Introduction by Michelle Dunn,
Interview of Alessandro Bogliolo by Daniel Mietchen
When I was in elementary school, my parents signed me up for a “Saturday Scholars” class at a local university. I don’t remember getting a choice in this, much less getting to choose what class to take, but I vividly remember what I learned. I wrote my first computer program, a “Hello, World” in BASIC on a TRS-80, otherwise known as a “Trash-80”.
As a 10-year-old, this was memorable because I had complete control over what the machine did. Computer programming is the art of giving precise instructions to a “dumb” machine to make it “smart”. As my AP Computer Science teacher used to say, “The problem with a computer is that it does exactly what you tell it to do.”
Back in the early 80’s, not many people had personal computers, and so it was not surprising that my parents had to send me to an extracurricular activity to learn this important skill. What is surprising is that 30 years later, I am taking my kids to an after-school class “Girls Who Code” so that they can learn to program a computer. I’m surprised that a course in basic (not BASIC) programming isn’t standard for all elementary school kids because it is a skill that is useful in its own right across the arts and sciences and provides a foundation for critical, exact thinking. In an age where computers touch our lives daily, isn’t coding as necessary as reading?
Several leaders agree. In an effort to promote computer science in schools, President Obama became the first US President to write a line of code, during last year’s “Hour of Code.” “Hour of Code” is an event, usually during Computer Science Education Week, that introduces beginners to programming. It is also a grassroots movement consisting of thousands of events across the world sponsored by Code.org, an organization that aims to expand access to computer science education and increase participation of women and underrepresented students.
In Europe, a similar movement is happening, called CodeWeek, which was first held in 2013 and has since developed into an annual event dedicated to learning and using code. Initially focused on Europe, it is now starting to spread out a bit further, including into the US. In 2015, Codeweek is taking place this week, from October 10-18.
What follows is a guest blog, where Daniel Mietchen interviews CodeWeek’s coordinator, Alessandro Bogliolo. Alessandro is associate professor of Information Processing Systems at the University of Urbino, Italy, working on wireless sensor networks, mobile applications, and crowd sensing.
D: Hi Alessandro, thanks for joining us. Please give us a brief introduction to Codeweek – what is it, and how did it come about?
A: Hi Daniel, thanks for the opportunity. Europe Code Week is a coding literacy campaign promoted by the European Commission and originally proposed by the group of Young Advisors for the Digital Agenda. It is a grassroots initiative completely managed by volunteers: Code Week Ambassadors in each country and thousands of event organizers. Europe Code Week is officially included into the Digital Single Market strategy of the European Commission, recognizing the importance of coding as a fundamental competence and of computational thinking as a transversal skill.
D: What kinds of activities are taking place during Codeweek?
A: Codeweek is open to any kind of engaging activities having something to do with coding: playful block-based programming, making, robotics, unplugged activities. As Codeweek ambassadors we provide general guidelines and examples, but we are happy to find on the map events that go far beyond our imagination and provide unusual coding experiences. Codeweek is not a method, it is just a week. A long one, with two weekends. This allows all the stakeholders (e.g., organizations, communities, schools, companies, institutions, and even governments) to take Codeweek in their own ways in order to maximize the outreach and the impact within their target groups. Codeweek can be viewed as an aggregator that provides the opportunity to concentrate many independent coding initiatives into a short period of time, in order to reach the critical mass required to bring coding to the attention of the masses.
In spite of the diversity of the activities, Codeweek events have some common features: accessibility (the events are free of charge and they are usually targeted to absolute beginners), engagement (the main purpose of the events happening during Codeweek is to engage people with coding by raising curiosity), fun (we suggest to make Codeweek events as amusing as possible) and reward (a successful Codeweek event should be rewarding, in that it should provide to the participants the perception of the self empowerment that they can achieve with coding).
D: What are the target audiences? How do you reach out to them, and how engaged are they?
A: Coding is for all. It’s about computational thinking, self empowerment, and creativity. I like the title of this interview (“Coding: As necessary as reading?”), but I would say that coding is as necessary as speaking! It could sound weird, but thanks to the playful and intuitive resources that are now available online (e.g., Hour of code, Scratch) and to their unplugged counterparts (e.g., Cody Roby), coding principles can be acquired in a natural way by leveraging the same mechanisms that allow kids to learn to speak: necessity, imitation, interaction, experience. Moreover, as the acquisition of a language allows us to formulate complex thoughts, so coding gives us additional instruments to conceive algorithmic solutions to complex problems. As such, coding has not to be perceived as a digital skill, but as an enabler.
