In a follow-up to our recent topic on the next generation of coders we brought the team back together to focus more on issues surrounding teaching tech in schools and diversity in tech.
We were delighted to be joined again by Matthew Applegate of Creative Computing Club. Matthew is an inspiring figure in the world of tech, he works with children from across our region to help them get into coding and tech from an early age and stick with it right through to university and employment.
From the IJYI team we have Julia Hunter, George Markham and Inky Simmons who all took a different route into their careers.
Julia, who also runs local CoderDojos has a lot of experience of working with primary school age children to encourage them to take their first steps into coding.
George recently graduated with an MSc from the University of East Anglia and is the IJYI member of staff with the most recent experience of making their way into a tech career through the education system.
Inky came to IJYI straight from college on an apprenticeship and as a non-binary person has a real insight into what the lack of diversity in the tech sector means for society as whole.
Welcome back to the IJYI Way podcast coming to you live and direct from IJYI’s boardroom here in Ipswich, joining us this week for part two of our discussions about education and the way that coding is taught in schools is Matthew Applegate from the Creative Computing Club an organization that is a pipeline that takes children from young ages and mentors them through or, in Matthew’s case, right the way through to jobs in the games industry. In fact, he’s made such an impact he, has won a BAFTA for his work bringing young people right the way through into the business space. So welcome back.Also joining us, we have Julia Hunter, who’s a software engineer here at IJYI and also runs the CoderDojo Initiative which is a way of getting primary school children into finding out more about technology and coding.Also joining us, we have George Markham, who is a recent graduate from the University of East Anglia, and is now software engineer here at IJYI. George is here to talk about his experience through university and the workplace here at IJYI. Also joining us is inky Simmons who is IJYI’s equality engineer and has a real interest in UX. That’s user experience design and understands a lot about the way the people’s personal experience of software and way in which they use software is fundamental to designing smarter solutions. So welcome.I’m Andrew Walker. I am a freelance writer and an old friend of IJYI’s. I’m also finding it now slightly ironic, that I’m hosting a podcast about greater diversity in the software business and how we need fewer fat, middle aged white men. Because, let’s face it, I’m talking myself out of a job!! Here is a question, here we’re discussing the way that coding is taught in schools and the knock on effect that has on the coding industry and the role of software really in society. That’s what we touched on in our last session, and I’d like to take that a little bit further. Now I want to ask, what are some of the biggest, most notable outcomes, the biggest changes you’ve seen since you’ve been involved in working with young people and codes?
When kids come to us, they’re normally quite shy they’re often bullied at school, lack a lot of confidence. When we teach them how to code and make the things that they want in the world it gives them that back. It gives them the confidence. It gives them the strength. Say, I want to go out into the world and do this. I want to make these things. So we’ve had a lad I won’t name, but he’ll know who is. He came to us. He was bullied at school. He had very few friends. He was just into computing. He was, you know, one of us. He was a geeky kid and, you know, just through working with him, I was able to show that he has this tremendous amount of skill already. He just needed to find an outlet for it, and we found out that it was code and what about three? Four months ago? I had his mother on the phone to me, crying down the phone, saying I knew he’d go to university, but I didn’t think he’d go away to university. You know when you met him, he was just a lad who was stuck in his bedroom. Now he’s this, you know, very headstrong lad traveling across England to go to rock gigs. He’s, you know, he’s found himself through code and we just use technology as a means to get young people their confidence back, and it allows them to go into these jobs. But that’s just a bonus for us. We’re just helping them regain their confidence.
It’s quite difficult to know sort of that doing some studies and looking at the data. How the outcomes change for people. We definitely have lots of personal stories don’t we, about successes, and you can see so a child comes to a CoderDojo for first time perhaps they’re playing around with a little robot, they get it to work and their faces light up because they’ve just done this thing and you can see that you’ve just sort of triggered an interest. A little bit of a flame has been lit there. So these things happen and I always imagine that that has in some way given something to that child, but it’s also quite hard to measure the outcome of it. So, um, I think it makes a big difference and I would love someone to give me some figures. Have you got some figure?
