Some thoughts on IT, ICT and Computing

 

Picture courtesy of the flickrpoet site

Nick Jackson wrote a blog post yesterday entitled ‘Put the brakes on’, specifically relating to the current push for Computing. The main thrust of his argument (as I understand it) is that we need to consider what the results of this push might be, and that the many good bits of ICT risk being pushed out in order to make room for the ‘new’ content, and he posed a number of questions.

Although I want to reply directly in the comments, I also didn’t want to submit a 3000 word essay* there, so I’m doing that here instead and will provide a brief summary over there. So, expect some strong, and very personal opinions. Any comments and any inference are entirely my own.

* As of now WordPress is telling me there are 2753 words, so not far off!

Why was ICT introduced in the first place?

To an extent, this is a distraction. Rather than concentrating on the historical aspects of how we got here, I’m interested in where we go next. Alternatively, you could read into that ‘why should we teach ICT in the first place’, which is a more useful question. Now I have no statistics to hand, but how are you reading this? How many computers, computer programs and computer users were involved in your toothbrush? Designing it, designing the equipment to make it, tracking the finances within the company that made it, organising the shipping to the retailer, examining the ideal price point, marketing, designing the packaging, researching the most efficient design of the head, analysing the way that bacteria and plaque attack teeth and gums, and so on, and so on and so on. There is a real need for everyone to learn enough about IT to make use of the technology we have available, at whatever level of ability and requirement. I don’t think that anyone is arguing against the need for IT to be taught in schools here. I find the biggest arguments are those that try to define what IT actually is.

Why did Computer [studies] largely disappear into the shadows?

Short answer, I don’t know. I wasn’t around at the time. I’m led to believe that universities didn’t want students who had studied Computer Science in the same way that my primary school didn’t want me to have learned to read and write before I got there (“We like to teach them our way”). How much of that is true, I don’t know. When I was at school in the early 90s, my IT lessons involved using a spreadsheet to plan a Teddy Bear’s Picnic and creating a newsletter with textflow in a DTP. And that was about it – certainly no Computer Science there. and no wonder I didn’t take the subject at KS4 or KS5.

Why is it that universities, in particular those offering Computer Science and other related courses, don’t seem to be that interested in all this debate or in getting involved in designing a clear curriculum pathway up to degree entry?

For the first point, they are. Having just spent two days at the semi-annual Computing At School Working Group Meeting in Cambridge, the Computer Science agenda is very much at the top of people’s priorities. Whether it be university academics, genuinely (i.e. personally) interested representatives of exam boards, school teachers, IT industrialists, researchers, parents or some bloke who happened to be wandering past, there is a large group of very interested people who have a lot to say on the matter. I’d love to give you a list of names, but I’m not sure how appropriate it would be as I don’t think the attendance list is publicly available elsewhere. Suffice to say I’m happy, excited and encouraged. But if this wasn’t happening, how else did Eric Schmidt happen to fly in from the US and suddenly decide to add his opinions on the teaching of IT in schools if people aren’t talking about it? I’m sure it’s not something he decided to find out on his own.

I suppose the last argument is slightly off topic considering the original question which specified universities, but several of them were well represented. For the second part; again, there are many people interested in how we get a good intake for Computer Science degrees. CS is unique in having such a broad baseline at the start of the degree, from those who don’t really understand what CS actually is, right up to those who are already doing paid programming work in their spare time. This discrepancy makes differentiation incredibly difficult, even for the very top universities (did I mention that the meeting was hel din Cambridge?) that take the best and the brightest and it’s something that those responsible for running these courses desperately want to improve upon. Perhaps the message isn’t getting through clearly elsewhere, but within CAS it is pretty clear. Universities want a better calibre of student in terms of their experience and exposure to Computer Science and they want to help schools identify appropriate routes.

Add to that, that Computer Science at schools is about more than getting people into computer Science at university. My brother is a materials scientist, and writes his own code all the time. My dad used to a chemical engineer, ditto. Research scientists and engineers all over the place are writing their own code. Thousands of people try to maintain small websites using online template tools or Publisher. How much easier would their jobs be if more people knew a bit about scripting and coding – be it Java, Javascript, HTML or CSS? Mathematicians using Matlab, office managers knowing the difference between RJ45 and RS232 – all these things are distinct from a Computer Science degree, but some CS education further up in their education could do wonders.

Are there not other areas of ICT that are equally as ‘valuable’ as Computing?

