Young Rewired State – an update

For any of you who are unaware of Young Rewired State, here is a video from this year’s Festival of Code

To date we have made it our focus to find and foster every child in the UK driven to teach themselves how to code; to support them through community and peer-to-peer learning, and introduce them to open data, primarily open government data. If you would like to read up more on what we do and why, here is a White Paper written by Dominic Falcao, a student at York University.

So we have come far in the last four years and as we enter our fifth year we really are going hyperlocal and global – as I mentioned in a previous post.

Since that post I have had some very great discussions with developer communities in several regions outside the UK, including Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, Kenya and San Francisco – and the narrative has become more clear, why this is so important and how this very well could be the beginning of a game-changing, independent, worldwide community.

Let me explain…

The idea is to start as we did in 2009 in the UK with one weekend in a number of International regions. Find 50 local children, aged 18 or under, driven to teach themselves how to code, and introduce them to open government data in a traditional hack-style event. During these weekends these young programmers will be mentored by their local coding community, as they are in the UK, but as well, they are remotely supported by the worldwide members and mentors for YRS, through twitter hashtags and IRC channels.

If history can repeat itself over the following five years, each of these first 50 will continue to be mentored and add to their number, growing to 500 in five years, maybe more – and then becoming hyperlocal.

The dream is for a child in Berlin to find it completely usual to be supporting a child in New York, for example, with a local civic problem, or just in their learning. For them to grow up expecting and understanding open data and open borders. And almost more importantly to be forever a part of a worldwide community of like-minded people – never again coding alone.

The beauty of this network is that it is so local, we are working with established developer networks and organisations in all of the countries, and as these children become 19 they *typically* fold back into Young Rewired State as mentors. This is important as it creates a support network for teachers and educators worldwide that is so needed.

We work also in partnership with those organisations teaching young people to code, giving them somewhere to continue the learning through collaborative, peer-to-peer education that can scale according to talent and desire.

YRS Scotland

This weekend sees the very first of these hyperlocal events in the UK, with a group of young programmers in Scotland starting their YRS journey. You can follow the action and add your mentor support by following the hashtag: YRSSCO2012 on twitter.

I really do believe these children can actually change the world, and I am grateful to the huge community who have supported us in the UK and overseas to get to now.

We are run as a not-for-profit social enterprise. Here is how you can get involved

Learn to code at any age

This is a cross-post of something I wrote for The Guardian, but just thought would be handy to have on the blog over here. It is also a small update from an old post: How to teach kids, or anyone, how to code – that’s the history bit done! Now the science…

The beauty of programming is that it does not matter how old you are (within reason – under 7 is possibly a bit optimistic) you can learn using exactly the same, mostly free resources to be found on the Internet. You can learn basic programming easily within a year and then you can choose to hone and refine whichever aspects of coding most excite you. Done! It’s not hard.

For the purposes of this post I have referred to resources aimed primarily at younger people – but they are all useful for the beginner.

Two of the most common questions are:

1. What language (programming language) should I learn/teach?
2. What resources are there out there to learn how to code?

The answer to question 1 is easy: any/all. The younger programmers are typically polyglottal coders, applying different languages to different challenges, with fewer specialising in one language.

The answer to 2 is also easy: there are many and I will list some here. (Do keep an eye out, there are more resources put online every day and it is always worth watching out for more/better/easier ones.)

Please note, I am deliberately *not* going to recommend one language over another, nor opine the benefits/pitfalls of each – find out which one suits you and start there. Another tip is once you have found a language you are keen to learn, then do search YouTube for further free support and tutorials, there are far too many to name-check here, but it is brimming with people willing to share knowledge in an easy to digest fashion.

To really get you in the mood

Whenever I talk about teaching kids to code, or online resources, I always encourage people to watch Randy Pausch’s last lecture and read the introduction to Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or be Programmed. Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture can be watched here

(If you don’t have an hour or so free right now, then come back to it, but watch the ten ish minutes from this point in the video)

Free online resources

By far the most intuitive and simple website released lately is http://codecademy.com It teaches javascript through a series of very short and simple lessons. My 9 year old daughter started coding using this and it just got her into understanding how written code works.

Kids Ruby http://kidsruby.com is also simple, free and fun.

Scratch http://scratch.mit.edu/ is taught in an increasing number of schools now. Created by MIT it is a programming language that helps computational thinking as well as collaborative working as you build, create and share.

For those of you who love to really get into the meat of a subject, then http://learnpythonthehardway.org/ is a great book/free download. It would not be suitable for the very young coder, but do not be put off by the title – it is surprisingly compelling.

