Learning to code – Why?

via unsplash
Why learn to code? Image via: unsplash.com

The motivation to start this blog comes out of a question I’ve been asking myself over the last year, as a librarian is it worth learning to code? This could well be followed up with another question, why are you even asking that question? So, let’s start there.

Coding is the new Web 2.0, it is the technology du jour (cod French alert). In my mind, three interrelated things have played a part in propelling coding into wider prominence:

  • Promotion of coding in schools
  • Retro computer nostalgia – (most prevalent in the renaissance of simple 8bit style computer games)
  • Succes of accesible computing – i.e. Raspberry Pi

From September 2014 IT teaching in British schools changed dramatically and a focus on computer science, including coding, became an official part of the school curriculum.

“A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.” (Statuatory Guidance, 2013)

This is a significant shift in thinking, a move away from learning set software packages just to facilitate other tasks (i.e. how to click a mouse, how to write in word), toward learning how to plan, think about problems and create solutions using technology. Children love learning through doing stuff; making a bridge out of straws, writing a newspaper article about their pet, making their own simple computer game.

Hour of Code with Minecraft
Hour of Code with Minecraft – If it’s involving Minecraft you know that kids will love it.

Accompanying this change in curriculum is also a raft of other non-school based initiatives to promote coding for kids (and adults), online, interactive, fun ways to learn code. This includes websites and apps such as, Hour of Code (https://code.org/learn), Code Academy (https://www.codecademy.com) and Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu/). Code Clubs and Hackathons, where children meet up regularly or as a one-off to solve fun problems with code, have also become popular children’s events. Discovering the existence of Code Clubs is where I began to realise that libraries have been a very important part of this picture. More on that in future post I hope.

Why did this catch my attention? Well I’m generally interested in education (I work in an academic library for one) and also technology in libraries. However, I suspect that a larger motivation was that this stuff was going to be relevant to my son, who was starting school this year. I know roughly how to support him in maths, I know what English is (sort of, this blog might be evidence A against that statement & phonics was pretty new to me) but coding presented a new problem, what does it involve and how can I support him?

shovel knight
Shovel Knight. One of many pixel art (or 8Bit inspired) games that have grown in popularity over the last five years.

Another factor that I think has helped coding reach greater prominence, and certainly has been a factor in appealing to me, is that it plugs into the currently strong seam of nostalgia toward the early days of personal computing and gaming. Britain has a particularly strong computing tradition during the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, just look at the stellar British gaming industry, which continues to be an influential player. Recent press interest in the story of Alan Turing has also reminded us of the deep roots of British computing. Nostalgia, and a love for all things Retro, often works on the premise that the older days were better, simpler times. I’m afraid I have mixed feelings about nostalgia (Nostalgia vs History), but its grip gets increasingly harder to resist the older you get and it is a big industry (if you can call it that).

bbc-micro-logo

Encouraging coding for kids plugs directly into my own memories of the BBC Micro computers that were ubiquitous in British school during the 1980s. This was a time when, as now, coding was being introduced into the curriculum (via BBC Basic), however the key difference was that it required, at the very least, a few command line prompts to run a program. This is the difference between now and then, most of us haven’t needed to use even the very basics of coding since the mid-90’s. As a result skills and creativity in this area have been lost and we have arguably become trapped in a duller world of software solutions designed by someone else. In this respect nostalgia for these times has a practical basis, can we grab onto that era’s entrepreneurhip and creativity?

Pi2ModB1GB_-comp
Image of Raspberry Pi courtesy of sotechdesign via Wired.com

Finally, the success of the Raspberry Pi represents part of a wider movement to make computing affordable. With a Raspberry Pi and a few cheaply purchased add-ons you can have a powerful (for its size and cost) multimedia computer that is explicitly designed around encouraging newcomers to learn to code. The Pi in ‘Raspberry Pi’ is a reference to the programing language Python, a language that is considered ideal for beginners. I’ve got one myself, and I hope to blog a bit about it here.

thumb scale microbit via bbc
Image via https://www.microbit.co.uk/td/lessons/magic-logo

The feeling that affordable, coding friendly computers are tapping into a 1980s retro vibe is only further enhanced when we look at what the BBC is doing with its Micro Bit (https://www.microbit.co.uk/about), by providing a stripped back computer to every state educated 7 year old it is essentially revisiting what it did with the BBC Micro during my own childhood. That the Raspberry Pi is a British success story also contributes to its appeal to myself (I’m a sucker for quirky British engineering, I’m looking at you Brompton) and, I think, the media in general.

These three factors represent part of how learning to code has permeated current culture as a new, accessible ‘thing to do’. These certainly are the main elements of how learning to code popped into my mind as a desirable thing to do. This is the ‘why I’m even thinking about coding’. Hour of Code even have Barack Obama singing the virtues of learning to code, so I think it’s safe to say there is impetus there:

I’ve focused on the coding for kids because I think that has been behind the broader recognition of code in the media, but coding as a desirable thing for adults, particularly those in research, is where I’ve begun to see how coding could be a useful thing for me as a Librarian. I hope to set down my initial thoughts on that next time.

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