Codeweek is mainly targeted to primary and secondary schools, but we are also promoting pre-school activities, and we are committed to raise collective awareness of the importance of coding. Being close to year zero of coding literacy, we need to reach out to adults as well.
To reach out to the audience, we leverage the many networks, organizations, communities, and interest groups taking part in Codeweek (e.g., European Schoolnet, CoderDojo, Scratch, …). In addition, we recognize the fundamental role that can be played by schools, and we try to motivate school directors and teachers to organize coding activities in school hours to reach all the pupils. After-school activities are a wonderful resource, but they usually involve only a small percentage of already motivated kids. Diversity is a value, and we want to increase diversity in coding by introducing coding in schools!
In fact, I can say that we don’t try to reach kids directly, but we try hard to engage their teachers. We prepared a teacher guide to organize coding activities in the classroom during Codeweek, and we issued a CodeWeek4all challenge to schools. To provide further motivation, we grant certificates of recognition to all event organizers who map their Codeweek events and report the number of participants afterwards.
D: What is the impact of these activities beyond Codeweek?
A: The first impact is in terms of awareness of the importance of coding. The second impact is in terms of curiosity and engagement: Codeweek is just a seed that has no time to sprout in a week, but curiosity and engagement can keep watering it. A third impact is in terms of ice breaking: Once coding is entered into a school for a week, it is likely to stay. A fourth impact is in terms of networking: Most of the relationships established during Codeweek are used along the year to keep organizing and promoting coding activities. Sometimes, the endorsement of governments and institutions makes the impact even larger. For instance, during Europe Code Week 2014, the Italian government and the consortium of Italian universities with CS degree programs (namely, CINI) decided last year to launch “Programma il Futuro” to introduce Code.org resources in Italian schools.
D: How have you been introduced to coding?
A: I convinced my parents to buy a Commodor 64 when I was 13. At that time, coding was the most natural thing to do with a Commodor 64, and I cannot forget the thrill of seeing the first sprite moving on the TV screen according to my instructions.
D: You are a researcher now. How does coding and Codeweek relate to your research? How does it relate to research more generally?
A: Finding algorithmic solutions to complex problems is the fundamental and the most exciting part of my research activity. For the first edition of Europe Code Week, in 2013, I prepared a short presentation entitled “Coding: The language of things” to explain that there is a great potential of smart objects around us that wait only to be programmed. The widespread diffusion of smartphones and Internet-enabled objects, the availability of mobile data networks, the maturity of cloud computing, and the emergence of wireless sensor networks create a shared pervasive infrastructure with unprecedented memory, computing, and sensing capabilities. Exploiting this incredible potential is just a matter of coding.
D: In research contexts, there is a strong relationship between code and data. Have any Codeweek activities touched upon research data?
A: Coding is all about data. Coding is data processing and we need to deal with data before even starting to code. I would hardly find a coding activity in which data are not involved. The point is whether or not the importance of data is stressed during Codeweek activities. Given the diversity of the Codeweek events on the map, I cannot provide a general answer, but I can say for sure that there are events especially focused on open data and that data manipulation and visualization is one of the themes proposed to Codeweek event organizers.
D: So far, Codeweek had a focus on Europe. Are there any activities elsewhere, especially in the US?
A: The first two editions of Codeweek had a focus on Europe. Starting this year, Codeweek is open to activities organized elsewhere, and we are engaging Codeweek ambassadors to expand the outreach to non-European countries. Our first ambassador in the US is Derek Breen, and I’m glad to mention that the Scratch team at MIT has prepared a new tutorial to celebrate Europe Code Week 2015. I met Mitchel Resnik in Amsterdam in August and I mentioned the “Ode to code”, an open-source tune written to celebrate coding, and the robot-dance that we were launching to promote Codeweek. One month later, the Scratch team came out with a wonderful Ode to code dance tutorial, providing an outstanding contribution to Codeweek. Speaking about the global outreach of Codeweek, I absolutely have to mention Africa Code Week, which has been launched this year based on the success of Europe Code Week 2014.
D: What is currently missing from Codeweek that you would like to see?
A: As a network of volunteers, what we really miss is time! There are many aspects that could be improved, and we are all fully aware of our limitations. On the other hand, we are also aware of the strength of our group and of the importance of the coding literacy campaign that we are conducting. Every edition of Europe Code Week is a lesson learned to improve the next one. For instance, we have now established a NGO, called CodeWeek.EU, to be ready to handle all the legal and administrative aspects that cannot be handled without a legal entity.
D: Thank you very much, Alessandro!
A: You’re welcome!