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Teaching coding to kids at Hack to the Future

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Michael Sparks | 22:27 UK time, Tuesday, 3 April 2012

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.

So when Alan reached out to the BBC, I offered to help out any way that I could. It transpired that the best way I could help out was to write tutorials, and help out on the day. So that's exactly what I did. The platform we were using was targetted around HTML and Javascript due to the ubiquity of clients and editors.

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.


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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."

From the moment we arrived and sessions started, to the moment sessions finished, we were rushed off our feet as dozens of eager and excited children came through the door to see what it was all about. We had children blinging up a "hello world" web page adding animations. We had children modifying and extending a HTML/ajax based quiz application. Many others worked on changing an HTML5/canvas based image manipulation/filtering tool. We also had teachers eagerly asking if/when the materials for the tutorials would be released. (After all, being HTML/Javascript based, they could run anywhere - like BASIC of yesterday.)

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.

This was repeated across every session at Hack to the Future, with lots of "micro development environments" available for children to pick up and learn. From our javascript platform, through many arduino, gadgeteer, playmycode, yousrc and many others. The common theme was that children did want to learn how to teach machines how to do things, no matter what language or tool was placed in front of them.

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?


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks, an excellent write up that gives lots of food for thought. The account of loading programs from radio broadcasts stirs up memories of another BBC MicroLive project. For this the viewers had to build a light receiver interface using a photo-transistor to receive computer programs direct from the television screen, not too disimilar from the way a light pen worked. Computer programs were transmitted for BBC, Sinclair and Commodore computers. There was a 'hotspot' in the corner of the screen to attach the DIY interface to. Computer programs were broadcast during ordinary transmissions using rapid flashing of a small white 'cursor' in the corner of the screen. I clearly remember building it and trying it, but I had problems maintaining a constant contact with the television screen. It certainly drew some strange reactions from my parents who thought I was trying to hack the TV.

    In addition to the Hack To The Future film and and blog post, it is worth know that I have created links to the many other blogs and videos recorded on the day (11.02.2012). They are at the bottom of this blog post here... https://teachcomputing.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/hack-to-the-future-11-02-12/

  • Comment number 2.

  • Comment number 3.

    For the past 18 months, young people visiting The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park have been shown, seen a demo and in many cases; used one of a cluster of 15 x BBC Model Bs that we have as part of our 80s classroom. This has been our quiet but effective celebration of the 30th birthday of the Beeb.

    Over the past 12 months I suspect that 1000+ young people have entered some code into the Beebs, experienced a command line environment and also been shown something of the 'culture' of that time. They are always interested to see a Beeb power up ready for use in a fraction of a second. Thats the point where they begin to take a look at this 30 year old 'box' more seriously - maybe something is going on here! We show them the inside and talk about how the build compares with earlier computers in the Museum. We show them how ROMs were used to enable extremely fast loading of software and no worries about viruses.

    They chuckle at the magazines and the fact that so many 80s kids (and adults) would spend most of a Saturday entering hundreds of lines of code just for a game. Some are interested in how so many beebs are 'hacked' with copied (woops) ROMS, extender boards, wires here and there. I explain that opening a newly donated Beeb is like archaeology - apart from dust and the occasional spider, you get to peep into the life of a past 'hacker'. Someone who pushed 'their' machine to its limits and demonstrates just what the 'personal' in personal computing really meant.

    The reaction by young people to the Beebs is interesting. Sure they complain a bit sometimes - where is the mouse? OMG the screech of that screen and as one child said once - can i just press a button and make all this code Im typing appear instantly? (he wasnt too keen to type 30 lines of code).

    Very few complain about the low res graphics, lack of much colour, no GUI, surround sound and amazing games. Many will copy in some code to make a simple game and 'get the point' of what was happening at that time. Its all so easy, so quick and safe.

    No, its not nostalgia. They look and use the Beeb as part of building their understanding of the development of computers over 60+ years from Colossus onwards. The Beebs show them a third gen device and we have a chance to explore the social context not just the hardware.

    From the BBC Bs, we explore some authentic BBC Domesday machines and the rise of a GUI and from there the large BBC Domesday Touchtable - where we get to think about what the next decade might bring - some future gazing.

    Part of teaching kids to code and inspiring them is about showing them that we have been coding computers for a long long time and they are joining a long line of young coders. The computers are different and the programming languages are more numerous, but the point remains the same. Taking control of this machine, making it reflect the operations we rehearse in our brains and then enjoying theat feeling of YES .. as the computer (whatever its age) obeys the master!

    We expect more than 2000 young people will visit TNMOC in the next 12 months through school, college and Uni visits. I will show every one of those young people the Beebs, most will have a chance to enter a few lines of code and I will continue to repeat my mantra - DONT JUST EAT - COOK. Many of those kids will then know of the Beeb, a real birthday achievement I think and as they complete their Beeb piece of TNMOC I challenge them to research the Rasberry Pi and opportunities to 'carry on coding'.

    BTW BBC - we need to replace Saturday Kitchen with Saturday Coding, with guest coders and guest amateurs - all cooking code and not just eating it!

    Chris Monk
    Learning Co-ordinator at TNMOC

  • Comment number 4.

    I thought the licence fee was to be used to pay for TV/radio production/broadcasts and an internet news service. It's because of this type of scope creep (100 geeks and 200 children) perpetrated against general licence fee payers that I've stopped paying it and rely on catch up services instead. Back to basics BB, there's an austerity on!

