ICT and the UK’s National Curricula
Information (and) Computer Technology (ICT) is in a state of flux in UK schools, and this backdrop forms an important consideration for those of us engaged in school-based research. The absence for a number of years of computer science as a discrete subject within the National Curricula of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was famously used by Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, (pictured below) as an example of the weakness of UK computing education in his 2011 McTaggart Lecture, a speech that drew an enormous amount of comment across the ICT world.
Schmidt argued that for the UK, a country with a rich ICT heritage that includes the inventions of both the electronic computer and the Worldwide Web, to exclude computer science from its National Curriculum was a huge mistake and one that should produce misgivings in those responsible for designing schools programmes. Schmidt appeared not to acknowledge in this speech that computer science is widely taught in schools across the UK. He focussed on its absence from the National Curriculum and seemed to assume both that the four countries of the UK shared a common National Curriculum and that teaching in schools in the UK is described solely by the content of the National Curriculum documents. He also failed to acknowledge that the United States lacks any sort of National Curriculum and that its nearest equivalent, the Common Core (in its infancy at the time of his lecture) also lacks any provision for computer science. However, some states do publish computer science standards, and it is reasonable to suppose that Schmidt took the presence of these state standards as proof that US computer science in schools is ahead of its UK counterpart.
Schmidt’s comments, made in August 2011 were used by the UK’s education secretary, Michael Gove (pictured below), to launch and fuel a debate about ICT in the National Curriculum. In a January 2012 speech at the BETT Conference (the acronym used to stand for British Educational Training and Technology, but the word BETT is now used as a proper noun in its own right), Gove advocated the replacement of ICT with a new curriculum subject called Computing which would introduce children from primary school upwards to computer programming.
Gove’s comments caused a considerable amount of controversy. His apparent assumption that computing was not previously being taught was demonstrably untrue. Many commentators observed that the speech was disingenuous in that it failed to acknowledge that the UK stood second in the latest school rankings of any country in Europe (Finland was top) and sixth in the world – far ahead of the US, whose model Gove – at Schmidt’s seeming behest, was holding up as the example the UK should follow.
Moreover, analysts had observed that the UK’s leap in the worldwide school rankings from twelfth to sixth had been because of the inclusion of science (an undisputed strength in the UK) in the international rankings for the first time. Gove’s agenda on computer science change was perceived as being driven by a need to justify reforms in other areas of education that he wished to pursue.
What was overlooked in the politicking was Gove’s identification of computing as an area of the curriculum that had become ill-defined and left for schools to interpret as best they might. In many UK schools, computer science was at the cutting edge. The Raspberry Pi, for example, is widely recognised as one of the most exciting developments in computing in schools since the invention of BBC Basic. However, in other UK schools computing could be left to teachers to define themselves, with less confident teachers able to ignore the subject completely without any consequence other than a prick of conscience that they were not preparing their students adequately for their futures.
This state of affairs is set to change with the publication of the new National Curriculum document on computing, and this month’s Optimus conference Delivering an ‘Outstanding’ Primary ICT Curriculum (a secondary schools conference is planned for later this year) provided opportunities for attendees to debate issues associated with the anticipated changes in computing in UK schools for the 2013-14 school year. The Optimus Conference was organised for ICT (Information and Computer Technology) teachers and administrators at schools across the UK that subscribe to Optimus. Optimus is an education think tank that produces a fortnightly e-bulletin covering various legislation items of interest to those responsible for schools’ compliance with education law, employment law, health and safety guidelines and other directives and programmes (environmental law, security, privacy, human resources, parent contracts and so forth) that concern schools. As both the Compliance Officer for ACS Cobham International School and a professional teacher interested in the future of ICT in the school curriculum, I attended this conference with a number of different perspectives and questions in mind.
The National Curriculum document on computing came out of public consultation on April 19th and is currently being prepared for publication in the summer. Some of the contributors to this document, from organisations such as Naace (National Association of Advisors for Computers in Education) made keynote addresses at the Optimus conference, and some leading figures in programming from UK institutions such as Roehamption University also contributed to the programme. My own involvement included a seminar on tablet computing and many discussions with peers on which programming languages could be best combined with a tablet ethos in school ICT.
Scratch 2.0 and the iPad
It happened that the conference fell on the very day that the long-anticipated version 2.0 of the popular programming language Scratch was released. The time difference between London and MIT meant that we could not look at the new version of this ubiquitous programming language during the conference itself (I took my first look at midnight that night), but it was clear from the MIT website that the dispute between Apple’s commercial interests and MIT’s desire to have as many users as possible use Scratch to write programs had still not been resolved. A Scratch app had once appeared on the iTunes Store, but it was removed in 2010 and Scratch 2.0 remains unusable with iPads for all practical purposes – although a simple Scratch maze game is still available to download. There are a few signs of optimism that the gulf between how Apple sees the future of the iPad and how MIT would like to see Scratch developed and taken up might be closing. Certainly if the long-running Flash vs. HTML 5 saga could be brought to a close, that would help but at present there are few real indications that the two sides’ (i.e. Apple’s and MIT’s) arguments might be converging anytime soon.
