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BBC: We're going to slip CODING into kids' TV

Pureed-carrot-in-ice cream C++ surprise

Smiling child with head in hands

Comment The BBC now has a policy of attaching an educational theme to each year that will be rammed into as many programmes as possible and will run across all of its channels and websites.

2014 was the centenary of WWI, as anyone with functioning sensory organs knows, and Auntie Beeb has decreed that in 2015, we will learn to code, create and generally impose our will on computers.

The Computing GCSE and A levels were so wholly unfit for purpose that even an English graduate like Michael Gove wanted them dead, so following the upgrade to the syllabus, the BBC is bringing coding and things you might actually recognise as IT to its BiteSize exam revision site. It tells you something about the past that algorithms are now being added.

Dick And Dom

But exams only matter if you decide to study computing in the first place and Auntie Beeb wants to inspire young protogeeks, starting at 7-8 with the insanely enthusiastic Nina and the Neurons. Absolute Genius with Dick & Dom, aimed at older kids, will become Appsolute Genius. Both are decent shows in terms of “gee whizz” and the BBC has hopes that these can actually include coding. That’s a big jump to make. It has never been attempted before, let alone has it succeeded on the small screen, where “code” is the random C++ that scrolls up a display when the Evil Robotic Overlord is hacked by the noble hero, who cleverly guesses that the key password to save us all is the name of the Evil Robotic Overlord's dog.

Programming (or coding as the BBC wants us to call it) is a creative act and in a world where films like the new Star Wars are basically large software projects with a few elderly actors wandering around, it pervades pretty much every form of expression. You know this, of course, but apparently kids do not.

Unless you have kids of the right age, Dick and Dom won’t mean anything to you, but for older kids and grownups, Tony Hall, the Beeb’s glorious leader, has promised the sort of heavy guns that you will recognise in order to make this work – remember when the unremitting BBC computing propaganda of the early '80s upgraded a generation?

If the Beeb were to take tech as seriously as natural history this could be rather good. They’ve certainly got the assets, in the form of stupidly popular programmes and a horde of celebrities who can be scripted to enthuse young people to learn something that might actually get them a job. Look at how the dull, badly paid and yucky job of police forensics has become more popular than being a fighter pilot as a result of hot TV shows like CSI.

Smart kids already know the career value of IT, but, dear reader, most teenagers aren’t as smart as they believe. The BBC can wise them up a bit, by sprinkling coding and digital creativity across their programming and websites. So we’re going to see 3D printing, how digital FX in movies really works and inevitably driverless cars.

“Creativity” is a dangerous term in IT education. It is often used as an excuse to palm kids off with a cheap arts graduate teacher with no clue about programming and who gets the kids to draw stuff using MS Paint in order to attract girls to the subject because “girls like creative computing”.

They don’t.

A whopping 90 per cent of students taking Computing at A level are boys. So when the senior BBC execs explained to me about “creativity” and their hopes to attract more girls, I was disappointed but not surprised. The BBC does arts and cute animals better than anyone else on the planet – Horrible Histories is a work of genius. Brian Cox is a regular face on science channels and the BBC does take its mission to inform seriously.

What it does not have is any in-house competence in explaining Computer Science, as in coding, logic, design, protocols, architecture, analytics or even debugging. The danger is that we will get a diet of “design an app” drivel as in the fatuous collaboration between The Sun and Google, where drawing a picture of an app was equated to coding it, so I expressed fear that form would swamp substance.

At this point in the interview the smiles on the faces of the rather senior BBC execs I was interviewing froze. They assured me clearly and repeatedly that 2015 would not just be a year of sketching a new graphic for Angry Birds, but we would see real coding.

Although there’s a vast amount of tech info on the interwebs, it’s a huge pile of fragments and the BBC is embracing the idea that someone actually needs to curate it into some sort of path that a newbie can follow from ignorance to being a heroic C++ programmer like me. The BBC is going to take some of that curation burden on, which – if they achieve it – would be impressive.

Game of Drones

So far the announcements are all on the kids' end of BBC content, so they’re having another go at trying to make a decent gadget show, this time called TechnoBabble, which will suck in YouTube clips and kids' own creations along with stuff from “bloggers” – whether it will look less like a set of video press releases than BBC Click is yet to be seen.

Between now and next spring, we are also going to see announcements on how coding is going to pervade drama and adult programming. Certainly a cross between Game of Thrones and The IT Crowd would get my full attention.

So today the BBC announces the first wave of how it is spending your money to educate and inform us about computing and when I look at their promises I’m reminded of some of my own school reports about “great ideas” and “understanding”, but a need to “actually get it down on paper” and “not just do the bits he finds interesting”. We could see a triumph like Life on Earth – or another tragically bad technothriller, as we saw in the late unlamented Bugs. ®

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