Comment British red-top The Sun is running a campaign to “Get Kids Coding” in collaboration with Google that demonstrates failures of judgment and technology that have reduced my family as well as some Reg staff to helpless laughter.
The tabloid is, of course, a contentious choice for promoting any academic activity - teachers mostly being Guardian readers who will flatly refuse to do anything associated with a company like the former News International - but the famously arrogant Google PR machine may have felt very smug with itself to have partnered with such a mighty organ.
The intentions are good, as far too few kids study computing and our late lamented education minister Michael Gove annoyed a serious number of teachers by insisting that as of September all kids must have the chance to learn coding (as apparently programming must be called these days). It will shock you more than it should that this wasn’t the case before.
The Sun has even more readers than the 9.5 million people who visit El Reg each month and has access to hordes of celebrities who will endorse anything that will get their face on the page, so what could possibly go wrong, especially as the very politically correct Sun editorial points out:
“Last year 15 times as many boys took the [Computing] A level as girls.”
So how does The Soaraway Sun deal with this? Have a look here.
There then are the “Competitions” at the paper. Who can forget the scandal about faked phone-in competitions at the BBC back in 2008? There's no doubt the News UK paper wants to avoid that sort of thing, so it is surely not fixed. Actually not only is it not fixed, it is broken - literally.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here
If you try to put text into the entry form, there’s an 80 per cent chance you will fail. Yep, for the vast majority of browsers, the page will flatly refuse to accept any input. Yes, before you ask, Google may be sponsoring this misconceived PR stunt, but among the browsers you can’t use is Google Chrome.
Since I’m a Reg writer I have them all, so if you want to enter all you have to do is acquire Internet Explorer Version 10.0.9200-17028, which is the only browser I know will work. The fact that a couple of days later this hasn’t been fixed is an indication of how little useful impact it has had because no one seems to have noticed.
But the slogan is "Get Kids Coding" and since I always do what The Sun tells me, I unleashed my 13-year-old son upon the stupid page in the hopes he could get it to work. For no good reason he’s a Chrome user and it only took him a couple of minutes to debug the frankly awful HTML and queasy scripts that News International churned out.
The kids' “competition” is just fatuous, so it matters less that they apparently can’t enter it. They are invited to draw a picture of the app they would like, with no test of whether they can even code a For() loop, which presumably means a bunch of kids will pitch up at Google and someone will code it for them and the “best” goes to Mountain View.
To be fair to Google, the teacher competition is useful, offering a bootcamp to 15 of them. However more than one teacher has said that August is the worst time to try to reach them, even if they can penetrate the screw-ups by The Sun’s web team. In an ideal world, your kids' computing teacher would have the skills to hack the website and debug the code, but a lower percentage of the 18,000 UK IT teachers have a formal qualification in CompSci than in German (yes, really) so Google is helping this be less bad.
On Tuesday, Google and The Sun incited parents to “Explain Coding to your kids”. At this point I’m obliged to make some patronising remark about Sun readers, of which I must disclose I am one. But let us imagine a trip to the “real world” that seems so popular among young people these days. Six to seven per cent of the population are IT pros and because my degree was Maths & CompSci, I will share that this means 93 to 94 per cent are not. How exactly are they to going do this?
The Dirty Weekend of Debugging
It is believed by some that you can learn something useful about programming from scratch in an “Hour of Code”. This is not some small obscure idea; there are hundreds of similar initiatives that extol how easy it is to program and how you can learn it in an hour, afternoon or whatever. Hands up those who think you can.
Day Two of the Campaign followed the pattern of schoolgirls looking excited about Google Chromebooks. Then we had even more middle-aged men telling us that coding was important, including the most powerful ZX81 Basic programmer in the world, the Rt. Honourable George Osborne, MP.
As you’d expect from a technomancer Chancellor, he’s right when he says that computing is no longer a “nice to have but essential” for people wanting a decent job. This is padded out by rhetoric by execs of large firms like John Lewis or BA who go on about tech skills. Many of these same big firms curiously have hardly anyone with tech backgrounds in senior positions earning the big bucks. Odd that.
Ultimately, this is just media fluff in the traditionally slow August silly season for news. Google gets to reinforce its YouTube partnership with Fox/News UK, their PR people get Google mentioned in the context of both celebrities and what they will spin as a worthwhile social project. Google execs don’t read The Sun much, so the dodgy anorexia propaganda will pass them by and since teachers won’t show it to their kids, it won’t do much harm.
It is a wasted opportunity, that’s what annoys me. We do need to get more of our kids studying IT, it would be nice if parents cared enough about computing education that it became an electoral issue that got some training money for teachers and it would not hurt at all if some of the decent programming competitions like the Informatics Olympiad got promoted by traditional media.
But they won’t. Too few celebrities for the BBC or The Sun to care and that, dear readers, is why so many of your kids won’t have proper jobs when they grow up. ®