Code Project has a great page on Android programming (for mobiles) http://www.codeproject.com/KB/android/AndroidGuide.aspx there are many tutorials for Android but I found this to be the best place to start.

Blitz Academy has a whole list of resources for those thinking about getting a job as a games developer (in fact the reading and link list is interesting for anybody even vaguely interested in anything)

The Bytes Brothers books [http://www.gamebooks.org/show_series.php?id=1171] are a “…sort of a cross between Encyclopedia Brown and Micro Adventure, each volume in this series contains several short mysteries. The user must read carefully and run very simple BASIC computer programs in order to guess the solutions.”

I can’t really leave you without the links to Alice, having started with the Randy Pausch lecture; it is a programming environment not a language:

Alice

Alice is a 3d programming environment, designed to “create an animation for telling a story, playing an interactive game, or a video to share on the web. Alice is a teaching tool for introductory computing. It uses 3D graphics and a drag-and-drop interface to facilitate a more engaging, less frustrating first programming experience.”

So there is Alice 2.0 and Alice 2.2 as well as Story Telling Alice. The latter was the one mentioned by Randy as being developed by Caitlin Kelleher and is “… designed to motivate a broad spectrum of middle school students (particularly girls) to learn to program computers through creating short 3D animated movies.” You can download Story Telling Alice here, but it is not hugely tested, is only available for windows based machines, has no support – but I certainly play about with it with Amy (9).

‘Proper’ Alice has full support and documentation and teaching materials and so on.

And that’s it, but there is a constant stream of useful stuff being built and recorded every day, so this post will date quickly! But once you have learned how to code, join us over at Young Rewired State!

Open Government Data *wince* it’ll take a while… Open Education – next September? No probs

Bear with me, I have a point.

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, today delivered a complete coup de grâce for ICT education by accepting wholeheartedly that ICT education, and indeed the cross-curricular syllabus, was fundamentally broken. He accepted that traditional methods for mending a broken bureaucratic, micro-managed education system would not address the immediacy of the problem, and so he threw it open to the floor.

He made Open Education possible (potentially mandatory) in one speech, and he heralded the Government’s move into…” it’s over to you, gang, do your thing”.

To be fair I am obliterating much of his speech here, but the bit we are most interested in is the fact that Government has seen the problem, examined it and accepted that the answers probably lie out there – somewhere on the Internet.

Let me be clear, this is a good thing - Open Education is the future - BUT YOU CAN’T JUST SPRING IT ON US!!

We need to be able to relax about certain basic human needs: education, health, environment (getting the money in to pay for this through tax, our direct debit to government) and we have to assume that the elected governors will take care of that for us, with the right people helping and advising, steering and delivering – without brain-bleeding charges to the public purse. (Martha Lane-Fox took time and focused advice on how government delivered its open online presence, resulting in the Government Digital Service – which took years to curate, even after her report was published and it is still in its infancy.)

We know about Big Society and we know that the world and its borders are opening up and it is becoming fundamentally digital. We know this and are all pitching in as and when we can, but we definitely still look to government to horizon-scan and come up with a scalable, secure plan for the future – that goes beyond:

Have you *seen* this website? Codecademy.com is awesome

Yes… it is, but…

Let’s pretend

Let’s pretend the education system was the tax system.

Our tax system is fundamentally flawed, we all know this. It’s:

  • Not fit for purpose
  • Deeply complicated
  • Is still run by people working without access to the Internet
  • Requires experts to explain information that could be easily garnered from the web (free – if you have the time)
  • The OFFICIAL BOOKS measure in inches, if you intend to master it yourself

Have you *seen* this website? http://www.justanswer.com/ is awesome <- link chosen to back up point, not after in-depth analysis

The fact is that out of all the 28,000 teachers who qualified in 2010, 3 – THREE – were computer science majors. Three chose to go into teaching, the rest chose to reward their hard-earned degree in the City, or on their own start-ups.

Why?

Money

Money is the elephant in the room here that no one wants to address. It takes money to solve this problem and we do not have money, as a Nation, nor most of us as individuals – not disposable income at any rate, and believe me – it will take many people with disposable income to help solve this across the UK. Hands up, anyone?

What if this was tax?

What if we were saying:

Yes, OK, the tax system is not fit for purpose and fundamentally flawed. But we are not going to spend years over-hauling the tax system and doing what we as government usually do! We say – Yes! You are right… you are vocal and on point in your suggestions so yes, go forth – and fix it… it’s still mandatory, natch, but you can do what you will with all the resources available to you on the Internet. Lots of industry leaders in accounting are going to be making up some new measurements, but it’s OK – we know it’s broken and you have the answer, so go on then :D we will be doing stuff over here…

I am being facetious

Of course I know this would never be the case. Of course I understand that the tax system is way too tricky for me to make such an analogy.

