Computing curriculum: Supporting Generation Y

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With a new computing curriculum arriving in September, Debbie Forster from Apps for Good argues that a hands-on and real-life problem-solving approach to coding is the secret to engaging students. She offers some advice and a few ideas.

Born in the 90s and later, Generation Y (Millennials or Gen Yers, as they are often called), are young people just entering the workforce. 

Tech-savvy, they have grown up with technology and, according to a report by research consultancy Incite, there are 15 million of them in the UK.

Some of the research done on Generation Y suggests that what we should be seeing is more and more students with superb technological proficiencies and the accompanying creative and logical skills that will help them to secure high-flying roles in various sectors that place huge value on technological capabilities and skills. 

And we do see this when it comes to many Gen Yers – but not all of them. While some students have a natural affinity for technology, others don’t. So what happens to those young people that are not naturally drawn to or interested in technology? What happens to those students that don’t meet all the “Generation Y” criteria?

In order for all students to have a fair chance of career success in the digital age, efficient preparation needs to be made in school as early as possible. Engaging students in practical projects is important for piquing their interest in technology, and equipping them with hands-on computing and coding experience, which they will almost certainly need for a 21st century career.

Between October and December 2013 there were 1.04 million young people (aged 16 to 24) in the UK who were not in education, employment or training (NEET). In real terms, this means that 54.9 per cent of all young people in the UK currently remain unemployed. I believe there is increased worry for this 54.9 per cent if they lack efficient IT skills. The General Assembly’s European director, Matt Cynamon, recently quoted research showing that Britain will need 750,000 skilled digital workers by 2017. He said: “If we can’t support that growth, it could result in costing the UK as much as £2 billion a year.”

The natural focus is turned to education as the starting point for developing these skills. So how can we, as teachers, keep our students from being left behind? 

From September, computer programming and coding will be part of the national curriculum in the UK. However, too often, the old ICT curriculum was wrongly boiled down to user skills and there’s a risk that the new computing curriculum could likewise be reduced to coding. Coding is an important part of computing, but just one strand. 

For computing education to be truly effective and arm young people with 21st century skills, it must help them become makers with technology, rather than merely consumers using technology. Hands-on learning and problem-solving should be at the heart of this. 

Inspire them

While some students will be interested in technology and coding for its own sake, the majority of students, like many of us, will be motivated to learn coding if they understand what they can do with it. By helping young people to see the vast opportunities for making, creating and problem-solving that coding offers, we will best encourage them to learn coding and computing skills. 

A core foundation of the Apps for Good initiative requires that students aren’t set topics or themes. Instead, students must choose something themselves to focus on. 

They examine their daily routines and interests, as well as wider social issues to find a problem that matters to them that could be solved through technology. Student voice and student-led learning is particularly powerful in computing because students’ interests can lead to the creation of a real product they are proud of.

It is also important not to treat computing as a solitary affair. Structure activities with a mix of working individually on a task and letting students work in pairs or small groups to tackle new challenges or share their learnings. This not only helps lower the sense of risk or frustration when facing a coding challenge, but also debunks the stereotype of the solitary coder and mirrors the way development teams actually work in the real world.

Our students are taught the full product development process, from idea-generation, technical feasibility and programming to product design, deciding on business models and marketing. This gives them hands-on experience with how technology products are built in the real world and how a technology business is run.

Encourage experimentation

A hands-on approach to computing education should encourage creativity and experimentation among students. Extra-curricular coding gives students time and space to play and experiment with different coding tools and challenges. 

Frame this around helping students learn to use computing to do/build something they want to do, like creating a hobby website, building a simple game or an app prototype focusing on an area they are keen on. 

There are a range of activities and organisations to work with, such as Hour of Code and Make Things Do Stuff, which offer students extensive resources to make and experiment with technology.

Let students be the experts

Embrace students learning for themselves and from peers. Developers learn by searching on the internet, from peers or through trial and error; let your students do the same. We’ve found a coaching model rather than a “sage from the stage” model works best when students are learning to code. 

Teachers should keep an eye out for those students who are already coding at home, and look for opportunities for them to share their work with students and become a school or class “resident expert”. 

For some this might involve peer-coaching and teaching, for others it might involve creating guides or challenges for other students to encourage them to code.

The term “geek” is no longer pejorative; embrace the term with your class by celebrating the skills behind it and the students who have them. If you really want to then fire up your geeks, connect them with organisations like Code Club for primary students or Young Rewired State for older students. 

Can’t find any geeks? Plant the seeds. Set a series of challenges and have groups of students tackle it and share how they achieved it to the class.

Go beyond the computing classroom 

For computing education to be effective, I believe that STEM is not enough; our approach should be STEAMED: science, technology, engineering, art, maths, enterprise and design.

If the workplace needs students who are not just tech-savvy, but confident problem-solvers and makers, then STEM is not the answer. Computing education needs to encompass creativity, entrepreneurship and design. 

Move swiftly on from just ticking the box, and explore how the computing curriculum can support other subject areas. Like whole-school literacy, helping students both see computing at work and to put their new skills to use in other subjects will increase its value and motivate students.

Problem-solvers and digital-makers

The expectation is that students are evolving into tech-savvy, connected individuals ready for the world of work in the 21st century. At Apps for Good, our teachers know that not all students are there yet, and we are working hard to combat this with engaging and innovative lessons and resources. 

As teachers, it is our job to ensure that all students, both IT enthusiasts and those that shy away from it, leave education with the necessary digital and computing skills that they will almost certainly need to succeed in the digital world.

  • Debbie Forster is UK managing director of Apps for Good and former headteacher. 

Apps for Good
Apps for Good, a registered charity, is an open-source technology education programme that partners with educators in schools to work with students aged from 10 to 18. In the course, students work together as teams to find real issues they care about and learn to build a mobile, web or social app to solve them. SecEd has supported Apps for Good since its inception. Visit www.appsforgood.org

CAPTION: Making a difference: Students at Wick High School in Scotland take part in Apps for Good, a hands-on app-building, social entrepreneurship programme


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