Monday, May 14, 2007

Computing is...

Andrew McGettrick
Andrew McGettrick,
originally uploaded by DavidDMuir.
Over a week ago (grief... I have been trying to write this for over a week now!) I attended a very interesting conference on Computing in schools and in Higher Education. I've been aware that the numbers taking Computing in schools has been falling over the last couple of years but I didn't realise that there was a similar problem in universities. I was also surprised to discover that there was an international problem with recruitment to Computing Science courses.

A few months ago, Prof Andrew McGettrick from the Department of Computer and Information Sciences came to see some of us in the Computer Education section of the Faculty of Education with the suggestion that we held a conference to discuss the issues. Andrew put together a workshop on Schools Computing: The Future and invited school teachers, university lecturers and admissions officers, HMIe, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the British Computer Society and industry representatives. We also invited people from a variety of other countries (including the USA, England and Northern Ireland) to give an international perspective.

There was a load of good stuff came out of these two days and (if I get time) I'll write a good bit more about it over the next wee while. Thankfully, others have been quicker off the mark and more diligent. Mark Tennant has written a bundle of posts on his blog (currently on part 8!) and Ewan gave a brief report of what he saw when he was with us on Friday.

Throughout the couple of days of the conference, there were a few recurring themes that I'll refer to now before (hopefully) returning to report on the individual sessions in future posts:

  1. The need to distinguish between ICT and Computing. {I'm using ICT here to describe skills based courses, typically focussing on applications such as word processing and spreadsheets, but possibly including information literacy ideas too - the sort of course designed to equip every student with the basic ICT skills that they will then use in context elsewhere.}
  2. The need to define more clearly what we mean by Computing. {Why is Computing a valuable subject to study in schools? We need to have broad agreement among Computing teachers about what is core to our subject, what defines it and what unique contribution it can bring to the school curriculum. We also need to be able to explain this succinctly and in non-geek-speak to other people.}
  3. An association Of Computing Teachers in Scotland may (among other things) help address the first two issues.
To briefly pick up on the first point, the need to make a distinction between ICT and Computing, has already come out through reaction to Ewan's post. I think this is one we have to work through carefully as Computing teachers first before we try to articulate the difference to other people. I've had a couple of discussions with a head teacher who thinks he will be able to dismantle his Computing department in a few years time because all pupils will know everything they need to know and will be using Computers throughout the curriculum. I try to point out that he was/is an English teacher but he doesn't argue that now we have literacy across the curriculum (pretty much every child can read, write and talk after all) we don't need an English department. Is that a fair comparison? ICT literacy against English literacy -- Computing as a subject against English as a subject?

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Chris said...

"Is that a fair comparison? ICT literacy against English literacy -- Computing as a subject against English as a subject?"
I reckon it is. Most people (on the outside anyway) think that they can 'do' English for just the reasons you ascribe. The truth is very different - you only need to look at the illiterate nonsense posted on so many blogs to see there is much to be done! Similarly, the sketchy ad hoc knowledge of what technology can do restricts its use, I would think, in the way that my own use of the tools is far from accomplished.
I don't suppose he was confusing "computing" (as in learning how the things work) with ICT (as in how to use the latest offerings)? Cos that's another ballgame, is it not?

ICT Maverick said...

There is a definate problem with people not being able to distinguish between ICT and Computing. I like to think of it as the difference between being able to drive and knowing how a car works. I drive a lot, but if my car broke down I wouldn't know how.

Next year at my current school, S1 Computing will be taught by the business studies dept as there isn't enough Computing teachers. It's not a joint ICT course, as the S1s will also get Business Studies separately. This mistake has been brought about by a lack of understanding of the difference between ICT and Computing.

I think Computing does deserve a discrete place in the timetable. It deserves study just as much as any other subject.

Are management keen to dismantle Computing departments because our equipment is expensive... me thinks so.


Mark Tennant said...

David, Many thanks for the plug first of all! It was certainly an enjoyable and stimulting two days through at Jordanhill, and I'll continue posting the notes onto my blog as and when I get the chance (one day down, one to go!)

