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?

On Sunday, myself and a few friends went to the TEDx event in Oxford.

TEDx, for those who don’t know, are TED style events organised by interested parties. They happen all over the world, and are usually pretty popular. This one packed out the New Theatre in central Oxford, which is no mean feat.

The speakers spoke on a number of subjects; from neuroscience to artificial intelligence. Some speakers were inspiring, others were… confusing… but all were interesting.

Interestingly, the speaker that sparked the most conversation over lunch and after the event was probably Laura Bates from the Every day sexism project. The stories she relayed shocked us all; with the men in the audience seeing this as new, but with the women nodding along in bitter recognition.

Myself, I was aware of similar horrors through the various “Women in Technology” conversations I have had, where every single woman I spoke to could relay situations where an actual crime had been committed, but pretty much shrugged it off as something that “happens”. Still, it was still shocking, and through our discussions after it seems that there is a variation of the observer effect going on for the men in our group – that is, the very act of us being present, means that the acts won’t occur to the women around us.

A new trend that was highlighted in the talk, which I found interesting, is that now the abuse seems to be often couched in a joke (which is clearly not funny), but means that the perpetrator can play the victim when the woman objects. I’ve seen this a couple of times in tech circles, but it’s clearly a growing trend.

One thing I wish was covered in her talk (although, perhaps it’s a complex subject for 15 minutes), is what can we actually do to address this? Particularly, what can we as men do? This is clearly a massive problem, and I know we seem to be losing ground in the tech world, but it seems the equality cause is losing ground elsewhere as well.

Depressing stuff. How do we fix it?