Wednesday 28 September 2016

Finally, schools are ready to crack coding and close the digital divide

Ciarán Cannon

Published 19/07/2016 | 02:30

Education Minister Richard Bruton Photo: Tom Burke
Education Minister Richard Bruton Photo: Tom Burke

Why did James Whelton, a young Cork student, feel the need to create the first CoderDojo in 2011? Why are there now more than 200 CoderDojos across Ireland catering for thousands of young people? Why did Ireland host more EU Code Week events than any other EU country in 2013 and again in 2014? Why did 500 Irish schools stage an Hour of Code in 2015? Why did 10,000 young people, teachers and parents fill the RDS last month to share their coding projects at the Coolest Projects Awards?

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Dr Anne Looney, the CEO of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), once described curriculum as "the story that one generation tells to the next".

Up to now, the story we tell children in Irish schools has been missing one vital element and that void has been filled through community effort and initiatives like CoderDojo and the Hour of Code.

Yesterday morning, those of us who have been advocating the teaching of coding and computer science in our schools were heartened by an announcement from Education Minister Richard Bruton.

He has requested the NCCA to examine how coding can be introduced at primary level so that our young people can develop the kind of skills they will need to shape the future of a digital world.

This request ties in with the existing commitment in our Programme for Government to introduce Computer Science as a full subject at Leaving Cert level.

This is a pretty momentous announcement from an Irish education minister and it has already been greeted with the normal mixture of positivity and cynicism.

So where do we go from here and how do we address the challenges associated with such a transformational step?

The first thing we need to understand is that many of our teachers in both primary and post-primary schools are already doing what the minister suggests and have been for years.

They have very successfully incorporated coding and computer science into the delivery of other elements of the curriculum. For me, that embedding of computer science in other areas of teaching and learning should be the key to our success in this new endeavour.

The classroom needs to reflect the reality of a world outside, where every aspect of our lives is pervaded by ones and zeroes. To teach coding solely as a standalone and sterile subject would be a fundamental error.

We need to learn from these trailblazing teachers. They have already begun telling a new and exciting chapter of the curricular story to their students and through trial and error they have perfected the method of delivery.

These teachers have found ways to use coding to help develop other key skills, such as literacy, numeracy and creative thinking.

We cannot proceed without engaging directly with these experts and learning from their experiences. They need to be at the heart of delivering this groundbreaking innovation in Irish education.

Secondly, we should not spend taxpayers' money on developing new learning resources for coding and computer science when those resources are already freely available online.

Not only are they free, but they are also of a very high standard and constantly evolving as the language of coding evolves.

The last thing we need to produce is a text book on coding that will cost parents money and will be hopelessly out of date within a couple of years. Organisations like CoderDojo, Code.org, MIT, the Khan Academy and others are constantly developing superb teaching and learning resources, and at the heart of each of these entities is an ethos of free and self-directed learning.

Thirdly, we cannot lose focus on our ambition to deliver high-quality broadband to every community in Ireland. In terms of education, there is already a major digital divide developing between those students who can easily access online learning resources and those who can't.

When our schools finally begin delivering coding and computer science as part of the curriculum, it is absolutely critical that every student has access to high-quality broadband both at home and in school.

I am convinced that we can get all of the above in place, as there is a lot of goodwill out there when it comes to conferring 21st-century skills upon our children.

We now have EXCITED, a digital learning movement supported by Science Foundation Ireland, which unites a large cohort of trailblazing teachers, students, academics and industry leaders who have the knowledge and passion to stage a learning revolution.

There are the mentors of CoderDojo, our powerful community-based coding movement, who are more than willing to lend their expertise.

We have CESI, the Computers in Education Society of Ireland, a group of teachers who have been researching this subject matter in an Irish context for over 40 years.

Within the department, there is already a dedicated group of officials who know how to make this initiative work and they need to be supported.

Most of all, we have our children, who are already demonstrating that they have the capacity to master the computational thinking and creativity required to understand and change the world.

All that was needed was a Minister for Education who was willing to lead the way and we now have that in Richard Bruton.

Let's get behind him.

Ciarán Cannon is a Fine Gael TD for Galway East, a former minister of state at the Department of Education and a founder of EXCITED - the Digital Learning Movement

Irish Independent

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