Computing in Schools: The Great Ctrl-Alt-Del

After years of unforgivable inaction, the education world is finally addressing the continuing disgrace that is computer teaching in this country. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove's comments on this...


After years of unforgivable inaction, the education world is finally addressing the continuing disgrace that is computer teaching in this country. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove's comments on this area, and now we have the Royal Society's report on computing in schools.

The Introduction begins, inevitably but rightly, with a look back to the golden age of school computing in this country:

This report is published 30 years to the month after the launch of the BBC Microcomputer. The BBC Micro, and its competitors, introduced a generation to Computing, and I still regularly meet individuals who tell me that the BBC Micro was their introduction to programming and had a significant influence on their subsequent career. The BBC Micro was the result of an imaginative (and not uncontroversial!) initiative by the BBC, reinforced by an ambitious UK government Computer Literacy project that put computers in every UK school. It has been credited with establishing the UK's strengths in the computer games industry, and clearly led to the establishment of ARM Ltd, the world's leading supplier of microprocessors for mobile consumer electronics.

Chapter 1 goes on to identify the canker that has been festering at the heart of computing education for the last decade or so:

Implementation of the curriculum in schools and in particular the ‘boring' nature of ICT in England – often focusing on skills in using particular office software, and being overburdened by documenting students' work through screenshots in order to meet assessment requirements

Note, by the way, the coy use of the phrase "particular office software" here: it's curious that for the last fifteen years or so, the government and local educational departments have had no hesitation on mandating that Microsoft Office was the only software that could be used in schools (don't even think about using that funny free stuff), and yet the Royal Society report can't quite bring itself to utter those two words. It would be interesting to know whether that is a result of overt censorship – Microsoft is listed as one of the sponsors of the report – or simply self-censorship. I imagine the latter, so ingrained is the UK's servility when it comes to Microsoft.

The report also correctly notes one of the exciting things about computing – for, unlike its hideous perversion that is taught in UK schools, computing remains one of the most exciting subjects around today – is its potential to unleash creativity and intellectual excitement:

Perhaps most significantly, members of our Advisory Group and attendees at takeholder meetings described how learning Computer Science developeds young people into ‘technology designers and creators' rather than merely ‘technology users' - a philosophy of creativity and expression rather than mere productivity. Correspondents also pointed to the ‘empowering' nature of understanding how a computer works and being able to create new systems as well as use those designed by others.

There is also clearly a stimulating intellectual element to Computer Science education. In their submission to our call for evidence, Naace told us that ‘Computing... provides a degree of systematic thinking, attention to detail... that allows a higher order contribution to society, and a proper understanding of what has become a fundamental aspect of modern life.' The Computing at School group went further, by saying that ‘Computing leads to deep enquiry, such as what it means to think, and new insights into life itself... Not only is Computing extraordinarily useful, but it is also intensely creative, and suffused with both visceral ("it works!") and intellectual ("that is so beautiful") excitement'.

Spot on.

Having got all this right, the report then fails to draw the inevitable conclusion (ironic for a scientific society): that the malaise that has all-but ruined computing teaching in this country is directly attributable to the stranglehold that Microsoft has had over departments up and down the country, and to its unremitting resistance to the introduction of free software for anything at any level.

It is that closed-source, closed-mind mentality has forced students to waste precious hours of their lives learning how to find the Print option on the the File menu in Microsoft Office – sorry, in "particular office software". It is that obsession with controlling the implementation of computing education in this country that has squeezed the life out of it, and left just a barren husk that is now so universally despised by students who must put up with it.

The report describes the creative possibilities of computers thus:

The Computer Science student has unprecedented freedom over what, and how, to create. Programming is the quintessential craft: the principles of quality, workmanship, fitness for purpose, and considerations of project management (time, quality and cost), are all learned here in their purest form. At the same time the student has the opportunity to make their ideas real and thus to appreciate how such ideas could be improved.

That's a pretty good description of how free software operates at all levels – something that can't be said about closed-source software, which is always about control, not freedom, at some point. And yet free software is never mentioned as a possible part of the solution to the UK's failed computing in schools, as an obvious, easy and low-cost way to provide all the things that have been missing for the last decade. That's pretty extraordinary; as can be imagined, I spent most of my submission talking about the huge opportunities that free software opens up for education, and I can't believe I was the only one. And yet this idea is not even explored, let alone recommended.

In fact open source is named just once – in appendix F, hidden away right at the end of the report. The same applies to Linux, which is also mentioned only once and in the same eminently ignorable location. This bespeaks a cowardice on the part of the Royal Society report, as if it were afraid of offending the dominant force in this sector – and one of its sponsors.

With this gaping hole in its heart, the result is a big disappointment after the promise of its title - "Shut down or restart?" - which suggested that at last something radical was being proposed. Instead, what we get are a series of vaguely sensible but rather dull suggestions like this: "The term ICT as a brand should be reviewed and the possibility considered of disaggregating this into clearly defined areas such as digital literacy, Information Technology and Computer Science."

What we need is truly a reboot – the last Ctrl-Alt-Del – into openness. Not just a new operating system or office suite (those are mere details), but a new way of teaching and learning that reflect the worlds of open education, open source, open access, open science and open innovation that are the key intellectual developments of the early 21st century.

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