In my opinion if we do not treat education in the same way we respect tax, or even open data – then what exactly is democratic revolution all about?

How can we accept and wholly applaud a Government measure to turn education over to the ‘people’ when it is so utterly broken? This problem has been highlighted ad nauseum (more to come on Friday with the RSA report saying pretty much the same thing as everyone looking at this in any depth).

The issue has been accepted as a given – yes, it’s a terrible state of affairs, thank you Mr Gove for accepting this. However, you cannot step away from the fact that the solution lies in a big collaborative effort between industry and educators, between large and small businesses, corporates and social enterprise – all working in happy harmony with schools, full of children, children whom we protect (rightly) with stringent rules – particularly when we are talking real-life interaction with children, not just digital (but even digitally :/… ) this stuff does not vanish in a well-intentioned speech.

Are we sensible in being so care-free with our youth? Is education really the space where we feel most comfortable throwing open the doors and embracing Open principles without further thought? Let’s face it, Open Government data has been a minefield of risk aversity and open-eyed horror  – but Open Education can be rolled out on a whim, because micro-managing didn’t work?

I worry that in the excitement over freedom granted today to educators for something so utterly fundamental as Computer Science in the UK, so the doors open to frozen blind panic from schools and teachers, turning to potentially unethical opportunists wanting to make a buck and chaos and failure as the result. We cannot afford this.

I worry about publishing this post as I campaign for Open practice, loudly. I have campaigned hard for government to debate the subject on teaching our kids to code – please sign the petition, it has a long way to go… but if a subject is swept away in a general wiff-waff of ‘go forth and educate yourselves’ that we miss a proper, tax-payer funded (probably quite pricey) look at every issue raised – not just the problem. I also fight for Open Data. I welcome collaborative process.

Anyone who has googled Chaos theory will have a basic understanding of the fact that change is exacted through chaos. But also, that chaos is carefully crafted. And studied.

Much though it pains me hugely to say it – we have to keep pushing for a debate. We need this to be taken seriously. Education is not low-hanging fruit.

Today was great, but it was not enough. And I am so sorry to be saying this.

My head teacher won’t let me teach computing

I thought I should follow on from the last post “My ICT teacher can’t mark my homework“.

As I have mentioned a few times, I belong to the utterly excellent group called Computing at School, it is made up of over 700 ICT teachers and people who want to help improve computing in schools. Over the few years I have known of it I have seen many online conversations, most general calls for help and weeping on colleagues’ shoulders about typical teaching frustrations. (I imagine these are common, am not a teacher!).

But recently there has been a noticeable uprising of the JFDI kind, with people making and sharing lesson plans and resources, a definite rise in collaborative energy to kick this ICT and computing discussion into touch. And get on with doing it.

As these horses appeared to bolt from the gate, jockeyed by enthusiasm and a good glug of sheer bloody-mindedness,  I have watched as slowly many of them have fallen, beaten back time and time again either by heads who won’t consider even a computing club, or as today a senior management team who over-rode the supportive Head, with the reason given being (and I am quoting from the post):

  •  Computing is too difficult for the small number that would want to do it (the ‘small number’ being half the GCSE ICT lot).
  • ICT is more useful for a larger number of students.

I am not speaking out of turn here in saying that this is a very common theme and a common argument and it drives me insane and most of the teachers in the group were wearily starting to accept defeat. I have also, to my utter despair, seen members of Young Rewired State fall at the same hurdle, where they have gone into schools and suggested running computing clubs or events, only to be patronised and dismissed.

There are so many counter-arguments to it aren’t there? But you know that in fact, these are not the real reasons, if they were Physics would not be taught, nor music, nor high-jumps, back-flips or burpeez – who cares right?

So is it that the teachers can’t do it?

I don’t think so, there is plenty of enthusiasm to learn and more and more collaborations with local industry people who will lend a hand. Besides learning programming should be something explored and learned together – teacher and pupil, that’s what makes it exciting. It is also not hard, despite John Humphry’s best efforts on Radio 4 yesterday morning to make learning programming sound like learning how to navigate to the moon (and change the wheels on the rocket launcher).

Is it that the text books are too costly?

One person in the CAS group is writing a free one, as I am sure are many of you in Coding for Kids and the general community if you think that is what it will take. There is so much free and open source technology out there – it’s not expensive.

Is it that pupils are taking ICT as a soft subject they will easily pass, adding programming will skew the figures?

