Meet the 16-year-old entrepreneur who's beating the U.K. government at its own game

Meet the 16-year-old entrepreneur who's beating the U.K. government at its own game

Summary: Western IT education is broken. Meet the 16-year-old British high school student who's taking on the UK government at its own game — one it should be winning.

(Image: ThinkSpace)

NEW YORK — It's hard to take someone seriously when they're not yet allowed to drive, vote, or secure a mortgage. But that's exactly what makes one 16-year-old uniquely suited to fix Britain's outdated and widely flawed IT education.

Meet James Anderson, a British high-school student, who took it upon himself and his peer-led team to begin filling in the massive gaps left by the British government's aging and decrepit IT education policy.

In the eight years that separate him and I, Britain's IT curriculum has scarcely changed, despite the introduction of smartphones, mobile app culture, social networks, and the modern advancements most take for granted on a daily basis.

James Anderson and his founding team. (Image: ThinkSpace)

Bored and frustrated with the day-in and day-out regurgitation of mail merge and spreadsheet equations in his IT class, he pledged to tackle a widespread and global endemic of teenagers leaving school without adequate education, he told CNET in a phone interview.

It's a problem politicians have spent years trying to fix — and not doing a very good job of it. And it's not just the UK, which is ranked sixth in global education behind the likes of Finland and South Korea — the US is ranked 17th. The result: more students coming out of school unprepared or unable to tackle today's jobs. It's a gap Anderson hopes to fill through designated spaces in schools that train them for the jobs that don't yet exist.

Anderson created ThinkSpace in September 2013, a real-world, in-school space in which students learn how to code, develop, and create apps and services that vastly outreaches the bounds of the compulsory IT curriculum — not just in the UK, but also around the world. Constructed to look like Google's offices, with bright colors, comfortable chairs, and top-notch technology, these spaces are designed to inspire and promote creativity. That's a far cry from the dull IT classrooms with outdated furniture and computers that stutter and freeze as soon as you open a Word document.

The non-profit organization's motives and initiatives were enough to entice major tech titan backers, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo, British actor and tech enthusiast Stephen Fry, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley. Virgin chief executive Richard Branson, who also backs the project, has previously said he wants the next major technology company to come from the UK.

Despite Anderson's shared desire to see the UK become the next major tech hotspot, he worries that not enough is being done for today's youth, who could end up founding the companies that puts the UK's Tech City hotspot in the Shoreditch borough of London on the map.

"With our backers and the companies behind us, like Google, Microsoft, and others, I would really hope that the U.K. government would feel the same about it."

Opinion remains split between whether coding and advanced IT classes are as important as the other subjects, like English, math, sciences, the humanities, and languages — not least in the highest ranks of the British government.

At the end of mandatory high-school education in the UK, the GCSE qualifications 16-year-olds walk away with aren't designed to equip students with the skills they need in the real-world, he said. "We're taught how to build very basic websites, and it's all drag-and-drop. You don't learn how to code. You don't learn the deep parts which you would do at [later qualifications, A-Levels] for example."

"Everyone knows how to build a PowerPoint presentation or a spreadsheet, but very few young people know how to build a workable and engaging website from scratch in code," he said. "And it's becoming more and more important that HTML, JavaScript, and Objective-C coding is taught at a younger age."

Anderson said he hoped senior politicians would feel as strongly about it as he and his organization's backers did.

"It's an embarrassment for the UK government that a team of 16-year-olds had to do this for them," Anderson said. Though his current efforts are not to influence policy, he called UK Education Secretary Michael Gove "naive" for focusing on the "wrong policy areas," notably tougher exams for non-compulsory education, teacher pay and pensions, and a new qualification that was ultimately rejected by the UK Parliament less than a year later. At least three national teaching unions in 2013 passed a vote of no confidence in Gove's policies.

Although Anderson agreed with some of the Education Secretary's policies, in practice he said they are were not coming to fruition, which in part led to his initiative.

Anderson's non-profit was born out of being a first-hand casualty of an outdated education system that he found necessary to fill in. He said he could not ignore the fundamental flaws in British education — and further afield.

"This is about making the whole experience to school fun again, and bringing life to coding and computer science," he explained. Describing his own IT lessons as "mundane and pointless," he noted that many of the things taught have very little relevance to the outside world. Students who use the spaces have the utmost level of freedom they can be afforded to build projects and their own products, he said.

"We don't tell them what to build, we're just there to give support — particularly the older students helping the younger ones," he said. "We're just there to be a support net for them."

Anderson's venture was not just spurred on by his love for technology, but also because of the UK's inability to keep ahead of the times.

Starting out by simply searching online "how to build an iPhone app," he was enlisted by his school to build a homework tracker and organizational app for his fellow students. That led him down a path of extra-curricular learning and app development, which helped him reach a level vastly ahead of his peers.

