Code Thinking and Other Learning Priorities

This post is part of a series exploring what to teach in the curriculum for Sheffield’s new University Technical College, specialising in Applied Computing. More details in this brief and approach.


By the end of 2011 the GIST Foundation – a not-for-profit I co-founded to support Sheffield’s grassroots tech community – was becoming hugely stretched. Its programme of peer learning meetups and other digital events was well established, but unfunded and running on volunteer effort alone, it was high time to focus growth areas on what we could reasonably support.

Code thinking, data literacy, user experience, and startup innovation: these became the broad learning priorities I wanted to promote in the programme of events, activities and usergroups in 2012.

Code thinking

This is not simply coding, but all that comes with it, from understanding whole systems, applying logic and creative problem solving techniques, demystifying the illusion of technology as magic; imagining and exploring the possibilities that come with being able to wield technology. In practice, also pair programming, learning in teams, having the confidence to show’n’tell to peers, and of course, being able to envision and make things.

Unsurprisingly this applied to the Geek Cadets (the GIST Foundation’s kids coding club) as much as it did to adult practitioners. Interestingly, exposing non-technical parents to code thinking (if not coding) improved their confidence supporting their children too – striking that balance with UTC students who major on the Human Sciences specialism can be invaluable when they inevitably get involved with technology-driven teams in the work environment.

Data Literacy

absolutely not just the technical skills to collect, harvest, and manipulate data (or to support the platforms that host data), or the analytic skills to assess and evaluate data and data gaps. This was also about learning to assess and evaluate data, to understand what stories data tells us  – and what it doesn’t, or can’t – and being able to articulate that, whether through reportage, programming or visualisation (or another form).

Ahead of a growing demand for big data analytics and data science, the driver for this priority was the open data agenda to promote transparency, enable civic and democratic engagement and stimulate innovation. And increasingly as big data processing technologies allow for more insights, there are ethical considerations about digital rights that any future technologist need to consider.

User Experience

Making usable and useful technology puts users (whether people or other systems) at the heart of the production process. Implicit is that this is about having processes to design and deliver products and services. It’s about user-centric approaches and typically that involves collaboration with multiple stakeholders. It’s about being focussed on understanding customers and meeting their needs when developing products, rather than developing technology solutions in a vacuum.

It’s also about designing the kind of elegant experiences with technology that we expect in the post-Jobs era. Visual thinking – more universal for global communication than through regional language constraints – plays an important part. Let’s be clear though – this is not simply about making pretty interfaces.

Startup Innovation

Purposefulness – making things with technology to solve real problems is the driver here. Using lean processes to set goals, design validation experiments, and learn quickly from them; using agile methods to build just enough useful product quickly and efficiently (and without creating unnecessary technical debt); customer development and business modelling; understanding how to determine and deliver sustainable social and commercial value; learning to scale and to fail; being entrepreneurial and practicing how to innovate; being part of a global community that shares its learning and endeavour.

This is outcome-oriented – it compels the application of technology to be very practical and value generative.

A Jumping Off Point

These are broad areas that cover a lot of material. They don’t fully reflect the other activities GIST supported (including nurturing very successful Hackers & Makers and Raspberry Pi communities that play very nicely with the engineering priorities of the first UTC in Sheffield).

In terms of high level principles to frame the Applied Computing programme’s content and processes, and to shape the students learning experience, this is just a jumping off point. It’s clearly not wholly comprehensive – and there’s plenty of detail to flesh out.

If you’re involved in the industry (as practitioner or employer) or in technology education, your feedback is very welcome. Please leave your thoughts below or join us at one of the curriculum development workshops

Designing a Learning Experience for Applied Computing

Sheffield’s second University Technical College (UTC) has been given the green light. It will specialise in Applied Computing and Human Sciences, opening its doors to 14-19 year olds in September 2016.

Curriculum Development Working Groups have been set up to define what should be covered within each of those domain specialisms.

The curriculum development process and outputs go beyond just defining what content should be taught and how – they inform everything from the design requirements of the school building to the quality of the student’s learning experience as well as opportunities for both graduates and employers.

There is a degree of future-gazing involved – the first graduates will not emerge until 2018, and the design of the learning experience and curriculum needs to reflect the industrial and employment needs of a future world.

As lead on the Applied Computing working group I’d like to invite industry practitioners from far and wide to share their experiences, frustrations and expectations to help us get this right.

Get Involved: The Workshop Schedule

Over the next few weeks we’ll be hosting a series of public workshops in Sheffield to help us define a flexible and progressive curriculum framework and learning experience that is industry-driven.  We’ll test how your recommendations and suggestions might fit together, and drill into the detail of real business priorities that will shape the curriculum development recommendations.

Curriculum Content and Methods (Wed 29 Oct 3pm – 5pm and/or Mon 10 Nov 6pm to 8pm)

Eventbrite - UTC Applied Computing - Curriculum Design Workshop 1 - Content and Methods   Eventbrite - UTC Applied Computing - Curriculum Design Workshop 2 - Content and Methods

Aim: Define the scope of Applied Computing for the UTC’s curriculum

What should be taught on an Applied Computing course? What skills, technologies and methods should students be exposed to and graduate with? What processes do computing practitioners follow in their work that can be incorporated into a curriculum? What can we learn from continued professional development practices to improve student learning experiences and their subsequent employment and educational opportunities?