Given the ICT ‘A’ Level in this instance required no previous GCSE qualifications to get in, and the curriculum is easy to walk students through writing what they need to say in order to get a high grade. So pupils and the senior team *like* ICT as it keeps the average grade high for the school – (but the pupils in question here are so fired up by the programming this teacher has been teaching so far, and he is worried that removing it from the lessons totally will cause merry hell. It’s fun you see…)

I don’t know but I suspect the latter is more likely to be the case, it makes more sense – I think we might be starting to peel back the layers and it feels like we are beginning to see the actual problems.

You see, this is good, because once we have identified the real problem facing schools, it is far easier to help address them and ask for the right changes to be made to support the many teachers and volunteers who want to help.

So I leave you with the question. If schools were *allowed* to take a hit on their GCSE and A Level grades in ICT whilst programming is taught alongside the necessary ICT skills – what that work? If schools were rewarded for introducing programming as a part of the STEM subjects (computer science) separately to the grades achieved during transition, would that help?

The CAS google group is open and you can go read the thread for yourself, it’s title is: Well that’s crap

My ICT teacher can’t mark my homework

Three years ago in August 2009 we ran the first ever Young Rewired State – a hack weekend aimed at the young developer community. I was determined to try to engage them with the exciting (sic) world of open government data, and firing on all four cylinders went out to go tell those kids all about it.

But they were not there…

It made no sense to me that there was a thriving adult developer community, many of them of my own peer group, but no-one under the age of  18? Where were the kids? Was there a corner of the Internet I had yet to discover?

Over a period of months it became blindingly clear that there were no groups, there were tiny pockets and many isolated individuals – all teaching themselves how to code, driven by personal passion and nothing else.

We scraped together 50 of these kids from across the UK and it was one of the most incredible events we have ever run. Ask me about it and I will bore you to death with inspirational stories ;)

Since then, running Young Rewired State has become the most important thing I do.

One story that I have heard time and time again, is that these genius kids are failing in ICT at school, because their teachers cannot mark their work. I mentioned this in the Guardian Tech Weekly Podcast and I am often asked to back up my claims!

One of the Young Rewired Staters who attended that first event (and every event Rewired State has run since regardless of the challenge – until he was snaffled by San Francisco: aged 16) explained this for the Coding for Kids google group, and I asked him if I could share his story here. Here goes:

When I was in year 10 (or 11, I can’t remember) we were given the brief to “design and create a multimedia product” for an assessment towards GCSE ICT.
Most people opted to use powerpoint to create a sudo-multimedia product. I, however, decided to build a true multimedia product in Objective-C (a small game written for iPhone & iPod Touch which included a couple of videos, some story text, audio, it was an awesome little thing, it really was :)
The Powerpoints passed with flying colors, my project failed.
I asked the head of IT why he failed me, he told me he simply couldn’t mark it. He had installed the app on his iPhone, as had the rest of the IT staff (Including the technicians who really loved it!), played it, but couldn’t mark it because a)He didn’t understand how it worked and b)It was leagues above anything else he’d ever seen from the class.
I argued the case and managed to scrape a pass by teaching him the basics of Objective-C from scratch and by commenting every single line of code I wrote to explain exactly what it did and how it did it (all 3,400 lines, including standard libraries I used) which ended up being a huge time sink. Time, I was constantly aware, I could be relaxing or working on a project of my own.
I understand that my case is a little different from the one involving Ruby, you can’t expect every IT teacher to be versed in iPhone development, but there is no excuse for not having at least a basic understanding of Ruby/Python and absolutely no excuse for failing work because its difficult to mark.
This NEEDS to be fixed, so many fantastic young devs are becoming disillusioned with education because of little things like this. The thought process, for me at least, follows:
“Wait a second, my IT teacher can’t mark this, so it fails? I don’t really want to be part of a system that works like this”.
This is in stark contrast to events like YRS, where kids are encouraged to push the boundaries and explore how to do things differently to stunning effect. It was one of the major deciding factors for me to leave education and move to the US.
The frightening thing is, after bringing it up at an event, almost every other young dev had a similar story.

I cannot tell you how sad I am that we have not been able to keep this YRSer in the UK, and this is one of the very many stories that drives me.

What can you do to help? Start by understanding this problem, then join groups like Coding for Kids and CAS of course – sign the petition.

There are a great many people trying to help solve this problem, and 2012 is certainly going to see a huge push towards solving this, but for now, just take some time to understand why this is such an important fight we have to win – for this generation and the next.

And as a PS, please read the introduction to Douglas Rushkoff‘s book: Program or be programmed – it is very good! (I so should be on commission from this guy).

