Code Club: four perspectives on Code Club and the tech pipeline

I went to a Code Club and polled the children in attendance to find out their opinions on technology careers, and I was surprised by their answers.

There is a debate among those in the technology industry about whether the computing curriculum is actually fit for purpose.

Despite teachers, parents and government officials alike claiming all industries will demand digital skills in the near future, there are concerns the computing curriculum is either too focused on coding, or not really focused enough on anything.

The mission to encourage children into tech roles, as well as give them the appropriate level of digital skill for other roles, seems to be an uphill battle that can only be won through further collaboration between schools, industry and government.

In some cases there are supplementary lessons, classes and clubs on offer to help encourage kids to learn more about tech in general – and some of these additional sessions tick the “collaboration” box I’ve mentioned above.

Are the kids attending these sessions engaged in technology, and how far do they go towards educating children about the sector and potentially helping to direct them further down the talent pipeline?

I recently attended a Code Club session at Lansbury Lawrence Primary School in London, during which I spoke to a volunteer from a local firm as well as the teacher in charge, and polled the class of eight-year-olds to find out their opinions on both Code Club and the tech industry – and most of what I learnt I had not expected.

The kid’s perspective

My first surprise was the Code Club session was split down the middle when it came to gender – 50/50 boys and girls.

Whether the kids had previous experience of coding was mixed – some had coded before and some hadn’t, bearing in mind I went at the beginning of term when the cohort at the Code Club was fairly new.

The boys were slightly more outspoken than the girls, which didn’t surprise me as much, and the girls appeared to band together – which I thought was brilliant, because Girl Power.

My first question to the kids – what made you attend the code club?

With this question came my second surprise – all of the 15 children in the room had chosen to attend the code club, many because they thought it would be fun.

Although this wasn’t the answer I’d been expecting, because if I’m honest learning to code strikes me as an activity children were more likely to be forced to do than choose to do, it was also brilliant to hear – kids are more likely to be engaged with something they’ve chosen to do rather than something they’ve been made to do.

Some said they had heard lots of good things about coding, and had heard about technology before, one girl even said she wanted to learn more about coding. These kids seemed to have a natural interest for tech, so hopefully that’s a win for further down the pipeline.

Next I asked (or rather I got the teacher to ask, because I can’t control kids to save my life) what they knew about technology jobs, and whether they would be interested in one.

Another surprise – the kids rolled off the names of many of the tech giants that are such a large part of our lives today, Apple and Sony among them, and claimed they thought tech was about making new products.

Some said it would be cool to see what goes on behind the scenes in the companies making today’s tech.

Top on their list of priorities – making money, and being part of making cool stuff. Seems like the kids have it all sorted out.

The teacher’s perspective

In the Code Club session I attended, the kids were working on a “fortune teller” project to code a random number generator using Chrome Books, a free online resource, BBC Micro Bits and Raspberry Pis.

The resource uses drag and drop elements to teach kids Java Script, which will manipulate the Raspberry Pi-connected BBC Microbit.

Bernie McNerney, the teacher in charge of the Code Club, and also the person responsible for getting more tech into the school, said there’s “not much excuse” for failing to offer children extra-curricular coding opportunities.

There’s an online hub where you can search for volunteers to help you out with the club – that’s how Park Place Technologies, a local tech company, and Lansbury Lawrence Primary School ended up working together to provide the kids with coding know how.

Much like we all know from childhood, the lessons we remember are the ones where we got to do something fun or different – the ones where we got to set something on fire, or dress up, or put on an accent while reading in front of the class.

McNerney told me: “I feel like if I took it away, I’d be depriving them of using the computers in a fun way.”

But teachers, understandably, are “reluctant” and “afraid” – McNerney said he’s a bit of a geek, but he doesn’t know how to code, and I’ve written before about how many teachers feel inadequate in the face of the computing curriculum, especially when it comes to coding.

Then, McNerney threw another surprise my way – while many people debate whether or not the curriculum is too focused on coding and not focused enough on digital skills, coding is just the “last pillar” of the computing curriculum, reserved for those who have made it to the bitter end.

The forefront of the computing curriculum is focused on digital literacy – and McNerney explained the Code Club sessions not only get the children thinking creatively about tech, it also gets them excited about it.

It teaches the kids to problem solve, and helps with other milestones the kid’s need to work on at that point in time for other parts of the national curriculum, such as reasoning, learning, algebra, language and problem solving.

