A week ago George Osborne and Michael Gove officially launched Year of Code, a campaign that aims to get more people coding both through a call to action to take part in an Hour of Code this March and the introduction of Computing to the national curriculum. One way and another the campaign has had a bumpy start. Several people I like and admire have blogged and tweeted about the campaign and its limitations in damning terms. They make many persuasive points:
Yes, Code is a reductive term that doesn’t adequately describe either the content of the new Computing curriculum or the range of digital skills needed in the UK.
Yes, experienced programmers and educators are severely under-represented on the board of advisors.
Yes, £500,000 is a small amount of money to fund the training of teachers in a full scale system change (essentially 2 days class cover for 1000 teachers).
Yes, the argument that learning code is a route to a stronger economy is unproven.
And no, you can’t learn to code in a day or an hour (but you can make something using programming languages that can open your imagination to the possibilities of digital creativity).
Make Things Do Stuff was the last digital skills campaign that the Chancellor championed and Michael Gove cited Nesta’s Next Gen report when announcing the curriculum review so I don’t want to throw too many stones at my plate glass walls; but one thing I’m proud that we did well with Make Things was connect with the ever growing, passionate community of grass roots organisations and education networks that have led the digital maker movement in the UK. By working with them for nearly a full year before launch, we learned that any national campaign should be about more than code. We learned that the route to change was through amplifying what was already going on, rather than trying to own the space.
This is a generous movement. The community is happy to support any initiative that shares their values. They will share course materials and resources that took months to write, for free. They will give up valuable time to support events and launches. They will give advice and support to people who on paper should be their rivals. The message has always been: we’re stronger together.
With that in mind, I want to see Year of Code succeed. Success could mean great organisations like Code Club and Coder Dojo reap the benefits. If it fails, I fear the fallout could damage the growing momentum of the digital makers movement.
I genuinely believe that the UK government wants to improve the digital literacy of the nation and that’s to be applauded. The move from ICT to Computing (not coding or computer science, but Computing) is a big deal. Young people as creators not just consumers of technology is not just rhetoric - it’s something to aim for.
I can see a big role for Year of Code as part of a community of organisations and campaigners who champion the digital skills of young people in the UK. But some work is needed to make that happen.
For what it’s worth here’s five things I think could help the campaign:
1) Connect with your champions. There’s a big volunteer community out there who are teaching code, alongside other digital skills, who understand the challenges and joys inspiring young people to create rather than consume. They’re a chatty bunch. Talk with them. Make Things Do Stuff has more than 40 partner organisations signed up and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
2) Get them on the advisory team. Make the most of the huge wave of activity, innovation and expertise there is for digital making of all kinds. Look at the team behind Code.org’s Hour of Code, there are academics, curriculum researchers and teachers alongside the business leaders and investors.
3) Mind the gap. How can Year of Code connect with new and different communities? Current participants are overwhelmingly London centric, middle class and male. The Web For Everyone campaign is leading on connecting disadvantaged young people to the opportunities of the internet. What can Year of Code do to support the need to speak to a wider audience?
4) Recognise the limitations and strengths of the word Code. At best it’s a shorthand term. Mozilla’s Doug Belshaw writes brilliantly on this. Whether it’s scripting or programming or HTML, writing machine languages is core to making new technologies. Ultimately, it’s what you make that inspires people– not the language you used to make it.
5) Make something cool. When you’re interviewed by a journalist asking if you know code, pull out that Arduino-powered games console or musical glove and talk them through what you learned making it. It shows coding has a purpose beyond producing better employees for Google. Making things with code can be creative, inspiring and fun.
There are a bunch of ideas to get started here: http://makethingsdostuff.co.uk
Tom Kenyon, Director: Digital Education