We do social impact report every year on the work we do, and we’re able to track students and not all of them go into the world of technology, but a lot of them go on to be successful in what career they do choose. And oddly enough, they often leave the computing club not going into technology and then come back to it, which is really, really interesting. But what George and Inly were saying they had those initial scratch sessions, which really kind of inspired you guys to take it up a bit more, and just by having those things in place just by having that, sometimes one off sessions are vitally important. We will run pop-up sessions in the middle of nowhere. We went to the Framlingham Sausage Festival and ran a coding session. We set up a homemade festival inside of a tent, you know, and barely had electricity. No Internet. But we did it because we knew if we could offer young people that first chance into tech, then it would help them so that that first hit off being involved in coding has to be pretty good. Yeah, it has to be really, really good to inspire them.
Isn’t that a problem with the way that it’s taught is that we’ve heard, obviously from George and Inky, there is this first session with scratch, well you have experienced. One of the challenges, right, is the way the coding is taught because, you know, I like to think about coding in a sort of gaming sense from the point of view that you say OK, today I want to code a music player so I’m gonna plug in a few bits and bobs from the Alexa API and bosh! You know, I’ve got a I’ve got a music player, and then my work here is done. I feel a great sense of satisfaction. Was it hard being in a situation where you’re learning the building blocks of code a bit like you’re learning a foreign language but you never get to have a conversation in the lesson for that first year or a couple of years. I mean, presumably, you don’t actually get to author the software for a while. Where as wouldn’t it be more fun if they taught it so you came in and today’s class is we’re gonna make a little doodling program and I’m gonna plug some things together and see what happens.
Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely important to get that feeling of success when you see something run or compile and, sort of, that’s the reward that you get when you write code, right?
And presumably you still get it?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Yeah, it’s a massive gamification thing. When you gain the sense of something working it’s a massive hit. Like it releases so much dopamine it’s fantastic. And definitely if you don’t write coad to actually get something working you don’t get. That’s one thing I made sure of when I was learning on my own was to actually do projects and fire something off to make sure that it was working. I was quite lucky. It’s definitely something that you have to keep in mind I think when teaching kids code, like what you said with the robots, seing something actually work, and it’s kind of like Star Trek or Star Wars. It’s something that you didn’t imagine would ever exist, and you’ve just made it exist. It’s amazing,
Yeah, all of the projects that we do, all the things that we teach have to be relevant to young people. They have to be able to see examples in their everyday life. So we’re not gonna teach them something that you know, yes, we do have to cover legacy stuff. I mean, they do their GCSEs with us, but for the most part, if they’re if they’re, you know….If they’re building websites, we were doing big data and personal data. Right when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. So we were able to listen to parts of the Judiciary Hearing Committee and bring that into lessons and explain what that means to them and what that means to the work that we’re actually looking at right then and there. Everything we do in our sessions have to have bearing on what’s going on in the outside world. If not, you’re learning Latin. You know, Latin is fun, but it’s not really relevant right now.
Inky, as a quality engineer in an agile development house who do scrums presumably…..do you find when everything works, it’s fantastic. But then are you there at the retrospective, are you the one with the stick that has to beat people all the time is that it?
I don’t like being people with a stick, that’s a bit too violent for me!
Okay, we don’t do that anymore. So that’s been a change!
What I tend to find as quality engineer…. It’s kind of my job to make sure that everything that was first decided about the feature is doing what it’s supposed to do. If it’s the case that it’s not, then normally I would just have a word with Dev. I’ll just say there’s this bit of exceptions criteria that it hasn’t met or I found this issue. It’s really just kind of like I want these things to work and I want us to be able to push a good product to the client at the end of the day. So I kind of feel that it’s my job to sort of make sure that we do have something that we can then go look, this is the thing we’ve done. This is a fantastic thing we’ve built. You know that’s not gonna happen unless I kind of pick through it and make sure everything’s okay. I kind of like to think that It’s more kind of quality assurance, like I’m just kind of double checking over to make sure that everything is as it should be.
Did you sort of get into that that side of the business from an early age, when you were breaking scratch in class and building your own games? Or like when the teacher wasn’t looking?
Yeah, I think so. I was always quite good at picking out stuff that, say, I wasn’t supposed to pick out at the time. So it was kind of like, Oh, but it doesn’t work. If I do it like this, I’d often be told over You’re not supposed to do it like that. But I’m just like, But what if I do? You know, it’s kind of like the questions, but what if I do this? What if I do that there was always that. That was probably one reason why I was getting into trouble. I was kind of going off on a tangent, but if you do it this way, then it breaks , but back then it was kind of like people didn’t want to know that. But I find as quality engineer that’s what people want, you know, if something’s not working, then people want to know about it. I feel like my skill to be able to find things like that is really useful. And I feel like I’m doing a good job in that sense when I do find things.
