ICT – what's that for then?

25 Oct

A comment from Stirling High School’s Alan Hamilton on Ollie Bray’s post on the evils (not!) of Wikipedia reminded me of a post I’ve been brewing for a while lamenting my lown lack of obsoleteness – bear with me it gets there.

Way back when, when I was young and thought I knew it all, my school got a PC. It was beige brick housed under lock and key in one of the store cupboards in the maths corridor. I’m not sure what the lock was for, the PC was too heavy to lift and most of us were too scared to touch it anyway. It was reserved, at that time, for pupils studying CSYS (Certificate of Sixth Year Studies) Maths (IV I think). Not something for the likes of me anyway. I was invited in one lunchtime to witness a game of Pacman and even offered a turn, which promptly sent me running for the coffee machine. Oh the fear! This is a tale I often retold during my IT career.

After my brush with Pacman in 1985 I was left traumatised and pale. I adopted a sly smirk to mask the pain.

After my brush with Pacman in 1985 I was left traumatised and pale. I adopted a sly smirk to mask the pain.

Mine was a career wholly lacking in the WOW factor you’d expect from one that started in 1986. I tinkered my way through DOS, JCL, COBOL and Mantis before I became smitten with Windoze 3.0 GUI  then IBM OS/2 and pursued a career in user support and training. The last real IT job I had was supporting Lotus Notes 5. But I digress, back to 1985. If I had taken home a copy of the 1985 SQA arrangement document for CSYS Maths IV and shown it to my parents, a mere 18 and 19 years older than me, I know  it wouldn’t have meant very much to them… even considering the many years my Mum spent as a punch card operator before moving to screen input, performing menuless and fieldless database building where she coded routines and shortcuts in the way today we’d use macros (‘cept on a huge scary mainframe).

cobol

Fast forward …….

My children are being taught Computing as a discrete subject at secondary school. With my background I found this quite exciting in a sad geeky sort of way. I was thrilled that after seven years of Powerpoint and Paint and mixed attempts by MrW and I to introduce them to “real” programming through the likes of Scratch (success), Alice (so-so) and Flash (not such a success) they would finally get to see the computing side of  all these screens littered around our house. And whilst I didn’t expect to be as baffled as my own parents would have been, I thought I’d see something new in the 23 years since I first sat down in front of a PC.

HA!

Not.

It’s been painful and a bit embarassing to be honest – and I’m not the one who should be skulking off and hiding in a dark corner somewhere. 5-inch-floppyThe music department don’t teach them about 33s and 45s and turntables with styluses so I haven’t a scooby why my kids are being taught about floppy disks. It gets worse. They are taught about floppy disks using graphics of old 51/4″ disks from back when floppy actually meant floppy. I don’t think they got their mitts on a mouse for the first month of computing. We’re talking about children who have been using PCs almost on a daily basis since they were 18 months old.

In the second half of S2 they introduce Scratch, and to be fair mine are  unusual in that they are the only (or 1 of 2) children in their class who already use it. The rest of the course seems to be nothing more than a bit of Excel, more Powerpoint, some Word and learning about computer parts.

I appreciate that they are trying to give all the pupils some basic computer skills before progressing (or not) in S3 but these skills should be core. Sorry but it’s a damn sight more useful than RE which is granted the elevated position of a core subject that can be taken in S3 as an examinable subject AND is compulsory throughout their time at school. I think Computer Skills are far more deserving of this priviliged position in my children’s education than religion is. I think there would be great benefit in having compulsory ICT continue separately from Computing the way PE and RE currently do.

paul-typingMy daughter, against my advice, chose to take the Standard Grade computing course and things aren’t lighting my fire (but it is early days). I’ve just perused her jotter… 6 pages on wordprocessing, 7 pages on email incuding 1 page on text abbreviations (seriously do teachers think they need to teach this to pupils?) and 3 pages on spreadsheets. So same old same old then. This not computing, this is software use. These are basic skills that frankly, their Granny and 4 year old brother have. Yes, Paul can create an email and he can type a document taking new lines and creating blank ones. He just can’t spell many words yet but if you show him a word he will peck it out on the keyboard no problem. His Granny is better at the spelling.

Kathryn actually had to spend an evening writing out a report on how to use the Word wizard for creating a mail merge. Truly I thought this was a joke. First, we don’t use Word at home we use OpenOffice and second what’s to report on? You use it, it prompts you, IT’S A WIZARD!

I checked out the SQA past papers. As you do. Just to see where all this “computing” was heading.  First there’s a general section asking bleeding obvious questions like…

“Describe one benefit of using a mailing list when contacting a large number of people by e-mail”

or obtuse questions like…

“Describe two differences, other than cost, between a CD-R disk and a hard disk”

Then it specialises, and you choose to answer questions on Networking (bleugh!), Multimedia (hmm) or Artificial Intelligence (WOW!). I have to admit to getting a sudden hankering to return to school and study Artificial Intelligence, which makes up about 1/3 of half of the course if the paper is anything to go by. Maybe they only teach one specialism? We’ll have to wait and see and hope it’s not networking (bleugh!).

dilbert-turing

andrew-glowingMaybe they could take all the ECDL type bits out of computing and concentrate on actual computing, offering the ECDL or general ICT skills as a separate course? My children have been handing in homework completed on a computer in English, History, Art and Geography and even at primary they were expected at several points to do homework on a computer. They arrived at secondary school with over 10 years experience of using computers under their belts, and they’re not  even remotely in the ranks of the CSS/HTML coding S1 pupils MrW has oft marvelled at. ECDL, social networking, web design, creating and maintaining an online presence, netiquette, contributing and collaborating online, evaluating and investigating online sources, file management, diagnosing common problems, installing and uninstalling software, security, virus protection, touch typing…. sounds like a useful core course doesn’t it? One that can be taken and applied across all other subjects and should be accessible to, and yes maybe even compulsory for, all pupils, whatever level of study they are following in the rest of their timetable.

