Could more open source in schools help plug the skills gap?

Last week saw the final for an open source coding competition open to Key Stage Three school students, bringing in nine schools and 80 pupils across the UK to build an open source app for the charity of their choice – and the organisers believe it could provide a small blueprint for open source solving the computing skills gap.

Now in its second year, the competition originally evolved from a conversation between the heads of computing at two independent schools, Churcher’s and Lord Wandsworth’s College (LWC), where the two agreed that it was a “shame” that they didn’t collaborate more on programming projects. So they tried their hands at organising one.

Head of computing at Lord Wandsworth’s, Chris Millington, reached out to other schools and parents to gauge interest – there was plenty – and then to find a sponsor. Hayley Wienszczak, manager of strategic alliances and ISV projects for Red Hat EMEA, is a parent of a child attending LWC. She tells Techworld that as a parent, she is “passionate about kids learning to get involved in digital technology, to be able to interact and understand better the technology that pervades their lives.”

And “as a Red Hatter”, she says she cares about “bringing that open collaboration aspect to the teamwork”. The two went about organising the first competition, with Millington bringing schools together, Wienszczak looking into bringing in the judges and some sponsorship. The process was simple at Red Hat, she says: asking around the office, then to marketing, and then she had the budget for it.

The competition challenges students to use free applications to create a gaming application for a charity of their choosing, with the overarching idea of promoting basic open source principles to solve real-world problems. Some of the students went one further and took it upon themselves to use free and open source programs to improve their contributions. One of the students decided he didn’t like any of the fonts that were initially available - so designed his own.

And another team wanted to create its own pixelated images. “They went and found free software and created their own images from scratch,” Wienszczak says. “It was remarkably resourceful and innovative.”

Wienszczak recalls one of the pupils she talked to who said she had never really done anything like this before, but had fun, and wanted to program more. And a separate student asked how they could further develop their skills at home.

Millington says that as a teacher, he ideally would like to see more of these structured, collaborative programs in schools – but at the same time, the resources available encourage pupils who are interested in the subjects to go home and learn at their own pace, if they would like to.

“I want students picking computing because at the age of 14 you have to start picking GCSE options, and I want to develop that,” he says. “But I also want them to go off and want to learn more and develop more, because with computing and self development, there are so many online resources out there, I want them to be motivated to go and start taking advantage of those.”

The winning all-girl team – named Ctrl Alt Elite – decided to dedicate their app to the Children’s World charity, which was founded by Arabella Churchill in 1981 based on the success of the Children’s World area at Glastonbury Festival, and aims to foster creative play and work in educational settings, promoting social and emotional benefits for disadvantaged children. The app included a fundraising tracker where people can donate, as well as general information about Children’s World’s aims and a playable pong game.

The judges were particularly impressed with how multifaceted that team’s app was. Not only did it have an impressive front-end, but they had documented the creation of the app closely on the back-end. They had also demonstrated strong collaboration skills, working together to portion out tasks based on the strengths of each team member.

“They had done an internal school competition first to get through to be one of the teams that came forward, so this team had done one version of the app, and then from the learning and collaboration in the first heat where they won, they had then amended that app and improved it before they came along to the finalist day,” says Wienszczak.

Milington says that although he knew there was demand for this kind of competition – and that there was a lack of them – he “never realised how desperate schools were to develop these things”.

In the chancellor’s budgets for the last few years there has been a strong emphasis on cultivating STEM skills, especially at schools, to prepare the British workforce for the future. Considering the fast pace of change in open source and combined with the all the free resources available online, could this sort of competition serve as a blueprint to plug that digital ‘skills gap’ we keep hearing about – especially for the austerity-starved schools without the flow of capital that fee-paying schools such as the £30,000-a-year LWC rely on?

That’s not to suggest there is no open source in schools, of course: the various iterations of the affordable single-board open source Raspberry Pi have been a hit, selling thousands and thousands into education and also to hobbyists. And there is no reason per se a school couldn’t operate its back-end on open source either, with end-user software of all the office staples and more being freely available on a long list of Linux distros. But bringing in the open source ethos at a young age would certainly be advantageous to building more complex code, indeed, most of the web is run on Linux.

“The coding industry is huge – and tech firms want to get involved and produce the next generation of tech. These kinds of projects are definitely the way to go,” says Millington.

“I think the Childhood Institute was saying that we need half a million more children a year at the moment to gain a computing qualification to keep up with the demand there will be from the digital economy,” adds Wienszczak. “Actually enabling children to see coding and computing, not just for the code, but also the soft skillsets that go around it, would really arm them for business going forward. This is the kind of thing industry can team with education to drive, and take forward, and bring that joint success through for children – to realise they can have strong lifelong careers with ultimate flexibility.”

And that’s where the open source ethos of DIY and collaboration might provide a good fit that is perhaps lacking in other areas of STEM.

“What really struck us yesterday around that was the children want to collaborate,” Wienszczak says. “They want to be able to use their passion in a way to change the world, and actually the open source software, open collaboration model and culture, that’s how they want to work – they don’t want to work in directive, over-structured environments. So if they can see that pathway that can inspire them, and give them hope that these are things they can move forward to.”

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