Teaching our kids to code
An overhaul of ICT in schools is badly needed, argues Milena Popova, but Gove's proposals are not quite right yet
Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0@vanberto
Could it be that the Teach our kids to code e-petition is the smallest successful e-petition in UK politics? It would certainly seem so, after this week's news that Michael Gove wants to replace the current ICT school curriculum with a Computer Science programme. I do not often (ever?) agree with the Education Secretary, but today's announcement is definitely a step in the right direction.
In his speech at the BETT show this week, Gove correctly identifies technology as a key driving force and change agent in our society. Yet there is also an increasing trend for our gadgets to be black boxes to us; we do not understand how they work, we do not understand either their potential or the dangers they bring with them, and therefore we are not in control. Our gadgets, our technological inventions, control us. Such control extends from Sony and Apple telling us what we can and can't do with the hardware we have purchased from them to technology lobbyists taking advantage of our politicians' ignorance to sell them the next technological panacea. If we are to regain control of our technology, technical literacy is vital, and fostering it from an early age is clearly the best way forward.
There are other good reasons why learning to code can be beneficial both for our children and for society as a whole. @pozorvlak for instance argues that learning the way of thinking involved in programming and learning some basic programming skills has a huge potential to revolutionise productivity. Creating what he calls the "mass-algorate society", where everyone has basic coding skills, would be comparable to the move to a mass-literate society. No longer will there be a select few who understand technology - we all will be able to unleash its power.
For all that, though, what Michael Gove is actually proposing is far from being unmitigated good news. There are a number of issues to be addressed if this idea is to succeed. Gove argues that swift change is required, that technology moves so quickly that we cannot afford to spend four years creating a new ICT national curriculum which by the time it becomes operational will be obsolete. To an extent, he has a point. Yet what he is proposing will essentially allow schools to teach what they like, how they like in the area of ICT and Computer Science. From September, teachers will be left to their own devices to scour the web for materials, create their own, or work with businesses and universities to create courses. While for a small number of passionate, skilled teachers this may be heaven, I suspect the vast majority will find themselves lost and either stick to the existing curriculum or struggle to find material that is valuable and engaging at the right level. At least in the short term, I believe most pupils are likely to suffer as a result of the huge variance in quality of courses this approach is likely to generate. Looking ahead, universities may quickly find that a prospective student with a "Computer Science" qualification from one school has a completely different skill set to one from a different school. Clearly, some structure and rigour is called for here.
A related and potenially bigger issue is the lack of teachers with the right skills. Ian Livingstone, who co-authored the report this new policy is partially based on, claimed on the Today Programme that the British Computing Society has 1,000 teachers ready to go into schools and teach computing tomorrow. Yet that is barely enough to scratch the surface, and out of 28,000 newly-qualified teachers in 2010 only three had a Computer Science degree. This, too, needs to be addressed if Michael Gove's ambition to teach our kids to code is to succeed.
Involving businesses in the new Computer Science curriculum is a key cornerstone of Michael Gove's policy. The BCS is delighted. They proudly point at the Computing at School curriculum, already endorsed by both Google and Microsoft. Yet arguably a corporately sanctioned curriculum is as bad as one mandated by government after four years of deliberation. Already, the Computing at School curriculum asks questions such as "Is privacy even desirable?" Of course Google would approve.
If we want our children to become true, empowered citizens of the digital world, then any Computer Science curriculum taught in our schools needs to be based on Free Software. Our kids need to grow up with the four freedoms: to run their software in any way they choose, to study their software and modify it to suit their purposes, to share their software and improve upon it, sharing those improvements as well. Those four freedoms are conducive to teaching and learning, to writing great code, and to enabling everyone to tap into the power of technology. Anything else... is a gilded cage.
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