And that also sounds a lot to me like the role of a UX designer as well, presumably because, you know, actually, the assumption that people will use the product like this doesn’t add up. I mean, Nokia assumed people would use the camera in their phone very differently. They didn’t think that start taking selfies with them for example.
Yeah, because I think one thing that I find that I like about both doing the user experience and the testing is there’s a crossover point, which is usability testing, which is where you’ll actually get in potential users of the application or the software and you observe them actually going through it and get them to tell you what it is that they think that they’re doing, to think out loud and you kind of get a real life look at how people might potentially be using it. And that’s really useful, I think, for picking out where things might need to be changed. So if the development team and the QA may have thought that having something on the page was self explanatory, somebody from completely not part of the team has just walked in off the street, might look at it and not have a clue what to do with it. And I think kind of having that extra point of view from the actual audience is a really, really important thing, and it needs to be done in good time. So you don’t complete the whole thing, give it to people, and then nobody can use it because it would be a waste of money.
And this goes back to one of the arguments about diversity in the software business because there was, again sorry to keep quoting old studies from years ago, there was a study done on leaving young boys and young girls alone with computer devices to see what would happen and you know, the boys would have actually no fear at all about mashing all the buttons and breaking it. Where as the girls would actually approach it in a more methodical sense and there was this sort of split between, you know, treating things like toys as opposed to trying to learn how they work, etcetera, etcetera, and to do with various developmental stages in children. Now, of course, that’s fine in the sort of 1990s when we assume that there were only two kinds of children in the world. But now there are a great many more. So we have to try and address diversity on a testing front as well.
You’ve gotta know who you’re developing for. But also an audience might not be what you expect it to be. So you might create one application thinking “Oh, yeah, this is gonna be for these two sort of people to use” and you might find that when it actually goes out, the kind of people who you really hadn’t expected or haven’t considered are using it, you kind of have to step back and kind of think if there are things that need to be changed. How you are adhering to the other people using it that you may not have expected. There is a lot of research you need to go through with the user experience process. A lot of time is spent in researching what’s already there, building up personas. So you have to have as much of an idea of the kind of people that you’re gonna be developing for as you can. But I mean, even with that said, you’ve still got to really keep open minded because you know if it appears on the APP store, then anybody can download, anyone with access to that can. So you’re sort of opening up the doors to everyone. So you sort of have to make sure you’re welcoming everyone in the same way or a different way, depending on what people are like.
After five years of coding being taught in schools and after the work of five years of more of Creative Computing Club and on the CoderDojos how do you see a change in the industry?
Ah, lot of kids aren’t going to university anymore. Generally they are skipping university, and going straight into employment. Companies are offering internships to younger people. I mean, I did work in central government with 14 year olds who were the developers because their brains have the elasticity to take on that work. It’s a matter of the way people view the value of getting a degree or not, not getting a degree. That’s the one thing I have seen. A lot of students are saying, actually, I don’t think I need to get a degree I’m gonna get a part time job and work my way up that way.
George you definitely went to university, Inky, did you?
I didn’t, no, I didn’t go to university. I was sort of, in a way pushed by people at college when I had just done my media B tech course. I was kind of shouted at quite a lot. “Why aren’t you going to university? You know, you can you can do with these things, but you don’t want to go to university?” It was more, for me, that I didn’t think I could cope with university kind of from a mental point, but also, I just wanted to get out there. I wanted to see what it was really like being in the world of tech work, and I wanted to get an apprenticeship. When I heard that there was apprenticeships going for software development, that was what I initially went in to do, but then took more of a QA side of things as work went on. But, yeah, I just really wanted to get out there. I wanted to have a taste of what it’s like to work. I was excited to start work and actually sort of start delivering something for a company or to be able to produce work that I know would then be used in the world.
I think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of choices about how we gain degrees these days, so it’s not an either/or situation, so there’s nothing to stop us. For example, getting an apprenticeship or gaining a level four on and then working a bit and then perhaps finishing off the degree part time they. There’s all kinds of options that people have, and so there’s no real need. certainly in the tech industry, I don’t think, to feel that you have to go and get a degree
Because your degree was in engineering and then it was at a post-grad level that you moved over into software?
Yes, and then I actually did a PhD as well, having started, I just carried on!
