How can Museums support the Computing Curriculum?

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Martin Bazley
© Kevin G.Vega

© Kevin G.Vega

10 PRINT “Hello World!”

With these simple steps so began many people’s first steps in computing…


The National Curriculum has undergone some fairly radical changes over the previous couple of years. One of the most shouted about changes has been the renaming of ICT to Computing. This change could not have come soon enough. From my time at school, it usually appeared that we were always two steps ahead of what we were being taught. While the teacher was desperately trying to get us to complete our Excel worksheets, we were playing with the network storage, allocating ourselves more space for downloading albums from Napster. This appears to have changed little since I left and the gaping skills gap left by an inadequate IT curriculum meant that employers were beginning to notice that they could not get developers to create the products that 21st Century economy was crying out for. Campaigns such as the much maligned, “Year of Code”, championed by a group with no knowledge of coding, have run into problems getting the nation to be programmers, so where do museums and heritage organisations fit into supporting schools and teachers to deliver the new curriculum?

These problems were also compounded by the opaqueness of the technology being used. Physically, as devices became smaller, so did components meaning that self-repair was impossible and with code, a valuable commodity, barriers to accessing and manipulating it were put in place by developers keen to protect their intellectual copyright but also by consumers’ desires to get products that “just work”. Open Source and growth of the maker and hack movement have gone some way to changing this. They promote taking things apart, re-arranging them and creativity as something which promotes understanding, ownership and power to the user. All these effects are important for educating students – as with all things, code is never neutral. It is created and shaped by individuals and organisations with goals in mind and by picking apart their workings, we can regain our own control over our devices, communications and tools, to shape how we live and understand our lives.

The change of the name of study to Computing indicates a new direction. A number of high profile research papers outlined the problem facing educators and businesses, such as Nesta’s “Next Gen” and the government’s “Designing the Digital Economy” reports. Gone is the endless learning of Microsoft Office, now replaced by the study of computational thinking and building software and programs from scratch (and sometimes with Scratch!). Although explaining algorithms to KS1 students might sound like an impossible task, the new curriculum has opened up a whole range of opportunities for museums, science centres and heritage sites to use their collections in exciting ways, to tell new stories and to teach new skills.

Since 2008’s Decode exhibition at the V&A, our learning programmes have incorporated coding and programming in workshops. The exhibition, featuring digital artists’ work, looked at code as the raw material of digital design. Since then we have worked with families, schools, young people and adults to look at the building blocks of our digital lives. Exploring cross disciplinary collaborative making and open source practices have opened a new avenues to explore not only for our online work but also for our onsite public events.


MaKey Makey workshops with Codasign at the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

MaKey Makey workshops with Codasign at the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


This September, as part of our Digital Design Weekend and Disobedient Objects exhibition, we worked with families to create their own interactive protest signs. Using the physical interface, MaKey MaKey, families created simple instructions in the graphical interface of Scratch which were triggered when touching or waving their banners and signs. Mixing physical interaction and making with coding can be a powerful way to reinforce key concepts such as inputs and outputs, logic and iteration. The Museum of London’s school programme has also worked with primary schools to create interactives for their school that tell the story of Roman London. Mixing object based learning, craft and computing offers up chances to create engaging and unexpected outputs. Students could create a centurion helmet out of tinfoil which when worn would then tell you the story of life in the Roman army.


An example Sketchpatch programme for creating a generative artwork

An example Sketchpatch programme for creating a generative artwork


We are fortunate to have an excellent collection of digital art at the V&A. The range of works stretch back to the 1960’s and chart the development not only of a new digital aesthetic but also evolving technologies. In our Digital Design: Code workshop, students visit our archives and hear a talk from a curator before heading into a studio with artist Antonio Fernandes to use to create their own generative art in Processing. Crossing disciplines, outcomes and approaches is key to bringing a richness to the subject. Those who may not have an interest in engineering or computer science may find a use for the subject in other ways. The workshop supports the curriculum by introducing the Processing, an easy to learn text based language developed especially with artists and designers in mind.

With all this in mind, it is worth thinking about other areas of study in the curriculum. It is impossible to expect a whole generation to grow up with the skills needed to slip into engineering and computing careers through changing their schooling, though it will go some way to help. Teaching digital literacy is still a vital part of understanding the contemporary world and digital media. Skills such as e-safety, correct attributions, validating and evaluating online content are essential in workplaces and for equipping students with the skills needed to make decisions elsewhere in their lives. Placing a heavy emphasis on coding and programming makes a determined political point but this shouldn’t be at the expense of immediately relevant and practical instruction. Likewise, discovery and creativity should be at the centre of the curriculum and museums can play a large role in promoting curiosity and experimentation.

Have you come across any examples of the new curriculum being explored in museums? If so, let us know in the comments below. If you are looking to explore teaching coding or digital craft sessions in your organisation, take a look at some of these sites for inspiration:

Code Club
Computing at School
Make Magazine
Creative Applications
BBC Bitesize

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