Wednesday, September 22, 2010

ICT for schoolchildren 2

@glynmoody blogs about Opening up Computer Studies in the UK. The Royal Society is now leading a project to investigate the way computing is taught in school, starting by asking some good questions.

Glyn points out that the Advisory Group is packed with vested interests, including Google, IBM and Microsoft. Glyn would like to see some more Open Source representatives, but of course even the Open Source brigade would still represent the desire to pack schools with more and more kit, without questioning its real educational benefit.

Glyn wants children to be encouraged to explore alternative products (e.g. Microsoft Word, OpenOffice.org, AbiWord) but I can't see that goes very far in helping to understand "the broader concepts that lie behind computing", whatever those might be. What I think would be much more valuable is for children to learn the advantages and disadvantages of writing using a word processor as compared to old-fashioned paper and pencil, searching for information on the Internet as compared to looking in a reference book, and so on. (Just as in maths, they learn how to do sums using a calculator as well as how to do sums not using a calculator. In my day we used slide rules.)

The problem with computing is that, at this level at least, it isn't a real subject. Schoolkids are trained to use the products of, er, Google, IBM and Microsoft, and maybe these are useful lifeskills, but no more than road safety or telephone skills. Even though many of today's school children will end up working in call centres  (and according to today's Guardian, a third of call centre employees have a degree), we don't expect them to pass exams in telephone studies. (I probably shouldn't say that - some idiot bureaucrat may read this and think it's a good idea.)

In any case, it is a gross parody of education to imagine that it consists purely of training for working life. Schools don't teach geography in the belief that anyone who is any good at the subject will become an explorer, they teach geography on the basis that everyone needs to know some important stuff about the world and its people, just as everyone needs to know a decent amount about science and history and politics and other people's religions.

Clearly there are some ways in which technology can assist students in learning all kinds of stuff, as well as giving all teachers (not just ICT specialists) some new ways of presenting and explaining their subjects. However, there may be a temptation to use computer-mediated learning not just because it is more fun but also because it is cheaper and more easily standardized, which could bias the school curriculum towards those topics that can be taught most efficiently using the new technologies and so threatens to undermine the overall quality and depth of education.

I hope that the Royal Society study is able to be much more radical than merely optimizing the penetration of technology into the minds of schoolchildren.

See my earlier post ICT for schoolchildren.

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