Educating Beta - Why Kids Need to get Behind the Apps and Learn to Code

20/11/2012 12:26 | Updated 19 January 2013

Children growing up today are past masters at mobile. They're weaned early onto digital, their little minds soothed, calmed and cajoled with touchscreen time. As parents, we marvel at how quickly mere babes in arms master the swipe, double tap and pinch zoom. It's virtually becoming recognised as a milestone in our children's development - up there with first words or steps.

Our attitudes to the suitability of mobile technology for children are shifting fast. Just a few years ago, parents used to buy mobile phones for their children citing the safety benefits. Recent research showed that more parents buy mobile technology for their kids because of the perceived educational benefits (72 per cent) than the perceived safety ones (60 per cent). No doubt this reflects the growing number of educational apps available for children - estimated now to be 200,000 and counting.

And then there's the increasing pervasiveness of tablet computers in the classroom. Many schools have invested scarce resources in a cache of iPads that tour from classroom to classroom, spicing up lessons with a little digital depth. The Apple website touts the iPad as "an essential learning tool" and while that statement may have a glint of the snake oil, most people recognise the enormous potential mobile technology has in education.

I work at the leading edge of the mobile space - in augmented reality, where sophisticated image recognition allows mobile devices to transform images, objects and places into digital triggers. Our company has seen its technology's use in the education sector grow rapidly and organically. Just eighteen months after launch, education now accounts for about 20 per cent of all the partners on our platform, numbering thousands of schools, teachers and students all over the world.

Teachers like Patrick Carroll from Shaw Wood Primary in Doncaster, who tell us that the ability to unlock and interact with digital information tagged in the real world helps children engage with new ideas and encourages further independent investigation. According to Patrick, access in schools to mobile technology such as tablets is essential.

"The classroom of the future is going to have to change", he says. "Our children need to be able to use the most recent technology because we don't know what the jobs of the future are going to be. We do know it's going to involve technology and it's going to be collaborative and worldwide, and therefore we need to give children the best tools so that they're able to succeed."

This move from the Victorian model of a classroom to a modern participative one is to be applauded and supported. And yet, working in a high tech start-up utterly dependent on the talent of software engineers and programmers, I've recently begun to wonder how much of this enthusiasm for using mobile is being channelled by our education system into an enthusiasm for building for mobile. Yes, children are using new mobile technologies in schools but how many get beyond the surface and to grips with the science behind? How many school lessons include the tear down of a device, an analysis of user experience, an introduction to the basics of code or network infrastructure?

Asking this question of my social network, I was shocked to find that while Information and Communications Technology (or ICT for short) is a compulsory subject in the national curriculum for all four key stages, it mainly consists of learning how to use programmes such as Word, Excel and Content Management Systems rather than learning how such programmes are built. If the set curriculum is applied, there's no actual programming taught at all, which falls instead under the remit of Computer Science - not on the national curriculum and not available in all schools.

"Some Secondary Schools offer Computer Science at A level but it's too late to pick up the pieces from the damage done by earlier moribund ICT courses," says Jon Crowcroft , Marconi Professor of Communications Systems at the University of Cambridge's Computer Laboratory.

Indeed, most of the undergraduate applications he sees are from students with a Maths and Natural Science background rather an A level qualification in Computer Science.

From this September, schools in England and Wales have been free to set their own curricula for ICT and there is a wider movement to help schools tool up and incorporate more Computer Science into their ICT lessons and schools.

Initiatives include; Raspberry Pi, the low cost single-board computer for kids; Makespace, an initiative that's a "Community Inventing Shed" where anyone can make... well, almost anything; Codecademy, which offers free online coding classes for all; and Computing at School - a diverse working group of academics, teachers, industry bodies, professionals and companies with a vested interest in creating a computer science literate workforce for the future. A new GCSE in Computer Science is on the cards together with a revised A level syllabus.

Jon Crowcroft hopes these changes will re-invigorate the subject in schools but believes other steps still need to be taken.

"School teachers are willing to learn and a surprising number are very able," he says. "The missing piece is under-engagement by Computer Science professionals in some of the out of school clubs and teacher training activities."

One Computer Science professional who has chosen to engage and help more kids code is Mary Rose Cook, whose own journey into programming started with a seemingly random purchase in a bookshop of Foundations of Mac Programming when she was fourteen. Her first language was C. "It was a horrible first language. Incredibly pedantic. You have to be explicit about everything you want, and the language will happily blow up if you forget a minor detail... I'm not sure at fourteen I fully grasped all the abstraction."

At nineteen, Mary went to Sheffield University to read Computer Science and since graduating worked as a programmer in the UK, New York and Berlin. But it's her many side projects that Mary most adores. "They are my means of expression. I've done dozens of websites (one that gives you music recommendations, one where you make your own autobiography in songs), two video games, a bunch of code libraries for other hackers to use and Isla, my programming language for children."

Isla is different from typical programming tutorials available for beginners. Aimed at five year olds and above, on the surface it reads a little like baby talk. Even without a knowledge of code, you can still read an Isla programme and get the gist of what's going on. But don't be fooled says Mary, the grammar is "ruthlessly constrained" - avoiding giving the erroneous impression that the computer can magically understand natural language. So while Isla looks similar to English language, the kids still need to master a strict code.

Isla is of course less powerful than other languages but in exchange, far more accessible and it gives children a solid framework on which to build further knowledge. "I hope that Isla will be useful for the first six months of a child's programming life," says Mary. "If they stick with programming longer than that, I expect they will outgrow the language, and that's great."

Patrick, Jon and Mary - teacher, academic, programmer - all identify the need for children to be familiar with the mechanics behind the modern digital world.

"Programming," says Mary, "is becoming the fourth foundational skill, along with reading, writing and maths. Which means it should be taught from an early age."

Isla and initiatives like it are making it easier for teachers to teach new Computer Science skills and for students to learn them. Which is vital because without an understanding of the fundamentals, mobile technology takes on the appearance of some sort of magic, which it is not. Children's natural curiosity in mobile technology must be channelled beyond the apps and shiny touchscreens and into a deeper engagement with computer science or we risk becoming a nation of awestruck consumers, not awesome creators.

See how Shaw Wood Primary School in Doncaster is using Aurasma's mobile technology in the classroom:

Watch Mary Rose Cook talk about Isla at JSConf EU in Berlin, October 2012: