Replicate the past - the cause, the mechanism, or the effect?

October 23, 2011 at 05:17 PM | categories: kidscoding | View Comments

Meta: The next post in this category after this will be "what do I plan to do". I'll keep this post brief, unlike the last one. Sorry for the length last time, still finding my feet.

Recap: I've so far argued that part of the cause of kids starting to code in the 80's was really a catalytic effect in legtimising coding as an activity that yes, kids can do, leading to the creation of many books, tools (micros), and so on being created as part of a wider ecosystem enabling children to learn.

Replicating Mechanisms?

The thing is, it's worth remembering that these were mechanisms, and mechanisms legitimate at the time. As a result, this is kind my issue with Raspberry Pi. Now again, I don't want to do a downer on Raspberry Pi - it's a fun idea, and it has a lot of geeks excited. I've yet to hear anything to excite a child about it. Me ? Yes, I'd love to have one. I've got some grippers (along with associated servos etc) from my birthday, along with a few faraduino's and a tracker robot (which I had previously - in part because of building a catastrophene for my daughter) which would really nice to control with an onboard diddy computer. However, I doubt the tech savvy kid of today - who own a display with an HDMI input... - would be excited by it. (I'd love to be proved wrong on that though :-)

However, it assumes that the majority of kids don't have access to hardware they can code on. This is despite broadband takeup in the UK being at the 74% , and higher in households with children at 91% overall. ( OFCOM ) Any household with a browser, let alone broadband, has sufficient hardware to start coding. As a result, I don't think hardware is really the problem to attack.

Put succinctly, I think Raspberry Pi is replicating one of the mechanisms of the 80s, rather than the cause or the effect. This doesn't make it bad, but neither does it mean it's inherently good. It means it's a tool, which may have an effect. But despite its price, it's not cheaper than a PC donated from Tesco vouchers or Sainsbury vouchers (etc).

I can't see the kids being interested though - so by itself, it doesn't help me as an interested father...

Replicating Effect?

This is what lots of people are crying out for. For lots of different reasons. In order to replicate the effect, we need to examine the cause to reinvent new, more appropriate mechanisms for today. To do that, we need to do two things:

  • Look at the motivations of the past and especially of people today - the causes that did it last time ? What will make people do things today? Are they different ? How have things changed ?
  • Look at the ecosystem of the past, and the ecosystem of today.

If we simply replicate mechanics, albeit in an interesting and cheap way, we risk doing the equivalent of putting a typewriter in a living room and expecting that to be the way that children learn to type.

Replicating Cause?

I've looked at causes in previous posts, so here I'll summarise. People making micros wanted to sell them, saw children as key users, and made hardware affordable. The governments of the time seeing needs of UK industry to have a technologically skilled workforce. Arcade games (and similar) were growing in popularity and micros allowed this at home. Kids wanted to play games and share them with their friends. They wanted these games either very cheaply or free - through typing games in, finding and correcting bugs, and taping them. This also led naturally to customisation, new games and selling tapes. A fledgling games industry was burgeoning, and seen by kids as both fun and doable .

The UK had just had economic problems in the 70s which continued in the 80s. Parents, like always, were looking at "what's best for my child". Parents could see that this was a means of getting their children a better livelihood than themselves. (cf survery on page 11 of the computer literacy project report "pdf"). Teaching children about computers became clear as something which was considered a "Good Thing", and due to internal and external factors the BBC formed the Computer Literacy Project which legitimised this in the eyes of many.

I hope that's a fair summary, but it still misses 2 vital points:

  • It was within the reach of children, using tools made available to them, to write games, etc they could share with their friends, in terms of financial, technical, factors social, with educational support through media, schools, books and peers.
  • They had few legal ways of getting new games for free, or next to free, without writing code.

Barriers to Overcome

The interesting thing here to me is that whilst the following are all still true...

  • Children still seen as a key market, government interest, industry interest, games at home are played by kids and adults, kids still want to play, make up games, share games, strong presence in games industry, UK having economic woes, parents wanting best for kids, interest both within/without the BBC for BBC to do "something".

... I'm not really sure that the other points are still true, for a variety of reasons.

