That was the slightly provocative question I posed in an article for the website WannabeHacks.
“Coding is the new Latin”, says Alex Hope, the co-author of a report last year which urged the government to get British school children learning how to program.
But should coding become the new shorthand for journalism students? Most are currently required to spend hours practicing their shorthand to get up to the NCTJ-required 100 wpm. Would their time be better spent learning the basic logic of computer code?
It’s a hot debate at the moment, especially in the US, where several colleges are already offering a joint MSc in Journalism and Computer Science. It makes sense to me because so much journalism these days relies on complex search engines and so much news is consumed on phones and tablets. Surely new journalists should have some idea about the programming that goes into this in the same way that I had to answer questions about Ohms Law for my first radio traineeship at the BBC.
But most of the debate is amongst the academic community and experienced professionals. I wanted to find out what new and aspiring journalists thought. Do they want to be part of the new generation of journo-programmers?
Perhaps you’re already coding ninjas? Perhaps you think it’s a dangerous fad which will only create journalists who can’t write and computer scientists who can’t code.
So, I’ve set up a quick survey to find out what journalism students and those just starting out think. If you fall into that category, please take part! If you don’t, perhaps you’d care to pass it on to someone who does.
Click here to take part in the survey. Thank you!
We’re taking the first tentative steps towards setting up an after-school coding club at our local primary school. I’m inspired by Clare Sutcliffe and Linda Sandvik who are working extremely hard to set up Code Club – a nationwide network of after-school coding clubs for 10-11 yr olds. They’ve been devising a 12-week curriculum using Scratch, a fantastic children’s programming language. They’ve just started piloting the workshops in schools in London.
I started off by using our PTA Facebook group to see if anyone else shared my interest in getting this set up. I got a really good response! It seems there are loads of parents out there who are worried about ICT teaching in schools and the lack of coding skills being taught. Then we just chatted to parents in the playground and a few more people expressed an interest. Most of us are enthusiasts like me rather than actual bona fide programmers but enthusiasm is a really important component in any project like this!
We obviously need support from the school itself so I emailed the head teacher and he was very happy for us to go ahead (so long as it didn’t really involve him having to do anything – which is fair enough).
So the next step is to get us all together to see what kind of skills (and time) we’re able to contribute to the project. I’ve sent out a Doodle scheduler to make it easy to find a mutually convenient time so we’ll see how quickly it comes together.
I’m really looking forward to meeting like-minded and people thrashing some ideas out!
Meanwhile, my own coding has slipped by the wayside due to sudden unexpected work commitments (some of it actually PAID!!). Maybe I’ll squeeze in half an hour of Codecademy today although it’ll take me hours just to relearn what I’ve forgotten.
And Iv’e ordered my Raspberry Pi! It should be here in the next 2 weeks. I was thinking of live blogging my first couple of hours with it to see how intuitive it is to get it up and running!
Inevitably, after the hype, there’s the backlash against Codecademy, or, at least, a questioning of why suddenly “everyone” wants to code. It’s a good question so here are a few very personal thoughts.
I completely missed the programming revolution that started thirty years ago with the BBC Micro etc. My year group at secondary school was the first year to be offered computer science at O-level but I thought it’d be a waste of time because I would never, ever have access to a computer so, like, what was the point? It had nothing to do with being scared of any potential maths/logic/science stuff that might be involved. It had nothing to do with being a girl (I went to a girls only school and the computer science teacher was female). I just couldn’t see how it might ever have any relevance to my life. That was a bit short-sighted…
Dave Winer is a big name in the pretty small world of journo programmers. In fact, the Nieman Journalism Lab describes him as “one of the most important figures in the evolution of online media.” In a recent blogpost, he asked why he was reading about so many people wanting to start coding for the first time. He says he’s “flat-out seriously shocked” by the trend!
“I’d like to get a sense of what they’re looking for? Are you trying to acquire a skill? Is there software you want to see made but can’t get anyone to make it for you? Are you curious, do you want to know how computers work so you can have a better idea of where we’re going? Are you seeing programmers get rich and you’d like to get some too? All of these are valid reasons to want to do anything, btw — I’m not judging — I just want to understand.”
Well, it’s certainly not about getting rich! And I really don’t have any grand plans to make some software because I really am not deluding myself that I can ever make it to that level. I think the option I’ll choose is simple curiosity. I like learning new stuff especially if not a lot of other people in my circle are learning it.
I have spent most of my working life tapping away on keyboards and making stuff appear and disappear on screens. I think it’s natural that at some point you start asking yourself how the computer does that stuff. What has the computer been told? How do you tell a computer to do stuff in such a way that it can cope with all the possible permutations?
So for me, just learning the very basics of the concept of loops and conditionals is a massive revelation. It’s hard to explain the excitement of this to somebody who’s been coding for ever and takes these simple things for granted. But for somebody in my position, the beauty of these concepts is just incredible. It enables me to peek for a moment at another world. (I can’t peek for long because the light would kill me. Coding is powerful stuff!)
