`Downton Abbey' world will lead to coding class divide

14th November 2014 at 00:00
Non-programmers likely to have lower status, expert warns

School-leavers will soon be entering a "Downton Abbey" society, where those who can code will enjoy life upstairs, while those who cannot program computers languish in the equivalent of the scullery, an expert has warned.

Ian Yorston, director of digital strategy at Radley College, an independent boys' school in Oxfordshire, said that those who knew how to manipulate computers would have "significantly more power", whereas non-programmers would end up "forever cross that they are being told to do things by machines".

It was therefore important to teach children not only programming but also the potential of computers, robots and artificial intelligence, Mr Yorston said.

Teaching coding was more effective at a younger age, because pupils were more easily satisfied with the results of their efforts, he added. Older children expected better outcomes quickly and this could lead to "disillusionment", he said.

Mr Yorston's comments come just over a month after Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales raised concerns that the new compulsory computing curriculum, which applies to all children aged 5 to 14, might be too much for pupils.

"Everyone should be exposed to it [coding], and a little bit of programming can really ramp up your skill level, but that doesn't mean you have to become a master programmer," Mr Wales told TES.

The curriculum was introduced this September with strong support from some of the biggest names in the industry, including Google and Microsoft.

The reforms were instigated after former education secretary Michael Gove scrapped the ICT curriculum, labelling it "too off-putting, too demotivating, too dull". It taught students how to use Word and Excel rather than how to create their own programs; to be users rather than makers, Mr Gove said.

It is hoped that the new curriculum will prepare young people for an ever-changing job market, where numerous jobs will be made obsolete by advances in technology.

After giving a speech to the Independent Schools Council's ICT Strategy Conference last week, Mr Yorston, a former RAF electronic warfare officer, told TES: "If you watch Downton Abbey, you've got all these people above stairs who give instructions to people below stairs and those people then do as they are told.

"I think we might finish up in a similar world here. People who are upstairs will have all this stuff done for them because they will know how to get it coded, and other people will just finish up being told to do things by computers - a bit like when we sit at red lights waiting for the lights to change at 2am when there's no traffic coming.

"People who understand how to manipulate computers and coding and robots will finish up with significantly more power than people who don't, who will be forever cross that they are being told to do things by machines."

He added: "Curiously enough, it appears to be easier to introduce coding to younger pupils. They are more willing to play and happy to construct simple games despite the relative complexities of the ideas required to do that.

"Older pupils want instant gratification but also want highly complex outcomes - a combination of desires that quickly leads to disillusionment."

Mr Yorston also stressed the importance of children learning "computational thinking" - problem-solving using the principles of computer science - across the curriculum.

"Computational thinking needs to be seen as a fundamental skill for everyone, not just computer scientists," he said. "It will eventually drive a fundamental change in the mindset of our national curriculum, integrating computational ideas into other disciplines. But that won't happen until targeted resources are available to subject specialists."

How the internet affects teen brains

More research "urgently" needs to be done into the effect of the internet on teenagers' brains, a neuroscientist argues.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, told the Independent Schools Council's ICT Strategy Conference last week that although "no evidence" of a negative effect had been discovered, one might still exist.

Professor Blakemore, author of The Learning Brain, says it is extremely difficult to conduct proper scientific studies on the issue because they have to be large-scale and involve a control group.

"Video games and the internet are a really important part of teenagers' lives, so we need to understand whether, or how, [the internet] is having an effect on their developing brains," Professor Blakemore adds. "It might be having a positive effect or a negative effect or both, we just don't know."


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