Friday, 13 January 2012

Reboot for computing in UK schools

"... bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers ... " is how UK Education Secretary Michael Gove put it. The teaching of ICT in schools has drifted off track from a time when everyone and his mate tried to program a BBC Micro or Sinclair Spectrum in their bedroom and some, like the legendary David Braben and Ian Bell of Elite fame, managed to write a genre-changing game.

Instead of learning how to use a spreadsheet, said Mr Gove, "... we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in University courses and be writing their own Apps for smartphones."

I will admit that I hardly ever get into a classroom these days, but the indication was that computing in schools was no longer about creating software. It was a bit like teaching English without ever writing it. The curriculum document I found didn't even mention programming. Yet, as friends at the National Museum of Computing tell me, schoolkids visiting them really enjoy sitting down at a BBC micro (it is a museum after all) and writing a fun bit of BASIC.

The ghost of Alan Turing (and Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace steaming in behind) is usually invoked for occasions such as this. The UK pretty-well invented computing with everyone from universities to the corner tea house embracing the technology at a time when the government felt that five machines would supply all computing needs for the foreseeable future. Now, just as our televisions probably originate in the far east (even if via South Wales) our computer hardware is probably American, the software we run on it either American again or of no-fixed abode, and the social networks we use are also probably American (or if they're any good, get bought up by an American).

OK: so far so promising. I must ask how many brilliant programmers you know were actually taught how to do it? Didn't they teach themselves? But that is missing the point. This initiative should bring new opportunities. Teachers will have "freedom over what and how to teach" and "Universities, businesses and others will have the opportunity to devise new courses and exams" especially GCSEs. The Royal Society has already chipped in recommending that ICT is actually a group of subjects such as computer science and digital literacy. It should be treated as a "rigorous subject" as are maths and physics, and "digital literacy needs to be put on a par with reading and writing" (BBC news story here). This is the result of a report led by Steve Furber, one of the designers of the BBC Micro (it's that machine again) and the man I remember as having invented the ARM computer.

I should also mention that David Braben is one of the people behind the Raspberry Pi $25 computer, which would also fit into this brave new ICT curriculum as it's intended as a kind of latter-day BBC Micro equivalent to teach children how to program. (There's an interesting post on the Raspberry Pi front page about their problems in manufacturing in the UK, including a tax conundrum ... UK government please note ... that duty is payable on components but not an assembled motherboard; hence it's tax-efficient to manufacture overseas.)

So, now is the time for your company, especially if it has links with education, to have some input into the curriculum for the next generation. Influence your local schools and what they teach as ICT. Let us know what you think ... and how you get on. Let us hope that this bodes well for the growth of the UK iMedia industry as much as it does for other branches of the computer tech revolution.