Cracking coding: Why schools should invest in computer programming

Released 26/07/2013

How should schools be approaching computer programming and what should they be investing in to boost engagement? CARRIE SERVICE takes a look at the technology currently being used in schools and speaks to an expert about emerging challenges

Curriculum changes that came into play last September saw children as young as eight learning how to program. Such a significant change in direction has meant schools have had to act quickly in order to adjust their ICT provision to accommodate new methods of teaching. So what should your school be doing to ensure they are getting with the program programme? 


SCRATCHING THE SURFACE

Due to the introduction of programs like Scratch, schools can now teach young children the basics of programming in a user-friendly and age appropriate way. With Scratch, children can program their own interactive stories, games, and animations — and share their creations with others in the online community.

For older children, programming can be even more exciting, with the introduction of things like robotics really bringing computing to life. In celebration of America’s National Robotics Week recently, a robot named NAO was used in a group of schools in Kansas to teach programming, following a partnership with a French start-up company called Aldebaran Robotics. 

Students used NAO to apply mathematical formula via a virtual computer game, to help them solve hypothetical problems such as calculating the velocity of a moving ball. It is this kind of applicable use of programming that Andy Budd, MD of web design firm Clear Left believes schools need to adopt in order to really engage children in programming. “A hundred years ago it made sense to teach kids Latin… I think now the same can be said of computing,” he says. Budd believes that one of the problems with the way ICT has been taught is that many children feel like it has little relevance to the world they live in. “Which is why I think the old ICT course failed,” he explains. “What teachers need to do is to be able to build some relevance.” So how can schools achieve this?

GAME ON

 

It is common knowledge that children like playing computer games – they have even proven effective as a teaching tool if used properly. But what about taking it to the next level and getting children to actually build the game themselves, from scratch? Budd believes that this could hold the key to making students realise the power and importance of programming to everyday life. “I think there is a really interesting opportunity there. A lot of the people who are in technology at my age, they learned because of the BBC Micro and the Spectrum and one of the first things they did was build computer games. We’ve just recently seen a sixteen-year-old sell a mobile app to Yahoo for $30m. I was recently at a conference in Amsterdam where two of the keynote speakers were 13-year-olds. One of them was the youngest CEO in the world – both of them had mobile app companies. A lot of this is because these kids have grown up in a world where technology is native.”

FREEDOM TO LEARN

One of the main issues stifling the progress of computing in schools is a reticence to allow pupils access to the network. “There are so many computer protocols, safety protocols and so many websites are blocked it’s impossible for the kids to actually get access to the resources they need to teach themselves to program,” says Budd. “Ironically, I’ve heard of situations where programmers have gone into a school for a day and had to sketch things on paper because the computer system’s so locked-down it’s impossible to load up the programming language and the tools they need. I think schools need to have less fear of their children accessing technology,” he adds.

A SLICE OF THE PI

The cheap and cheerful Raspberry Pi has been the hero in many a programming tale told over the past 12 months. And there’s good reason. Available for as little as £17, they are something that most schools can afford, and have proven to be a hit with students. At the Raspberry Jamboree Panel Discussion held earlier this year by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Vicki Dodd a teacher of ICT and computing at Ashton Community Science College in Preston, spoke about the reaction she gets from her students. “It excites them, because they can see that it hasn’t got a nice shiny shell – and they can’t believe that such a small thing can do so much,” she said. Christine Swann an ICT teacher and member of the Raspberry Pi Foundation was equally enamoured: “My budget is so restricted that [it’s hard] to find something that’s very cost-effective and so flexible as the Pi and can be used in so many different ways for so many activities… I can even use it in classrooms where there aren’t computers. And that I think is very exciting.”

So investment in technology can play a key part in how programming is received by students, and procuring culturally relevant software and cost-effective adaptable hardware can certainly impact on engagement. But Budd warns that schools should be wary of simply buying their way out of the curriculum changes and should think about investing in CPD for ICT teachers too: “No matter how many shiny bits of technology you have, if you don’t have staff who actually understand the technology and are passionate about it, you will never get that passion through to the kids.”

This article appears in the July issue of Education Executive magazine. If you'd like to be the first to receive content like this on your desk, subscribe here.

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