PCR spoke to Laura Kirsop, MD of Code Club, about the market for educational technology and what firms can do to make the most of the new computing curriculum…
Could you please give a brief overview of the technology and projects you use to teach children coding?
Everything about Code Club is designed to have a very low barrier to entry. We only use free (and preferably open source) software that is easily downloadable onto an average schools PC, and the projects we create assume no prior user knowledge.
We start children making games and animations in Scratch, move them onto making websites in HTML and CSS, and then by the end of their two years they can code in Python.
Our curriculum is being refreshed at the moment to have a challenge-based learning focus – this means lots of problem solving and chances to apply learning straight away.
Do you have any partnerships with technology retailers or suppliers?
Two of our corporate partners for 2014 are ARM Holdings and Samsung.
As a non-profit organisation we are reliant upon sponsorship and grants to fund the work that we do, and we like to partner with technology companies that understand our vision and aims. They provide us with funds to do our work, but they are also crucial in spreading the word about Code Club into the industry.
We rely on volunteer programmers to run our clubs – it’s a great chance for people from the technology sector to get involved in education and help kids develop the skills they need to become great programmers. They act as role models for the children – their enthusiasm and knowledge opens up doors for these kids. We hope the children are inspired to continue programming and digital making for the rest of their lives, whether that’s in their spare time or as a career.
We have recently partnered with Technology Will Save Us who are pretty much my favourite company in the world. They provide kits so you can make your own hardware. Google funded us both to give away 900 kits to our clubs all over the UK. This means kids in our clubs will be building and programming their own games consoles in September. Too cool.
What are the primary factors that you take into account when designing coding projects for children?
First of all, they need be fun.
Because Code Club is an after-school club, the emphasis must be on creative, fun ways of learning.
We recently mapped out our curriculum to ensure that there is a logical progression of skills, so children are being taught a new concept each week (eg. loops, variables) and then are given lots more chances to revisit the concept when they are making awesome games and applications further down the line.
The projects are designed to guide children independently through the process of making – they have time to go at their own pace, experiment and play.
Do you believe that the new computing-centric curriculum has taken the right steps to develop the presence of technology education in schools?
The new curriculum is great. It has a focus on understanding computer science concepts and making programs so we’re fully behind it.
Primary schools were doing lots of awesome multimedia work in ICT before – eg. film making and editing – so I hope they don’t forget about that.
The scope of what you can teach under the ‘computing’ banner is actually quite wide. The curriculum document itself is quite brief, which hopefully allows teachers to interpret it as they see fit and do what’s right for their school and their pupils (after they’ve decoded the technical language in it).
As our projects are written for the after-school setting we haven’t mapped them onto the new curriculum, so we just want to make it clear to teachers that by using our projects they won’t necessarily be covering the right things.
What are the barriers to wider adoption of technology in UK schools?
The main barrier is cost and the priorities of shrunken school budgets.
All the schools in the UK now have PCs, interactive whiteboards and broadband. The very basics are there.
Lots of schools are now investing in tablets and I’m not really sure that’s the right thing to be doing – there’s definitely an element of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ as the rate of adoption is pretty crazy.
I’d like to see schools investing in things like the Raspberry Pi, Technology Will Save Us kits and 3D printers, which teach children to make, build and program, rather than seamless consumer electronics that encourage kids to just be users of tech.
How can suppliers help to support educational institutions and children learning computing subjects?
Most suppliers and retailers need to step back and think really carefully about whether what they are selling into schools is appropriate for the era of makers and making ¬– the era of the computing curriculum.
Schools are bombarded with companies trying to sell to them and most of the software and hardware is substandard. A lot of the schools I go into have dreadfully maintained PCs and networks, installed with a decade’s worth of software that they barely use. They have none of the new things being produced by small and exciting companies who really understand computing and making.
At the moment companies exploit teachers’ inexperience with technology and lack of time to sell terrible products to them, as they know they can get away with it. Companies should have higher expectations of schools and teachers, sell in innovative products and then support and train the teachers to work with it.
How do you feel about technology such as the Raspberry Pi?
I'm not sure about the influence it has had on children's interest in tech, but I do think it's great for small British businesses and great for raising awareness of what is out there and what is possible. Hopefully adult interest in technology like this will trickle down to the children.
Do you believe that relatively new and expensive technology such as 3D printing is worthwhile to adopt in schools?
Stuff like 3D printers are perfectly affordable now, especially the ones you can build yourself – you can pick them up for a few hundred pounds.
I've managed a school’s ICT budget, so I know its tight, but I think if you examine your priorities and look at what expensive subscriptions and licenses you can do without, technology like 3D printers become affordable, even with training for staff on top of the purchase.
School ICT has been modeled along office lines – banks of black PCs that take 10 minutes to turn on. This has to change. School technology shouldn’t look like that – it should be fun, creative and encourage tinkering, making and programming.
Do you believe that technology developed specifically for children is beneficial or detrimental?
I think there's a balance to be struck.
Children do need things designed specifically for them while they are in the early stages of learning, but we have to make sure that what they learn is easily transferrable to ‘adult’ technology.
What are the biggest developments currently happening in the education technology space?
I think that once we get through the first couple of years of implementing the computing curriculum and teachers get more comfortable with the language and technologies they need to use, we'll see horizons broaden a great deal.
This transition period will be followed by one where technology is embraced and teachers have the confidence to let children explore and create – just like they do in other subjects.
The decreasing cost of exciting new hardware will mean that it will become affordable to schools, resulting in a wider range of tools and technology available to pupils and teachers.