Friday 29 November 2013

The next generation of IT professionals

In a previous blog posting I mentioned I had been asked to help with mentoring the Go-Berserk team in Northern Ireland. They don’t actually need much to help them but it’s a fantastic initiative to help inspire young people and with what they can do in IT. This is a generation that uses IT without thinking about it, you see young children before they go to school able to work on iPads and smartphones but in order to get them to have her interest in what is behind them you need to understand how that works.
The idea behind Go-Berserk is to IT knowledge into schools for children as young as eight and when I first met Ian Simons he had one study guide published to show children how to build a webpage with HTML. He and Dr Irene Bell were writing an academic paper* on a research study to determine if the Go-Berserk initiative was a success that should be continued.

What they did was invite education establishments from across Northern Ireland to participate in a pilot, then they selected 11 to take part. They meet with each group simply to explain the study and then each was given the first book in the series and asked to work through that with their selected group. Many of the teachers thought that they were actually going to get training themselves and one of the things that encourage them to take part with this was the misconception that they would have their own IT skills enhanced. So it was a big surprise when they were just given a book and told to get on with it, however this is where the book proved to be a success and they were able to work through it with very little trouble. Each of the studies was successful in creating their own websites and there were surveys taken before and after this to get feedback and then participants were interviewed on video in order to build up an understanding of how the project had gone.
The results of the study were published in a book and presented to the business and academic community this week in Northern Ireland and I was very privileged to be invited along. The day started with Naomi Long MP who talked about the importance of IT and the transferable skills that this would give young people such as logic, data processing and time management. She talked about the fact that all children are users of IT but they need to understand what is behind it. She also talked about the fact that the ICT traditionally taught in schools was about how to use IT and our young people need to know how to ‘create’ IT. She reminded the audience that the Go-Berserk team had recently won a digital heroes award and she was hoping or rather had the intention of getting them in front of the Minister of Education in Westminster.

For me the most important part of the day was listening to the children who taken part in this and remember the average age was 9 or 10. I loved what they had to say:

“Our website looked just like what you’d find on the Internet”
“If you got even just a bracket wrong it could change anything even just the font”
             “Now when we look at real websites we think we know how to do that”

The study guide helps to create a website based on the Vikings story that children at key stage 2 are already studying as part of their history curriculum but over half of the pilot groups chose to create websites with different content to show that they had learnt the basics from the guide and then they tailored that for themselves.
Ian and the children from St John the Baptist Primary School
Jeannette Chapman, Principal of St John the Baptist primary school admitted that her initial interest was motivated by getting help with school website, but as already mentioned the had to learn it themselves. She said yes, there were challenges but they all worked together and got the answer, it was rather like a Mexican wave, a brilliant learning exercise everybody helping each other but there were additional benefits, the children were eager to share what they had learned with their parents, they challenge themselves, it created aspiration and a culture of ‘stick with it’ perseverance; it was brilliant.

During the day one story was told about a shy, difficult child who normally found it a problem to fit in the classroom but this project was to change that, he enjoyed the work, was able to create his website quickly and his ability in this area and his willingness to help others in his classroom changed their perception of him and it has helped him improve in all areas.
One area picked out as being excellent in the study guide was the methodology, how easy it was to understand each new learning point and the interesting facts that were introduced on each page. All teachers agreed that they want this to continue not only in primary schools but also through to secondary education.

This study undertaken at Stranmillis University College, the teacher training branch of Queens University Belfast was assisted by a grant from the General Teaching Council that allowed Ian to take time out of his normal teaching duties. Mr Ivan Arbuthnot from GTC reminded us that Northern Ireland had been at the forefront of many things over the years and this was another opportunity for us to excel and we mustn’t let the opportunity to disappear.
John Healey the Director and Head of Technology at CITIBelfast and major tech employer in the area talked about the global shortage of IT resources. He said we needed the next generation and this will help, we don’t know what code they will be using when they reach the workplace but these kids will have the skills that underpin IT and those will be transferable. John also talked about how Ian had lit up a recent Momentum Digital Summit with his enthusiasm.
I left this study launch feeling good about the future, I had listened to young people or rather I had listened to children, both girls and boys who were infused about how IT works; they had worked both in school and begged to take their work home to show their parents. Not only had they understood how the pages appeared on the Internet but knew they could also change them themselves.

The Go-Berserk team intend to have a series of study guides covering a range of skills and the one that really excites me is the third in that series, due at Easter 2014 which covers Java. We know that Oracle has stood behind Java and made it core of their development stack because this is an area where standardised means we can drive down the cost of IT and try and address that shortage of skills. Java is being taught in universities today, this Go-Berserk program will help to teach them even earlier and then encourage these children to take up education post school and careers in IT. I don’t know a lot of the details but in the user group community Devoxx has a kids program and I would be very interested in their feedback on the Java study guide when it’s available and look forward to sharing it with some of my Java Champion friends in that community.

So what’s this got to do with me or Oracle other than providing them a pipeline to the future?  I’ve also said in previous postings that UKOUG are working with the Oracle Academy to see how we can help with the next generation and we will again be looked at in the UKOUG Tech conference which starts in just a couple of days in Manchester. Come along on Monday if you’re interested in this and hear more about it.
* Bell, I and Simons, I. (2013) Teaching Coding to KS2 and KS3 Pupils, Stranmillis University College, Belfast.