Level 3 BTEC Nationals Information Technology

This is a summary of the Preparing To Teach course I attended in May, hosted by Pearson.

First, a little context. I teach in a school where the sixth form has an intake of around 200-230. We’ve offered Edexcel GCE Applied ICT for a long time (must be approaching 10 years now) and it’s done us, and our students, very well. There’s a heavy practical element, with 66% coursework and 33% based on two practical exams (one spreadsheet modelling and one database). We typically get students of middling ability, with some from the very top end. ICT is often seen as a 3rd or 4th A Level to complement the subjects people want to take on (with some exceptions, of course).

So, with the Applied ICT course coming to close we needed to find a new Level 3 course that is suitable for our students. Having looked at a variety of options (OCR Cambridge Technicals, what was A Level ICT, A Level Computer Science and a few others) we thought that the Pearson BTEC in IT was the best fit for our students.

Pearson have held a number of Preparing To Teach meetings, and they have a few more calendared for the near future. A few people on a Facebook group for the BTEC had asked what was said as they weren’t able to get to a meeting. So my recollections are here. I’m writing this without the aid of my notes (they’re at school and its half term, so I’m not). Errors and omissions are mine!

Course Structure

This is all available in the specification at the main Pearson site, but to summarise, we’re doing the Extended Certificate, which is equivalent to a full A Level. This includes 3 compulsory units:

  • Social Media (90GLH, internally assessed)
  • Data Handling (90GLH, practical examination)
  • Synoptic paper (120GLH, written examination)

And one of 2 optional units:

  • Spreadsheet Modelling (60GLH, internally assessed)
  • Web Design (60GLH, internally assessed)

I may have misnamed some of those units but you get the essence of it at least.

By doing the Social Media and Data Handling units in Y12, students can cash out with a Certificate (equivalent to an AS) as those are the only two units in that qualification.

There is a complicated method of calculating the overall grade based on the grade for each unit (as they’re all weighted differently), and as a newcomer to BTEC it is surprising that there is no granular scoring within a grade boundary. I’m used to GCSEs and A Levels where an extra UMS point in one unit counts towards the overall grade. Here it’s a flat score for a Pass, Merit or Distinction with no measurement of a high Pass or a low Pass. It’s a Pass.

Students do also need to pass all of the compulsory units in order to get an overall qualification.

Unit 1 – Synoptic Paper

Strange that this is referred to as Unit 1 when the board recommend that you do it last (as it’s synoptic) or at least long and thin. And it’s not needed for the AS.

The content is pretty much your standard ICT fare. Input and output devices, pros and cons of teleworking, advantages and drawbacks of networking, etc. The level of detail goes beyond GCSE level and a lot of the delegates who are currently running the older Level 3 BTEC were a little worried that their students wouldn’t necessarily do so well with the SAM written paper. Having taken plenty of kids through GCSE ICT which has exactly these kind of questions (though with less technical detail), I’m not too panicked just yet.

The paper is made up of 4 markers, 8 markers and 12 markers (plus some 6 and 10s, but stick with me).

A 4 mark question might be a simple ‘state 2 disadvantages of using 3G to access your work as a graphic designer’. Point and expand, point and expand. Straightforward stuff.

An 8 mark question might be a little more open ended, though with a similar style of question. Here the exam board recommended using PEE grids (Point – Explain – Evidence). These are standard operating procedure within our History department and I suspect English too, so kids should be used to the concept.

The 12 mark questions are your longer, essay style. Here it was suggested we look at connectives and sentence starters – although I think you might as well go the whole hog and take a good look at VCOP as a literacy strategy. It will take a little time to train the students up and it might be wise to speak to people from other departments who are already running courses with these types of exam for some good pedagogical support – but it’s manageable and less intimidating than it might seem.

Other than that, there’s not much else to say, really. There is a SAM paper on the website and it’s worth reading the spec carefully to make sure you’re covering all of the content (I’d come across a LAN, WAN and mesh before, but never a PAN).

Unit 2 (or is it 3?) – Social Media

I really like this unit. I really like this unit. It takes something the kids are aware of but don’t fully appreciate, and gets them to think about it and use it within a context. And it’s relevant.

