PYCON UK. O’Donohoe’s BBC.Codelab is a hoax

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.

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3 Responses to “PYCON UK. O’Donohoe’s BBC.Codelab is a hoax”

  1. teknoteacher Says:

    Thanks for writing this account of my CodeLab talk at PyconUK, I would describe it as a pretty accurate description of my talk.

    I will take the time to write a full explanation of my motives and post it on my blog at http://teachcomputing.wordpress.com/ and I will be sharing the video which I recorded on Youtube. I was careful to only include myself in the video in light of the huge risks I knew I was taking.

    I can answer some of the points you seem uncertain about.

    The CodeLab element was a short part of the talk, you can see it again when I post the video online. My main motive was to provoke discussion and invite others to speculate about what could happen, especially if a respected organisation such as the BBC were involved. I would like to claim the credit for this myself, but if you look on the pages of python.org you will see that back in 1999 Guido himself launched a project entitled “Computer Programming for Everyone”, I highly recommend reading it, this is where my inspiration for CodeLab came from.

    The CodeLab proposal was a vision of what could happen, in my opinion with or without the BBC. After I gave a similar talk at the BBC BarcampMediacity and then revealed it was a hoax, people approached me with suggestions and proposals of how to make it a reality. I was met with equal amounts of disappointment and disbelief -people wanted to believe that it was actually happening.

    It was always my intention to reveal the truth of the hoax during the talk. You might recall I said I had some questions to ask at the end (some questions that little by little would have revealed the extent of the stunt) – I didn’t need to, since the gentleman who suggested it was a hoax helped me arrive at the point I wished to. I tried to give some subtle clues during the earlty part of the talk, eg. suggesting it was to be launched in early April (1st of April), also suggesting that people were soon going to be throwing their shoes at me.

    In addition, I had already posted a blog the week before the talk explaining it was a stunt, however on the morning of my talk I made the blog entry ‘private’ and then made it ‘public’ again right after the talk – for the purposes of the talk.

    In addition to this, on Saturday morning I told the PyconUK redshirt who approached me and told me he was going to be the chair for my session that it was a stunt and I would reveal. However, he did not show up to the session.

    Many will argue that my motives or intentions were misguided – and I will not disagree. I did have one clear motive, to raise the profile of computing and programming in school – and I dont think anyone will argue that I achieved that, albeit using nefarious means. I will have discredited and alienated myself in the process, but if I achieve my motive, it was a small price.

    I was pleased to observe that the discussion of “Python in Schools” became a hot topic for the remaining part of the conference. I am also extremely grateful to Garry Bulmer of Warwick, and Nick Tollervey for everything that they are doing to raise the profile of computing, and programming in schools including physical computing and accessible platforms.

    My final and possibly most important point – Earlier this year, I committed myself to learn how to program again so that I could teach children in my school how to. I spent many months searching for the right language to teach them, I looked at Basic, (even BBC Basic), BYOB, Java, Visual Basic and many more.
    It is my belief that Python is the most appropriate for anyone of any age to begin to learn to program with. I am frustrated that I spent so much time searching for Python and wished that my search had been made easier. I was highly motivated to look for an appropriate programming language, I believe that PyconUK needs to be a little more outward looking and establish a more visible presence in the UK schools. So that teachers will not conclude their searches after landing on Java, Visual Basic or Ruby (on a Raspberry_Pi). If we want to rasie the profile of programing in the UK, Python provides the means to do so, it removes barriers – what are the members of PyconUK community going to do to make sure that this becomes a reality and not just another stunt?

    • ourduino Says:

      Mr O’Donohue – thank you very much for acknowledging

      I would describe it as a pretty accurate description of my talk.

      You have subsequently identified a mistake in my comment. I wrote that you asked people to follow you on twitter as part of your post-hoax Lightning talk about twitter. I reviewed the video stream and you did not do that.
      You definitely did not ask people to follow your twitter feed.
      I sincerely apologise.
      Thank you for identifying that error. I have fixed that now. I did realise when I reread that paragraph, that I wasn’t clear about the cause of my amazement, so I hope I have clarified that too.

      Another person, who was in the audience for Alan O’Donohoes hoax, spotted a spelling mistake, but otherwise thought it was pretty accurate.

      I am not “of Warwick”.

      I am puzzled by your comment

      … I was pleased to observe that the discussion of “Python in Schools” became a hot topic for the remaining part of the conference…

      Maybe you were so focused on getting ready to do your hoax on Sunday that you missed the enormous number of the conversations that started on Friday and continued through the entire weekend. Lots of people were talking about education, and I joined in within a few minutes of my arrival at the pub on Friday.

      I got a lot of interest on Friday, when I explained my interest in using Python for education. I was focused on my two Lightning talks on Saturday about Python in education. One was about ways that I and colleagues have been involved in helping children to learn to program for several years. My practical approach focuses on doing things, and taking advantage of opportunities that do exist, so I talked about how anyone can get involved now, and some practical ways to help to school children learn programming. My other talk was about helping make Python available to children using microcontroller technology, the most numerous computing technology on the planet, by about 40:1. Both topics stimulated discussions that I found very helpful on Friday onwards, and especially at dinner on Saturday evening.

      Anyway, I have included your post unedited though most of it seems to be simply a large copy/paste of your own blog.

  2. ourduino Says:

    Since I posted, I have since read O’Donohoe’s blog.

    Mr O’Donohoe claimed in his blog that he had spoken on Saturday to the session chair ahead of his talk. His blog was published the day after my blog. Coincidence?

    I had first met the session chair, Tony Ibbs, on the Friday evening of the conference. He seemed to be totally taken in by the hoax, though had been pressed into videoing O’Donohoe, so I was astonished when O’Donohoe wrote that. I suspect most people don’t follow things up, but I found it difficult to believe, so I emailed the session chair, Tony Ibbs to ask.

    Tony Ibbs replied that he knew nothing, and was totally taken in. He wrote that if he had been told, he would have told everyone it was a hoax, and/or left. He also added that he had written a comment on O’Donhoe’s blog to that effect, but O’Donohoe had not published it, but instead written to him.

    It seems that O’Donohoe was quite willing to impugn the reputation of an innocent bystander in his hoax.

    I now see that O’Donohue has changed his blog to admit that the PYCON UK person he told about it being a hoax did not come to chair the event. I wonder how many other things are misleading in his blogs?

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