Perth Academy prides itself on being one of, if not the, highest achieving school at standard grade computing in the country. But after a career in the IT industry I’ve got to question the efficacy  and relevance of the course. It’s all very well getting all the answers right if you are being asked the right questions but if the standard grade papers are any indication I reckon half the questions are at best irrelevant and at worst indicate a shameful laziness to progress.

dismantled-pen1If Maths assessed students on the parts of and how to use a calculator, and English assessed students on the parts of and how to use a pen, and Home Economics assessed students on the parts of and how to use a cooker then I could accept Computing assessing pupils on the parts of and how to use a computer.

Given that children learn how to use calculators and pens and cookers in primary school I reckon  it would be tops marks all round! All you have left to do is teach them about the (totally irrelevant) parts. If you get handed kids who have 10 years experience of using PCs then it’s no surprise they do really well in a course that bases half its assessment on using PCs.

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7 Responses to “ICT – what's that for then?”

  1. Disgruntled of Duffus October 25, 2009 at 4:34 pm #

    A school near us has made a new post; PT ICT who is a former Army officer/IT boff and physics teacher. They’ve dropped all computing courses except for ECDL and PT ICT is free to ensure that STAFF and PUPILS are fully and regularly briefed, shown and made to wonder at the facilities available to them on and offline. Meanwhile our PT Computing is without a clue; teaches VERY basic stuff and expects kids to update themselves in their own time. They show this teacher how to do things! No wonder we only have a dozen doing SG and Int 2 Computing! Meanwhile there are at least a dozen staff in school who are expert and willing to teach but never used….aargh!

  2. Andrew Field October 25, 2009 at 4:49 pm #

    Have to agree with this entirely – I’m so keen to introduce more proper computing within the secondary ICT curriculum. We’d done quite a bit with flash through things like this: http://www.effectiveict.co.uk/course/view.php?id=11 and I have found students do enjoy programming – the challenge, frustration and sense of achievement when they figure something out.

    Far better than learning how Pat messed up her PowerPoint or showing screenshots of a wizard.

    I half think we should all open up ICT classes completely, let students play around with any appropriate software to complete challenges. These could be other areas of the curriculum or real world, difficult issues. ICT as a tool for learning rather than ICT as a tool to use ICT.

  3. mrsw October 25, 2009 at 5:32 pm #

    @Disgruntled – I’d hate to see Computing as a subject disappear and leave JUST ECDL and ICT. I think proper programming (i.e. not pootering about on an unsupported, ancient version of Microsoft Visual Basic) and probably even networking (the anti-social kind with servers and routers – bleugh!) is very useful stuff.

    @Andrew – I just loved figuring out data structures, designing (on paper!) and coding, recoding, debugging, recoding til I got it right. I am a sad geeky dinosaur 🙂 I still have my programming stencil.

  4. Dana~from chaos to Grace October 26, 2009 at 4:55 pm #

    I just wanted to come and say THANK YOU. You are such a doll, and the comment you left warmed my heart. I don’t care that we don’t believe the same things, I care that you are funny, talented and just overall a really good lady. And by “good” I do not mean “uncool”. 😉 Thank you. It meant a lot.

  5. DoogieC October 26, 2009 at 7:52 pm #

    This is music to my ears. In a previous life I taught S Grade computing. It sapped the life out of me. I used to argue that the real place of computing teachers was in the Support for Learning department with teachers bidding for their time to assist in work that would really see ICT being embedded across the curriculum.
    I recently had a bit of a “discussion” with a computing teacher about why they were trying to shoehorn “a keyboard is an input device, a monitor is an output device” type nonsense into their S1 CfE computing course. The answer I got was that they need to know that sort of stuff. I shouted quite loudly – no they don’t!
    But it goes the other way as well. When kicking off with new H class I would have to teach them about binary as that has been deemed too difficult for maths. I did it in S2 and I still laugh uncontrollably when I see the “There 10 types of people in the world” T-shirt.
    When kids asked if they should do SGrade Comp or Business I told them it didn’t really matter to me I’d still have them in my Higher class either way as the only difference was that I wouldn’t demand two spaces after a full stop.
    Programming at SGrade is pants. Putting VBon school networks is a support nightmare as it makes an excellent hacking toolkit. Give them a decent text editor and access to a web server and teach them useful stuff like PHP and CSS.
    I’d almost be in favour of having a basic ICT skills framework in primary school for the kids to take up to the big school as proof that they can do the stuff. But then that gets in to the whole transition thing and lets not go there just now.

  6. mrsw October 26, 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    @DoogieC – Absolutely, these skills belong in primary along with pen holding and blowing your own nose 🙂 Seriously though, do you think there’s anything to be learned from the evolution of what is considered “too difficult”? I learned binary in 1979, in primary 7! Maybe this is why the “digital natives” who were allegedly “coming” all the time I was working in IT failed to materialise?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention clinically fed up » ICT - what’s that for then? -- Topsy.com - October 25, 2009

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Winton, David Terron. David Terron said: RT @nwinton: I've been thinking it's time we took ICT away from the Computing departments. Mrs W agrees: http://bit.ly/2C343d YES! YES! YES! […]

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