Helping teenagers Code: a review of the Vodafone Code Like A Girl programme

 The wonderful young students of Skibbereen; James Magill, Director of HR Vodafone Ireland (back row, centre); Adriene CEO of the Ludgate Hub (middle row, 2nd from right), the four Vodafone tutors (from left: Srava Garlapati, myself, Anna Monaghan and Liam Moraghan).

The wonderful young students of Skibbereen; James Magill, Director of HR Vodafone Ireland (back row, centre); Adriene CEO of the Ludgate Hub (middle row, 2nd from right), the four Vodafone tutors (from left: Srava Garlapati, myself, Anna Monaghan and Liam Moraghan).

Introduction

A learning cycle is a concept of how people learn from experience. A learning cycle will have a number of stages or phases, the last of which can be followed by the first.
— Definition: Learning Cycle
  1. Unconsciously incompetent
  2. Consciously incompetent
  3. Consciously competent
  4. Unconsciously competent

From my time as a secondary teacher* and as tutoring in Rock Climbing coaching**, you come across various descriptions of learning cycles. For some reason, the list above is always one that I can list off easily. Maybe it's the quirkiness of it, the bluntness of the word "competency" or that it's needs a small bit of consideration to make sense of it when you first of it (read through each step carefully and the logic will make sense of how you move through adopting a new skill). Whatever the reason, I find it's an amazing resource and concept to keep in mind when approaching a new job or skill.

However, I also find there's an additional unspoken line that goes before item 1. I'll call it bullet zero, or infinity, as without it, none of the others can exist. Bullet point zero is....letting people actually try the new possible skills. I.e. you need to get the opportunity to experience the new skill to actually start on the learning journey. The CodeLikeAGirl course, with Vodafone's backing, is targeting more young females to consider their first learning cycle in coding/STEM careers by giving young Transition Year girls the opportunity to try coding and design skills.

 

Personally, I'm writing this on the Sunday, two days after finishing the third event put on by Vodafone (and second that I've been personally involved in) in the Code Like a Girl initiative, providing a week-long intensive in coding to a classroom of young pupils from schools in Ireland. The deep fatigue that comes from intensive teaching, preparation and focus has largely evaporated, leaving only that warm buzz of realising how much you've given to a group of lovely pupils.

I'm also writing this, because as discussed in footnote 3, by Friday morning I was mentally quite drained from the week and feel like I didn't do the week a service in my responses when chatting to Jess Kelly of Newstalk.....here's my attempt to rectify that situation!

Here's my notes, enjoy. [As always, more than happy to share more notes in person or over your digital tool of choice (there's a comment form at the bottom of this post, a contact form here, or hit me up on Twitter.]

 

 

Table of Contents

  • Vodafone supporting a 1-WEEK coding course
  • Why I believe this Programme (and its equivalents) is so important
    • Why the focus on 'Girls/Females'
  • Thinking Big Picture
  • An overview of the course
  • What's Next?

Vodafone supporting a 1-WEEK coding course

As Jess Kelly (who, as mentioned earlier, I had to pleasure to meet last week - I personally deserve a smack on the head for poorly introducing her to the pupils.....***) observed, there is very little on offer that is equivalent to this course: with most other opportunities that are available are usually only a single session of 1-2 hours in length. Vodafone's backing to get "1,000 girls through the CodeLikeAGirl programme" which is a 1 WEEK long course should be applauded for its backing and effort. With a week of dedicated attention, the amount of knowledge that can be transferred is exponentially better than what is done in only an hour. The other aspect is its focus on improving the proportion of females entering STEM courses and that alone should be celebrated also.  (Note: while celebrating the CodeLikeAGirl programme, it's also worth highlighting the incredible CoderDojo programme progressively rolling out worldwide, providing weekly classes to interested pupils - male or female).

This is why I was so keen to get involved in this programme. Unfortunately work/time commitments kept me away from the original event in late 2017, however I've been out on-site in Skibbereen at the Ludgate Hub, as well as last week (14th - 19th May 2018) in Cavan town at Cavan Innovation and Technology centre. 

 

An overview of the course

The course is 4-5 days total with a focus on website development. As part of the course week, Vodafone also has some additional workshops/talks: Unconscious Bias, CV workshop, career insights, and some talks from senior backers of the project from Vodafone: Myra O'Neill (CIO) and James Magill (Director of HR), and major input from others in the Talent and Development team of Vodafone (Pamela Tully most recently, Allanah O'Reilly previously, and Niamh McGarty as senior manager in the team in attendance also) . To provide the course, there is usually four members of staff from Vodafone to either teach or work as teaching assistants in the room. 

