AS WE ALL KNOW, today’s world is increasingly a digital one. It is pretty much impossible to think of a modern activity that doesn’t, in some way, make clever use of computing power. Our economy depends on it.
Very much aware of this, the Scottish Government published a ‘Digital Strategy’ back in 2011 and refreshed it earlier this year. Their ambition is to boost the number of digital jobs in Scotland from today’s 85,000 to 150,000 by 2021.
That might be harder than you might think. As discussed in February’s Insider the number of computer science teachers in Scotland’s schools has fallen from 866 in 2007 to 663 in 2014 – a drop of 14 per cent. One school in eight has no teacher for computer science and cannot present students for examinations.
Surely his can’t be acceptable in today’s world? Way back in 1967, long before the iPhone, or even the personal computer, were invented, I had the opportunity to write simple computer programs as part of my maths class in my Scottish High School. I found this experience so intriguing that I went on to do a degree in Computer Science and subsequently followed a career in digital technology.
If we could expose schoolkids to digital skills back in 1967, surely we can do it today.
Back in the 60s we wrote our programs on coding sheets, which were then sent away to be punched onto punch cards, submitted to a remote mainframe computer in an air conditioned bunker costing millions of pounds, and when the results came back a few days later, more often than not a simple punctuation error meant the program had failed.
These days there is no need to punch cards, or to use remote mainframe computers in distant halls. A Raspberry Pi, a tiny, fully functioning powerful computer, can be bought for less than £50, and there are lots of simple coding systems which are very easy to learn. A young person can quickly create a simple app (a computer program intended for individual use) which can achieve a useful task, or enable an entertaining game.
And if we can’t manage to do this in the school curriculum, maybe we should do it out of school, in after-school ‘code clubs’. In the last few years we’ve seen successful initiatives such as ‘Apps for Good’ and ‘CoderDojo’ spring up all over the country, which encourage kids between 7 and 17 to get involved in coding.
Last year, the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland established a new initiative called Digital Xtra to help encourage new code clubs to be formed and this has now been spun out as an independent charity. Last year they awarded £400,000 to 22 projects, reaching 15,000 young people across the country. The Digital Xtra site usefully maps the location of 825 clubs across every corner of Scotland.
And there are other real benefits. Clubs are lots of fun – kids quickly learn to work together in teams to create interesting apps. And unlike computer science classes, they appeal to girls. Indeed, special efforts are often made to make these clubs appealing to diverse audiences, and not just young male geeks.
And, although computer scientists with a teaching qualification are very difficult to find, as evidenced by the recent drop in qualified teachers in schools, computer clubs can be led by enthusiasts who only have to clear child protection checks.
Lets embrace the code clubs. It might be the best way of inspiring our young people to become digital natives.
Ian Ritchie chairs the Trustee board of the Digital Xtra charity.