBC is the audience. In this case children. Whilst many computer professionals (myself included) have said that coding, and more generally computational thinking is a crucial skill, there is one question that hasn't been asked: "Are children even interested?", "Can they be inspired to be learn?", "Should they?".
Meanwhile, there's also interest in schools. Late last summer, Alan O'Donohue, an enthusiastic teacher at Our Lady's High School in Preston attended an unconference held at Media City UK, and had an idea about the BBC doing something with schools again. That initial idea played out as if it was real, and showed the real depth of support for such a thing across various groups inside the BBC and inside the northern tech community. Whilst that was a hoax - loved by some, hated by others - the level of support for the idea led Alan to the idea of bringing the unconference ethos of bringing geeks and their enthusiasm into his school.
He called this event "Hack to the Future" - a play on the "something's got to be done about our kids" comment in Back to the Future from 30 years ago. By hook and crook, he encouraged, wheedled and generally charmed many groups into supporting the event. In the end he had around 100 geeks and 200 children attending. Alan's own words describing the event:
"Hack to the Future? It's about putting the Digital Creatives of Today, people like software developers, computer scientists, with the digital creatives of tomorrow. So we've got teachers coming along, and I'm hoping the teachers will feel inspired. I've also got parents coming along. A lot of these parents are saying "Wow! This is great! I wish when I was at school we did these sorts of things. We've got people from industry, so there are software developers here, some of them work for Microsoft, Google, the BBC, larger organisations, and it's about getting all these people together in one space and seeing what can come out of it."
This was clearly an opportunity for BBC Learning Innovation to gauge the level of interest was today, and find out if we provided the right tools, platform or materials, would kids be interested? Can they be inspired ? This was an opportunity they grabbed and took full advantage of, much to the delight of the children attending.
As an aside, why am I, in R&D (not Learning), writing about this? Well, BBC R&D's job is to support the rest of the BBC - that we should do work to promote the BBC's public purposes. These include promoting education and learning, stimulating creativity and cultural excellence, and delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services, and all of these seem relevant here. As for why I am writing this, I'm passionately interested about this area, and believe that supporting BBC Learning in this is vitally important. Also, the co-location of BBC R&D's North Lab with many departments at Media City has provided an unprecedented opportunity for lightweight collaboration such as this.
As for what happened on the day, rather than tell you, I'll let BBC Learning show you, and hopefully inspire you to help organise something similar.
Videos don't show everything though, and in this case the thing that sticks in my mind is just how busy we were. In Howard Baker's (of BBC Learning) words:
"We've got a room packed, packed, packed, with kids, all wanting to do something. We've got all their parents, there. So parents and kids coming to this place because they know it's important, and there's a huge buzz around it."
Seeing the light come on in children's eyes as they realised they had made the computer do this was inspirational. The amazement that actually computers are really stupid and the instructions are simple, and that they could change things was truly exciting for them. Not only this, whilst they were eager and excited coming in, they left even more eager, excited, and inspired to do more.
The answer to the question "Are children even interested?" is very clearly "More than ever before".
This shouldn't be a surprise - children grow up in a world surrounded by computers, 91-92% of homes have broadband, and hence a child programmable device (in the form of the browser). They have them at home in the form of desktops or laptops. They're embedded in games consoles, in remote controls in their digital TV set top box, through to games controllers, and even toys with micro-controllers as capable as the micros of yesteryear (though locked down). Unlike adults, children don't see the computer as something they can't open up and change. They simply see that as something they haven't learnt to do yet, like learning to drive, or ride a bike or fix a bike, or fix a car, and equally exciting.
What happens next? That I can't say, and it's not my place to commit the BBC. However, I do know that whilst these discussions haven't finished, wheels have been set in motion and our journey has started. There's enthusiasm and support from children and also from the geek/tech community. We need to remember that it's not just learning to code that matters, nor the more generally useful superset of skills of computational thinking, but it needs to be engaging, playful, useful and inspiring to children.
On a final note, the BBC got me interested in robots through K9. Through Micro Live I saw people making amazing things, including Pixar's Luxor Lamp short, people dreaming of the possibility of making an entire feature film using computer graphics, and so on. Now 30 years later I'm at the BBC building systems that require the same skills needed to build K9, and wondering how to support BBC Learning inspire the next generation.
So, bearing in mind where we are today with mobiles, the web, social networks, TV, radio, rather than where we were, how would you inspire the next generation?