Computing in higher education

Coding is being introduced into classrooms but will that mean more people studying it in higher education?
25 March 2014

Interview with 

Eben Upton, Carrie Anne Philbin, Raspberry Pi Foundation, Rob Mullins, Cambridge University.


Coding is being introduced into classrooms but will that mean more people studying it BBC Micro computerin higher education? Joining Chris Smith and Dave Ansell were Eben Upton and Carrie Anne Philbin from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and Rob Mullins from the Computing Sciences Department at Cambridge University.

Chris -  Let's just return quickly to Eben and Carrie Anne. So you must - having heard that piece about Code Club - be delighted because I mean, that's at the end of the day what you set out to achieve, isn't it Eben.

Eben - Yeah. This is fantastic news and I think what's wonderful for us is when we first started doing this 5 or 6 years ago, we kind of felt a little bit like a voice in the wilderness that we were the only people who were obsessing over this. What's been really wonderful as we've been doing Raspberry Pi is to see that very broad movement of coding clubs in schools of government interest, all kind of coming together into this kind of storm of computer programming this year. It's wonderful.

Chris - Carrie Anne, Catherine Ousselin has got in touch on Twitter with a gauntlet to throw down to you and says, you should try the coding club in French which is what she said. She's in Seattle. She said adventurous teachers try the hour of code in class.  "We did it in French class. Our students were in awe that I knew how to code."  She points out that she started with the basic too. So maybe that's your next step.

Carrie Anne - I think it's wonderful. Computing is a very creative thing that you can do and it's so cross curricular. I mean, any primary school teachers who are listening who are nervous about the curriculum change, you shouldn't be, because it can actually help them teach lots of other different subjects like history or science, or dance if that's what they've got to do in the classroom. Computing can be applied to all of those things and it's wonderfully cross curricular.

Dave - So Rob, you actually teach computer science here at Cambridge. So, what is actually the difference between computer science and the kind of random hacking which I do?

Rob - I think it's great that people pursue that kind of self-directed learning and hobbyist programming. It's the kind of people we hope to see at interview, people who are able to demonstrate that passion for the subject by actually learning about it in their own time. It's the sort of thing that Raspberry Pi is fantastic to enable people to do. But I suppose the difference is that if you want to answer the question - what's lacking is an understanding of the underlying science and the formal computer science that underpins the subject. So, that's perhaps something that people need to get at university.

Eben - These things, I think they complement each other. There's real value to somebody arriving at Cambridge. Say at the age of 18, having - to get that theoretical basis, having already in their back pocket some experience of the day to day business of hacking. And that's what we used to have and I think that's what we're trying to get back towards.

Dave -  So, is there a problem with recruitment at the moment?

Rob - So historically, over the last 10 years, there has been. So we had high numbers of people applying around 2000, 2001, and I guess we had the .com boom and then that took some energy out of applications. The numbers dropped and continued to drop I guess also because of what was happening in schools to about 200 in 2008. So, at that point, I got involved with the Raspberry Pi initiative and people in the lab were getting involved with computing at school and really trying to understand what the problem was and what we could do about it.

Things have really turned around now I think. As Eben says, there's been lots of different groups and lots of different people have really got up behind this idea that computing is a really important skill that people should have to support the economy. It's something that supports tens of billions of pounds of investment in the economy and it's something that's really important. So, we've seen numbers rise back up to more than 500 now. Nationally, I think it's growing faster than any other subject this year.

Chris - What's the impression amongst parents of students either at school Carrie Anne or at your level Rob, about people wanting to do computer science because I've had it said to me that some people get put off by their parents? Because their parents think it's something that's a geeky hobby that's good for your bedroom at weekends and for having fun with your mates playing World of War Craft, but it's not going to lead you into sort of gainful employment.

Rob - I mean, one of the things I've understood, beginning to understand over the last few years, trying to make a difference in this area, there's a lot of misconceptions about what computer science is. And lots of misconceptions about the sort of jobs that a degree in computing can lead to. And I think it's often, what people misunderstand is, they think that a degree in computer science only leads to a job in coding or only something that you do if you want to become a computer scientist. The reality is, computer science is used in just about all the industries now. It's a passport to take a fantastic job anywhere in the world. I think that's beginning to come through now and parents are now understanding that it is a useful degree.

Carrie Anne - I think parents, from what I've seen especially the last few days, talking to parents at the Cambridge Science Festival, they're really enthusiastic about it. Really enthusiastic about the changes that are coming to the curriculum. I think they're actually excited to use Raspberry Pi because they're hoping it will get their children away from closed systems like the iPad and the Xbox and so on. Rather than just consuming technology and playing computer games, they're more excited about the students making the games, their children actually writing the code that will make those computer games.

Dave - So, is the only win going to be people actually working in computer science or is it useful for them just to have the general background knowledge of computing in society?

Eben - We believe very strongly that the skills that you learn as a computer scientist, those skills, they're very, very broadly applicable. We call this computational thinking sometimes and we say computational thinking will make you a better doctor. It will make you a better lawyer. It will make you a better manager. And so really, by giving people access to those things at very, very early age, we're really keying them up to do this very broad range of things in later life.


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