Building digital literacy outside the classroom

With computing now in its second year as part of the English National Curriculum, Maria Quevedo, director of the UK arm of the not-for-profit Code Club, details the benefits that running extra-curricular computing clubs can offer schools, staff and pupils alike.

The importance of computing and digital skills is a point of ongoing discussion and debate in the UK. By now, we are well aware of the ‘digital skills gap’, which threatens the growth of the country’s economy, leaving those without skills at risk of unemployment or becoming trapped in low-paid, unskilled work.

The first steps have already been put into place to increase the opportunities for children to develop digital skills, with the introduction of computing to the English National Curriculum in September 2014. Yet, in February 2015, a report entitled Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future by the House of Lords digital skills committee, argued that the curriculum change was not enough. The report called for a radical rethink of education, arguing that ‘from an early age we need to give digital literacy as much importance as numeracy and literacy’.

The report also acknowledges a fundamental sticking point that ‘many teachers are not confident or equipped to deliver relevant digital skills’. However, from my work with the not-for-profit Code Club, I have seen that many educators have increasing interest in, and knowledge of, computer science and coding. This is reflected in the increasing number of teachers and school staff who run, or have expressed an interest in running, an extra-curricular Code Club in their schools. In the last year, we have had almost 2,000 new clubs registering with us, bringing our total number of active clubs to almost 4,000. The majority of our clubs are hosted at schools, and around 50 per cent of our clubs are run by teachers.

Since 2012, Code Club has developed a strong network of volunteer-led after school clubs across the UK. It’s our ambition to offer the opportunity for all children to learn to code and become digital makers, through after school clubs and teacher training sessions. We believe that running extra-curricular computing clubs is a fantastic way for schools to take an extra step to improve the provision of digital skills and digital literacy amongst their pupils, and to work towards the aim of giving these skills as much attention as numeracy and literacy.

Learning through play
One of the major benefits of the Code Club model is the fact that the club sessions are run outside of a formal teaching environment. Code Club are strong advocates of the idea of learning through play. That is, that children should be given the opportunity to learn new skills through experimentation and invention, both inside and outside a classroom setting.

In Code Club, children work for an hour each week to complete engaging projects. This ranges from making an animation using Scratch (a visual coding language created by MIT, which is free to download or use online), to creating simple games using text-based coding languages such as Python. The projects offer a balance of directed tasks and independent work, and include open-ended challenges which allow exploration, personalisation and experimentation. The aim is to give children the space to build their skills, try new things, and ultimately, have fun.

Complementing the curriculum
We want children who attend Code Clubs to be inspired to pursue other digital activities, whether that’s in their spare time, at school or as a career. We also want them to gain skills that are useful to them – not only learning to code but also learning about computational thinking, problem solving, designing, collaborating and sharing. These skills take time to learn, and are best developed in longer, project-based work. Code Club’s projects give children the time that they don’t always have within lessons to tinker, experiment, find and fix bugs and other problems, as well as refine and improve based on their own (and others’) testing.

Matthew Cave, assistant head teacher at West Town Lane Academy in Bristol, is one of the teachers who uses Code Club to complement his school’s curriculum learning. Code Club’s fun approach has provided notable benefits for the children. He commented: “It’s amazing to see the sense of achievement the children get when they finish their projects. We can really see them starting to persevere with the tasks in Code Club, using analytical thinking to troubleshoot. They seem to be applying this in other ways, with an increase in resilience in Maths, for example.”

Caroline Harding, a Year 4 teacher, who helps to run a Code Club at her school in Croydon, also saw major benefits for the children who attend Code Club sessions. She said: “Making Code Club available to the children in our school has helped tremendously with increasing children’s confidence and engagement in coding and computing in general. It taps into their problem solving skills and enables them to develop critical thinking skills.”

Building teachers’ confidence
Ms Harding told us that ‘programming and code is an area of the curriculum that many staff can find intimidating and can become nervous about’. We believe that starting a Code Club is a great way for teachers to build their experience and confidence using code. The projects we provide, which frame each weekly Code Club session, act as step‑by‑step guides for the children and the club leader to follow. If the individual who is leading the club runs through the project before starting each session, they would be better equipped to deal with any questions or issues that arise during the club.

In this way, teachers and staff can build their coding knowledge incrementally, just like the children. This helps to build confidence and knowledge, and could prove useful to teachers who are keen to integrate computing into everyday lessons and across the curriculum.

Mentoring from volunteers
For the wider community, Code Club can offer a fantastic chance to play a part in school life. Schools can recruit volunteers to help teachers and staff run their weekly Code Clubs. Our volunteers come from all walks of life, they may be parents of children who attend the school, they may work for a local business that is keen to give back, or they may be students keen to gain practical new experiences and share their skills.

Many of our volunteers have existing knowledge of coding or experience with technology and programming, but this is not essential. Anyone can help run a Code Club, as long as they have the enthusiasm and passion to dedicate their time to running a club.

For the children in the club, having a new face to help inspire and excite them about coding and digital making can be really beneficial as well. Volunteers may act as mentors and role models for the children, helping them to stay interested in the club and showing them where learning to code can take them in terms of career opportunities or personal hobbies.

Extra-curricular activities in UK schools are often limited to the private sector, where resources and facilities make it easier for teachers, parents and school staff to support activities that take place after school or outside of the classroom.

Code Club is free to run, and our flexible model is aimed to be used by any school or community venue that has access to a computer suite or laptops. Our mission is to provide children, no matter who they are or where they come from, the opportunity to learn coding skills for free, and at little or no cost to the school.

Building digital literacy
Developing children’s digital literacy is a great challenge for educators across the UK. Yet, it is a challenge which arguably has been given increasing priority, and which schools have already begun to tackle head-on. There are now a growing number of organisations, initiatives, and support networks which have been developed to offer teachers, parents and children new ways to build their digital skills. Code Club is just one of these, but we believe that our model stands out by offering a free and flexible way for educators and enthusiasts to help improve digital literacy for themselves, and the children in their communities.

Later this year we will be publishing the findings from a study conducted by the NFER, which will show the real impact of Code Clubs in schools, giving an understanding of the children’s coding ability, computational thinking skills, and attitudes to digital making. Our hope is that this report will reinforce the feedback that we have so far received from our community of volunteers and educators, who have highlighted the many benefits of extra-curricular computing sessions.

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