Absolutely. I would split IT up into 3 distinct categories: Digital Literacy, or IT for users; Digital Creativity, with image editing, video editing, audio and animation; Computer Science, the technical bits including programming but also looking at system architecture, interface design, networking and protocols.

Maths does something similar – Numeracy and then Pure, Mechanics, Statistics and Decision.

English does something similar – Literacy, English Language and English Literature.

I wouldn’t necessarily argue at this point that any one of those is more important that the other, although there may be some room for positioning at some point in the future. When I first got into teaching, 7 years ago, the IT for Users agenda was the entire curriculum. Over those years the creativity has come in more and more. The big gap there is the technical stuff. We effectively have a generation of students who know how to punch the buttons into a calculator, but don’t understand how multiplication actually works – and that’s why I’m pushing. I don’t say that we shouldn’t teach students how to use the calculator, but we need to make sure we also cover the fundamentals that make it work.

What will happen if ICT ‘soft skills’ are not taught at all in schools?

If by ‘soft skills’ you mean how to create a decent slideshow, make a poster, interrogate a spreadsheet, et al. then it would, of course, be pretty bad. A lot of the ‘soft skills’ are not covered well anyway, and if I didn’t teach students how to create a 3 table relational database in Access just for the sake of it then I’m not sure that they would be significantly worse off. Equally, I can spend 4 hours trying to explain why consistency and brevity are the key elements of a good slideshow, only to see the same student arrive for a History lesson and use a different background for every slide, cut and paste whole passages from the Web and use every animation they can get their hands on. I’m wandering off topic a little, and regardless of the issues surrounding these skills, they are important and it is vital that students get experience in how to do these things well. Whether the cross curricular model is working or whether we keep it in departments is besides the point, the answer to the question is ‘of course we need them’.

If ICT is to be taught cross-curricular, is that really going to work in your school?

At the minute, it would be a struggle. We do try to make contextual links with other departments where we can. Our graphics work ties in with Art. Our Sketchup work ties in with DT. Our presentation work ties in with Geography. What I would love is for the Maths and Science departments to take the spreadsheets and models off our hands. They’re both pretty busy right now and I can see much resistance to what I think would be a better model for delivery and so the answer is ‘no’. And even if it was ‘yes’ then there would still be room for this stuff in ICT as a specific subject. If you are a teacher IN English, then you’re a teacher OF English. The same is true of IT, but English still has a valuable place in the timetable, and so does IT. Again, I refer to my earlier point – IT is made up of 3 elements and I’m not campaigning for the death or dropping of any one. One of them is woefully under taught, however, and it’s that imbalance I am seeking to redress.

Are the Computing qualifications on offer really that good?

Tail wagging the dog. That doesn’t make the question invalid, but we need to teach the right things, and then assess those. What we shouldn’t do is find out what we can assess, and then teach that.

At GCSE there are two real options. OCR GCSE ICT with the optional programming module instead of the multimedia module, or OCR GCSE Computing. The former we haven’t gone for, largely because of OCR’s reputation over the GCSE examinations and coursework moderation from the previous incarnation of the ICT GCSE. The GCSE Computing we have gone for, and we’re currently in the second year. We’ve not sat the exam yet, but the theory content looks good to me. There’s significant crossover with the ICT GCSE and the ‘new’ bits are in line with my understanding of Computer Science. The coursework controlled assessment tasks are pitched pretty high, and while the paper looks fairly accessible the practical work is coming out as pretty bi-modal. Either you’re looking at A/B or D/E, with very little in the middle. Research shows this is true at KS5 and degree level too, so it’s not necessarily a failing on behalf of the OCR specification.

What is less forgivable is the continuing reliance on describing the situation, planning, testing and evaluating. While I understand that these are fairly universal across ICT specifications, students at this age level should be looking at the principles and practicalities. Until you can write code, you’ll always struggle to design it. I experiment with writing words as I go; deleting the bits that don’t work, rewording phrases and so on. This is also how a lot of code gets written. Yes, it’s important to put some thought into it, but the weighting is all wrong.

I suspect that, again, OCR’s hands were tied on this issue, and I’m hoping that the death of the QCDA will help at least a little.

At KS5 there are several A Levels in computing, plus a number of vocational qualifications. There is some complaint that the specifications are just squashed down versions of a degree course, and certainly some of the content is similar to my own Computer Science degree, but I’m not really in a position to comment with any authority. I do know that I enjoy teaching the AQA specification and that the students seem to gain knowledge, skills, enjoyment and enthusiasm from the course. I’d call that a win.

