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Children and tech: an alternative view

Tech often gets a bad rap - see how it beguiles our children into gaming for 8 hours a day, for a start. But a recent interview made me see things a little differently - and it might do the same for you.

Often the default stance when it comes to our children and their use of technology is to panic about the amount of time they spend gaming, messing around on social media or staring at a plethora of other screens.

But we at Muddy have had a really interesting chat with Simon Rood, Head of Computer Science at Canford School, which really challenged my views and made me look at things a bit differently. Here’s what he had to say on this most contentious of subjects.

Many of us feel nervous about technology – why do you feel so passionate about embracing it?

Technology has such a transformative power that it is not possible to ignore. The ‘disruptive’ nature of its ability to change nearly every element of our lives for everybody everywhere in a very short timescale means that, irrespective of your viewpoint, ignorance of its power will not make you equipped to deal with the world as it is now, let alone in the future. If you love the power to change a whole industry and you come up with that one brilliant idea, or ‘killer app’, you too could become the next Jobs, Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg etc. If you worry about the consequences, and I think we all should pay these developments closer scrutiny, then understanding how the mechanisms and drivers at a technical, business and philosophical level is also vital if we are to establish better control.

There is currently much soul searching and star-gazing going on trying to predict what Computing power will mean in the near future. This, I feel, should be taken with a healthy pinch of scepticism, any predictions made now are vanishingly unlikely to be true in a decade or more. In the 1950s IBM thought that there would not be a need for more than five computers in world in total, they could not have envisaged the ubiquitous smartphone. The original Internet Protocol was designed to cope with 4 billion web addresses worldwide and thought to be ridiculous overkill at the time. They were quickly proved wrong and the system became swamped. The latest has enough web addresses for 40000 per person on the planet, assuming 8 billion people.

The term Artificial Intelligence is thrown into products as the latest and best marketing term, but it is widely misunderstood and applied. Actual intelligence as we understand it (which we currently do not completely) is I think a fairly unachievable goal, especially in terms of being self-aware. However Big Data and Machine Learning are here with us now: suggesting items to purchase and what music we might like to listen to. A clearer understanding of its powers and limitations is very useful and examination courses have started to include these elements.

Should we feel nervous? There are indeed many dark avenues that computing technology can and has taken, this is the case for all inventions that we marvellous homo sapiens create. Once Pandora’s box is open it cannot be shut, we cannot uninvent ideas. We have always had the capacity for marvellous creation, terrifying destruction and unwitting consequence. IT is no different and we can either fear the changes or look to the positive range of possible amazing advantages but just as vigorously we need to guard against unchecked growth, and unforeseen consequences.

What’s your advice for parents?

This is a huge area and there are no easy answers. As a parent of a young girl it is something that worries me in terms of time spent on screen and in the coming years, social media. In terms of screen time my primary advice is education; limits in terms of software and time and always using devices in a social location (a family room where parents are present and not in the bedroom) are good places to start. However, I think allowing children social media access should be done with caution and there is no short cut for us all taking time to see what apps actually do. There were several high-profile reports last year of tech-firm CEOs limiting their children’s screen time and prohibiting mobile and social media app usage until they were older. The NSPCC has a good piece on online safety and further links where children rate the risks of particular apps. The Net aware site is very interesting, see the page here on snapchat: One of the hardest parts for parents is social pressure exerted by those ‘early-adopter’ children that then influences your own. This can be in terms of social media or even when to have a phone. Talking with other parents in your child’s friendship groups can really help here. Every child is different in terms of maturity and their situation. Communication, involvement and education has to be the way forward.

What’s your approach at Canford? How do you use technology?

Technology is now firmly embedded in everyone’s daily lives. For example, how many of you are reading this on your phone in a spare moment? However we believe young people need a balance of both space away from and access to the digital world in a safe way. In the Shell and Fourth Form, pupils do not have access to their phones for the majority of the school day, so lessons and those crucial social interactions can proceed without unwanted distraction. However, we have a ‘bring your own device’ policy and a number of computer suites where pupils can access email and use technology productively through our filtered internet environment for use in lessons where appropriate, for example in Computer Science or Mathematics where they are a powerful tool or the Humanities for research. We also run several PSME sessions on online safety and have Sixth Form pupil leaders and a pupil panel that discusses this issue. As technology and its social effects are constantly evolving we are always looking for new ways to make the technology work for us and to support students, but at the same time ensuring our students are educated and protected, but ready for the world to come.

