BBC Codelab – What is all the fuss about?

This blog post is by way of an explanation and an apology for BBC Codelab talk at BarCampMediacityUK…

This weekend I attended BarCampMediaCity at the BBC Studios in Salford. It was a tremenduous event lasting a marathon 32 hours, in an incredible venue, attended by many interesting barcampers from diverse backgrounds. Many of the barcampers (delegates) were from the technology sector, including software developers, film makers, game creators, animators. There was also a significant representation from the BBC corporation present.


At the start, Ian Forrester and Si Lumb invited each barcamper to host a 20 minute session and suggested that we “push the boundaries”. I was enthused and inspired by this invitation and resolved to host a thought provoking talk. I approached a group of friends from Blackpool Linux User Group, shared my idea for a ‘disruptive talk’ and asked them if they would support my presentation by helping fool the audience into believing the message I was to present as fact.

Each of the rooms was renamed for the event after a BBC program, eg. Red Dwarf, Bagpuss, Attachments. For my talk I selected Dr Who the largest room with 100 seat capacity. I suppose it was no mere accident that I chose the Dr Who room, with the TARDIS it opened up the possibilities of warping time to help deliver my talk and deception. I planned to use time travel to full extent in my talk!

BBC Codelab

In my talk I started by explaining how lucky I felt to have had our school (Our Lady’s Catholic High School) selected as one of the few schools to take place in the pilot of the BBC Codelab initiative, a nationwide program to teach all children in the UK how to program a computer. (This was made up)

I asked how many people in the room, considered themselves geeks, techies, programmers, developers – about 80-90% of those in the packed room answered. They confirmed they had also been bitten by the bug of the 8 bit computing age in the 80s, BBC B, Spectrum, Commodore 64 etc. (This part is true)

I described how in the last 10 years there has been a decline in quality and quantity of computing science graduates. Britain used to be ranked highly around the world for software development, now much of this work is moving offshore to other countries. I discussed the Nesta NextGen report and the Royal Society Computing in Schools report as well as comments made by MPs Ed Vaisey and David Willetts. (This is all true – as you can read online)

Travelling further back in the past (making full use of the TARDIS) I reminded the audience how thirty years ago the BBC and the Government’s Computers in Schools project had a massive impact on computer literacy in schools. Many of today’s programmers and developers speak fondly of these early memories of programming in BASIC. There were the BBC Model B computers, the BBC Micro Live TV series and magazines available with programs that would take all day to type in. Then the impact of the BBC Domesday project – recently Domesday Reloaded. (All true)

Ten years ago the focus was on training pupils how to use Lotus Office and Microsoft Office applications, which is what was needed at the time. (All true)

Then travelling forward in time, I went on to describe the BBC Codelab initiative – To put computer programming firmly back on the agenda, the BBC were backing a nationwide initiative that would involve providing every child in the UK with the means to learn programming. This would include giving every child a miniature, low-powered, low-cost computer and the necessary printed and digital manuals and resources to enable them to progress at an appropriate speed for them. (Most of this was made up – a vision of what the future could look like, with the benefit of time travel)

I described the positive experiences of children who had been learning to program and write code, clubs and activities. One questioner asked how this could possibly appeal to girls and I answered by pointing out the recent success that two of our 13 year old girls had won a UK programming competition to create a Maths educational game. (All of this is true)

There were many questions about the hardware kit – I described the £15 Raspberry Pi – small credit card sized board, keyboard, mouse and display required. I suggested it could boot into Debian (an Ubuntu Linux derivative) or straight into Python. It was fairly small and unbreakable. If a child lost it, they simply bought another to replace it. (This is all true)

For support I described the books, worksheets, activities  and other materials that would be provided, including a Youtube channel and online forum. (This is what could happen in the future)

The four key aims I described were Engagement, Enjoyment, Entertainment and Education. I asked the audience to consider the impact that this could have. What would be achievable if they had learned to code in Python at the age of 10? (This was speculation)

In response to questions about when the national programme would be rolled out to all children and all schools, I stated that the official launch was to be the very beginning of April 2012. (I hoped at this stage that some would realise that there was a hoax here)

After the talk – I was mobbed by BBC staff wanting to know who had commisioned BBC CodeLab and what stage discussions were at. Could they be part of the team, who would they contact? When I divulged that it was in fact a stunt, with the aim of sharing a vision or concept – I was met with disbelief. Many of those present really wanted to believe that the BBC had in fact started Codelab and were gutted that it was a vision and not a reality.

As word spread that it was a stunt, other barcampers asked me to confirm, since they did not believe or did not want to believe what they had heard. I recorded some interviews and shared them on line on my audioboo blog, please listen to these.

Some of the messages people tweeted after the presentation…

chrismckee – @teknoteacher Good Talk, it was great to hear that kids might once again be led to coding by the BBC

Alex Nolan – CodeLab sounds fantastic – a solution to the youth engagement problem perhaps. Makes me wish I was back at primary school! #bcmcuk

ColetteWeston – Now in BBC codelab in the Dr Who room #bcmcuk with @teknoteacher #bcmcuk very engaging 🙂

mcrgirlgeeks – Sounds like the #bbccodelab talk was a success! Looking forward to more… 🙂 #bcmcuk

cubicgarden – How to inspire computing in schools to improve the gap in years to come? Packed out again… #bcmcuk

angieokchan – Learning more on @teknoteacher’s BBC Codelab concept. Some great ideas for teaching programming in schools. Why is this only a vision?

hashpointfive – Realised today that the #BBCCodeLab talk by @teknoteacher was a very brilliant hoax, it caused alot of talk and hype at #bcmcuk!

wwwicked – @teknoteacher Love the BBC Code Lab ruse! I was completely taken in. Disappointed to now find it’s not a real thing, mind! We should do it!

biglesp – So…how can we turn #bbccodelab into a reality? #bcmcuk

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Corinne says:

    Quick point of information: Ubuntu is a *Debian derivative*, not the other way round as stated here!


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