The Hour of Code

This blog post was first published in January 2015 on the University of Brighton’s Centre for Learning and Teaching website.

Source_code_in_Perl-crop-15gsu3lIf you used any kind of social media in December 2014 you may have come across the ‘Hour of Code’. This international computing initiative was developed by the US-based organization code.org  and is designed to promote writing computer code to people of all ages, but especially school children. The December UK event was launched at Downing Street by David Cameron surrounded by a group of children having a one hour lesson in computer coding. Participants in the Hour get a taste of some basic coding techniques such as loop structures and conditional statements through watching short videos and playing some simple games. Over 3 million people participated in the UK in 2013, and worldwide many millions more have joined in. According to the code.org website it is supported by people as diverse as Mark Zuckerberg, will.i.am, and Boris Johnson, all of whom emphasise that writing code is a skill that will be increasingly valuable in the future.

The videos and games have been written by various providers including code.org itself, and other online learning platforms such as the Khan Academy. Many UK Apple Stores also ran face-to-face coding sessions in December. The online games are carefully designed and targeted, for example there is a Disney sponsored Frozen game aimed at girls, presumably to address the shortage of women programmers, and there are other resources for more adult or engaged users, for example those by the Khan Academy which introduce JavaScript.

Behind this hour of fun designing snowflakes or creating shapes that move across the screen is a more important issue – the increasing need for more people, and more diverse types of people, to fill a skills gap in software development. Encouraging school children to code is the obvious place to start and the Hour of Code is more accessible and more clearly organized for non-tech-savvie staff and students than other recent initiatives such as Scratch and Raspberry Pi.

What does this mean for Higher Education? Generally speaking, initiatives that focus on schools will eventually become a concern for Universities. At the very least, students will be arriving at University with a minimum of a few hours of experimenting in writing simple code – and under the recently revised GCSE computing curriculum many will have substantially more, even when they are not studying computing subjects at HE level. In most disciplines this means that students would have more experience in coding than staff who have grown up in a world where any interactions with code were left firmly to “technicians”. But soon we will all need to be techies – at least to a degree. And in terms of transferable skills in HE, being able to code will not be just the preserve of the computer scientists, but will be a skill that needs to develop alongside subject specialisms – and the rise of Code Poetry and DevArt shows how broad this can be.

As well as the disciplinary changes, students who arrive at university being able to code will probably have also taken part in the online communities where the open sharing of knowledge about code is the norm. They will be expecting easily to find information in online communities and resources, and to share their findings freely with others. In more formal terms, they will be confident users of Open Educational Resources, have well developed problem solving skills and be experienced peer learners. Perhaps the most important thing the generation of coders can bring to Higher Education is this sense of possibility and openness that comes from learning online in this way. It is up to universities to find ways to capitalize on these learning skills.

In the meantime, while we work out how universities are going to address the need for more confident coders without just creating more computer science graduates, it is worth taking some time to explore the Hour of Code’s resources – whether to find out a bit about coding, or to join the 90 million people who have participated, or to find out what current issue unites characters as diverse as will.i.am and Boris Johnson. The Hour of Code UK.

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