Without a developer license for Apple's App Store, he invested £59 ($99) of his own savings into the project, which he wasn't reimbursed for. "I was just lucky to have that available… you can still go out and create apps for fun if you don't have any money," he explained, noting that it still costs to publish.

"I really wanted to jump onto the bandwagon and be a part of it. If there is something new, I want to be a part of it."

By invested his own Christmas and birthday money to build apps, it would eventually lead to him amassing a small fortune — an amount he did not disclose, but said was enough to put him through university. That wasn't blown on clothes or fast cars — he's not yet allowed to drive. His profit was reinvested back into his own venture in order to speed up his work and develop his ideas to benefit his project faster. That means faster computers and equipment so he can produce the results he wants within a strict timeframe.

The rest is stashed away for university, which he says is a long-term goal but for now merely an option.

"I'm taking a ridiculously large risk," he said, talking about his venture. "But it's always good to have a backup plan, with qualifications and university, as they're still extremely important regardless of what you end up doing."

The very first space, built in Anderson's own school, Devonport High School for Boys based in Plymouth, UK, has become a real-world showcase for other schools around the country and the world to replicate. So far, schools in Northern Ireland, the U.S., Singapore, and Israel have spent between £5,000-£7,000 ($8,340-$11,700) on their own spaces to accommodate their students' extra-curricular coding activities.

Anderson's greatest concern is finding schools able to fund their own in-house spaces. His team doesn't drum up the funding; instead they provide blueprints to spaces and ask schools to dig into their own budgets. "We don't have any money," he said. "We're essentially volunteering our time, helping schools and their students."

He admitted it has been a hurdle asking schools with already stretched coffers to cut a check for their own spaces — particularly in the UK where cuts continue to run deep in educational circles. But, he says, it's a small investment in their schools and their students' educations.

Tens of thousands watched the non-profit's launch video, which reached more than 15 million people thanks to its backers. By the end of the first week, Anderson said more than 400 schools emailed him interested in building their own in-school spaces.

Anderson's vision is simple enough. The schools benefit by keeping ahead of the curve, and students' education is enriched by knowledge they may not get anywhere else.

So long as the offering is there, the potential for students is limitless. The best-case scenario? "You help someone create the new Angry Birds," he said.

This story also appeared on sister-site CNET.

Topics: Education, Government UK, Legal

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  • Finally an article worth commenting on. Well done, Zack, for posting it.

    I have to commend young James Anderson for both his intelligence and initiative - and for his use of an Apple computer. (Very Big Grin)

    Zack's blog and subject material highlight computer technology's inherently fast paced, ever changing nature and perhaps this is one facet of life best appreciated by the younger minds of humanity rather than the institutionalized bureaucratic minds of it's IT's leaders.

    When Zack noted that the US was ranked 17th in global education, my curiosity took over and I went online to review the computer based education taught at my former high school. (It must be noted that much has changed since I graduated in '71. My former high school has since moved twice to new facilities and their current "campus" and curriculum would probably rank in the top 1 percentile of all High Schools in the United States. Of course, basic tution for a single student per year is: $10,700 dollars. Oh my!)

    Having stated that, this is their current computer related curriculum.

    Under my categorization of "One has to learn this first", my old HS offers: Keyboarding/Computer Literacy, Photoshop, Graphic Design and Microsoft Office Suite. Pretty standard stuff.

    However, it gets more interesting. Also offered are: Introduction to JAVA Programming and an Advanced Placement Computer Science course (where, to quote a description of this course, "AP Computer Science A is a class where the students will learn the equivalent of two semesters in a university Computer Science curriculum, in preparation for taking the AP Computer Science A exam. The students will learn how to efficiently write code and programs in Java. They also learn how to work with objects and object oriented programming. Students learn how to use data structures and abstract data types, as well as design their own. They will learn applications which utilize the standard data types"

    Also offered are: Website Production A & B and Cinema Production 1. Both of these courses utilize Adobe software. (Yes, Zack, the uses of Flash are still taught - much to my chagrin.) And, Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 is used for the NLE software but an iPad is used to teach Stop Motion and to create a "Short Stop Motion Animation Film".

    I suppose if money is no object, quality educational opportunities exist anywhere. But it still requires a "James Anderson" to fully appreciate and utilize those facilities.
  • I'll betcha

    All those IT teachers and professors feel a bit beat-up because a 16 y/o implemented something they could not

    However, I believe that their Engligh, history and math are far more important at that grade, age and level! Perhaps they could have some exceptions, as in him. But the bulk of 16 y/o need discplined in the basics first. They shouldn't be focusing on programming yet. just my 2 cents!
    • That is the best time to be

      You need to learn the basics of this stuff while your brain is still up to the task. If we're going to have people building all this technology for us, we're going to want them to learn it where we live - because if we don't, it will be the kids in other countries who get the jobs doing it.
    • History?