In short, there is significant resources behind this week. Pupils work from 09:00 - 16:00 daily and are constantly receiving incredible information, guidance, ideas - not to mention the educational piece on how to code a website.

For the technical readers, the topics on the course are primarily HTML and CSS. This is mainly down to the time constraints (ideally some dynamic coding such as Javascript/Python would be added) and a preference for Quality over Quantity.

By the end of the week, the pupils will have moved from (99% at least) never seeing what makes up a website, to independently writing and creating their own project website that is produced and demoed to a judging panel for a prize-giving competition on the final day. As a positive sign of the teaching, it can usually be seen by the final day where many of the girls are asking the tutors to leave them alone as, within the scope of their knowledge, they can manage independently. 

For any schools interested, the locations of the courses is usually near one of the Vodafone/Siro gigabit hubs and the course is aimed at TY students. if you meet those criteria, keep an eye out on what your local Hub is doing........

 Aoife Coffey of Vodafone, teaching on the topic of User Centered design.

Aoife Coffey of Vodafone, teaching on the topic of User Centered design.


Why I believe this Programme (and its equivalents) is so important

In 1994, the first mainstream Internet browser was released, Netscape Navigator. I went online in late 1995 as a 15 year old teenager and had my mind blown by the possibilities, and an understanding of what the Internet was would take me another 10+ years to be able to articulate to others. In short, computers is a "the bicycle for the mind" (one of Steve Jobs', right, greatest quotes). The possibilities to access, and create incredible opportunities and access the world's knowledge bank means all focus should be on educating every generation in how to use computers. And by 'use computers' I mean appreciate how they work and operate so that they can be integrated into more and more of society. Like everything, they have their disadvantages, but when utilised correctly (and not just as consumption devices), can be used to create incredible things.

As Marc Andreeson also reminds us, "Software is eating the World" so ensuring that everyone has a basic understanding (at the very least) of coding languages is essential. Not because everyone should be a programmer, however it gives us all an appreciation of how computers work and can be utilised for our benefit as the ultra-flexible tool they are.

Additionally, by learning some coding and doing it in the groups that are utilised for the CodeLikeAGirl programme, the courses are are also fantastic because pupils get the opportunity to try some coding, but also learn some of the foundations of User Experience design roles, Project Management roles, delegation, etc. As an example, we saw genuinely brilliant coders this week. However we also saw some other pupils who admitted they didn't really love the coding, but were brilliant planners, or user experience designers, or have amazing futures in creative marketing. In short, it's not just about coding.

 

 Pamela Tully of Vodafone gives a talk on Unconscious Bias to the attentive pupils.

Pamela Tully of Vodafone gives a talk on Unconscious Bias to the attentive pupils.

Why the focus on 'Girls/Females'

And here's the most important part, the part that is given away in the name of the programme. Code Like A Girl. For me personally, this is a interesting one.

I work for, and with, Vodafone Ireland who have an amazing balance in gender, all the way up to executive leaders. As highlighted by Director of HR, James Magill, 60% of the senior executives are female in Vodafone Ireland. I.e. Vodafone Ireland is showing what should be normal......

Additionally, my primary sport (when not recovering from shoulder surgery....) is rock climbing. Rock climbing in general isn't perfect when it comes to inclusion rates, with a higher proportion of male participants in crazily fast growing sport (it’s now more popular than soccer for adults in the UK!). However, when it comes to female leaders, it has a lot. Current leading lights such as the Sasha Digiulian and many, many others (Margo Hayes, my close friend Hazel findlay, etc.). Previous high performers like the incredible Lynn Hill (the first person to free-climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park) and also many many others of that generation. In short, I can think of, and have met, numerous very active and passionate females in the sport. The interesting part with those two names listed (and there are many other examples) is they are climbing at almost the same level as men: different physical attributes balance out in a sport involving a huge amount of technique, endurance, raw strength, flexibility, strategy  

Coding is no different, and it makes no sense that the number of female participants in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is significantly lower. So, any initiative that gets in front of girls or women and promotes the concept of them taking up these subjects should be applauded. As evidenced by the quality of the output from both the weeks I've been involved in, there's no reason for it not to be.