Open Education: It’s not impossible, it’s already here

Imagine a world whereby our borders are open, where data is open, where organisations are open… where education is open.

Those of you who read my blog are pretty au fait by now with the open principles of data and organisations, and we live in a world of pretty open borders – so now, just bear with me through the open education thing.

There is an almighty (thank goodness) brauhaha at the moment about teaching programming in schools, indeed upping the interweaving of digital teaching throughout all subjects (beyond googling the best essay ever on any given subject). But there is the huge gap in enthusiasm amongst the young generations – relatively easy to solve – and the ability of teachers to teach all a young person needs to know in this future digital world, one that many have not grown up in, let alone been taught how to teach, this is harder.

But is this a deal breaker?

http://mulqueeny.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/t_talk-to-the-hand-graphic.jpg?w=150

Many (many many many) people say to me: but I taught myself how to code and I am fine, I have a career and I do well, if it was taught to me maybe I would not have found it so interesting.

Fair point, but you are all over 25. The under 25s do not agree – well not 100% anyway.

So I think that we can accept, just by reading all there is online right now about this subject, that there is a need, a very real need; and it is not just for the younger generations whom we may be letting down by not doing anything about this. Can we take that for granted for the sake of this post?

However, there is a big problem that we need to be addressing at the same time as we fight for recognisance of the need to teach 21st century computing – and that is that the teachers we have now, indeed the teachers we are training now, are not equipped to teach this.

I am a part of a network called Computing at School, and have recently been included in their google group. This group is full of teachers who are supporting each other, sharing resources, introducing people from outside the education community who are programmers, are building software and hardware (open source), or who are parents with rudimentary knowledge or extraordinary knowledge – robotics anyone? or those just wanting to help somehow.

In this google group I am a party to many conversations between teachers crying out for help and information, and helping each other. They share links, wack up a wiki when a subject gets too big for just an email list, bring in industry experts – and all in their spare time. Those teaching Computer Science degrees helping the primary/secondary school teachers and vice versa. It is all an open forum, anyone can ask anything, and they do. I cannot tell you how humbling it is to read some of the conversations, enthusiastic and daily, sparked in this group – and it completely negates the publicly perceived view that this task is impossible because the IT teachers are crap. It is simply not true.

Yes, many of them did not train in IT, but they trained as teachers, and as teachers they take the education of the UK’s next generation extremely seriously. (I am sure you can all haul out a rubbish teacher to point to, but let’s play to the masses and not the exceptions). These are people who love what they do and want to do their best, they know that they need help to get this right, but I do not see any reticence there.

What I do see, is the occasional call for help – to assist with making the case for changing the stuff they are teaching, often a cry of:

The head gets it, but will ask the *usual* questions. Anyone help me?

Now I am not a teacher, so have no idea what these questions are, but taking a wild stab I would assume that they are on a par with the senior management teams in organisations who can only approve things if they fit with industry approved measurements of success – and struggle when there is no such thing (yet).

Yet schools are already being forced to move into measurements not yet measured. Schools are no longer valued just on the say so of Ofsted (oh I know it is still a big thing, but for how much longer, open data?)

Open education?

Well, it’s not impossible it is already here. Computing at Schools is an excellent example of open education. The head of ICT might not know how to teach Python to a bunch of 9 year olds and make it fun – but Mrs Miggins down the road does.

So please, when you hear the counter-argument to teaching kids to code being that teachers can’t do it, that’s not true, they can – it will be a good decade until they are officially trained to do so, but even then all they really need to know is how to teach, then they can choose what they teach, and it is an ongoing learning path, I am sure (unless it’s Latin or Ancient Greek).

Until then, let’s nurture open education. If you can code and know that you might be able to help a teacher, or write some open source software for use in schools – please do it.

I would encourage everyone to start with Computing at School (CAS) as it is already here and already plugging right into the heart of the teaching network. CAS is a grass-roots organisation and that is the only place we can start. Top-down simply will not work – anyone think we will still be learning Scratch in 2020?

Let’s accept that government has a lot to do and that it will take time to make the necessary policy changes, and let’s make sure that our voices are heard as people living in a democracy, use the petition system, the voting system and the fact that we are actually allowed to speak to our politicians, and they will listen (again please let’s play to the masses not the exceptions here).

But at the same time, let’s just do what we can to make it all work a little bit better in the mean time. Besides, we can experiment (a bit) and if we experiment with the best minds we can lay our hands on (in an open education way) then the risk is greatly reduced.

And I think the next generations will forgive us for trying, they may not forgive us for giving up. I hope they wouldn’t anyway.

Please take time to sign the e-petition – http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/15081

And here is a link to Computing at Schools – http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/

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