I'm glad to read that you have came away with the same conclusions that I have. The "English as a subject..." parallel is an interesting one, and sums up our situation well. In East Lothian, our current head of education has also spoken about taking ICT off the S1/2 curriculum. To be honest, I would agree with him, provided he can convince me that he understands the difference between Computing and ICT (and for that matter, Business Ed, Technical Studies, and any other subject caught under the ICT banner) and give them dedicated time on the timetable instead!

As regards the confusion between ICT and computing, I have been very vocal on this, however we must realise that there is only a confusion because at the end of the day there is a big overlap. It is the job of computing teachers to ensure that non-subject specialists - both staff and pupils - realise the difference. No one will do that for us.

Peter Liddle said...

Good points, David - there is still often a poor understanding of what we Computing teachers actually do. Anyone who fails to see the difference between generic ICT skills and study of Computing should sit in a Higher class for a period. Computing is highly specialised and some it's dead hard. We maybe help confuse matters through the Computing teacher's spiel at parent's nights ("Yes, computers are used everywhere these days") and the lack of skills-based computer courses as an alternative to specialism in many schools.

I think you're right, though. One bunch of teachers that should be able to use web 2.0 to advance their subject is Computing teachers. You just have to look at Ms Farrel's last post to see this.

Gordon McKinlay said...

Thanks for the summary of the conference. I just so sorry that I had to pull out after all the effort in getting things moving by you. I am glad it was a useful exercise. It will be interesting to see where things go from here.

There are still lots of questions as we move in to the era of curriculum for excellence.

An interesting aside. My son decided to apply for university as a late application. He wants to do applied chemistry and chemical engineering at Strathclyde. The conditional offer came in on Saturday. The one subject of his five Highers he is currently sitting that they completely ignored was computing. I am not sure whether this meant anything or not. He needs 2As and 2Bs. English gets a shout but not computing. If push comes to shove and he has to do some form of bargaining after the results come out, will computing be excluded completely? I hope this is not the case, why did he do Higher Computing?

David said...

Thanks Chris.

If an English teacher agrees there must be something in it. :-) The "how to use the latest offerings" is indeed a whole new ball game. I suspect we will never reach a stage where we can assume all the pupils know everything they need to know about ICT because the goalposts are constantly moving.

Hello Mr Maverick

The car driver analogy is a good one. The one that was advanced during the conference was tool user verses tool maker. ("You need lots of people who can use a shovel, but the person who makes the shovel is the one with the power.") I think you're right to an extent about Computing departments being expensive, but Computing is not unique in requiring a concentration of expensive equipment - perhaps the difference is that many departments lust after our equipment whereas they are happy to leave the CNC lathes in technical alone.

Hello Mark

Your posts have been excellent. Thanks. I'm not convinced about taking ICT out of S1/S2 for the reasons given above. Although, it may be easier to recruit to Computing courses if they haven't already been put off by ICT courses! I agree with your point about the overlap and hope to say more about the overlap and the distinctions in a future post.

Hello Peter

Yes, I suspect you are right. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies... another topic for a future post methinks! And yes, Katies blog is always worth reading.

Hello Gordon

The lack of recognition of Computing Higher (or at least the common perception that it is not valued) was something that was raised a few times. I got the feeling that there was an informal agreement from the HE people present to try and do something about this. I suspect that lobbying on behalf of the Higher is something else that an association of computing teachers could do.

Hello Everybody

Thank you for your comments so far. I'll try to get some more posts up soon.

Duncan__ said...

"the numbers taking Computing in schools has been falling ..."
That would help to explain why there are no vacancies for Computing Teachers (groan).

David said...

Hello Duncan

Last year there were few Computing jobs until the very last minute. I think that many schools have to wait until the probationary places are all settled before they can commit to offering any permanent places. Hopefully, places will be advertised ... eventually.

However, I wonder if anyone has looked at the effect of faculty groupings on different subjects. The ICT/Computing problem may also be having an effect. If the people doing the recruiting think anyone can teach ICT ("It's cross-curricular after all, and anyway, they already know how to do it anyway."), there may be less incentive to employ Computing specialists. Is it true that anyone can teach ICT, or can Computing teachers make a distinctive and important contribution to ICT?