Sorry, I didn’t have that on my notes. You’re Dr Julia Hunter Well, listen, I’ve got this terrible RSI! Sorry, you know what…..
That’s exactly why I never tell people!
If you could go back and affect Michael Gove’s decisions to bring coding into schools what would you add into the national curriculum? What would you change?
I would have diverted the funds to primary schools to allow them more freedom to start teaching it at a much earlier age and kind of sow it into different lessons that other people might not understand. That there is code there. You know there is code behind most things most decisions people make, so I don’t think It was particularly a bad thing that you know that the curriculum was changed to include it. But I do think it was directed at the wrong people and secondary schools, already overloaded and underfunded for the time that they need to fit everything into their curriculum. Adding that to the mix was problematic. But I think if they would have diverted it to primary schools, that would have given more time to prepare in the secondary schools
And also, from the point of view of diversity. So we’ve already talked about how really by the time children get to high school minds are somewhat made up and there is a bit of a divide. So perhaps by investing more time, more resources into coding in primary school, we would help to address that.
Yep, just having more funds available in general would have been better. It sort of feels like they didn’t really think about it. Particularly giving eople who have worked in technology to teach technology would have made a lot of sent several people that have experienced coding teaching coding. Maybe that’s me being crazy, but that makes sense to me!
Yeah, I can agree with that I mean, I found with IT it was always just another teacher who was supposed to be teaching a different area had been pulled in because there just wasn’t enough people that had the knowledge to teach it properly. And also we only ever had, like, a week of it. And that was in a year generally when we did coding. And I really feel like had there been the money and the time to actually work on it a lot more I think a lot of people would have benefited from it and definitely got more interested. And I think probably we would have produced and more code interested students. I think
I’m gonna put one last question to you to tie everything together, which is – What would be your advice to parents about getting their kids into coding for the first time?
So I see a lot of parents coming to CoderDojos and grandparents that for that matter. My advice would be to have a go with them, there alongside them. Don’t make coding one of these things that you tell your children to go off by themselves and do. Actually, get involved in it and take the time to learn it. Don’t be scared, because there are so many resources, so many easy projects for you to get started on. You just increase the value of it to your children if you show you’re prepared to spend time learning alongside them, developing an interest together, having fun, making stuff work, getting that dopamine hit and it will just amplify the benefits for the child.
Definitely work with your child. If they’re in the early stages of learning, eventually they’ll get that bug. Get their interest in getting involved in it. Interestingly we have a lot of parents who are reluctance to let their kids get involved in technology. They don’t think there’s any money in it. They don’t think it’s a valid career. Don’t we live in a farmer’s town after all?! You know it’s odd because we actually have more people working in digital in Suffolk than we do have farmers. You’ve got an average start-up here is six employees, average farm is three employees. We have a lot of reluctance from parents that their kids get involved in technology. They don’t think it’s a valid career. So we often have to sit them down and say “Well, how much did you spend on tech last Christmas? How much did you spend on video games Last Christmas?” And that money has to go somewhere. And, um, yeah, it’s quite an eye opener for them when they think about it like that.
I think so. Parents coding themselves is important. You have to do it alongside your kids and make it fun, but also tune it to their interests. If your kid is really into sports, find some way of getting sports involved in coding. If they’re into video games, I try make a video game or something in scratch. You know, it’s it’s making sure that your kid is having fun while they’re doing it. I think that would be a really good way to win.
Yeah, I think having it tailored to your child’s interest is quite an important thing because I’ve often found when I have light spoken to kids, if they’re playing games, I always sort of say to them “You enjoy playing that game, how would you like to learn to make a game like that yourself?”, Or “Is there anything when you’re playing a game, do you think, oh, I wish it did this?” It’s kind of giving them that initiative and they think, wait, I can actually do something like that. I think encouraging kids like that as well. It’s getting the parents involved as well. It is a really good way forward.
Okay, that’s great. So listen, that’s all the time we have in this session of The IJYI Way. I would like to thank our very special guest today for taking us on a whirlwind tour not only of the past, but also of the future. So that’s it, thank you to Matthew Applegate from Creative Computing Club.
And we will see you next time on The IJYI Way. And wy IJYI? Because everything we do is a great example. Find us on line at ijyi.com and find us on Twittter. And you can see all the photographic evidence that this really did take place and we’re all really very young and you know, well preserved! Ok that’s it, we're out!