Employer Requirements (Wed 12 Nov 10am – 12pm)

Eventbrite - UTC Applied Computing - Curriculum Design Workshop 3 - Employer Requirements

Aim: Understand how the curriculum needs to be fit for industry and ongoing education purposes

What are the expectations and entry requirements of employers or next stage educators? How can they best be met through the design of the learning experience? How can employer-driven projects be constructed that meet the needs of both students and industry partners?

The Learning Environment (Thu 13 Nov 6pm – 8pm)

Eventbrite - UTC Applied Computing - Curriculum Design Workshop 4 - Building & User Experience

Aim: Envision the building user experience, and define the space and facilities requirements

What kind of spaces are needed to teach, learn and practice Applied Computing? What equipment and facilities are needed to support this? How can the building support the interactions between students and staff  on projects, in classes and during other activities? What is the user experience for building users? What about the non-physical learning environment?

Click on the links above to register for any of the workshops.  Industry and educational practitioners are welcome, as are prospective students, those involved in the recruitment, training and coaching of staff involved in computing roles, and technology entrepreneurs.

Get Involved: Online Contributions

Can’t make the workshops?  We’ll share the outputs from the workshops here, and welcome your online responses.

Want to inspire a better curriculum by sharing your working practices and learning experiences? Get in touch via learning[at]mundojumbo[dot]net to talk about how best we can illustrate your example. The closer the curriculum and its delivery reflect the real world of work, the more effective it will be for students and employers.

Background Notes: The Brief and Deliverables

The Curriculum Development brief sets out the early stage deliverables that the groups will produce by the end of November 2014 that will help drive forward the non-trivial effort of opening a new school.

The outputs of the workstream will directly inform both the design requirements for the building (to make sure that the physical environment is suitable for the methods of learning we want to encourage), and the educational brief that is used to recruit staff, construct the timetable, choose the qualifications, define the projects scope, and underpin the college’s learning proposition for students, parents, and employers.

The Curriculum Development Working Group

The Working Group is appointed by the UTC Project Steering Group. It is led by Jag Goraya of MundoJumbo and includes Andy Mayer (Yoomee), Dan Bradley (Goldfish Systems), David Kay (Sero Consulting).  You can get in touch via learning[at]mundojumbo[dot]net.


Design Brief: UTC Applied Computing

Design Approach: Learning Experience Design for Applied Computing

Project Articles: UTC Applied Computing

Schedule: Oct 2014 – Nov 2014


Define the curriculum requirements for the Applied Computing specialism of Sheffield UK’s second University Technical College (UTC), such that they can:

  1. inform the Building Design Process
  2. inform the development of the Educational Brief
  3. inform the Statutory Consultation process and initial Marketing activity


The Curriculum Development process will deliver the following:

  1. A description of the essential activities which students in each of the specialisms are likely to undertake in order to have an exceptional, outstanding and unique educational experience.  This description should make reference to the skills that will be developed, the relevance to the workplace of those skills and the facilities and space required by these activities wherever appropriate.
  2. A narrative describing the essential characteristics of the UTC Building, which can help inform and influence architects in their design activity
  3. A schedule of accommodation
  4. A table of room details

Curriculum Scope

  • The scope of the Applied Computing curriculum is to be determined through the Curriculum Development process.
  • Examples of application domains include network infrastructure, software design and development, information architecture, data administration and analysis, hardware computing, programming for the internet of things.
  • Supporting disciplines are also in scope, such as project delivery methodologies and processes, requirements and change management, product testing and idea validation, user experience and design-led approaches.
  • The curriculum will be driven by the needs of employers and universities to shape versatile individuals who are well-equipped to adapt to the business and employment challenges and opportunities of the future.

Design Constraints / Factors

  • The UTC will cater for Key Stage 4 (Years 10 & 11, GCSE level)  and Key Stage 5 (Years 12 & 13, A-Level or Level 3 technical qualification).  This means students will typically be aged 14-19.
  • Students will come from a diverse academic background and a wide catchment area (spanning Sheffield City Region). Different students will start at the school with mixed levels of computing literacy.
  • The Normal school hours will be more like a typical working day (8:30am – 5pm).
  • There will be roughly 120 students per year, and class sizes of 25-30.
  • Students will work in smaller teams on projects driven by employers that reflect real business challenges.
  • The UTC will occupy a new (as yet unspecified) building on a site shared with industry partners in the Don Valley.  The Curriculum Development outputs will directly inform the design requirements of the building to ensure it provides an appropriate physical learning environment.
  • The UTC will specialise in both Applied Computing and digital technologies, as well as Human Sciences (incorporating health, sports and sports science disciplines). Students may enter the UTC with a preference for one or both of these specialisms. The curriculum offering should explore cross-specialism learning opportunities.
  • Students graduating from the UTC may progress to a further or higher education stage, into some form of apprenticeship, directly into employment or self-start as entrepreneurs.