Our computational future
If you're reading this blog post, chances are that you're aware of, or directly involved in the Information Technology (IT) industry in the UK. Whether that's as a means to an end (you're a business user), or an end in itself (like me, you're a technologist), the IT industry is a critical platform for building out the next few decades.
The pace of innovation
The pace of innovation is not slowing. In fact it is accelerating -- rather like an Osborne 1 might do if you threw it out of the window of Larry Ellison's Gulfstream Jet. Is there a terminal velocity for innovation? I'm not sure. But while the rareified atmosphere is a boost to the Osborne 1's progress, there's a danger back down here on terra firma that a similar rareified atmosphere will hinder the progress of innovation: IT skills. Or rather, their waning nature.
Teaching IT skills
I was fortunate; as a schoolboy, the simple, cryptic prompt on a teletype held me in a vice-like grip of fascination that has never let go. I didn't need to be taught IT skills; I taught myself, spurred on by wonder and novelty, in a time when you could devour almost everything that popular computing at the time had to offer.
Today, children in the UK are unlucky in the sheer abundance, the omnipresence of computing machinery. Laptops, games consoles, smartphones and programmable LEGO. And what do we as a nation do? We teach them how to use Microsoft Word and Excel, we place importance on the ability to turn out a well formatted letter, or the skill in navigating the complexities of Excel's myriad functions. In and of itself that's not a bad thing, except when that's the only thing that's taught.
Builders, not users!
What are we building? A nation of users? We should be building a nation of builders! Of makers! Is our destiny to be the IT service industry isle par excellence? Because that's the way we're headed if we're not careful.
Our nation has been one of innovators, of inventors, of leaders. If we continue to use the ICT education opportunities to teach our children how to do slide transitions in Powerpoint, how to put headers and footers on documents or how to plot a pie chart from a series of figures, how does that stack up for the future? Instead of teaching children to attain basic computer driving licences, how about teaching them something that will give them a better chance to both understand and - more importantly -- shape the world of computing, which has an ever increasing sphere and relevance to industry today.
Computational thinking is a term that I was first introduced to by Jon Udell. It encompasses logical thinking, precision, creativity and rigour, and embodies all that we should be teaching our children for them to grow up capable and ready for the IT age. Not as people who know how to put together a forecast and graph it, but as people who understand how systems work, how to take advantage of the data tsunami that's coming our way, and, crucially, how to stay in control.
A recent (Feb 2013) Department for Education study "Computing - Programmes of study for Key Stages 1-4" examines what a high quality computing education looks like, describes aims and attainment targets, and sets out subject content across Key Stages 1 to 4. This study resonates well with the ideas of computational thinking, and describes the aim of the National Curriculum as ensuring that all pupils can understand and apply the principles of logic, algorithms, computational analysis, and at the same time can be creative and confident in their approaches.
CodeClub and STEMnet
So with the desire to share my interests and passions, and having in mind the the concepts of computational thinking, I joined CodeClub as a volunteer, and am about to start our local primary school's first after-school programming club with Year 6 children. The current CodeClub curriculum is based on Scratch, which is a great learning environment for programming, in more ways than I initially imagined (Scratch itself, interestingly, is based on Squeak). Furthermore I have become a STEM Ambassador, and my role in the Greater Manchester area is currently speaking to pupils on IT, helping schools shape their computing curriculum, and showing them how to take advantage of recent innovations such as the Raspberry Pi.
I display my STEMNET and CodeClub links proudly on my Bluefin Solutions email signature. It reminds me of my past, and of my future. What about our future? What about the future of our children's education and careers, and therefore also of our industry? If nothing else, I hope this post has made you aware of the gap between what our children are being taught and what they really need to know, and aware of the organisations that exist and are trying to do something about it. Wish me luck - I'm off to play my small part in helping build tomorrow's builders.
This blog post was first published on 14 February 2013. Since writing this, I had the opportunity to speak on this subject at a TEDx event – TEDx Oldham, in Oct 2013. The talk was recorded and is available on YouTube - Our Computational Future: DJ Adams at TEDxOldham.