What about the average student who just wants to use a computer to complete tasks they need to do, what should they be taught? Programming? Will that engage them?

Whatever is needed, what we are offering now simply does not work. Students are bored by ICT. Teachers are bored by ICT. Employers and universities are fed up with the lack of skills, knowledge and understanding that students have when they get there. Studies have shown that drilling spelling tests doesn’t actually help people with spelling when they’re writing sentences. Likewise, getting students to create a good PowerPoint when someone stands over them doesn’t seem to help them when it comes to doing the same under a different context. For that they need some understanding of design principles. Getting students to use a spreadsheet to work out whether they can afford an extra £1 on the cost of a prom ticket might tick a box in ICT lessons, but understanding how the spreadsheet is working and learning about how you can use VBA (or similar) to extend the core functionality would actually be pretty handy.

Does teaching Shakespeare engage all students? What about trigonometry? Or coastal erosion? Or cadences? Or the periodic table? There were plenty of Y6 and Y7 students at last night’s open evening asking about programming opportunities and I’ve yet to meet more than a handful of students who didn’t enjoy making games in Scratch and Alice. So, yes, I think we can justify an opinion that all students should be exposed to these skills and that most students would benefit.

Some responses to other bits that weren’t in that list of questions:

“We’re very very good at making games – but we need the skills. We need computer scientists, animators, artists and there aren’t enough of them,” 

Now, am I being a little pedantic here or are there three different strands to ICT cited in that quote?

YES! none of them refer to the use of MS Office though…

“a mix of personnel with STEM skills and creative talent ranging from animation to design and fine arts.”

Yet again, am I seeing something more than Computing mentioned here? And even where there is no mention of arts or animation skills, design or other non-specific Computing skills, there is reference to some ICT skills that I doubt most Computing courses cover.

And again, no-one is saying (ar at least I’m not) that Computing should be taught over and above all. Simply that there isn virtually no Computing, there has been absolutely no Computing and there needs to be more of it to complement some of the design, artistic and animation skills that are already being taught – although they’re still fairly new and they’re not necessarily being taught well or ubiquitously yet.

And finally in direct response, Nick linked to Tristram Shephard’s blog post where I saw that, speaking of the OCR GCSE Computing:

Hmm – there’s nothing that could be called forward-looking or creative here – in fact it reads much like GCSE specs from the 1990s with a bit of programming thrown in for good measure.

Now while ICT should and does change at a rate of knots, Computing (for the most part) shouldn’t! Logic gates, von Neumann architecture and the basic programming principles of assignment, selection and iteration haven’t changed. Arguably OOP is a better paradigm than procedural code and network topologies have changed, but the difference between teaching people how to use applications and how basic, fundamental principles work is that the former is constantly changing and the latter not so much. I bet that Maths teacher in the next room is still teaching that Pythagoras stuff. And the scientist on the other side still keeps banging on about stuff that Newton thought up ages ago!

In summary:

On an entirely selfish note, I am really pleased that the Computing movement is gathering momentum, and once the Raspberry Pi becomes available (see yesterday’s post) I have every intention of getting my hands of dozens of them. There has been a real lack of Computing in schools for a long time, and this needs to be addressed. Partly because I altruistically think that all students really should have access to this stuff and partly because I selfishly love teaching this stuff. I also selfishly love teaching Creative iMedia, so please don’t think that I want Computing to oust everything else. It takes a lot of momentum to shift the status quo, however, so I’m pushing like mad and make no apologies for doing so.

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15 thoughts on “Some thoughts on IT, ICT and Computing

  1. largerama says:

    Awesome Mark. We are clearly mostly singing from the same hymn sheet and I clearly hope that those with the power to shift things and make changes read both our blogs. It is that message I am trying to send out and you are emphasising here. I understand that you and the CAS brigade are trying to champion Computing and as much talk about it being essential is part of that but I am trying to make sure there is some sense of balance maintained as you are clearly trying to do here from what you say.

    I would only pick you up really on this ” Students are bored by ICT. Teachers are bored by ICT.” This is not the case in my school by what we do at KS3 as we offer a decent mix for the most part of the 3 strands you define so well in this post nor by iMedia at KS4, Computing at KS5 nor even some elements of how we teach OCR Nats especially Unit 4 and Unit 23.

    Let’s hope the 3 strands are the way forward.

