Something odd is happening. While children have never been more involved in computing, fewer and fewer young people are studying technology.
Any parent of young children will be able to regale you with tales of their offspring multitasking with various devices and apps. The modern, younger generation has grown up only knowing a technology-enabled world and they are a product of that interaction.
However, that high level of interactivity has not created a rise in interest in the academic side of IT. Just 4,065 students were awarded computing A-levels this year, compared with 4,710 this time last year – a drop of 13.7%.
The jury is out on what such developments mean for the UK: while companies continue to offshore certain technology tasks, a core of highly-skilled technicians must exist in the UK. So, how can we get kids interested in the behind-the-scenes coding that supports their multi-tasking lifestyle?
One possibility comes in the form of Google’s App Inventor, a system that claims to enable non-coders to develop Android software. Instead of writing code, interested individuals visually design the way an app looks and use blocks to specify software behaviour.
The plus point, at least as far as getting junior programmers on board, is that App Inventor is easy to use. Code is simply snapped together to allow basic events to take place.
That, however, is also part of the problem. As developers become more adept, the limitations of snapping blocks together – in comparison to being able to write code – become exposed.
As Darien Graham-Smith concluded in a recent review of App Inventor for PC Pro: “Anyone with the programming nous to make full use of App Inventor’s abilities will surely prefer a language that doesn’t force you to pedantically assemble every function, procedure and event out of multicoloured blocks.”
Google acknowledges App Inventors’ educational route, paying deference to MIT’s Scratch project. But while the system is driven by an educational perspective, it remains restricted by its approach. In fact, Graham-Smith believes App Inventor could actually drive people away from programming unless the Blocks Editor improves.
The system is, in short, a nice attempt to get people interested in the finer elements of programming. But successful apps are inherently much more complex than pushing Lego together.