And in some cases, it might help address another pipeline problem – tech isn’t accessible to everyone.

From a gender perspective I mentioned the split was half and half, and McNerney said if a girl considers dropping out of the club, he’ll have a chat with the child’s parents to find out why try and convince them she’d gain a massive amount from attending.

But the inaccessible nature of tech isn’t confined to just a gender problem.

The volunteer’s perspective

Tech also has a problem with attracting and retaining those from ethnic minorities and those from lower income households, for various different reasons.

For the Code Club I visited, Park Place Technologies, the aforementioned tech firm, provides the classes with volunteers who help the teacher answer the children’s questions, and director of marketing in Europe for the firm, Simon Bitton, said he was interested in helping out a Code Club in this part of London in particular to help children who might not be from as wealthy a background as others.

He told me Code Club, as well as some other free-to-attend clubs, might “allow [children] further education through this free extracurricular club they might have to pay for elsewhere.”

So what of Park Place’s involvement? Bitton starts by pointing out the kids in these sessions may well end up in a technology career, and by placing themselves within these Code Club sessions in some shape or form, the kids may build up an affiliation with the brand early on – the firm is local to the school it volunteers in.

The firm also provides technology to schools in underprivileged areas around the world – in Ireland the firm provided a school running Coder Dojo sessions with refurbished laptops and power cables so they could better run the sessions.

At Lansbury Lawrence Primary School, volunteers from Park Place give up their time to help teacher Bernie McNerney, who started the Code Club off his own back.

Bitton told me: “We genuinely want to give back to the community and we wanted to do that through education. Education is at the heart of everything we do.”

Part of that education is helping kids to become more “savvy” – like many, Bitton warns against the idea of kids as digital natives.

They might be used to using technology at home, but time spent at the school in Code Club sessions has them more “engaged” in processes such as logging in, and the club gives them an environment that’s more fun, where they get to see a different side of their teacher and it’s not as formal as a lesson.

Our very own… Caroline Donnelly’s perspective

If you’re a listener of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload Podcast, you’ll know Caroline Donnelly, senior editor at Computer Weekly and Queen of cloud, is a Code Club volunteer as well.

The Code Club she works as is on a weekend, and takes place in the public library.

She’s said before on the Podcast this can sometimes pose a difficulty – the kids are used to using touch screen technology. In many cases before they can get started with the coding learning they need to be taught how to use a mouse.

But this is a minor hurdle, and Donnelly said parents and participants alike are mad keen for the sessions – the sessions she volunteers for have around seven regular attendees (two of which are girls) who are all clearly attending because they want to learn more about coding and technology.

Kids will sometimes bring projects to do which they’ve found elsewhere, such as on YouTube or through other platforms like Coder Dojo or Hour of Code.

Donnelly said they even sometimes suggest projects “they’ve come up with themselves”.

“Our club runs on a Saturday morning, when there are a lots of other extra-curricular activities vying for their attention and the fact they choose to spend their morning with us is sign they find the sessions fun,” she pointed out.

“You soon pick up on the kids who are there under duress from parents, and they tend to come one week (possibly two) and then never again.”

An emphasis on creativity is also encouraged, a connection often overlooked in some cases when it comes to the realms of technology, with volunteers explaining to children the project guidelines are a “jumping off point”.

Donnelly said: “They should feel free to make [the projects] their own however they see fit, which they always do by tweaking the functionality or creating spin-off projects of their own using what they’ve learned.”

So are the children at Code Club engaged? It certainly seems they are.

From the answers seen above it seemed to me Code Clubs across the UK are doing what they can to help tackle what I think are some of the tech pipeline’s most common problems: gender imbalance, a lack of early engagement, and a lack of knowledge about what technology careers involve.

But do Code Clubs help to feed in to the future tech talent pipeline? It seems they may well be a good start, but as pointed out by Donnelly, it is much more likely kids will look towards tech careers if Code Clubs are supplemented by other opportunities such as classroom learning and other extra-curriculars.

She said: “Our kids are all aged between 7-11 and once they age out of our group it is hard to know if they will be given opportunities (either after school or within the classroom during normal hours) that will enable them to turn their interest into a viable career,  but a lot of our kids do other coding-related activities outside of our sessions like attend maker sessions hosted by the library or the Raspberry Jam events in our local, so I am hopeful it will make a difference.”

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