I now have a tiny inkling of how human and machine interact. I feel like a new, dormant part of my brain has been tickled into life.
Whilst Dave Winer seems genuinely interested in finding out why a person might suddenly want to code, Jon Evans – “a novelist, journalist and software engineer” – writing at Techcrunch is “uneasy” with this “sudden surge of enthusiasm” for coding.
“Learning how to program for its own sake is like learning French purely on the off chance that you one day find yourself in Paris. People who do that generally become people who think they know some French, only to discover, once in France, that they can’t actually communicate worth a damn.”
The interview I did about learning to code went out on Norwegian Public Radio this morning at about 8am. It was part of a 9 minute package by Lars Bevanger who writes about the UK for various European audiences. You can listen to it! I’m towards the end. Even though it’s Norwegian, all the interviews are in English so you won’t get too lost. It also features Dr Lucie Green and Manchester GirlGeeks.
Coding, data journalism, coronal mass ejections and an interview on Norwegian Public Radio about why we should all be geeks. What’s happening to me?
I’m assuming this is some variation on a mid-life crisis, a need to reinvent myself and explore previously alien fields of knowledge. I can highly recommend it!
I was never anti-geek. In fact, I really liked maths and physics at school and about six years ago I did Maths A-level (just for the fun of it!!) But on the whole, I studied arts subjects, my degree is in Russian and I have no scientific/tech element to my life.
At school, I didn’t really divide subjects into Arts and Science. My classifications were more personal. There were subjects which involved washing-up at the end of class (art, chemistry, cookery, sometimes biology), subjects which involved drawing (art, biology, geography) and all the rest. I liked the subjects which were in the “all the rest” group whether it was Latin or Maths or English Lit. I disliked and did my best to avoid the ones which involved drawing and washing up. I think that’s an extremely sensible approach to managing your educational choices.
So, how geeky has my week been? I’ve done much more coding thanks to the Q&A discussion boards that have been added to each lesson at Codecademy. It’s frustrating for a total newbie like me to be just doing the exercises without really understanding the context and importance of each new concept. It’s also annoying when I make a mistake but can’t work out what I’ve done wrong. Chances are, somebody else will have exactly the same problem and has already asked the question in the relevant forum (just a click away from the actual lesson so super handy).
The answers others supply don’t always sort me out, but they usually do. The other plus is that the forum creates a sort of community around the lessons – which is nice!
With my head still ringing with arrays and substrings, I went down to Birmingham City University on Wednesday for a one day introduction to Data Journalism with Paul Bradshaw – expert on all things data, investigative and online. It was organised by the Centre for investigative Journalism.
It’s a really important area of journalism these days that I know nothing about – extracting meaningful, journalistic information and ideas for investigations from big data sets. We were mainly working on a huge Excel file with information about Birmingham Council’s expenditure for November. I did genuinely get a buzz out of using formulae to work out how much an individual company was being paid as a percentage of overall council spending! And pivot tables are amazing. But it was a lot to take in so I need to invest some time playing with spreadsheets to see what I can come up with. I’ll be using Paul’s online notes to help me. They’re a useful resource for anyone interested in this area of journalism.
Much less hard work was the Manchester Girl Geeks Tea Party on Sunday. The space scientist, Dr Lucie Green, (you might have seen her chatting about the Sun with Prof Brian Cox on Stargazing last week) was giving a talk about her specialist area – Coronal Mass Ejections (there have been quite a few in recent days so it was very topical).
The ManchesterGeekGirls do monthly talks and events at the MadLab – an amazingly idiosyncratic workspace in Manchester’s Northern Quarter – and they’re aimed at bringing together women (and their families) who share an interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths.) I’m a bit of a fraud since I don’t really fall into that category; I’m just an enthusiastic outsider. But it was great fun. Lucie Green is a brilliant speaker, the standard of questions from even the children in the audience was impressive and everyone brought along sun-themed cakes to share afterwards!
It’s broadcast on Wednesday 25th January so make sure you tune in to NRK!
Everywhere I look at the moment, there are people telling me I must learn to program for the good of mankind. The Guardian and Michael Gove are well and truly on my case with their special reports on computer science in schools. This video is pretty inspirational in that it scares me into rushing headlong into a programming course. If I don’t, I’ll be contributing to the downfall of mankind and I’ll be facilitating the emergence of a terminator-style future. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want that on my conscience.
So here I am, doing my Codecademy course. It’s a free online course and “everyone” is talking about it. This is a screenshot of me doing quite well in one of the exercises. There are plenty of exercises where I do pretty badly.
I’m completely new to this so it’s a steep learning curve and it’s very frustrating at times and there are some awkward glitches on the website. Don’t think it’s just me because other people seem to be having similar problems.
So that’s something to look out for. I’m still committed to getting some level of programming literacy. Can I tempt you to join me?