Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Andrew Hague's post on Computer Education in Britain touches on something I've been discussing with my wife recently.
The travesty of ICT
Our children do not get taught anything at school about how computers work, or how to program them, and are unlikely to. Andrew says he found that "the study of computer science for British children ends at about age 11." This doesn't tally with my experience of primary schools — they are never taught any computer science. Local secondary schools are proud of their ICT suites, with office programs and image editing programs galore, but not a single class on the basics of computers and programming.
Schools could overcome this hurdle, and provide programming environments, but they don't. Instead they teach everyone how to use the latest versions of office programs, despite the fact that next year's release will have a different UI, and different capabilities. Yes, children need to be computer-savvy, due to the prevalence of computers in everyday life, but they don't need to be experts in using word processors. Rather, they should be taught how to learn to use the programs, the things that are common about them (e.g. menus), how to get help (the help menu, Google), and so forth, and then taught about how computers work. Yes, use a word processor for writing the occasional thing in English, or use a spreadsheet for doing some data analysis in Geography, but the "computing" lessons should be about programming and how computers work at the basic level, rather than how to use popular software.
I think this lack of teaching about the basics of computing has a wider effect, as well as the lack of new programmers. The computer is something that people don't understand, but which they rely on. This can give people a sense of powerlessness, especially when it does something unexpected. I've had to help people who've been all in a panic because they "lost their work". It didn't appear in the list that was presented in the "open file" dialog, so it was "lost". Somehow they had saved it in a different directory, and their lack of understanding about the file system meant they didn't know how to find it, and panicked — the computer that they relied on had "lost" their important work. Teaching about the basics of modern operating systems (rather than the specifics of the software package being used) would have alleviated this fear.
Addressing the Problem
So, what is to be done? Firstly, as programming parents we can teach our children about computers and programming, which is something that my wife and I have started doing. But beyond that, we need to make the schools, colleges and government aware of the issues.
Andrew points to the Computing at School working group and the Behind the Screen project, both of which seem promising. However, without support these projects will fizzle, and our children will continue to be taught how to use office software rather than computing principles.