    • All good stuff Nick.

      My reference to ICT being boring was related much more to the GCSE ICT specification than anything at KS3 or KS5. Having taught the Edexcel GCSE ICT for the first 6 years of my career I was starting to lose the will to live!

  2. I’m no expert in KS4 ICT but here’s a link to a post about what I’m beginning to call Oil Tanker Syndrome http://bit.ly/p3Z9w4. I’m in total agreement with you three strands idea. As an ‘online presence’ I’d love to know more about coding – it would serve me well. You may be interested in this piece from the Manifesto for Media Education too http://bit.ly/nSro2f

    • Interesting post, and a comment added (thankfully not as long as my response to Nick…).

      I can recognise elements of Oil Tanker Syndrome, but I think that all departments suffer from this. The difference with IT is that the playing field changes so quickly that you need to remain nimble and spritely. Personally, I sometimes get bored if I teach the same thing 3 times, so for me I’m happy to rewrite a term’s worth of work for each year group every year. Some others do begrudge it though and there certainly is a lot of pressure from all sides.

      Still, you can’t knock the 13 weeks holiday and 3pm finishes 😀

  3. No access to computer keyboard at moment…

    Would like to emphasise – IT curriculum needs to be broad and balanced. Most schools already encourage access to digital literacy, creative media and esafety, digital citizenship etc. Computing is a fundamental part of IT curriculum, but has been overlooked for far too long. Now we reap what has been sewn.

    There are a fantastic amount of initiatives currently taking place, some public, some less so. We need to encourage all if these to align together to achieve common goals.

    Computing at School can help to achieve this. We should be encouraging as many as possible to sign up, sign the epetition, try the RasPi, show others what we are doing and the masses will follow us.

    Lead the way comrades!!!

  4. “What about the average student who just wants to use a computer to complete tasks they need to do, what should they be taught? Programming? Will that engage them?”

    My stock answer here is who knows? But surely that is the point of education? To perhaps light a fire in the minds (and hearts) of our youngsters and see if that fire takes and burns into a desire to ask more questions that eventually leads to deeper understanding.

    In the 1980-90s I taught music. I was passionate about getting the classes I taught composing – making their own music. On the way I saw that some pupils had missed out on their music education somewhere – they showed real talent, for want of sounding crass they had that ‘X factor’. It was a small step to then encourage them to take steps to further that ability and reach their potential.

    Programming will not appeal to all, (God help an education system that tries to please everybody), but it might unlock previously untapped potential. In the same way I expect my children to have had a go at writing poetry or painting a portrait or solving an equation etc., so I expect them to have written some code to solve a solution.

    Who knows they may then be able to consider better ways to use the computer to “complete tasks they need to”, ways they hadn’t thought possible before.

  5. Brian says:

    I wonder whether your structure of three strands for ict in digital literacy, digital creativity and computing might be a very useful base for building a decent and modern ict curriculum. In fact when I do my annual curriculum revamp could I use your strands as a basis for it? I would also perhaps digital citizenship as a fourth strand where pupils look at rights, ethics, morals and perhaps even the relationship of communication technologies to protest movements.

    I know my response has little to do with computing (which I support a movement towards) but I did enjoy that point you raised.

    Brian

    • Absolutely Brian, I’m planning on doing something very similar myself. I might argue that the fourth topic is implicit in the first, although it depends on your view, and it’s certainly worth making those subtopics very explicit.

  6. Excellent post Mark, but I don’t think you and Nick are as far away from each other as you imply. To me your key sentence is this:
    “I think we can justify an opinion that all students should be exposed to these skills and that most students would benefit.”
    That is not the same as saying that all students should be taught programming? As I read it, Nick was arguing for pupils to be exposed to a range of digital (and other) skills so they could then follow those that interest them more deeply when they are older – whether through qualifications or otherwise.
    In which case I whole-heartedly agree.

  7. Apologies – see Nick has now replied and others made similar comments to me. Serves me right for for leaving the tab open but deciding not to read your essay 😉 yesterday Mark. I could have at least refreshed to see the comments before posting my own today. #mustdobetter

    • No worries Neil – I’ve made sure both comments appear so that your lapses will be publicly available, hopeful encouraging you to do a better job in future 😀

      Seriously though, I never did think that Nick and I would be poles apart. I just wanted to balance the ‘bandwagon’ train of thought with some positive motivation for wanting to keep building momentum until we get closer to what I think is the ideal balance.

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