James Downes, co-founder of Maker Life

As education professionals, you will soon be confronted by a rapidly approaching skills gap. According to the EU Commission, there could be a shortfall of as many as 900,000 skilled programmers and other technical professional by 2020. This number has dropped since the research was first published, showing that we are slowly catching up with demand, yet the demand for programmers already outstrips their supply.

A central issue is how to help young people learn digital skills. Teaching programming is technically challenging and requires someone with experience and know-how for when things go wrong. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck with unclear instructions or equipment not working as planned when you’re in the midst of a lesson. Additionally, equipment can be expensive and tricky to use, sometimes requiring pieces to be soldered together.

Yet, to fulfill our role as educators means we must confront these challenges before we lose an entire generation to a gap in digital skills. According to Wired Magazine, coding could be the next blue-collar job and educators in other countries have already woken up to this fact and initiated a national digital curriculum.

Our saving grace is the adaptiveness, curiosity and resilience of our young people. I believe that if we can provide them with tools and projects that inspire them to learn digital skills, they will take the opportunity and flourish. We just need to sort out some key challenges when it comes to teaching those skills...

Overcoming Complexity

As you’ll know, one of the best ways to overcome complexity in a particular topic is to break it down into smaller tasks that come together to form a hands-on project. Fortunately, there are a number of businesses creating coding/programming projects for young people.

These project kits are possible thanks to the emergence of single-board computers (SBCs) like the Raspberry Pi and BBC’s micro:bit boards. The credit-card sized boards are designed to be modular and usable for a wide range of projects, making them adaptable and relatively easy to use.

The problem with most kits is they are still too complex for most of us to wrap our heads around. It often seems like you need to know how to code to get started with these kits, which isn’t great if you’re starting from scratch. If it’s too complicated it will be hard to teach, and getting things mixed up could confuse students further, putting them off developing their digital skills.

The Teacher’s Solution:

Find kits that you find easy enough to follow and complete successfully, focusing on developing your own skills, experience and confidence before bringing it into the classroom. Simpler projects, like a weather station or digital clock, can hit the sweet spot between being interesting and being achievable.

Dodging the Danger

Another issue educators face when teaching digital skills is the frequent need to solder components onto the main board. Now I’m sure your students are all very sensible angels, but many teachers will feel a sense of dread at having to supervise thirty-odd teens with dangerous soldering irons. Aside from that, the school has to plump not just for the computer kits, but for a few dozen soldering irons as well.

The Teacher’s Solution:

There are some kits that have been carefully considered and designed not to use solder. Components come ready-attached or have a mechanism for clipping in place so they can make connections without the need for solder. These kits can be just as engaging and soldering can be taught as a separate skill on a one-to-one basis using existing equipment.

Addressing Your Own Skills Shortage

I think a big part of the skills shortage is down to the fact that the digital revolution came about too fast for teachers and parents. Most of our generation still remember landlines and the launch of Channel 4, whereas Generation Z have been brought up as digital natives, never knowing life without the internet or mobile phones. We were never taught coding at school, so we never developed the skills and have no model for how to teach them.

Even kits marketed for beginners can require some technical know-how and previous programming experience in order to understand the instructions. If the kit puzzles you, it’s unlikely you’ll feel comfortable teaching it to a class.

The Teacher’s Solution:

The ideal project kit will be relatively straight-forward, building up confidence with success. They should have clear, simple instructions that you can easily follow whether you’re an expert or complete novice. Look for one that’s pitched at your level, give it a try yourself, and bring it to class when you have it figured out.

Inspiring Girls as well as Boys

For some reason, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) have historically been seen as ‘male’ subjects, leading toys, games and projects to be angled more towards inspiring boys than girls.

This gender stereotype is a hangover from the twentieth century and needs laying to rest, especially in the digital age. There is nothing about programming that makes it more a boys’ activity than a girls’ and, in fact, many of the top tech entrepreneurs are female.

Teacher’s Solution:

Ditch the giant robot spiders and cars that shoot missiles, find a kit that captures the interest of the age group rather than a particular gender. Young people love exploring the world around them, so creating a weather station could grab their attention. Or perhaps building a digital clock would interest them. There are loads of ungendered project kits available, just be mindful when you are looking for them.

Making Kits Fun

If your students are frustrated or disappointed, there’s a good chance they’ll give up. Feeling like it’s too much hard work with little pay-off will quickly drain any sense of fun from the project. But the aim of using these kits isn’t to create a new generation of expert coders overnight, it’s to equip them with the knowledge and confidence they need to keep learning and developing their digital skills on their own.

Teacher’s Solution:

Making kits fun and demonstrating the progression in their skills are two of the most important and useful tactics. If students can see their skills improve over time and are having fun, they will gain a sense of achievement that will inspire them to continue.

While I keep coming back to the skills shortage in the workplace, there is more to teaching digital skills than creating a useful workforce. Our lives are increasingly becoming dominated by digital technology; learning code is about learning the language of the new world around us.

We now sit at a crossroads in history. If we choose to, we can create a new generation of digitally-confident programmers fluent in the language of code. To me, that sounds like an opportunity to be relished!

By James Downes, co-founder of Maker Life

About James: James Downes is co-founder of Maker Life. Maker Life’s passion is to ensure programming is fun, easy, and low cost. Maker Life serves the global mass market of children, parents and teachers who are new to coding; the non-tekkies and first-timers to electronics. To meet this growing market, Maker Life develops and provides build-your-own computer project kits, which are simple, engaging and educational. 

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