I went along to PYCON UK 2011 this weekend. I went for a few reasons. One was for a talk about BBC.Codelab. I also wanted to speak to encourage people to get involved in teaching children (and adults) to program. Finally I needed to find out if there are any Python UK members who might help me understand what Python on the STM32F ARM chip might be.
The talk about BBC.Codelab by Alan O’Donohoe, a secondary school head of ICT. I was able to speak to him on Saturday, and he said that he was part of a pilot project by the BBC which would be rolled out April 2012. The project will give every school child their own computer, support and resources. The support was targeted at children and not teachers.
I was flabbergasted. I have had a few conversations with people at the BBC, and have heard no mention of this, so I had to go along. This could be amazing. My hopes and dreams to give every child the opportunity to learn to program, and more importantly, that computers are a vehicle for creation and not just consumption, might be only a few months away! Life changing.
The room was quite small, and was packed, with lots of folks standing. He had the session chair video his presentation, so Tony was focused on Mr O’Donohoe and not the room. The talk began with a brief history of him becoming excited by programming the BBC micro, but then how he’d spent the last 18 years teaching ICT. He talked of his ‘Damscus moment’ a year ago when he realised he was teaching how to use Microsoft Office, but not how to program applications. He talked of how he felt he had let the children down. There was warm support in the room.
As people heard the proposed roll-out of millions of computers across UK schools, and tried to ask questions, discussion got more ‘energetic’. He suppressed all attempts to interrupt him. He took no questions, and treated people like they were naughty children . Folks thought it was somewhat amusing, but the another explanation only became clear later. He was ensuring his video was only of him, and no objections or questions. Once he had finished, he stopped the video recording.
Not surprisingly, people active in the Open Source community, and concerned about Computer Science and programming education in schools were very agitated, and wanted to know why the BBC had not engaged with them. Another person thought this announcement must be connected to the RaspeberryPi charity.
One person said that he had been at the September 16th BBC Manchester Barcamp. He said that he thought it wasn’t as presented. At this point Alan got a bit uncomfortable, and said that people may be very unhappy with him. Eventually he said it was all a hoax. People burst from the room, mostly frustrated at the total waste of an opportunity to do something positive. As we left, Mr O’Donohoe asked people not to reveal it was a hoax.
I was flabbergasted for a second time. Alan said that he had presented the idea at the Manchester Barcamp. He said it had caused a lot of excitement, and claimed several people had congratulated him on the amount of excitement it had created.
I felt so strongly, that I put myself down for two lightning talks. I was hoping to ensure everyone who had overheard earlier fragments of conversations, but not been in the talk, knew it was a hoax. O’Donohoe had put himself down already for a lightning talk, so I assumed he would be revealing the hoax, and apologising for wasting everyone time. I was wrong. He talked about how useful twitter is.
I was stunned. I had expected him to explain his reasons for his hoax. Or apologise for the the hoax. Maybe apologise for consuming everyone’s time when we could just as easily have spent the same time, enthusiasm, talent and experience on making progress on children’s education. So I went ahead and tried to explain the O’Donoue’s BBC.Codelab was a hoax, and that there are several bad things that it might cause, as well as the wasted opportunity.
IMHO, it was genuinely risky to suggest that the BBC had ‘solved’ such a big education problem as teaching all children to program, with such an enormous roll-out of equipment, with so little engagement with one of the communities who might help.
I feel deeply sad that the talk was a hoax, and children will not all have their own computer next April. I am sad that all of our time was wasted, when it could so easily have been applied constructively. It was pretty clear that a lot of people in the Python community care a lot about education. It seems sad that this talk stirred up negative emotions rather than directing a positive outcome, given the level of interest already in the Python community. There is time for the wider Open Source community to get involved and help education move forward, but we need to be constructive rather than fantasists.
I am still pondering what motivated Alan, and whether or not he would have said it were a hoax without the challenge from the Barcamp attendee? Maybe no one can know.