September 18, 2011

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Educating Programmers Summit - Summary & HD Videos

And so, finally - thanks to a 5 1/2 hour train journey to Agile On The Beach in Cornwall - I have time to write up the Educating Programmers summit.

The summit brought together a cherry-picked selection of thinkers and do-ers in education, employment and practice at the birthplace of modern computing, Bletchley Park, on August 25th. It was sponsored by Codemanship and ThoughtWorks.

A series of short presentations were arranged to create talking points for the group around the whole question of where the next generation of programmers is going to come from.

I started with a few numbers to set the scene:

1 - was the number of electronic programmable computers in the entire world in 1943 (a working recreation of which was seen by the participants when they took a tour of Bletchley Park over lunch)

500,000,000,000 - is the estimated number of active computing devices in operation today

25,000 - is roughly the number of lines of code in Word 1.0

10,000,000 - is roughly the number of lines of code in Word 10

10,000 - is the increase in demand for skilled programmers in the UK every year

10,000 - is also roughly the number of teachers in the UK who qualified in 2008

3 - is the number of UK teachers who qualified in 2008 who had computing degrees

What we see here is a picture that is unsustainable. Demand for software and for programmers grows at an exponential rate, while interest in learning how to program and our ability to teach programming is shrinking.

This is bad news for everyone in the UK.

Our software development capability is a very real limiting factor on our economic competitiveness. A major supermarket chain cannot adapt to stay ahead of the competition without making changes to their IT systems.

It's bad news for science, for medicine, for the media, for music and the arts, for transport, for energy suppliers, for our public services, for our defence. All of these things increasingly rely on computing, and the lion's share of the innovations we've seen in the last 6 decades have been made possible by the ever-increasing power and availability of computers.

I ended by talking about a pilot scheme I'll be starting later this month to connect teachers who want to learn how to program with experienced practitioners who can coach them for a couple of hours a week. This could hopefully address one of the main obstacles to getting kids programming in school - namely that most schools don't have a teacher who can help them.

Next up was Simon Peyton-Jones of Microsoft Research, creator of the Haskell programming language and a very active contributor to the Computing At School special interest group. CAS have been campaigning to get proper computing - we may know it as "programming" - into UK schools. We heard about kids of 16+ being asked in ICT exams to create a 6-slide PowerPoint presentation, confirming what many of us have heard about the emphasis being on consuming software rather than writing it. Simon said that Microsoft were "four-square" that children of that age shouldn't be focusing on Office user skills.

Simon outlined where CAS are as of August 25th in their campaign, pointing us to the new GCSE in Computing, and also two upcoming reports on the subject - one spearheaded by Ian Livingstone (founder of computer games company Eidos) called Next Gen, and the other from the Royal Society, which is due to be published later this year. Next Gen and the Royal Society report have the support of some heavy hitters in UK science and technology and in government, so our hope is that the right people will finally sit up and listen.

Simon Peyton-Jones, Microsoft Research & Computing At School - full discussion

After Simon, we heard from Google developer advocate and co-author of Apprenticeship Patterns, Adewale Oshineye, who talked about the need to teach "computational thinking" even among people who don't actually write code, and about the art and craft of programming. We know that Google are very active in campaigns to get kids programming, and, with Microsft, are among the main supporters of CAS.

Adewale Oshineye, Google - full discussion

Next was primary school ICT co-ordinator and speaker and blogger Ian Addison, who demonstrated some of the tools available to give kids experience of programming and creating their own computer games. We learned that it's actually easier for schools working with kids aged 7-11 to incorporate programming into lessons, since there's no rigid ICT curriculum they have to follow at that age. Anecdotally, I can report that although I invited more teachers from secondary ("high") schools, it was only primary teachers who responded. This tends to confirm my fear that secondary schools are lacking in teachers who even have an interest in this (though from a sample size of 10 teachers, it's difficult to say for sure.)

Ian Addison, ICT Co-ordinator - full discussion

After a long lunch - with a tour of Bletchley Park thrown in - we heard from Chris Murray of epiGenesys. epiGenesys is a tech start-up run out of the University of Sheffield that deliberately takes on software development projects for real clients, using students - undergrads and post-grads - to do the work. This seems like a great way to build real world experience into computing degrees, in a controlled environment wher the primary goal is learning experience. I would really like to see more of this, so if you're in a CS department at a UK university, I urge you to check out the epiGenesys model.