      What use is there exactly for history? Only future teachers and budding historians need history at this age; English and Maths are far more important, so are subjects which will get you a decent job when your formal education comes to an end -- learning is a life-long process.

      I was reading adult books at the age of 12, thanks to my mother allowing me to spend half my life in a library, which improved my English no end.
  • Funding fiasco

    Funding for these guys comes from those that want a return on their investment not in epiphanies-of-discovery but in hard dollars. The point is that inventions are not always useful or desirable even though they generate huge amounts of money. Funding and accommodating these guys should be a no-brainer. However, no capitalist will touch this unless it adds to the bottom line. I'm appalled that the idea of money crept into this young mans world of enthusiasm.
  • OpenSource initiatives

    Hi :)
    It is possible to publish various things for free for OpenSource initiatives. Many are not so exciting and sexy as writing apps for handhelds but many are crucial for large networks and server-side stuff.

    Many people seem keen to teach the kids discipline but i'd rather see people encouraged to explore innovative ideas and maybe get the discipline through trying to work in teams and get their code clean enough to pass QA and handle bug-squad issues.
    Regards from
    Tom :)
  • Agreed!

    I am due to graduate from the University of Maine at Agusta in a couple weeks and I couldn't agree with this article anymore. I was recently asked if I thought the school was doing a good job teaching the students about technology. I told them that they don't even begin to scratch the suface and there IT department is even worse. Hopefully, they get a clue, but I'm not going to hold my breath.
    Brian Schrader
  • Money is the main holdup to upgrading curriculum

    When I was attending high school in the 1960s, picking up computer knowledge on my own, the books (there were no e-books then) in the school and public libraries about computing were about experimental machines and languages from the late 1940s. The one beginning data processing course in my high school (1965!) had one IBM 403, a 1930s-1940s card accounting machine programmed by wires in a plugboard. The nearby junior college had a computer lab, which I had the opportunity to use, with an IBM 1620, a then 4-5 year old model (transistors, at least) doing scientific computing (mostly FORTRAN and its own assembler) in decimal, too slow for most ACTUAL scientific work, but OK for teaching the principles. The University of Florida, where I attended a summer internship in 1964, and entered in 1965, had an IBM 709, the vacuum tube version of the later 7090, a pure binary 36-bit machine running batches of jobs from one reel of tape to another, with a 1401, a decimal based accounting computer with high speed card and print devices, creating batch input tapes from jobs submitted on cards, and printing (and occasionally punching) the output tapes for distribution back to students. The University did not upgrade to the System-360 (the structure today called generically "IBM mainframe") until 1966-1977.

    So we see that books in libraries tend to be 20 years behind the curve, and depending on the breadth of the user base, machinery from 2 to 40 years behind (one ancient card machine for a high school specializing in technology, 10-15 year old machine upgraded to 2 years old for a major university). Once an investment is made, it has to be depreciated before being replaced, and in the case of educational institutions or libraries, it usually, but not always, is a used or donated machine or book.

    This is great for learning about the history of a field (how many young people know that computers once had totally different designs for scientific calculations vs business accounting?), but leaves students unprepared for the actual equipment they will encounter after graduation, and unfortunately the business world tends to demand "current" skills only, meaning specific hardware and software (ignoring the fact that an employee has to learn company procedures and culture before being productive anyway).

    Perhaps our emphasis should not be so much on writing code for the latest and greatest device, in the latest fad language, as on learning the basics -- the MATHEMATICAL basics -- that carry forward from the past into the future. Since young people want something they can play with and put to use immediately, these two areas need to be blended, perhaps by teaching a small basic principle, then seeing how to use it in current technology.

    These young folks are to be commended for creating what might be a better complement to, rather than replacement of, the official curriculum (once the curriculum is brought up to date a few decades, of course), and the equipment supply problem is mitigated, at least in wealthier communities, by the fact that so many students already have the newer gadgets. This could, however, be a challenge in poorer communities, where the shortage of BYOD hardware is exacerbated by the political distaste for funding public education, especially in "those" neighborhoods (this is a problem in the US, but I do not know how much it is in the UK). With really good teachers who can make the math and logic exciting enough to make up for equipment shortage, the poor students may actually have a long term advantage; I know that my own habits of careful programming stem from the days when an entire day could be wasted waiting for a batch run to come back with an error message from a missing comma!
  • Capitalism defeats Socialism

  • IT in school

    Sipo1, "What use is there exactly for history?" Since you ask the question the answer for you is clearly "none."

    The reasons given the article for need for an overhaul of the school IT curriculum are exactly why my son's school, a leading London day school, abandoned the GCSE exam (a public exam taken by 16-yr-olds in England and Wales) and offers instead computer-industry-recognised qualifications.

    Its computing facilities are good and are largely based on MS Windows, a good thing in my view because that is what you still usually find in the adult world.

    However, I recently saw a new IT GCSE syllabus by one of the exam boards and I must say it looked more relevant for today. I do not know if the school plans to introduce it.