"The robots will take our jobs"

People are scared of tech because we’re telling them to be scared
— Patrick Collison, Stripe

I've also heard this from more than one of the pupils. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised considering how the press reports on some new technology! However, that this is even being discussed by 15-17 year old young adults is an insight that we need to be focusing on building confidence in their ability to adapt, create, evolve. Personally, it's crazy that they are even worried about this (see right Tweet: remember that everyone in this room is a single cell in a spreadsheet that is now the job of one person - and yet, we still manage to fill whole floors of offices with people doing other higher level work). As adults, it's our responsibility to help the next generation coming through to have the confidence and backing to develop and grow as they are our future leaders and creatives! My own personal goal is to try and not leave society and the planet in worse shape than when I was born and to do so, that means focusing on some bigger picture, longer term, goals.... 

 

Thinking Big Picture

The interesting piece after discussing the benefits is then taking a step back. This whole initiative is incredible but it's still being driven from a company level - and a single company at that (even if it's a huge company like Vodafone). Where is the government programmes to drive this into every single school?

I get it that the technology is changing rapidly, and that governments are by their very nature more reactive than proactive when it comes to implementing policies. However the Internet has been around for almost 25 years now, and computers have been around for ONE HUNDRED, in some shape or form so where's the visionary thinking? How does a computer make the apps on your phone run? Or the Alexa speaker in your house work? Or Netflix to show on every device? Or your car to run (since they all contain multiple computers nowadays)? Or how to learn to manipulate data to visualise, or gain insights? Or how does that website appear? If you want to work in a science related field now, it largely involves simulations on computers - how to understand this? Or what happens when we can transfer a piece of data anywhere in the planet in seconds, how does that change society, and what opportunities does it create? And if we can get data anywhere on the planet, and we're now for the first time every in human history in an era of abundance, what other opportunities are there for us to access?

This is why the Vodafone-supported Code Like A Girl programme is so important. Right now, computer science is not on the curriculum in Irish schools:

  • If lucky, students receive access to the ECDL foundation courses in use of Microsoft Office - however that is not what makes a computer tick and is like learning how to drive a car in first gear on a straight road. Pretty useful, but only scraping the surface of what the vehicle is really capable of.
  • If they're REALLY lucky, there is a CoderDojo out-of-hours course on offer. Again, no government backing so completely dependent on the motivation and enthusiasm of either a teacher or some parents.

This is not a solution.

As we're all realising in the past several years, where we all now have a supercomputer in our pocket with access to the world's encyclopaedia of knowledge, this does have impacts on society. And not educating people (be it, children or adults) on how to use these incredible tools seems like a wasted opportunity. I personally don't buy into the negativity of some reports around usage (yes, they've disadvantages but everything brings positives and negatives) - outright bans on the use of computers seems naive..... So, now that I've stepped off my pedestal ;), I'm going to continue to support these sorts of events in any way I can (even if not there, I'll support through reviews of the curriculum). But what are the decision makers going to do to ensure we all get access to the possibilities available through computers?

The ball is in your court, governments and decision makers!


 Jess Kelly of  Newstalk FM  interviews the winners of the week-long project, May 19th.

Jess Kelly of Newstalk FM interviews the winners of the week-long project, May 19th.


Closing review notes: What's Next, re-starting a new Learning Cycle

Remember the Learning Cycles I mentioned at the start? It also works for teaching. And thus, we end one block of a learning cycle, and will start the next block with the foundations of the last. More little tweaks to:

  • the sequence of the teaching content
  • adjustments to certain aspects to reduce/increase the amount of information
  • changes to the final judging format in the competition
  • Updates and fixes to the technical tools in use by the pupils.
  • Personal update: improve my method for introducing new adults to the room

 

Starting the next learning cycle and thinking about what opportunities these fab girls got and will take away, what else can be done to spread the word?

 

 

 

Footnotes:

* In 2010, I finished a PGCE in Secondary Teaching in ICT, and a second year as a teacher at schools in the United Kingdom.

** In 2012, the opportunity arose to create a coaching award for rock climbing, while in my current role at the time of Talent Development Office with Mountaineering Ireland. A full curriculum was designed, as well as a roadmap for the next three levels in coaching.

*** A consistent observation I've gotten from running both courses is: A) by the Friday, I'm mentally drained from the focus on ensuring the pupils gather the requisite amounts of knowledge, B) my sole focus is on ensuring the pupils leave feeling confident in themselves about what they've done, anything outside of that is ancillary - there's pros and cons to that as excludes other items that deserve attention in the room!

Neal McQuaid