AS ICT – Some thoughts

Oct 20, 2008

Miles Berry

Just back from a lovely long weekend in Wales, including a day’s training on the WJEC GCE ICT Specification that I’m teaching to a few of the Senior School’s Lower Sixth this year. It’s not a bad specification – the theory side is actually quite meaty, and gives a decent enough overview of information systems. There’s a nice mix of things to the practical coursework too – DTP, mailmerge, websites or presentations, a spreadsheet, and even a little programming (if you include VB macros), even if these do have to be in the context of a business or organization rather than something of more immediate or academic relevance, which actually would be far more useful for most of my students.

I have a few minor niggles, around the particular hoops we’re expected to jump through; for example:

  • The DTP has to include lots of ‘features’, which whilst I guess they’re listed to demonstrate that students know how to do them, will result in, I fear, confused, cluttered documents, which make it tricky for even the most artistic students to demonstrate a real grasp of graphic design – eg, they have to include bold, italic and underlined text, they have to include WordArt (the CamelCase is there in the specification; not sure how this works out if you’re using Scribus or Indesign) – I worry that this is inculcating bad habits.
  • The mailmerge thing has to include macros; they recommend ‘insert the date’ and ‘insert signature’, but to my mind these belong in the form letter, not as macros?
  • Whilst we’re allowed to do a website rather than yet another powerpoint presentation, the specification asks for ‘transistion effects’ as a mandatory feature –  as well as animations, sound and video – again this is all too likely to result in a feature rich but design poor site or presentation. Not something which the CSS Zen Garden or Presentation Zen would approve of, I suspect – again it sends a message that form matters more than substance, and that even form doesn’t matter much when there are bangs and whistles available.
  • The spreadsheet is tied closely to the theme of ‘business modelling’, which I fear I may struggle to make that exciting, which is sad when there’s so much else that we could do in Excel – statistical analysis of meanigful datasets would be my preference, but we could have fun with simulations and linear programming too.
  • Next year’s database module pretty much expects Access and VB, although they don’t say so, when, of course, it would be far more relevant to do something web based.

It shouldn’t surprise me in a course run by the exam board, but what bothered me most about today was the emphasis on ticking boxes – almost teaching to the test – the sense of putting together a portfolio of work that meets a rather arbitary set of assessment criteria, some of which have precious little to do with how information technology is used professionally. Wouldn’t it be lovely to come up with a specification that catches something of the joy of solving difficult technical problems, or that really allows scope for creativity and good graphic design. Perhaps GCE isn’t the place for problem based learning or creativity, but these students have chosen to study ICT, they have interest and enthusiasm, and surely imagination and tenacity in the face of problems are going to stand them in better stead than being able to customize bullet points or add sound to a presentation?

Another rather troubling aspect is that, in line with other GCEs, all the course work now has to be done in school under teacher supervision, without any collaboration. I see the point, but again, what happens to independent learning, getting carried away with the flow that makes coding or design fun, or indeed being able to work as part of a team?

All this at the end of a weekend when I’ve followed tweets from digitalmaverick bemoaning the way ICT is heading towards training in Office skills with the use of Web 2.0 sidelined as an extracurricular activity, msars reporting a lack of confidence amongst 1st Year undergrads in using Excel to do interesting things like manipulate big data sets, and mrstucke is not allowed access to a a google sheet from school. Is it possible that the system isn’t working in the best interests of our students?