In the 1980s the huge popularity of the Sinclair ZX range of computers and other home computer products created a whole generation of "coders" ‒ computer programmers ‒ in the UK. But that was the 1980s. In the intervening decades, what their computers are able to do has become more important for computer owners than how to make their computers do it. And so fewer and fewer young people in the intervening years have learned programming, or "coding" as it became known. Yet coding is now a more important skill than ever before, because just about every electronic product, and every service that uses automation in any way, has some type of computer software (a.k.a. "code") to make it run.
Currently government recognition of the importance of teaching coding is on the rise, supported by coding classes in many schools, coding clubs, and coding camps for the school holidays, amongst other initiatives. The latest scheme to encourage and teach coding is free of charge and has just been launched for the start of the new school year on the web site www.EveryChildCanCode.org . I am proud to be part of Sir Clive Sinclair's team at Retro Computers Ltd which is launching this new initiative.
The idea behind "Every Child Can Code" is to make it easy and fun for any child who can read and write to learn to code in BASIC, a highly popular programming language designed in the USA in the mid-1960s. Within the scheme children are encouraged to learn coding by enabling them to design their own games, which is fun to do and which creates programs that are fun to play. And BASIC is not only a programming language for children. Coding is a skill that can benefit adults in various ways - as a skill that can help them land a new job or just as a recreation.
The nature of this scheme encourages every child to learn to code at their own pace, according to their own abilities and their own level of enthusiasm. Partly because school curricula often change, the scheme is not constrained by any particular curriculum or by the age or school year of the child. The core of the system is an online course that teaches BASIC in a series of 10 easy lessons, and a child should be able to write and run their first program during the very first lesson. Each lesson introduces five BASIC commands and explains what each one is for and how to use it in a program. There are example programs, replete with clearly written comments, to show the child exactly what each line of code achieves. The on-screen lessons can also be found in the system's collection of PDF downloads that are available from the www.EveryChildCanCode.org web site, and everything on the site is free of charge.
A key component of the scheme is a unique child-friendly software coding teacher called BASin, which monitors the child as they code their programs, it warns the child when they have made a coding error, and it assists the child in understanding what they have done wrong in their coding and how to put things right. In this way the computer becomes a novel type of teaching assistant, actively participating in the teaching process. Another key element of the scheme's software is an easy-to-use "Arcade Game Designer" which helps the child to create computer games in BASIC with a small amount of effort.
What our team hopes to achieve with Every Child Can Code is to make the UK one of the world leaders once again - to create a whole new generation of talented coders, and to sustain that effort in the years and decades to come. We believe that the key is to teach children quickly and in a way that they enjoy. If they are having fun while they are learning to code, the learning process becomes a real pleasure rather than a chore. With our scheme they learn to create their own games programs. What could be more fun than that?