Campaigning for coding

  • 3 March 2014
  • From the section Technology
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The campaign to get children coding has hit a few bumps in the road lately. The launch of the Year of Code turned into something of a PR fiasco, with attention focused on the lack of programming experience of many of those involved. Even the use of the term coding instead of programming offended some.

But this week's Hour of Code - an attempt to get schools across the UK to give their pupils just a flavour of programming - may prove a better way of promoting the idea that we need to improve the way children understand computing.

When I went along to the campaign launch at Westminster City School, I found one thing that is common to all the various campaigns - huge enthusiasm by those involved - and a couple of things that some have lacked.

The first important strategic move was getting the right level of expertise involved, and making sure that the computing industry was on board. From the British Computer Society, to Computing At School and Microsoft, all sorts of companies and organisations are lending their expertise to the Hour of Code.

And the woman running it, Avid Larizadeh, is not going to be popping up on Newsnight to explain that she has never done any coding but thinks it's a great idea. While she runs her own online fashion business, she has a background in programming and engineering. "I lead my development team as well as the creative direction of site - I've been able to marry both things."

That idea that you can combine engineering and creative skills is what she hopes will inspire both boys and girls to get involved in coding.

The other pitfall that the Hour of Code is trying to avoid is to exaggerate what can be achieved.

"It won't make you into a coder but it will expose you to the fun of creating things and making things," says Avid Larizadeh.

Simon Peyton-Jones, chairman of Computing and Schools and a Microsoft engineer also stresses that it's just about introducing children to the idea of programming and then hoping they will go on to a greater understanding: "This gives everybody a chance to dip a toe in the water, find out what programming is about, and then broaden to understand what the subject discipline of computer science is about, just as they learn about science from pond-dipping at primary school."

Certainly, the school children at the launch seemed enthused by the various options on offer - from the Kodu Game Lab to computing without a computer. The difficulty for the campaigners is to make the idea of coding attractive and accessible without being accused by experienced programmers of dumbing down their profession.

And then there's that small matter of language. "Oh, I just wish they would call it computing, not coding," said a man from the computer industry at the launch. But we ended up agreeing that the "Hour of Computing" might not be quite so marketable to a generation often bored by the old ICT curriculum.

If your school is keen to get involved - or if you're an older person wanting to get a flavour of programming - then there are plenty of resources on the Hour of Code website. As you can see, my colleague Mark Ward had great fun trying it out with his twin boys.

Some of the BBC's School Report teams have also been trying out coding, and there will be more material on their site over the coming weeks for schools wanting to get involved in featuring computing in their School Report activities.