Tech educators point Schmidt at success in school

Eric Schmidt's announcement last week at the MacTaggart Lecture that Britain is "throwing away [its] great computing heritage" by ignoring computing in education was a wake-up call for the industry and the education sector alike. But the Google chairman isn't the only one thinking that way: 24 hours prior to Schmidt's speech, an industry and educational summit was taking place that aimed to address that exact issue.

The Educating Programmers Summit, an invite-only event held in the historic mansion at Bletchley Park on Thursday and designed to bring together luminaries from the industry and education, pre-empted Schmidt's scathing summary superbly. Organised by Codemanship's Jason Gorman and co-sponsored by the BBC Academy and ThoughtWorks, the summit aimed to address one big question: where will the next generation of software developers come from?

Presenting, Gorman painted a picture of an industry in peril. "Each year," he told the audience of eduction professionals, software developers, and industry veterans, "there is an increase in demand for skilled programmers of around 10,000. Each year, 10,000 teachers qualify - but only three have a computing degree."

This 'bottleneck,' Gorman claimed, will lead the UK into a crisis situation where there is nobody capable of teaching the next generation of software programmers, leaving the UK computing industry in the dust. While Gorman has some ideas of how to help alleviate the problem - such as a Teacher-Practitioner Exchange, which aims to provide software development industry 'mentors' to UK school teachers - the summit aimed to provide a forum for discussion for experts from both sides of the fence.

There was certainly plenty of that: a presentation on the Computing at School Working Group by Simon Peyton-Jones, a programming language researcher from Microsoft and honorary professor of the Computing Science Department at Glasgow University, started the day off in fine fashion. "It's nice to have Google and Microsoft on the same side of the table for a change," he joked, nodding at Google's Ade Oshineye who was to present next.

CAS, the Computing at School project, is a labour of love for Peyton-Jones, and has been working to encourage the introduction of a sensible computing - rather than ICT - curriculum in schools. "When CAS started," he told attendees, "I kept thinking I would have to make the case for change - but it's an open door. Everyone agrees on the need for change."

The group's main achievement thus far is the production of a 22-page model curriculum, which Peyton-Jones hopes will serve as an example for educators to help encourage the learning of core computing knowledge rather than merely how to operate a productivity suite. "Microsoft is four-square: don't teach Office in schools," he emphasised during his presentation.

Peyton-Jones was followed by Google's Ade Oshineye, who emphasised his company's desire to see computing and computational thinking pushed as an educational necessity. While Oshineye's presentation took place a full day before his far-flung boss would mount the stage to castigate Britian's educational system in his MacTaggart Lecture presentation, it shouldn't come as a surprise: Oshineye is the co-author of the book Apprenticeship Patterns, a self-described guidebook for the aspiring software craftsman.

In his presentation, Oshineye detailed a future - an inevitable future, he claimed - in which everybody becomes a programmer, whether they self-identify as one or not. "In 10, 100 years time, when everybody programs, we'll look at the specialist programmers in the same way we look at scribes now," he prophesied.

"A lot of programmers do what the customer tells them to, even if it's not the best way to do things," he admitted. "Imagine a world where the customers are students of computer science - imagine what they could ask for then. That's the future I see for programming: everybody becomes a programmer, but some of us do it well enough to get paid for it.

"Programming is creative, but only if you as the programmer are the auteur. We need people who can appreciate the beauty of a program, or the thing it does," he told attendees, sparking a debate on the need for a common language that can explain why code can be split into 'beautiful' and 'ugly' despite performing the same task.

Debate was the key order of the day: with plenty of strong feelings from both the industry and education side of the fence, there was always the risk of the summit turning into a blame game where each side accuses the other of causing the problems up for discussion. Thankfully, there was nothing of the sort in evidence: instead, everyone was keen to work together to hash out some plans for addressing what everyone present agreed were some fundamental problems.

Attendees were also treated to a demonstration of the Raspberry Pi single-board computer by its co-creator Eben Upton. Based on chips from Upton's day job at Broadcom, the Raspberry Pi is an entirely functional computer which will hit a retail price of just $25 in its basic incarnation - addressing one of the issues preventing the teaching of programming in schools today.

"You could equip a classroom of these for less than a thousand dollars, " Upton said.

That's a key point. By reducing the cost to an almost disposable level, Upton hopes that the Raspberry Pi project will bring back the glory days of home and school programming - a BBC Micro for the modern era.

"There are probably ten reasons why not enough children learn to program, and price is just one of them - and we can solve that particular problem," explained Upton, "and I have a lot more confidence than I had this morning that that's the only probably that we, personally, will be able to solve. Please buy one in November!"

Additional presentations - plus a tour of The National Museum of Computing to remind attendees of the critical role Britian played in the early days of the computing revolution - rounded off the day, and if it's true that no problems were magically solved as a result of the summit it certainly got plenty of balls rolling in the right direction.

While declarations like Schmidt's are good for generating headlines, any solutions for the UK's education issues are going to have to come from within - and the Educating Programmers Summit proves that work is afoot on doing exactly that.