Gaming, Coding… and Raspberry Pi
We commonly look to the success or failure of previous (and more or less similar – although that’s always tricky with technology) initiatives to guide us in pursuing new technological innovations or innovative practices. For example, the lessons learned in one-to-one laptop roll-outs informed our one-to-one iPad implementation; the experience of providing teachers with IWBs informed our decision to introduce Apple TV and so forth. In the matter of computer programming and the iPad we have a useful but overlooked pattern to consider in the form of the PlayStation – or, since I’m writing this on the day the XBox One was revealed, the XBox.
My last year of full-time teaching, 2006, coincided with Cambridge University’s identification and articulation of the twin problems of declining numbers of students applying to do computer science degrees and declining skill levels in those who did apply. According to programmer and author Kevin Partner, one of the contributory factors to this state of affairs was the switch in emphasis seen in school ICT lessons. Students were spending less time learning programming and more time learning to become competent in their use of packaged programs such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Fewer and fewer were arriving at university with any significant experience of coding. Partner contends, however, that another contributory factor was the arrival of gaming consols such as PlayStation. Although in many ways the PlayStation (and the Wii and XBox that followed it) represented an improvement in gaming experience, they could not be used to create software. In this regard they differed from earlier game platforms such as the ZX Spectrum, BBC Model B and the Commodore 64, all of which could be used by gamers to program as well as to play.
There is a parallel here with the iPad and Scratch. As the iPad cannot currently be used in any meaningful way to program with Scratch, much of the momentum built up in student engagement is dissipated the moment the teacher wants to introduce Scratch coding because the iPads have to be set aside and the students have to switch to the desktop computers (or laptops) for their programming lessons. This subtly sends the message that iPads are for the fun stuff and desktops are for programming. Or that iPads are not serious computers (which is a school of thought among some, but that’s for another day).
It is commonly remarked upon that products are often less useful as they become more sophisticated. I’m old enough to remember Microsoft squashing Sun Systems’ Network PC idea back in 1996 when it seemed cheaper, simpler computers that allowed users to download programs for temporary use were on the verge of becoming reality. For the then behemoth Microsoft, such a prospect constituted a threat to a core business. It made more financial sense to make increasingly sophisticated operating systems that cost more, even though most users did not require the sophistication these machines offered and might have preferred the option of buying a cheaper, less powerful PC. A decade or so later in the mid-to-late-noughties Nicholas Negroponte and others would point to the same trend as being responsible for hampering the development of the OLPC Foundation’s XO laptop, a $100-device developed for use in the Third World.
However, the Raspberry Pi seems to be ready to strike a blow for simple and inexpensive computers that allow students to program and to see how a few lines of code can make a computer chip generate useful work. Like the iPad the Raspberry Pi is a smaller and cheaper alternative to the traditional PC and laptop, and those of us on this side of the Atlantic might be permitted to take pride in the fact that also like the iPad it has a British designer. The Raspberry Pi is also similar to the XO laptop in one respect: it is inexpensive. You pay either US$25 or US$35 depending on the size, and the dollars pricing, rather than a pricing in pounds sterling, is designed to increase the Raspberry Pi’s appeal to an international market.
At those prices a class set of Raspberry Pis can be bought for less than the cost of a single iPad – and the device (pictured above) opens the world of coding to a generation whose interactions with computers and games consols have never required them to do anything at all in the way of programming. Raspberry Pi can be programmed in Python, C or Perl. It is SD card-compatible and there is an online store called the Pi Store where peripherals such as cases can be purchased. There is also an as yet small but thriving online community dedicated to the device and its proliferation and supporting new users.
The Raspberry Pi was designed to introduce coding to a new generation of schoolchildren. Teaching coding can be the launching pad to much more than a career in computer programming. It is a logic-strengthening exercise and it has many of the benefits for the learner that language learning carries. It is also an intensely personal experience that can lift children’s self esteem. I can still remember the thrill I felt when I wrote my first lines of code on a clunky desktop in the lab at the University of London and made a Lego crane lift a marble from the desk. With a Raspberry Pi, the same instruction could be made on a machine small enough to fit in my shirt pocket.
At ACS Cobham International School we are about to purchase class sets of Raspberry Pis for the new school year. We intend to have children as young as six programming and beginning their journeys into the fascinating world of coding. This is very much a move made with the future needs of the planet in mind. If that sounds grandiose and hyperbolic, consider this thought – again, from Kevin Partner. The computer controlling NASA’s Curiosity rover currently travelling across the surface of Mars is less powerful than a £30 Raspberry Pi. It is a simple fact that we already have all the technology we need to colonise space, and some of it will shortly be in our primary school classrooms!