The next generation of digital innovators is already out there. We are just not looking in the right places nor giving them the tools and support they need to flourish, says Chris Gabriel. But what has a Raspberry PI got to do with it?
Speaking in October 2012, UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove said: “If we want our country to produce the next Sir Tim Berners-Lee – creator of the Internet – we need the very best Computer Science teachers in our classrooms. They need to have the right skills and deep subject knowledge to help their pupils.”
He has a point, but is it the right point? These fine words accompanied Mr Gove’s announcement that Microsoft, Facebook and IBM are to help design computer science training courses for school teachers.
The aim, fairly obviously, is to ensure that teachers themselves have the skills and knowledge required to deliver ICT classes with a greater focus on computer science. In a related development, the minister also announced that the government will scrap the current ICT curriculum, replacing it with a renewed and refocused curriculum with a greater emphasis on how to code, and far less on how to right-justify text. That was in January, but we are yet to hear anything more…
The problem with all that is good, even great teachers can only make a difference if pupils are genuinely engaged with the subject. A focus on algorithms and computer science theory is all very well, but how do you make them exiting – especially when the outgoing ICT curriculum has succeeded only in shepherding the next generation away from formalised ICT qualifications?
It’s important here that we don’t confuse engagement with technology and engagement with the science of technology. Yes, today’s teenagers are ‘digital natives’ adept at using technology – but they are far less enthused by learning about technology.
The latest Real Time Generation Survey tells us that the UK’s 13-17 year olds don’t think much of the current curriculum either. An overwhelming 71% think technology education in schools is frankly boring. The effects of boring lessons are well known, and the fact that IT A-levels now account for just 0.4% of all A-level enrolments only serves to reinforce the point.
Even so, 13-17 year olds haven’t been put off completely. They are voracious consumer technology users, and expert users at that. But how many represent a new generation of ‘digital adventurers’ – akin to the generation that spawned innovators like Berners-Lee?
Many like to get stuck in when it comes to IT but too often as ‘expert consumers’ rather than as ‘computing experts’ - for instance acting as a part time help desk for parents and grandparents (as 78% of ‘Realtimers’ have). Useful and satisfying though it certainly is, helping granny to get her email working is not the first step along the road to a fruitful career as an IT innovator.
It is much, much more encouraging to see that 16% of 13-17 year olds have programmed a computer, a trend the launch of the Raspberry PI, a computer priced at less than the latest console game, can only encourage. Similarly, the experience of the rather brilliant Young Rewired State (YRS) network is very encouraging.
Essentially, YRS is a network for developers aged 18 and under. When it kicked off in 2009, it had 50 members – all of whom had to be hand picked because they were learning on their own in total isolation. Nobody had a list because there was no formal support or education network. They were, quite literally, off grid.
Three years later, the network has 600 members and 42 centres across the UK. It puts young coders in touch via events, and helps them stay in touch so they can learn from each other. As Emma Mulqueeny, founder of YRS, put it, the organisation is trying to find and engage with “every kid who is sitting in a bedroom trying to do this alone.”
There are lessons in all this for the government, lessons which one can’t help but hope are heeded when plans for that much talked about new ICT curriculum are finally put together.
First of all, we have to re-engage young people with the guts of technology, not just the shiny devices, and social tools. Yes, skilled teachers are important, but starting with the theory is, in my opinion, a mistake. Let them play with technology, and the questions about theory will come – more importantly, the answers will be listened to and absorbed with gusto.
Here’s a thought. There are currently 4.2 million 11-16 year olds in the UK. The total cost of providing one Raspberry Pi device to share between three – so they can experiment with technology as part of a refreshed ICT curriculum - would be about £30m (and that’s retail price). For a country apparently so keen to produce ‘the next Tim Berners-Lee’ that does not seem a very high price to pay. Something like that has already started, Google, in conjunction with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, are planning to give away 15,000 Raspberry Pi devices to schools in the UK. With over 4,000 secondary schools in the UK it is less than 4 devices per school; but it's a start.
Secondly, make sure there is extra-curricular provision for those kids that want to do more than is possible in a one hour lesson once every ten days. The lesson from YRS is pretty clear – they are out there and engaging with them creates a ripple effect. More get involved as friends hear about their exploits. They start to learn from each other much faster than they can learn from a teacher, trained by Microsoft and Facebook or not – and they innovate, rather than copying tried and tested routes. Isn’t that what we want? Innovators?
That combination of experimentation and the ripple effect that comes when you give these kids a chance to work together and learn from each other with the support of skilled educators could offer a powerful means by which to re-ignite interest in technology – because it draws on things they are already doing.
Those of us who hope to see a new generation of Berners-Lees emerge can only hope that the government listens as much to students as it does to think tanks and industry when it comes to ICT education – and that is a sentiment that I feel confident 100% of Realtimers would agree with.