There’s been a lot of kerfuffle going about recently to do with “what should be taught in IT at schools”. Certainly Anna Debenham is a huge advocate for change, and while I agree with her that change is necessary, I don’t think she’s going about it the right way.
Right now, at GCSE level, IT courses include information about how to do mail merge in Word, make websites in PowerPoint (!!), create a leaflet in Publisher, a spreadsheet of prices in Excel and a database in Access. Yes, they’re all Microsoft Office products. No, I don’t think we should be making websites in PowerPoint. Yes, those are some useful skills to learn. Wait: what?
Well, riddle me this. How many people who use computers do coding, high-end stuff like web design and development or software development … and how many use them to browse the internet, write an essay in Word, and write an email to their mother with pictures of kittens saying funny things?
And then you get into “how many kids end up doing computer stuff versus how many do business” – and while I don’t know the numbers, I can take a pretty good guess that most of them do business rather than development and therefore most of them are going to need business skills, like creating leaflets and databases in Publisher and Access, rather than technical skills.
If the new curriculum is useful, then this is great news: j.mp/zLxidV
— Peter Gasston (@stopsatgreen) January 11, 2012
Today the education secretary announced that the current ICT programme is to be scrapped, though, and a new, “open-source” one is to take its place. Is that good, or bad? Well, yes, I agree it needs changing, but does it need changing so much?
Consider: if we teach every kid the ability to code a basic website, will they all leave school thinking “yeah, I don’t need to hire someone to make my site because I can make it myself!”? That’s a very basic way of looking at it but for a long time that’s what I battled against. My peers could put a site together in Front Page and voilà, they had a website. They didn’t need someone else to do it for them! And there’s plenty of examples out there of people who have taken up web design as a hobby that they can teach themselves. Is that the right way to do it? A quick course at school, some open-source options online, and there you have it, “anyone can be a web designer who wants to be a web designer”? Isn’t that a devaluation of our profession?
It’s a little tricker for computer development, but the point still stands. All those people who go out and study for four years at university for a degree in software development, who learn all the theory behind it and why you should do it this way, and who learn why code is written like that and so on – for them to be undercut by someone who can write software in half an hour using a do-it-yourself program that you got to use in your computer science GCSE… well, it’s a devaluation. It’s not fair on them.
If these things are available to learn at GCSE and A-level, we’re going to see a lack of people going to university for these subjects. There’ll be thoughts of “why should I spend £12,000 (now up to £36,000) on a course when the person in the year below me is going to learn it for free?” Even I think that and I’ve been at uni for two and a half years (kinda). I shouldn’t be doubting myself like this.
There’s always the argument that “well, if people want the right thing to be done, they’ll pay extra for someone to do it professionally” but come on – in this day and age, which are you going to do: pay £1,500 for a website that’ll look great and have all the features you want, or pay £500 for the son of your old college friend to do it because he learned to do it at school? Sure, you’ll have a half-assed job and you’ll probably have to pay extra to get it fixed later, but when you’re hard up and just starting up a business and so on which are you going to pick? It’s hard enough as it is. Don’t let’s make it harder.
When I first came to uni one of the things I noticed was that a lot of students don’t want to do the work: they want to be fed the answers. They have no desire to go out and learn for themselves. “We don’t get taught everything on our course!” cries one of my peers regularly. “It has a lot of holes, and we don’t get taught X or Y, but we should.” Well, then why don’t you go out into the big, wide world and do the research yourself?
— Alex Hardy (@alexhardy) January 11, 2012
To me, school should instil in young people a desire to learn, to go out and discover. That’s the attitude they take in university: they give you the basics, you go out and learn. Why can’t that happen in schools? Why do we expect the schools to give us everything on a silver platter, and leave us high and dry at uni? For many students, university is horrible because they don’t get the answers. It’s a culture shock. So let’s start it in schools.
So teach them the basics, give them some links to visit and some books to read. Build up their general knowledge of computers, computing and how to be safe on the Internet – which I think is more important in this day and age than learning the basics of programming or design in your ICT lessons. (Re: design, I think that ought to be taught in graphics design lessons rather than ICT: keep them separate. But that’s another blog post.) Do we need change? Yes, of course we do. Do we need depth? Not so much. Teach the kids to want to learn. Don’t hand it to them on a plate.
Now I’ll go back to burying my head under the sand and not talking about politics. Sorry, bad habit of mine.