All Change Please! is still the tiniest bit concerned about what seems to be a distinct lack of debate concerning what schools should be teaching in terms of IT. The broad media message is that spreadsheets, databases and presentations are now Out, and that coding is In. The first question no-one seems to be asking is exactly what level of coding needs to be taught? Clearly some basic principles should be established during primary school, but flogging away at dead computer languages through secondary school is going to be about as relevant as learning Latin, and indeed probably even less interesting and fun. I first raised this in Rasberry Pi in the sky back in March. And indeed here is some evidence of what all pupils will be doing if we are not careful: 12 Things to do with Raspberry Pi. It’s not that there is anything particularly wrong with this Boys’ Own construction kit approach as such, providing it is just a small part of a much wider programme of IT-related learning.
Next question: how essential is it actually going to be for everyone to be able to code as the 21st century progresses? Back in the late 1980s if you wanted to use a PC you needed to have some understanding of DOS – and then along came Windows. In the mid 1990s if you wanted to set up a website you had to learn html – and then along came a variety of iWebGoLiveDreamWeavery programs that more-or-less did all that for you. And just a couple of years ago if you wanted to create an electronic multimedia textbook you needed to be able to apply some fairly heavy-duty coding – now you can use iBook author. So I’m not entirely convinced that in the future everyone needs to be fluent in high-level programming languages. Though obviously at the same time we do urgently need to find ways to attract and encourage our more capable students – and especially girls – to consider working in the IT industry.
Meanwhile the flavour of the month appears to be ‘Create your own App in your bedroom and make a fortune‘, which I have to say I find a little dishonest, in that the average student probably has probably got as much chance of doing so as they have of winning the ‘X factor’ or ‘Britain’s got talent but I just hope this isn’t it’. Creating successful apps involves a great deal more than a good idea – thorough market research into user needs, wants and behaviours is required, along with some high-level coding expertise, an Apple developer account, a US tax reference number and a substantial marketing budget. If we really are to become a nation of enterprising app-builders we need to be teaching coding in the context of creativity, risk-taking, on-line collaboration, business management, venture capital and crowd-sourcing, along with user-interface design and information metrics.
We also need to be seriously questioning whether IT as such should be ‘taught’ as such in the current formal education system, particularly given that, by and large, the BBC Model B/Microsoft Office raised workforce in place to teach it often have little or no experience of the reality of the fast-moving, agile and highly competitive IT industry. The anticipation in the late 1990s was that IT would soon simply become embedded in the curriculum as a whole, with a properly coordinated scheme in place that ensured appropriate coverage and progression over the years – which of course never happened. Would it perhaps be more beneficial for schools to focus more widely on how to effectively use IT to learn independently, rather than how to create new content?
Meanwhile outside the school system, those who are sufficiently interested and motivated (aka ‘geeks’) should be offered guaranteed access to regular informal sessions to develop their expertise, alongside an online collaborative network of professional programmers and designers who recognise the need to themselves participate in the life-long learning community. Now that really would be 21st Century Learning.
These may not be all the questions that need asking (or indeed the right answers) but at least All Change Please! is asking them…
*Older readers might recall that Getting IT Right was the title of a series of KS3 ICT textbooks and support materials All Change Please! was the series editor for back in the late 1990s.