Making computing more inclusive

Nov 01, 2014

Miles Berry

This September saw the introduction of a new National Curriculum for local authority supported schools. Perhaps one of the most significant changes is the move from the old ‘ICT’, characterised by some as focussing on the development of skills in using ‘office’ productivity and other software, to a new subject, ‘computing’, which seeks to develop an understanding of the fundamental principles which underpin computation.  The new programmes of study for computing are ambitious ones. The opening sentence sets the agenda: ‘A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.’.

Whist creativity been an important aspect of ICT education in many schools, ‘computational thinking’ is something new for many, but this represents a golden thread running throughout the new programmes of study.  Computational thinking is about looking at problems and systems in such a way that computers can help us solve or understand them – it’s the sort of thinking which software developers and computer scientists routinely engage in, but it also has wide applications beyond the realm of computing. It draws on concepts such as logical reasoning, algorithms, decomposition and abstraction, as well as approaches such as tinkering, making, debugging, tenacity and collaboration. Whilst there’s much more to the new curriculum than ‘coding’ (the act of translating the rules or steps of an algorithm into a computer program), I’ve no doubt that programming is the best (but certainly not the only) way to develop computational thinking.

There are economic arguments for including much more computer science on the curriculum, for me the case was much more about the nature of a liberal education for the third millennium. Given the role which digital technology plays in so many aspects of life and society, shouldn’t there be an entitlement for all pupils to learn something about the ideas on which it is based and its implications, as well as being able to make good use of it for getting useful and creative work done.

The notion of an entitlement for all is central to the very idea of a national curriculum, even if this has been somewhat watered down in the move to academisation. The new curriculum applies to pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, as it does their peers: ‘This is for everyone’, as its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee said of the web.

This is for everyone - CC by Nick Webb

The framework acknowledges that this means ‘ensuring that the national curriculum is taught in ways that enable all pupils to have an equal opportunity to succeed’. Furthermore, being able to program can be hugely empowering for many with SEN/D. Without wishing to generalise, some with Asperger’s syndrome find the predictability of computing reassuring; the immediate feedback on semantics and syntax in computer code can help some with dyslexia; decomposing problems into their components might help some with ADHD; and simple, text based interfaces can be used effectively by many with sensory or motor difficulties.

I think teachers, working with SENCOs and computing coordinators or heads of department, can quite easily adapt planning and resources for the new computing curriculum to ensure that all pupils are fully included in activities and learning. Let me illustrate this with a few example.

  • At least some aspects of the new curriculum can be taught without using computers at all: an ‘unplugged’ approach can be great for exploring the idea of an algorithm, binary numbers, logic and computer networks.
  • There’s nothing in the Key Stage 1 programming expectations which requires pupils to use technology more advanced than accessible programmable toys such as the Bee Bot or Roamer – the ability for a child to put themselves in the place of the floor turtle is a very useful approach to making logical predictions about algorithms or programs.
  • In Key Stage 2, Scratch is seen by many as the ideal programming environment. Whilst this certainly reduces the cognitive load compared to traditional text based programming languages, it can be made more accessible still. Creating laminated cards for Scratch programming blocks using Widgit or similar is one approach, or teachers can use Scratch 2.0 to create custom blocks to help scaffold a programming challenge. Differentiated support can help too, such as providing semi-completed programs and video walkthroughs for those who would otherwise find tasks beyond them.
  • Other programming environments are available, and remember the new curriculum is more about developing understanding than a set of skills in using one language or another. Microsoft’s Kodu (Windows and XBox) and Scratch Jr (iPad only at present) both provide block-based programming without the text-heaviness for which some criticise Scratch. Kodu can even be programmed using an XBox controller.
  • Pupils are expected to work with various forms of input: the MaKey MaKey will turn (almost) anything into a keyboard – fruit, a staircase, water buckets etc, and Scratch and its variants allow pupils to use the microphone, webcam or a Kinect as alternatives to the keyboard or mouse for controlling games or other programs they write.
  • In Key Stage 3, pupils are expected to work with at least one text based programming language – whilst many of the coding enthusiasts advocate Python, there are plenty of other options: Logo and Small Basic are both text based, but have been designed as teaching languages. Small Basic’s ‘IntelliSense’ helps with completing the keywords of the programming language, which can be quite useful.
  • There are some quite abstract ideas in the Key Stage 3 curriculum, such as binary, Boolean logic and the fetch-execute cycle, but these can be made more concrete through well chosen physical resources. For example, representing images as bitmaps can be done with small cards, black on one side, white on the other, and a little role-play is a great way for pupils to learn about how instructions are stored and executed, or how computers communicate with one another.
  • Key Stage 4 computing is unique in the national curriculum, as it requires that ‘all pupils must have the opportunity to study’ aspects of IT and computing rather than simply listing what all should be taught. This offers ample scope for a more personalised curriculum, and I don’t think there’s any need to assume that the ‘opportunity to study’ must lead to traditional GCSE qualifications, although no doubt for many it will.

A few appropriate adaptations can make the new curriculum much more accessible to pupils with SEN/D. It’s also well worth getting all pupils to take accessibility and inclusion issues into account when writing software and creating digital artefacts as part of the new curriculum. So, pupils writing their own computer games in Key Stage 2 and 3 ought to think about the extent to which their games could be played by others with limited motor control or with some sensory impairment – use of alternative interfaces such as a Kinect or a MaKey MaKey can really help here. Pupils developing web-based content similarly should bear accessibility requirements in mind: have they included ‘ALT’ text for their images? Would their site be navigable by someone using a screen reader? At Key Stage 3 the new curriculum talks about pupils’ projects meeting the needs of known users and of paying attention to design and usability, which is great, but shouldn’t this also include some recognition for accessible design?

Assessment has also changed in the new curriculum – the old levels have been removed and not replaced. Instead we now have an expectation that all pupils will ‘know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study’. There’s an exception to this for pupils with SEN working below the level of the programme of study for their key stage. For these children, the old P-scales for ICT remain in effect. These haven’t been revised to take account of the move from ICT to computing; however, there’s much here which can provide a framework for teachers seeking to develop the beginnings of their pupils’ computational thinking. For example, P3 ii, ‘They apply potential solutions systematically to problems’, characterises exactly the sort of pattern recognition and generalisation that lies at the heart of efficient software development, and P4, ‘They know that certain actions produce predictable results’, captures something of the deterministic, logical nature of computer programs.

It’s fair to acknowledge that many teachers see the new programmes of study as a daunting prospect for pupils even without SEN/D, in part I’m sure because it draws on subject knowledge they were never taught themselves. The best approach if you feel like this is just to have a go – to explore and experiment with some of these tools yourself. Writing your own simple educational games in Scratch is not nearly as hard as it might sound, and a great way to develop bespoke interactive resources for your pupils. I think there’s much to be said for teachers having a go at learning something difficult: not least because it can go a long way to developing empathy with pupils who themselves might find much at school difficult.

The above is the text of a commissioned article for SEN Leader magazine. © Forum Business Media Ltd, all rights reserved. It’s reproduced here with permission. Readers may also be interested in John Galloway’s notes on Switched on Computing and pupils with SEN, and the work of CAS #Include.