Above all, education should empower children. And yet when it comes to Information Technology, IT, we are in danger of doing the opposite. Training courses such as the European Computer Driver’s Licence course show students how to use Microsoft’s ubiquitous ‘Office’ suite of applications and this is useful. So for example, learning to drive a car is useful: but it’s also not very difficult. And learning to use ‘Office’ applications is similarly, not very difficult.
In contrast, learning Newton’s laws, thermodynamics and materials science is hard, and you won’t actually be able to drive a car at the end of your training. But you will be able to understand, how a car works. And not just that: you might be able to imagine different types of cars, or even aeroplanes or rockets or submarines. Similarly, teaching computer programming will not directly help students to use a word processor. But they will understand how a word processor does what it does, and maybe they will even imagine new ways to use a computer. This is genuine empowerment. On this issue, if on few others, I am surprised to find myself agreeing with Michael Gove.
It is only when students take charge of computers that they become empowered, and I hope the Raspberry Pi computer will enable a resurgence in that. The Raspberry Pi is a fully-fledged but bare-bones computer costing around £20, and when it went on sale recently, it sold out in minutes. It was sold to people who are probably a bit like me. But my hope – and the hope of the Raspberry Pi foundation – is that it will find its way into the hands of children who will be excited by the prospect of making this device do what they want it to. In all probability this means using it to play games!
When my colleagues Gavin and Robin were teenagers the hottest technology available was the Sinclair Spectrum, and a key attraction was the ability to create and play games! This ability fascinated them, and now – I think as a direct result of this early experience – they incorporate a profound understanding of programming into their skill set. Even now when any of us write software that works, and we control a machine or calculate the answer to a complicated problem, we all smile in appreciation at the technical sweetness of the process. In the case of my own programming achievements, Gavin and Robin smile mainly in sympathy 🙂
Being the age I am – 52 – it was not until I reached University that I met a computer. And I loved it! Using Commodore PET, a WANG, and an Apple II I learned the power of computing to set my imagination free. As an undergraduate I calculated the orbits of planets in systems which Newton would have found impossible! Learning to program computers empowered and inpsired me.
One could take the view that a fascination with the minutiae of computing is as relevant today as a fascination with the details of a steam engine! ‘Chill out man‘ I hear some of you say, ‘Just consume media on your iPad and be grateful‘. I respectfully disagree. Empowering our children means enabling them to be creators, and not consumers, and computer programming is one the most creative of all activities.