Cracking the code of computer education

by John Naughton

The Observer

Last week, my inbox began to fill up with angry emails. Had I seen the dreadful/unbelievable/disgraceful/hilarious (delete as appropriate) “Newsnight” interview with Lottie Dexter? I hadn’t, and as I’d never heard of Ms. Dexter, I wasn’t unduly bothered. After all, life is too short to watch every edition of “Newsnight.”

Still, the drumbeat of indignation in my inbox was insistent enough to make me Google her. It turned out that she is the executive director of something called Year of Code, an outfit that had just been launched. According to its website, it’s “an independent, nonprofit campaign to encourage people across the country to get coding for the first time in 2014. Through code, people can discover the power of computer science, changing the way they think about, and get the most out of, the world around them.”

Getting its spokesperson onto “Newsnight” was obviously a PR coup of some magnitude for the startup, which suggests, among other things, that the program’s new editor, Ian Katz, is still a bit wet behind the ears. Intrigued, I headed over to YouTube to find the interview that was so exercising my correspondents. Dexter was interviewed by bullish TV journalist Jeremy Paxman in full disdainful mode. “How easy is it,” he inquired grandly, “to learn to code?” “I’m going to put my cards on the table,” she replied. “I can’t code. I’ve committed this year to learn to code.” “A year!” said Paxman, incredulously. “Well,” she explained, “you can do very little in a short space of time.” A few minutes later, however, she explained to an increasingly incredulous Paxo that teachers (who are the prime target of Year of Code) would be able to “pick it up in a day.”

Since many of my email correspondents had expended much effort over the past two years persuading British education secretary Michael Gove that the ICT curriculum in schools needed a radical overhaul, I could see why they were annoyed. Just after all the arduous campaigning by grassroots organizations such as Computing at School had finally paid off, a posse of wealthy corporate types suddenly rides into town like the U.S. cavalry, announcing that it will rescue the populace from its computational ignorance and putting forward a self-declared ignoramus as its spokesperson.

So who are these Year of Code folks? Tom Morris, a well-known blogger, went through the organization’s advisory board and came up with the discovery that, of the 23 movers and shakers involved, only three seemed to be actual techies. Most of the rest were corporate or PR types. The driving force is a guy called Saul Klein, a partner in an investment firm called Index Ventures with a record of astute investment and entrepreneurship. The chairman is Rohan Silva, who is “entrepreneur in residence” at Index Ventures. Silva is a former policy adviser to the prime minister who recently passed through the traditional revolving door via which senior officials are transmuted into corporate representatives.

More interesting still are the affiliations of the advisory board’s members. By my count, at least five of them are from the portfolio of companies in which Index Ventures has invested. And, in a nice coincidence, another board member is Saul Klein’s cousin, Alex, who is a co-founder of Kano, an interesting startup that has launched an ingenious kit that enables anyone, including schoolchildren, to build their own computers and learn to code.

There are two possible interpretations of all this. One is the cock-up theory that holds that Year of Code is a well-intentioned initiative that has suffered a disastrous public-relations fiasco. In this view, Year of Code is a laudable enterprise by wealthy corporate types who want to do good by injecting energy into an important national project: to prepare our schoolchildren for the computer-dominated world that they will inherit.

An alternative, less charitable, view is that Year of Code is a takeover bid by a corporate world that has woken up to the realization that the changes in the computing curriculum and the success of the open-source Raspberry Pi will open up massive commercial opportunities.

In a way, it doesn’t matter which interpretation is correct. The project to educate teachers to exploit the new computing curriculum is too important to be drowned in squabbles. It needs all the help it can get from both grassroots organizations and the commercial world. The logical thing, therefore, is for the Year of Code initiative to be re-engineered with a board that reflects all of the groups that need to work together to bring this off. And then we should call it Year of Code 2.0.