Monthly Archives: July 2013

iCurriculum – Next Generation Coders

Recently the government have announced their proposed new curriculum for schools, aimed at restoring the English education system to its rightful place as one of the best in the world. One of the interesting things included in this is a new focus on computer skills, specifically around the ability to program:

Computing¬†will teach pupils how to write code. Pupils aged five to seven will be expected to “understand what algorithms are” and to “create and debug simple programs”. By the age of 11, pupils will have to “design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems. (Sean Coughlan, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news, 08/07/2013)

This is an interesting shift in focus in the education system and has a number of far reaching consequences. This is something that is probably long overdue, considering the impact that the internet and apps have on almost all our lives. In America coding has been a part of the curriculum for a long time. In fact, the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a scene in one of the early series which clearly shows Cordelia writing code for a program as part of her school work, which raises the question “why has it taken so long for us to catch up?”

One of the interesting things I see a lot in my job when interviewing for content managers is what we refer as ‘the myspace effect’. One of the key skills we look for is a basic understanding of HTML coding and currently the most common way people say they have gained this experience is through the short lived myspace phenomenon. Most of this occurs from the under 30 age range but it is an interesting insight into how one site has influenced a generation of people to learn the basics of coding. This is, in some way, the first step towards an acknowledgement that coding is fast becoming a common skill. Indeed, the days of ‘geeks’ being the uncool kids who spend their school break times locked away in dark rooms, tapping away at keyboards, wearing thick rimmed glasses and talking with whinny voices are long gone. Geek is the new chic, largely thanks to the Americans who has managed to make technology cool. Apple, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Apps, Zachary Quinto (yes, as weird as it seems, Hollywood actors being openly geeky has helped a lot) have all contributed to a shift in the way the world, and particularly young people, regard technology and coding.

So on to the new curriculum. I have my own reservations about how ambitious the government are being. If they think all 11 year olds are going to be able to write full programs then they are misguided, but if this is to be pitched at a lower level where children are taught the value in assessing a system holistically, identifying problems and solving them then this can only be a good thing. The ability to problem solve is a good one to have and exposure to technology is only going to help in a world that is increasingly filled with gadgets and devices. It used to be that if someone didn’t have typing skills then they wouldn’t be able to get a job in admin. Then it became that you needed Office Suite skills, and now you need to have internet skills and experience using mobile devices or coding skills. It is intellectual evolution in action and it won’t slow down either…Moore’s law for technological skill and understanding.

But what does this curriculum change mean for schools and more importantly for us, the digital practitioners? As a governor at my daughter’s school, which is a small school but that will be effected by this change, the major concern for me is the provision of the new curriculum. This will require schools to make investment in more technology and more importantly the skills to teach this. By the very nature of the teaching system, most teachers will not have come from a generation where they have the ability to teach coding, so new staff will be required. The interesting thing is that this will open the doors for the younger ‘myspace’ generation to potentially take some of those roles and thus that generation will help move us into the next age. Another concern is the mismatch between children from better off families against those with less money. This sort of curriculum will require extra-curricular work and those children in the less well off homes will struggle to get the opportunities to work with the technology. This will probably result in a shift towards children widely getting their own devices; the world of glass is coming.

So what about us, the digital practitioners? The most significant thing I foresee is the dilution of coding skills. Currently coders tend to work for agencies or corporations and any websites or software projects of any quality tend need to be undertaken by them. But in recent years I have noticed that a lot of our potential clients are already talking to friends they know who can put a website together for them. This is certainly the case for smaller clients and that is happening now, in a world where coding is still considered to be a specific skill set. So what will the effect be of coding skills becoming the norm in the next few generations?

Something we will need to be prepared for is that the internet will become more accessible for the majority of people. There will no doubt be many that forget their coding skills the moment they leave school, just as I can’t remember much of my algebra now. But there will also be plenty of people who are able to continue and expand their skills. The digital industry is going to have to capitalise on the specific ‘quality’ aspects it offers, such as in depth knowledge in user experience design. The bigger agencies will continue to work with the big corporations, but the smaller agencies, who rely on a succession of small and medium projects, will be the ones that will have to specialise and grow, or suffer. My prediction will be that small businesses will use ‘friends’ to produce sites rather than small agencies. The effect will be that the lower end of the market will probably stagnate. The digital industry will become more focussed on the top end of the market, with WordPress and the like being used by individuals to provide cheap and easy websites. Of course, all of this could well change when the web goes through its next evolution. Either way, we should all keep an eye on this keenly as our world will be effected by it.