What tech are you currently excited about?

Machine Learning, which is often what is meant when the term AI is used, is a really interesting and hot topic. This often builds on the concept of training ‘bots’ small programs that do a task, such as ‘is that a traffic light in a picture’. These bots are trained using input from the best pattern recognition devices on the planet (us). When you are asked to prove you are a human when you log into a service on line you are often presented by a range of pictures where you decide whether a car or traffic light is present. So you have now ‘proved‘ you are not a robot, but also trained a bot as to what is a traffic light. These little programs are grouped together and tested, the ones that perform the best go on to inform the next generation and so on. Eventually you have a small program that can spot a traffic light. However, it has no concept of what a traffic light is, what it means etc. It is not intelligent. However you link enough of these little programs together and run them fast enough you will eventually have a very, very, safe driverless car. This will be fantastic for most of us, especially if coupled with a non-polluting electric car, as death and injury on the road will undoubtedly reduce, but it may have many knock on consequences in terms of employment, law, etc. Some of our students have written machine learning programs for their projects. They have trained games to be played and obstacle avoidance, currently one student is attempting a machine learning chess program.

Big Data is another amazingly interesting area, especially when considering wider social issues such as law enforcement, pollution and government decision making. Several police authorities around the world use big data to enable more effective policing of crime hotspots. Legal decision making bias can be flagged up. It can also assist in complex drug administration in Cancer patients, allowing doctors correlated access to all the relevant research. In government policy hopefully more decisions can be made with real accurate data behind them, leading to better solutions, which people will still need to create.

What about girls – what can we do about the lack of women working in tech?

This is a very interesting issue, and not dissimilar to issues in the press about CEOs of corporations being under-represented. It is not limited to the tech industry alone and there are success stories. Many of us have heard of successful women in tech as leaders of businesses, especially web-based ones. Perhaps less well known are some of the successful deeply technical women. Did you know the name Sophie Wilson? She wrote the BBC BASIC language, and then designed the instruction set for ARM processors, which are in most smartphones today. Dr. Lisa Su is the head of AMD, a large corporation which makes CPUs and graphics cards, originally she worked as an electrical engineer on semi-conductors.

My advice to parents is that there are fantastic opportunities in the tech sector for either gender, but even more so for girls. I believe the key might be that girls want to make a difference, just think of Greta Thunberg. If they want to change the world, make it a better, greener and a more equitable place, then Computer Science has the power to help them do this. Indeed they must, recent issues of cultural bias found in algorithms could easily be extended to gender too, so if we want a more balanced society with more human-space then women need to be at the heart of that development.

Last year 25% of the cohort starting our iGCSE course in Computer Science were girls, and they are currently doing very well. We also have had girls represent the school at the Oxford TCS coding challenge. One of our recent OCs gained an A* at A level and has pursued one of several amazing offers that will place her in tech in the City. Our robotics challenge, jointly run with DT, enables a range of wider issues to be focused on and has proved every popular with all of the Shells, with several all-girl groups doing very well indeed. There is no magic bullet for widening participation, but we are trying and having some good success, but are by no means there yet!

Any suggestions to inspire a child who’s interested in tech?

Learn to code! There are so many helpful web-based resources out there, and I list a few later on. Python (3) is a great programming language that is both powerful and easy to learn and the one we teach at Canford. All programming really helps with problem solving, mathematics and sequencing but its also creative, dynamic and exciting. You can write games, simulations, move robot arms and vehicles, make fantastic light displays and art, control a 3D printer, create a website, literally anything and everything.

Depending on the age of your child there are many different possibilities.

· Scratch and Scratch Jnr. are brilliant for younger children as the key concepts are dealt with in a fun, image, sound and games based way. Using a block based approach like Lego for code.

· Minecraft Education is also quite interesting for prep school years with the ability to add code to automatically make creations in the familiar Minecraft universe.

· Hour of code and Khan Academy are also great.

As students get older learning a typed or written language is more powerful, rather than blocks.

· Snakify is a powerful tool to help students learn Python 3, and is one that we use in the 4th form and above. Also: w3schools, codeacademy, and many others.

However there are many, many courses online and in the real world that can make a fantastic starting point to learn Python, many are free and great quality, just choose one that suits you and your child.

Take a look at Canford yourself at their open day on Sat 5 Oct 9.30am-1pm, and while you’re waiting, read our review.

Canford School, Wimborne, Blandford, Dorset BH21 3AD, tel: 01202 841254,

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