Friday, October 16, 2009

Computing: The Science of the Digital World

What is Computing? What is at the heart of the subject? What distinguishes Computing from ICT and what is the place of Computing in the Curriculum for Excellence developments?

break SPACE
Originally uploaded by diebmx
I have referred to these issues before (for example Computing Science and Games Programming and Computing is... again!) but, although I haven't blogged about them in a while, they have continued to niggle away at me. Discussion about a subject's place in the inter-disciplinary world of Curriculum for Excellence is of course not unique to Computing (see for example Curriculum for Excellence: the end of Integrated Science? and something from Fergal Kelly I think but I can't find just now! Curriculum for Excellence: the end of Separate Sciences? Thanks Mr Hood for this link and for correcting my spelling of Fearghal!) but I think it is worse in Computing because people do not have a clear view of what our subject is about.

I was talking to a chap today, who has been out of the classroom studying and is going back to teach Computing next week after a year's absence. I stated again that I like the definition proposed after the Schools Computing Workshop (which took place over two years ago!):

Computing: The Science of Our Digital World

This seems to me a good balance between being simple enough to be grasped quickly while still leaving enough room to be expanded in complex ways. The chap I was speaking to seemed to think this was a useful focus for our subject, however, he asked how we expand this definition to define the core of the subject in a bit more detail. For example, in CfE speak, Chemistry was defined as: Our Material World including uses and properties of materials, sustainability, the chemistry of life processes and the applications of chemistry in society.

Of the top of my head I suggested:
Our Digital World including programming as an exploration of formal defined languages, digital communications, computer systems and hardware, and the implications of Computing and ICT in society.
Programming is about problem solving and the control of computers using a formally defined language. I would therefore take a very broad definition of programming which would allow the study of application software to take place under this umbrella. By including applications in the programming topic we would hopefully avoid the danger of merely learning button pushing skills and be able to focus instead on computer applications as powerful problem solving tools.

Digital communications would allow the study of networks and communications - including the the mechanics of data transmission as well as the practical application in aspects such as Web 2.0 technologies.

Systems and hardware would include the physics and electronics side of things for example in the consideration of microchips and binary as well as peripheral devices, interfacing and operating systems.

My final social implications section was questioned and it was suggested that this aspect might be subsumed in the other three areas.

So that's my definition of Computing. What do other Computing specialists think? Perhaps more importantly, what do non-computing specialist think? Does this sound like a reasonable starting point or does it sound like someone trying to justify their existence?


Nick Hood said...


Excellent post: Fearghal's post on integrated science in aCfE is here:

For what it's worth (based upon 20 years in IT before joining the dark side) there is a clear distinction between "Computer Science" (which includes hardware and software design, tools and methodology), "Computing" (the use of said hardware and software for e.g. scientific or economic modelling) and "IT" (which is taken to mean the popular and common use of computers in common applications, mostly communication). In these definitions, the first is a science in its own right; the second specialist skills required by scientists and economists; the third permeates all of our social experience in the developed world, including basic literacy.

Up to a level, schools should offer these as basics and discretes in the same way as C and D and T, although IT literacy covers all areas of learning and changes so fast that the principles should belong to all teachers from P1 up.

David said...

Thank you Mr Hood for the kind words... however, given the confusion that I've said exists between Computing and ICT I'm worried that you have now given us a third option to worry about. :-)

And thank you for the link to Fearghal's post. (Clearly Googling for him is easier if you can spell his name!)

paulmartin42 said...

{alternatively, following a metaphor introduced on by Murray Gell-Mann} These levels that Nick refers to are but layers on an onion. IT is what everyone sees and should understand; beneath the creating of simple text (eg email) there is an appreciation of the art and science of such as typography... From a more information architecture approach starts filing and moves through the organisation of such as databases. Finally on some numeracy thread begins simple number manipulation moving through the presentation of such using the internet's mapping forte(s).

As for Cfe on the one hand there is a move to local general whilst at the same time some "primary experts" advocating specialism for everything. My belief is that variety of learning approaches is the more important skill brought by different teachers though it might be said that different subjects give rise to alternative ways of thought/development.
[back to the BBQ]

David said...

Hello Paul

I think that a truly inter-disciplinary curriculum would be stronger with contributions from enthusiastic and knowledgeable subject specialists.

Andy McSwan said...


A very interesting post and a question I've been mulling over for a while now (since our conversation at the SLF).

Some of the points to put in here are ones you mentioned that day such as computing's identity where we split ourselves into computing and information systems.

It could be that CfE gives us the opportunity to re-establish computing but this time under it's proper title of Computing Science and your idea of "Our Digital World" sounds like a good plan.

One of the difficulties we have is an understanding of the subject as has been shown in your earlier posts with people not realising how important maths is to computing.

It seems like a logical move to me and one I would welcome under CfE.

Abdul said...

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