Chris Murrary, epiGenesys - full discussion>

Steve Dickson, who heads up the Software Engineering program in the BBC Academy, spoke next. Following the lead of work I've been doing with the BBC for the last 4 years, the Academy is now rolling out an initiative that they hope will enable them to build a world-class reputation for software development as good as the reputation they have for broadcast engineering. This is no small ambition, and as the original catalyst for the whole thing, I'm well aware of the heavy-lifting that's going to be required. But if they can do it for writing, production and broadcast engineering, they can do it for software (which, like it or not, is what television has become). It will be a long, hard slog. Of that I have no doubt.

Steve Dickson, BBC Academy - full discussion

Following Steve's talk, we heard from Eben Upton of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. If you've not heard of the Raspberry Pi, it's a ARM-based Linux computer, with everything you might expect a general purpose computer to have, for an astonishing price of $25. Yep, you heard right. $25!. This price point could be a real game-changer. When a computer costs as much as a texbook, the possibilities suddenly become much greater. Somehow I suspect they won't just be used in schools. They should be hitting the shops later this year. I plan to buy at least 10.

Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi Foundation - full discussion

Finally, we heard from Katie Patridge, head of graduate recruitment in Europe for our sponsor ThoughtWorks, who outlined some of the educational initiatives they've been involved with, as well as how the company trains and develops programmers.

Katie Partridge, ThoughtWorks - full discussion

I won't bore you with much more detail. It's all on the videos, for you to relive the summit with us.

On closing, we agreed on key next steps:

1. Get involved with Computing At School. Join the discussion group. Become a contributing member. Do something!

2. Computing careers have a real PR problem, especially among kids (and most especially among girls). You may think that "geek is chic". Generally speaking, your average 15 year old doesn't. Geek = dull. It's also true that most people - kids and adults - actually have very little idea how software works, and are often unaware of just how ubiquitous computing's become. Education needs to go beyond just getting kids programming. The whole country needs a crash course in the computing age and what it means to them.

3. We'll meet again. Don't know where, don't know when. (But I know we'll meet again some sunny day. Possibly in the New Year at Bletchley Park.) I felt like a total heel cutting lively discussions short to keep us on track. We could have done with more time. I'll make sure we get it. Hopefully, by then, we'll have lots more to talk about, too.

So there you have it.

It does feel like a sea-change is occurring on this matter. All sorts of threads coming together, which is really what the summit was about - an experiment to see what might happen if I get this group of people together, feed and water tham, give them talking points, and then shake the bottle and see what comes out.

The very next day, Google's Eric Schmidt gave prominence to programming in schools in his high-profile MacTaggart lecture.

Eric Schmidt's MacTaggart lecture
It was in the all the papers. So too was the Raspberry Pi, which has been attracting a lot of interest and excitement. And last week, culture secretary Ed Vaizey urged the BBC to make programs about computer science.

In the two weeks since the summit, there's been some key developments on all these fronts, and I hope to fill you in on some of the details soon.

It's all really rather exciting.

Full list of participants:

Jason Gorman, Codemanship
Simon Peyton-Jones, Microsoft Research
David Harvey, Teams & Technology Ltd
Ade Oshineye, Google
Ian Addison, St John The Baptist Primary School, Waltham Chase
Steve Dickson, BBC Academy
Alan Cameron Wills, Microsoft
Gareth Halfacree, Technology Journalist
Chris Parsons, Independent Consultant
Rob Bowley, 7 Digital
James Gregory, epiGenesys
Chris Murray, epiGenesys
Rachel Davies, Agile Experience
Ebon Upton, Raspberry Pi Foundation
Chris Leach, Winchester House, Brackley
Drew Buddie, Royal Masonic School, Rickmansworth
Miles Berry, Roehampton University
Michael Kolling, University of Kent
John Lazar, Metaswitch
Simon Widdowson, Porchester Junior School
Neil Fletcher, ThoughtWorks
Dan Moore, ThoughtWorks
Bernado Rocha, ThoughtWorks
Katie Partridge, ThoughtWorks
Tony Parkin, Disruptive Nostalgist
Chris Monk, The National Museum of Computing
Will Price, Student & Computing/Bioinformatics Enthusiast

To find out more, drop me a line.

Posted 6 years, 6 months ago on September 18, 2011