  • Comment number 5.

    I think that the biggest positive impact that the BBC can have as an organisation is to encourage the reversal of the stereotype of programmers being spotty male nerds, with arcane knowledge. Programming computers should be presented to children as an accessible activity, a tool to be employed when problem solving.

    My children love 'Nina and the Neurons' on Cbeebies, if Nina used her computer for more than just e-mail and perhaps was seen to be using it as a tool for solving problems, an understanding would be given to the audience that programming computers is an activity like cooking or driving a car, i.e. something you have learn, but hugely beneficial once that investment is made. In this regard, I agree completely with Chris Monk's comment above.

    The BBC is in a (nearly) unique position, not just to inspire, but to actively shape the way society views topics like this. Whether we approve of it or not, behaviours that children (and most adults) see on television and mainstream media is quickly absorbed into the conciousness as being 'normal'. This output can do a lot to help reverse the negative stereotypes that are preventing children engaging at an early age in creative computing.

    Jim Blackhurst
    Online Operations Manager - Square Enix Europe.

  • Comment number 6.

    In response to comments above-

    2. mstombs - Of course, you are right to mention Raspberry Pi. Many individuals and organisations were invited to contribute to this event. During the period of planning we received messages of support from Raspberry Pi foundation and David Braben among others. The H2DF event was in the critical last few weeks leading up to the launch of Raspberry Pi and while they expressed a desire to send a representative, in the end this proved problematic. We did have some volunteers from the Raspberry Pi community in attendance. It is worth noting that many of the activities children were being introduced to during H2DF are compatible with a Raspberry Pi computer, eg. linux, Play My Code, Quest.

    3. CooCooBJoob - Chris, I agree with you about the magic and potential power of the BBC Classroomm at TNMOC. The experience of entering and editing code is a much more empowering and challenging experience than switching something on and watching it carry out the instructions that someone else has determined.

    4. James Rigby - Yes, it is always worth reading and considering alternative viewpoints. It is perhaps worth stating that the BBC didn't make any direct financial contributions to the organisation of this event. The funding was provided by a number of industry organisations that have an interest in engaging the next generation of coders. The BBC's purposes (as set out by Royal Charter) are to inform, educate and entertain. While the UK was once recognised as hosting one of the great manufacturing industries in the World, the business of making large quantities of low cost items now happens in other parts of the globe where labour costs are lower. In recent years, the UK was recognised as a world leader of innovations in computing hardware and software. Some are fighting desperately, clutching on to the hope that this title can be restored again and that may help bring revenue back to the UK. If the actions of the BBC (through educating, informing and entertaining) can help channel some of this activity and at the same time engage the next generation of creators and developers, it may well just help this country out of austerity, even if only to inspire others to believe that this is possible.

    5. Jim - I couldnt agree more regarding stereotypes. One of the goals of the Hack To The Future events has been to re-educate society about these stereotypes, helping make these pursuits seem 'normal'. Have you read about our 'Meet The Geek' activity on 05.03.2011? https://teachcomputing.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/hack-to-the-future-bbc-media-city-5thmarch2012/

  • Comment number 7.

    Surprised at there being no mention of BBC BASIC, arguably one of the most lasting legacies of the original BBC Computer Literacy Project, and still a popular programming language, especially in schools.


  • Comment number 8.

    Fantastic stuff! - its because of projects like this that I'm happy to pay my license fee. My son was one of those kids who started early in the 80s with the commodore etc today, because of the systems he has built for his business, thy are operating in the Uk and USA creating real jobs. Don't get too hung up on whether the article mentioned BBC BASIC and nostalgia or about the Raspberry Pi, which is having enormous success. During these austere times the lessons learnt are that we should be investing in education, youth, technology, innovation etc OR stagnate. And yes that includes the BBC getting involved with such projects (and other large organisations) so they have access to technologists/programmers in the future.

  • Comment number 9.

    A few replies: (not to all, and please bear in mind these are *my* opinions !)

    mstombs, Richard Russell -- I didn't mention either of those technologies, primarily because they didn't spring to mind. That might seem odd, but the Raspberry Pi wasn't present at Hack to the Future, which is probably why it didn't spring to mind. BBC BASIC likewise didn't spring to mind because it didn't really feature largely for me *personally*. A personal blind spot I guess - I went the ZX 81/Commodore Plus/4, Amiga route through school. BBC BASIC's biggest role for me was in legitimising BASIC, effectively making it a standard on micros of the day. (The Jupiter Ace being a notable exception which failed, probably due to having FORTH rather than BASIC)

    CooCooBJoob/Chris - Regarding Saturday Coding - I don't know how representative I am, but love the idea :-)

    James Rigby - ou'll be pleased to hear that this was an external event to which the BBC was invited, and as far as I'm aware most of the attendees (including me) were volunteers, on their own time, at their own expense. I perhaps could've been clearer on those two points, and will bear it in mind in future.

    As a bit of wider context, the BBC's public purposes - specifically include "Promoting education and learning" and "Delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services". The means of doing this are as you say, primarily TV, Radio and Online. The opportunity Hack to the Future presented was to sanity check what is needed in this space, without the expense of building a radio/TV/online programme only to discover that the same money could be targetted better.


    Many thanks to all for the comments, they're very useful and welcome.

  • Comment number 10.


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