There is a sample brief which it is recommended that centres use, though it is not even slightly compulsory to do so. The idea is to teach them some stuff on social media, and about how businesses use it and what kind of posts generate the most interaction (or ‘traction’ if you’re into corporate doublespeak). Why is Boaty McBoatface so popular? Are people more likely to look at a post with a picture, a video, a hashtag? Etc…

Then you give the students a context. The sample is about giving a presentation to a local chamber of commerce (locally we have an enterprise unit with 5 or 6 startup shops in one building , each with a 3 month lease at virtually no cost – by the end of which time they can rent somewhere with their established business or fold without going bankrupt). This lets them show off their understanding of how social media is used. The students don’t need to do the presentation, and the scenario doesn’t need to be real. A PowerPoint presentation with presenter notes (for added detail) would be sufficient.

The second part of the assignment is that the student has now been approached by one of these companies to actually manage their social media campaign for them. The students should ideally work for different companies and these can be real or made up. Parental involvement is fine, and my idea is to alter this so that students are running the social media accounts for a department within our school.

Students should do some analytical work looking at the interactions their posts have had. Some social media services will provide these, but I suspect most students will have to manually collate the date – how many likes, how many reposts, how many comments, etc.

Some people had concerns over allowing the students to have real control over social media. I can understand this, and it is a risk. I know my students well and I’m happy that with a stern briefing, much discussion and a signature on a acceptable use policy my students will be trusted to take the reigns of a real social media account. Pearson are happy for centres to run an internal social media platform (e.g. Yammer) or even something totally made up (e.g. Fakebook). Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles can be heavily locked down, and it is fine for friends and family to fake the interactions – though the student should discuss this in the evaluation.

Database Exam

I’m giving up completely with unit numbers now. They do matter in terms of admin but the link to the spec is above.

The database exam is something we’ve been doing for years with GCE Applied ICT. As before, some of the long-time BTEC folks were concerned about the examined nature of this unit, but it’s not something I’m going to lose sleep over.

The assessment is a 10 hour exam, completed as you choose over a 1 week window. It needs to be arranged as a proper exam, with JCQ rules on invigilation, etc. It is not controlled assessment. The questions will be consistent on each paper – here is a scenario and a flat data file, normalise and great an ERD, write your data dictionaries, plan your forms and reports, create your tables, import your data, create specific queries, evaluate. Only the scenario will change, though there won’t be any pre-release.

Students are expected to use something like Access (the Applied ICT said you MUST use Access – this one at least looks manageable in OpenOffice Base or potentially other relational database management software). They can use wizards, etc. and with good preparation and practice I suspect they will do just fine.

Those who haven’t been teaching the old Applied ICT course will find a treasure trove of past papers for the 6957 unit from that course.

Modelling and Web Design

We didn’t really look at these, though they will function in a similar way to the Social Media unit. Teach them some stuff and then give them two assignments – one to show understanding and one to plan, create and evaluate.

Administration

I think I was the only person at my meeting who wasn’t a long-standing BTEC teacher, so the admin side of things was new to me. I’ve heard many horror stories but it doesn’t seem so bad once you get the procedures in place.

You need a plan. You should plan to do some teaching, then release an assignment. The students should have a fixed deadline for this and once it comes in you should have your own deadline for marking it, and then getting an Internal Verifier (IV) to moderate it. Once internally verified you can give the marks out and, if there is a good reason, you can grant a resubmission to some students (though this shouldn’t be the norm – there should be a compelling reason). A bit like CA at Level 2, you can give general advice on what is needed but not specific ‘do this, add that’ kinds of comments. The resubmission then need to be back within 10 or 15 days (there was some discussion over whether this is calendar days, week days, days with a timetabled lesson and whether the clock is ticking over half terms, etc.).

A sample will always be called for the Social Media unit, though this might typically be 3 or 4 students per cohort, even for fairly large cohorts. The optional units may or may not be sampled depending on the luck of the draw, but 3 samples out of 30 is a lot less than we send off now so I’m not worried about that.

And I think that’s about it!

No doubt I’ve missed something off, but it’s worth reading the specification and having a good look at the sample assessment material (SAM). Pearson are also producing a load of delivery guides and other resources to help teachers.

My plan is to have 2 teachers, with a 60/40 split. The bigger portion will be coursework with any time remaining afterwards given over towards exam prep (especially in Y13 where it’s a 120 GLH exam and a 60 GLH coursework unit). I’ve not picked an optional unit yet.

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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.