  1. Parents do not see value (or as much value) in children learning how to really unlock the potential of the power they have available.
  2. Children can get at an almost infinite library of new games for free, thanks to the existence of the web, and the many systems they use. Examples include fronter), (purple mash ) , club penguin , moshi monsters etc. (the last 2 use a freemium model and allow kids to play together)
  3. It is not realistically within the reach of the average child to replicate such games of similar power, without jumping over hurdles they may not be able, allowed or willing to jump over.
  4. Making games and sharing them is not seen as something doable. Let alone the idea (say) of making a game to sell at a school fete.
  5. It's not seen as fun by kids. (or most adults) I wonder how many adults view games consoles as computers.
  6. Kids are less likely to pick up a book to discover how to write code because a) those books no longer consider children a valid audience b) publishers don't get bookshops to stock such books c) libraries don't stock them d) kids would prefer to look at a webpage than a book anyway.

I personally think point 5 is a consequence of the way computers are used in schools today, and their usage is taught. Similarly a generation of people brought up to think that computers are things you browse the web, run word processors on, write spreadsheets on, and that's really the limit of their experience I think leads to number 1.

The fact that point 2 exists now also is a psychological barrier between the gratification now (play and chat) vs gratification potentially much later (make, play, chat). Even if they do overcome that barrier, the toolsets available to kids hit other barriers. Many parents see computers complexity as beyond them, the idea of risking the kid "breaking it", is quite frightening. (unlike the switch it off/on again of micros) There's risks from virii, and so on. This means that even if they're willing or able to jump over the hurdles of installing python, scratch, ruby, or similar they may not be allowed to do so (3). Then, even if they do jump over, they do so without any real support, this is in part due to point 6, but also due to the underlying problems that causes point 6.

Finally, the steps necessary (say) for a kid to be able to run an arcade at a school fete and sell games there (I'm sorry, I remember that happening in primary schools in the 80's) is now considered sooo far out of their reach, it wouldn't even be considered possible.

Turning this around

I think in order to turn this around, we need to re-examine the issues and opportunities that are in hand. One of these is that the computers available to kids today are more powerful than the supercomputers of 30 years ago. Another is the fact that kids are reading much more today than they used to (thanks to the web).

These include:

  • Educating parents of the value of computational thinking, and unlocking the power of the computers in their lives for their children's benefit. This to parents means not just freedom, but financial freedom.
  • Working with the fact that the web is the cheapest/easiest way of getting games and interacting with others. Working with the eco-system that they love today, including the club penguin, moshi monsters, cbeebies games, titter/mary.coms, and so on of the world today.
  • Making it realistically within the reach of children today to build, and share games and apps with their friends. Not only in practice, but also in perception, despite barriers of changing the local device.
  • Make it seem plausible to children and parents. Something they can do. Something that they can make a better life for themselves doing.
  • Making it fun once again. Learning lessons from things like Horrible Histories, etc about how to make "non-fun" subjects fun once again is a real opportunity.
  • Recognising that even if books did cover these things (and they should), that the role of books for many kids is taken by web pages today. Books were just a mechanism. (Much as I love books!)

All of this has to be done whilst at the same time:

  • Respecting the freedom of children whilst they're doing this
  • Recognising that the internet is here to stay
  • Not assuming that any one group or company, will achieve the goals by themselves.
  • Enabling kids to share their creations with others, and have them portable between companies. (code and data portability)
  • Recognising that this is happening in a computer literate world.
  • Fitting in with the modern approach of cross curricular teaching. (Much like the project/theme oriented schemes of the IPC )
  • Taking into account the modern world and where it will be in 2-5 years time, not where we were 30 years ago.
  • Recognising that much of computational thinking is of benefit beyond coding and is really problem solving skills

After all, the world of 30 years ago looks as old and archaic to the children of today as 1955 did to Marty McFly.

My next post in this category will describe what I plan to do. I'd like for it to be a part of the day job at work, but I'd be surpised. We'll see though. However, I have a strong motivation to do this at home anyway, and the ability to do it there too (albeit taking significantly longer), so I'll still be doing it :-)

In the meantime, any feedback on "turning it around" would be welcome :-)

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