Evolution or devolution?

A colleague of mine recently posted a link to ’23 Pictures That Prove Society Is Doomed’ on a well known social media site. It is a collection of amusing photos and captions that try to make the point that society must be doomed if we all feel the need to spend every waking moment with a phone in our hands. The below is one such image, that bore the introduction “This adorable picture of star-crossed lovers meeting for the first time”:

2. This adorable picture of star-crossed lovers meeting for the first time

From http://www.buzzfeed.com Via: empoweredteensandparents.com

At face value this page is quite amusing and many might find it “sad”, but I in fact find it a rather cynical and cheap attempt at a laugh that almost entirely misses the point. I’ll tell you why.

With all of these amusing little ‘insights’ into society, the pictures are a collection of amusing captions added to images that are taken completely out of context. At first they are amusing but soon it becomes quite obvious that the images have little to do with the situation the caption suggests. However, I can’t use this as a practical reason to criticise as the pictures are just demonstrations of situations we have all seen in real life. I have been present at a lunch of friends and suddenly looked up at a moment of silence to see they were all on their phones.

My main problem with this is the assumption that these situations are a negative thing. To explore this point further it is necesary to understand what these pictures actually show, rather than take it as read that the people are just being ‘anti-social’.

Like language, our behaviour evolves with time to suit the world we occupy. In the 1970s the young generation became the generation who sat around listening to the music of the day on the radio, enjoying the raucous behaviour of outrageous DJs and generally ‘rebelling’ against their parents who would rather they sat downstairs and have polite conversation. Similarly when I grew up the age of the games console had arrived and young teenagers would sit in their bedrooms playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario. No doubt in those situations their parents were talking about how society was doomed. In the late 90s and early 2000s SMS took the mantle and this was the start of people staring at their phones. In the film ‘Clueless’ Alicia Silverstone’s character is seen having a conversation on her mobile with her best friend and as she comes around the corner her friend is there. Without skipping a beat they hangup and continue their conversation. Some would say that this demonstration of not being able to go a single second without talking to a friend was a sad state of affairs, but actually it is the next stage in the evolution of human interaction. At no time in history, prior to this era, has it been possible for us to interact directly with each other unless we were in the presence of each other. Mobile phones changed this and opened up the opportunity for social interaction to extend to an almost unlimited stage.

So how does this relate to the situations depicted in the amusing images on buzzfeed? To me it is a demonstration of the next stage of social interactivity evolution. We now use so many more ways to interact with each other than we have ever done before. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Skype, SMS, Email, Instant Messaging, the list goes on. And all of these are usable on a mobile device. We are in a time poor world where our appetite to consume media, share it and interact with our colleagues and friends is higher than ever, with more ways to do this than before as well. More so, we have the ability to do this seemingly whenever and wherever we choose to, as our world has become mobile.

I am not saying that staring at a phone should replace the need for conversation, far from it. But what is happening, in my experience at least, is that the art of conversation is changing. It is no longer 100% about verbal exchange, the conversation is now multi-medium and continues across social media, instant messaging and verbally. One conversation can continue over the course of hours, as a connected set of short interactions fitting around other things, rather than a short face to face conversation that takes place as a single stream. The result of this is that our habits are changing when we are together. We are now in an age where it is acceptable (most of the time) to check the news, or social media, in between bites of conversation, rather than continually being 100% engaged in one conversational stream.

Is this the end of civilized society and the art of conversation as we know it? No, I don’t believe so. It is the start of the next phase in social evolution. We have come a long way since we sat around fires exchanging stories and our world is less and less reliant on tactile interaction as the core way to maintain communication and relationships. People have long lasting and deep friendships with people they have never actually met, which have more meaning that those they have with people they see all the time. Business are beginning to embrace a model where their workers don’t even work in an office and instead are a network of resources who communicate through the digital ether.

It is a difficult transition for many of us to make, as we move toward a world that is more and more like a sci-fi movie and less like a traditional social gathering. We are the generation that spans the gap between a world where mobile phones, CDs and computers were rare and few and a world where every person has a wristwatch the carries every detail about them around as a digital profile. Being glued to your phone…devolution or evolution? Or maybe it is a glimpse into the future that is just around the corner?