Why teaching ICT cannot be abandoned

By Photos public domain.com [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As Russel Tarr’s recent response to a high-profile attack on his methods of teaching the history of the Weimar Republic (1918-33) gathers deservedly increasing views across the Internet, other parts of Michael Gove’s “Mr. Men” speech align with my concerns about the move away from teaching of ICT in schools and its replacement with (the far more high-brow sounding) Computing Science.

“As long as there are people in education making excuses for failure, cursing future generations with a culture of low expectations, denying children access to the best that has been thought and written, because Nemo and the Mister Men are more relevant, the battle needs to be joined.” (Michael Gove, 2013)

Contrast with one of the recommendations from the Next Gen. report mentioned by Michael Gove:

“Recommendation 3: Use video games and visual effects at school to draw greater numbers of young
people into STEM and computer science.” (Next Gen., Ian Livingstone & Alex Hope, 2011)

The draw of the shiny and new! As scenarios go I would far rather create video games or animations related to Finding Nemo or the Mr. Men than Of Mice and Men and Henry V and I’m pretty sure my students would too, given the choice. Seriously though, creating video games and visual effects using industry-standard software applications requires advanced problem solving skills, application of mathematics and physics and understanding of how a computer system can turn instructions into actions on the screen. It also involves management skills, teamwork, design and creativity. My concern is that a large number of schools are using the headline “games design”, “app design” or “computer animation” to try and reverse declining numbers taking the subject, then use the same teaching methods as they did with package skills…

“What has been wrong with education and IT is that it has been very much focused on the clerical aspect of IT – Microsoft Word, Powerpoint – and that has gone into every remit of the curriculum. It is about giving students access and inspiration so when they go into the wider world of work they are part of the technological advances of the country.” (Depute Principal of St Matthew Academy, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16186705)

“It was a boring set of documents that encouraged boring teaching of boring tasks in a field which should be one of the most exciting in education. The ICT curriculum we inherited was a tedious run-through the use of applications which were becoming obsolete even as the curriculum was being written.” (Michael Gove again, 2013)

But look at this: Lucasfilm want Interns! A quick glance at the essential and desired skills required for a role in Singapore – riding high in a recent index of cognitive skills and educational attainment – the  show a need for:

Education, Experience and Skills:

  • Interest in film production, digital games and media arts preferred
  • Workplace professionalism
  • Multitasking skills – Working on multiple projects with strict deadlines
  • Ability to work well in a multi-cultural team environment with diverse personalities
  • Strong verbal and written communication skills
  • Computer skills: Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook. FileMaker Pro experience a plus.

So an interest in digital media would be desired but most important are: social skills, time management, presentation skills and ICT skills to aid communication (wouldn’t that be classed as clerical skills?). The only other nod to multimedia computing on the page is a request to “link to your online/downloadable reel or portfolio (if you have these)”. Yes this is just one example but highlights the need for continued teaching of ICT. Perhaps just in a different way?

As a programmer I’m glad the focus has been shifted back to using computer systems to create software or link to hardware devices such as the Raspberry Pi or Arduino but without ICT skills linked to the essential processes involved in the world of work and Higher Education, you risk creating skilled coders who are unable to apply for and retain the jobs waiting for them to fill.

“For children who have become digital natives and who speak fluent technology as an additional language, the ICT curriculum was clearly inadequate.” (more from Michael Gove, 2013)

Perhaps rigour in teaching ICT skills and ensuring that the skills they learn are relevant to the rest of the curriculum at the right time would make them more useful. I’m keen on not having ICT on the timetable as it identifies it as a unique entity – unrelated to other subjects the student encounters at school. Tracking progress at primary school and allowing individual students to follow challenging pathways which further develop their skills is tricky to plan and implement, but I think also extremely important.

Here’s why: Children are, in the main, not digital natives. They might wear the badge with honour but, without developing their understanding of what a “digital native” actually is, you may find they are wearing that badge upside down. Students may be confident enough to explore and experiment when faced with a new software application but find it very difficult to recall practical skills when the Computing department see them for around an hour each week (if you’re lucky!).

The solution mooted in Scotland a few years ago was to teach ICT in every subject and leave the programming and multimedia-specific elements to Computing Science teachers. Increased exposure to tasks which relied on students applying their ICT skills to solve problems, create reports or prepare presentations would reinforce practical skills and re-engage disaffected learners. Great idea, poorly planned and implemented due to a stunning lack of staff CPD, limited resources for using ICT in all subjects, corporate filtering and application deployment systems and push-back by subject teachers who felt they had enough to cover already without also including ICT in their remit. It is understandable: staff need to trust that the technology will work consistently enough to be able to teach their subject content. If it is unreliable and the root cause is not remedied, it will be treated as a strategy that does not provide benefit to the student – and abandoned.

The current pedagogy of how ICT lessons are delivered, assessed and reinforced must change to suit the needs of the individual learner.

#RGCdevicetrial staff drop-in sessions

We are just shy of 3 weeks from the end of the #RGCdevicetrial and I realised I haven’t yet blogged about the weekly staff drop-in sessions. Every week since early March most staff involved in trialing the devices have given up roughly 45 minutes of their afternoon to talk about their experiences, try out other devices and get troubleshooting help for theirs. Every week @stefanhorsman sends the invite to all staff and every week the attendees and questions have been different. In short, it has been a really great thing to do.

This afternoon we met in the Junior School. I love this venue as it already has the WiFi network coveted by the rest of the campus and, as the drop-in session is hosted in one of the device trialist’s classrooms, we have an Apple TV permanently connected so those experimenting with Macbooks, iPads or Windows 8 tabtops (and Air Parrot) can try wireless projection as well as the devices themselves. In addition the room layout lends itself well to both round-table discussion and informal groupings.

The sessions themselves are organic – there is no agenda apart from to experience the devices and take the opportunity to ask questions. People are welcome to arrive late and leave whenever they like. Today we even welcomed our first pupil who was very quick to explain to her (teacher) mother why they really needed an Apple TV at home!

I’ve blogged already about my experiences with the iPad and Kindle Fire (which I’ve been allowed to keep for a week in return for the Dell XPS tablet – I think I got the better deal there!) but has been really interesting to talk to staff and address misconceptions on cost of devices. Most of the time it is assumed that the Apple products are the most expensive (true for the Macbook Air, but not the iPads), the Kindle is the cheapest (ok, by FAR the cheapest) and the Windows products are somewhere close to £300 as “that’s what normal laptops cost”. When I explain that, bar the Macbook each of the Windows 8 / RT devices in our trial are at the top end of the price list, jaws drop.

Today I explained this as I attempted to reinstate the touchscreen on one of the Samsung ATIV Smart PCs: a touchscreen device that allows you to turn off the touchscreen! Not only does it make very little sense, the process is hugely convoluted and therefore difficult for users to remember – meaning troubleshooting at best takes time and at worst requires a visit to IT support and then a longer wait without the device. The Windows devices also need two batch files I created to set up the IPv4 Internet settings correctly for home (or any DHCP network) and school (static IP and DNS servers) use [if these would be useful to you, connect with me on Twitter and ask].

The more I experience the Windows 8 / RT machines the stronger my belief that we should move away from devices where users cannot customise without navigating screens of administrative features that are not linked, grouped or even described particularly well. I don’t think a tenfold increase in the apps available for these devices would matter either: for learning and teaching we have 40 or 80 minutes where our lessons need to be pacey, varied, stimulating and above all educational. It’s hard to do that when the teacher has their head in a user guide because an incorrect keyboard combination or tap shuts down the core functionality of the device.