During one of the intervals at the recent TEDx Oxford conference, after Peter Millican’s session in which he used simple computer programs to gain insights of the world around him, I was approached by a very good friend of mine. She was keen, as are a number of my friends, male and female alike, to learn how to code, but she was struggling with how to get started.

The issue she was having with the currently available classes were too formal, often very demanding on time, and she often found them to be very competitive. This didn’t produce a very supportive or effective learning environment. Online courses on the other hand were often were very simplistic, and were hard to stick to, possibly because they were often worked at in isolation.

As a teacher, she is keen to try and get something short, with a large practical element, which would fit in the few weeks every year that all teachers have free at the same time – the summer break.

How did you learn?

The conversation turned to how I learned to code…

While I had some formal education it is true, which was good to address gaps in my theoretical knowledge, I had learnt the bulk of my coding skills long before I sat in my first Computer Science class at 15. Despite having not been formally “taught” how to code, I had managed to absorb a comprehensive understanding of the subject, so how did this come about?

Through our conversation, I realised that it seemed I had largely learnt through self directed play (aka, pissing about trying to do cool shit), combined by having a couple of more experienced friends, who helped guide me when I got completely stuck. Another aspect that helped was the weekly computer club I attended, together with Ben Werdmuller and a few other friends, where (as well as playing Monkey Island for hours) we demoed our latest code, and exchanged tips hand tricks we had learnt.

This provided a supportive environment in which to sharpen my tools, and the aura of good natured competition the weekly informal show and tell generated didn’t hurt.

What could this look like as a course?

So, could this experience be replicated? Could we put together a course, which would be fun, nurturing, fit in with people’s limited time and allow people to drop in and out without falling behind? I’m assuming this is going to be for adults here, but I can’t imagine it being a significantly different problem for children.

I imagine this working more like a club or craft group, rather than a course, where students play with various bits of kit and work on their own projects. Where they’re encouraged to learn off other students, and where more experienced people are largely there as mentors rather than to set agendas. For complete beginners, perhaps an orientation session covering some of the basic basics would be useful to bring people up to speed, but I think lectures and theory should be minimised – this should be hands on!

What are your thoughts?

It is an often lamented truism that the UK no longer has manufacturing industry – people point at the closed steel plants of the north while recollecting a golden age of manufacturing where the UK built the wheels of industry around the world.

The statement that we no longer make things isn’t entirely true of course. Sure, we may not manufacture steel anymore, but instead we manufacture robots and jet engines.

The trend is a simple one – as technology advances and more sophisticated technologies touch more aspects of our lives, what jobs there are require an increasing degree of technical knowledge to perform.

Each worker is able to produce objects of higher economic value (robots vs steel girders), which means more money and more tax revenue, but as the economy becomes increasingly optimised towards high tech, the upshot is that, as a percentage of the economy, the number of low skilled jobs is decreasing.

The future looks pretty dire for the low skilled

Increased automation and technological advancements have always pushed sectors of the work force out of their jobs, from the mill machines of the 18th and 19th centuries to self service checkouts at the local superstores.

In the latter example, a single member of staff can now do the job of a row of checkout clerks, supported by maybe a trained engineer to fix faults in all the stores in a given region. Soon, maybe these too will become redundant (perhaps replaced by RFID scanners to scan your bags and bill your credit card automatically when leaving the store).

Being computer literate is already a requirement for virtually every job in the modern workplace, and in a few years time, not being able to code will be as big an impairment as not being able to read and write.

Bluntly, if you don’t have training in sophisticated and marketable high tech skills, you likely will be out of work soon and will also likely never have a job again.

A smart and socially responsible government would be ploughing every penny they can into education and welfare. Education to bring the technical competence of the population up to a level where they stand a chance of competing for the few ultra high skilled jobs the economy of the future has, and welfare to prevent the increasing number of those who are not skilled or lucky enough to have a job from becoming so desperate that they overthrow the government.

Managed decline

Educating a populous is of course expensive, requires long term thinking and is hard work. A more cynical short term thinking government may opt for a managed decline of a nation’s economy.

They may for example decide to cut back on education for the majority of the population and funnel what little money is left towards educating the elite classes. They may decide to cut back on welfare and make what little is left dependant on forced labour, which those in the desperate position to need welfare are not in a position to refuse.

This approach may even work in the short term if the media is managed correctly and the right spin is put on the situation, that is until the tide of human suffering rises high enough for the murmurs of discontent from the slave castes turn to cries of revolution. For those in power who think only as far as the next election cycle this would all be somebody else’s problem, and one likely to be watched with disinterest from a tropical tax haven.

Known problem

A couple of years ago I attended a conference which discussed various aspects of public sector and government, and education in particular. During this event I got taken aside by someone who apparently did something fairly high up in the department of education, probably because of my previous work on Elgg which has been linked – for better or worse – to the field of E-Learning.

During our rather meandering conversation on education and politics, he admitted that the education time bomb, as he called it, was a widely acknowledged problem, but that they had no solution whatsoever for it.

He went so far as to admit to me that given the lead time involved for any solution to have an effect it was almost certainly too late to do anything about it in any case.

His candour shocked me, and I asked what he suggested as a recommended course of action; “Leave.”, was his reply, “Before it gets really bad.”

Things look pretty bleak for the generations of wasted talent to come.

Just a quick post to say that Oxford Twestival 2010 starts today at 7pm at the Living Room. A night of music and general merry making, all in aid of a good cause!

Barcamp Transparency is helping out as a sponsor, and it’s looking like it’s going to be a fantastic event.

There are still tickets available, so I hope to see you there.

Also today, I’m going to be on a panel session from 2pm talking about social media and internet technology in education and the 3rd sector.

Busy day!