Opening up Computer Studies in the UK

One of the biggest disgraces in this country is the way that computing is taught - or rather, the way it is not taught. I know as a parent from years of interaction with the school system at various levels that what passes for computer teaching...


One of the biggest disgraces in this country is the way that computing is taught – or rather, the way it is not taught. I know as a parent from years of interaction with the school system at various levels that what passes for computer teaching is in fact little more than rote learning of where the Open command is on the menu in Word and Excel. That is, instead of teaching pupils how to use computers as a generic tool to solve their particular problems, it becomes instead a dull exercise in committing to memory various ritual Microsoft sequences to achieve one specific task.

This is pretty obvious to anyone who has had the (dis)pleasure of dealing with school work in this field, but the Royal Society has decided it wants to find out with a rigour the befits a three hundred-year old institution:

The Society is leading on an 18-month project looking at the way that computing is taught in schools, with support from 24 organisations from across the computing community including learned societies, professional bodies, universities, and industry.

School teachers, academics and other members of the computing community are coming together through the study to address growing concerns that the design and delivery of the ICT and computing curricula in schools is putting young people off studying the subject further. The effect on the UK economy of the dwindling enthusiasm for computing will be explored, together with the need for more specialist teachers and development of qualifications that can motivate and inspire the next generation.

In itself, that's good news; at least there is a recognition of the problem – although "dwindling enthusiasm" is something of a euphemism for the total and crushing boredom I've seen in pupils. Even better, the Royal Society is asking some jolly good questions. I'd quote them, but the Royal Society's expertise seems not to extend to producing PDFs that can be copied .

But if I don't have a problem with the questions, I'm not so sure about the Advisory Group (another PDF file that can't be copied...). There are representatives from Google, IBM and Microsoft Research, so why not one from Canonical, say, to fly the open source flag? As for the other individuals mentioned, I don't recognise any names there as being particularly active in the world of free software: I presume (hope) that some of them are in some way. Maybe I'm just too parochial....

These kind of things do not augur well for the end result. That notwithstanding, I have appended below my own forlorn attempt to get the message across about the need to bring in open source, and open thinking. I doubt whether it will do any good, but if you're a fellow connoisseur of lost causes you might want to send your own thoughts to [email protected] by 5 November 2010.

I applaud the fact that the Royal Society is looking at computing in schools, one of the areas most in need of reform in our educational system. In my experience as the father of children in primary and secondary schools, the subject has become totally divorced from the everyday reality of the digital domain. Given the unprecedented progress and unremitting excitement of the field, turning it into a stodgy and boring waste of time is both a considerable achievement and an utter disgrace.

One of the key problems with computing taught in schools is that it consists largely of learning where a few commands are on a couple of Microsoft applications. This is not computing, it is brainwashing. It inculcates the idea that word processing means Microsoft Word, and that the only spreadsheet is Microsoft Excel.

Thanks to this, children may develop a natural resistance to using alternatives such as the suite, with the result that they miss out on software that is both powerful and free. Similarly, schools become locked into the Microsoft ecosystem, and have to pay thousands of pounds unnecessarily. Parents, too, lose out, since they often feel obliged to buy Microsoft Office for use at home, or they "borrow" copies from work – hardly something to be encouraged.

If, instead, word processing were taught without reference to a particular product, and children were encouraged to explore different options – Microsoft Word,, AbiWord, they would begin to understand the broader concepts that lie behind computing. They would also take an active part in their education, rather than being forced into the current deadly-dull passive role. They would begin to see computers as ways of solving problems, not of ticking boxes of tasks completed in order to pass exams that are worth little anyway.

This lack of creativity feeds into the subjects that should, normally, be supported by computing – notably the sciences. When pupils are forced to view the digital world through limited optics, they are less able to widen their view when trying to solve problems in other areas. Encouraging creativity and an openness to exploration and experimentation would have major positive spillover effects for the sciences.

These kind of computing skills are critical not just for those who will go on to become scientists, but for all citizens. Their future will be permeated with new digital devices offering ever-richer digital services. The key skill they must learn at school is not to find their way around the File menu in Microsoft Word, but to be able to navigate through these complex and daunting new landscapes opening up to them, and to make good choices for themselves and their families. That requires quite a different kind of digital literacy from the one being taught so badly today.

In summary, I urge the Royal Society to call for more openness in schools' teaching of computing; it is, after all, the same openness to new ideas and new inventions that lay behind the founding of the Royal Society itself.

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Update: Government hands Computer Science curriculum responsibility to schools Time for school IT to teach Open Source