Rethinking ICT

Feb 12, 2012

Miles Berry

Just a few thoughts on the way forward for ICT education in response to Chris Leach’s Rethinking ICT #ICT500 invitation. I fear I’ve rather exceeded his limit of 500 words. What follows is a personal perspective.

Like many in the profession, I’ve been thinking much about what an ICT curriculum ought to look like for a while now, but the Secretary of State’s announcement at BETT that he intends to ‘disapply’ the programme of study in ICT for all schools has brought this into sharp focus.

Gove’s right that not all is well: that much is clear from Ofsted’s report and too many of my students’ blogs about ICT on their school placements. To be sure, ‘digital natives’ who’ve access to their own tech will pick up some pretty good skills on their own, but a deeper knowledge and understanding of how digital technology works and gets made has to be part of a broad and balanced education in the 3rd millennium, and I think this means teaching this in school. The ‘embedded’ approach to ICT makes sense if the subject is seen in terms of skills and their application, as at least this gives meaningful context for the skills: no more ‘plan a party’ spreadsheets or ‘my hobbies’ presentations, please! However, I’m far from convinced that an entirely embedded approach is the best way for pupils to acquire powerful knowledge and deep understanding, in ICT or any subject.

Tim Oates and the National Curriculum ‘expert panel’ fail to see sufficient disciplinary coherence to ICT. I’d conclude that their expertise is not within the domain of ICT. Here’s my present working definition:

“As a body of knowledge, ICT is the study of information, communication and technology and their inter-relationship. Information here covers creation of, management of and access to data in its digital representation. Communication covers both networks (including the Internet) and communicating and collaborating with others via these networks.Technology includes an understanding of complex systems and the principles and processes of computer science.”

Something the expert panel do get right is that any development of a programme of study must start with identifying the aims for the subject: I see these as three-fold, corresponding roughly with the Royal Society’s concept of three aspects to the subject, although I do see their definition of digital literacy as far too narrow:

  • To develop confident, safe and independent users of technology. (Digital literacy, Sir Jim Rose’s notion of that which is ‘essential for learning and life’)
  • To develop the knowledge and understanding needed to apply and develop technological solutions purposefully and creatively. (Information technology)
  • To build knowledge and understanding of how hardware and software works and is made. (computer science)

So what should schools do in September? I think it would be a huge shame if they weren’t to make the most of the autonomy the Secretary of State is about to grant them – the very freedom and responsibility which indepedent schools, academies and free schools have already, and which Oates et al recommend for ICT in the new National Curriculum. In using their new autonomy, schools should build on the best of what they do at present – I really don’t think the problems we have with ICT are down to the programmes of study, which have stood the test of time and prohibit nothing (for primary schools, QCA’s response to Jim Rose’s review [PDF] of the primary curriculum is also worth revisiting), although I would put some of the blame at the feet of QCA’s dated schemes of work and undemanding qualifications at GCSE and A-level. Schools should also rise to the challenge of giving computing its rightful place at the foundation of the ICT curriculum for all, and CAS are doing work of crucial importance in supporting schools in what, for many, will be new territory. One of the great, but I suspect unintended, consequences of the proposed disapplication is that schools can move from a one size fits all model of the ICT curriculum to one personalised for each learner – a child-centred teacher could go into the ICT suite and ask ‘So, what would you like to learn about today? I’m here to help’. The web makes this sort of education quite possible.

Disapplying the attainment target opens up some really interesting possibilities too. Which do we think really matters when it comes to getting a job in tech (or a place on AAA-rated HE courses): qualifications, or the portfolio of projects a student has worked on? The feedback, interactivity, challenges and flow of gaming have so much in common with programming, that it’s not just great things like Codecademy that could lead one to think of coding as the new gaming. Doesn’t next September offer a great opportunity to bring some of this gamification inside the classroom?

I’ve written and spoken before about applying open source principles to curriculum design and development, and it was nice to see Mr Gove making reference to this in his BETT speech. This model has much to recommend it – much open source software takes a modular approach, with parts contributed by a wide community, and it would be lovely to think of a similar approach to an ICT curriculum, with schools selecting bits from programmes of study developed by CAS (under a creative commons licence), Naace and others. Open source also, of course, guarantees the freedom to adapt what’s there, and the chance for schools to start developing their own ICT curriculum is a really exciting one – tweaking and tinkering with technology is a great way to learn, and so tweaking and tinkering with a tech curriculum could well be a great way to teach. I’m sure that we, the community of technologists and educators, are far better at developing this stuff than central government ever could be – another lesson that can be learnt from studying IT projects, but let’s share what we do rather than keeping this to ourselves.