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Computer Science: the new English Language?

December 7, 2011 2 comments

The last thing I have time for tonight is writing a blog, but this one is bursting through my pores, so if I want to sleep, it has to be given its voice!

The odd thing is that I didn’t even think I had much to say on this topic and yes, I agree the title is somewhat obscure.  Hopefully, whatever falls on the page tonight will make the link less tenuous.

Michael Gove recently stated that, “the ICT curriculum in the past has been written for a subject that is changing all the time. I think that what we should have is computer science in the future.” 

Call me uninformed, but I’m struggling to see how one clause follows the other in this statement.  So humour me while I break it down for my own benefit:

  1. “The ICT curriculum in the past has been written for a subject that is changing all the time.”  Yes, that’s true, so is the point that the curriculum has not kept abreast of the changes in ICT?  Fine, that seems to be the truth and its irrelevance and lack of rigour are in part to blame for the fact that I haven’t been allowed to introduce the subject at examination level in MpoW.
  2. “I think that what we should have is computer science in the future.”  Okay and why not? There is clearly a dearth of availability of Computer Science teaching in UK schools and making it more widely available will please those in the Gaming industries, amongst others.

But I still can’t see why one clause follows the other. 

Why does it have to be one in place of the other?  Surely these are two quite separate, if complementary subject areas?  Is this not like suggesting that English Language teaching is the future, in place of English Literature?  (Ha, link made, but still a little tenuous, I accept!)

Whilst there is overlap between the two subjects and they are often taught by the same teacher, they are each intrinsically valuable – and separate. Where would we be without our studies of literature, of characters from other times and cultures and of their relationships with each other?  However, often meaning and our ability to empathise is enhanced by looking at the language of the piece – how it is constructed and shaped.   An understanding of both subject areas helps to make a valuable whole.

Often, there is an intellectual snobbery about the study of the English Language with only a few continuing this at a higher level –but no-one is suggesting that because it can be more rigorous and challenging as one’s studies progress, that it should replace the teaching of literature!  After all Chaucer, Wordsworth, Shakespeare – they are all dead: it is an outdated syllabus which hasn’t kept up with the times!  That is pretty much an equivalent to Gove’s argument.

No, rather it is recognised that there is a richness, depth and breadth to literature which should never be dismissed – nor in my view made optional, as it so often is, particularly at KS4.

Back to ICT – this should never be abandoned in favour of Computer Science.  Again, there tends to be an intellectual snobbery which emanates from those who hold tight to their Computer Science degrees.  Skilled and specialised they might be, but in my experience, they are often lacking in the C of ICT – communication skills!  (A wild generalisation, I know!)   That C, however, is very important in our modern world and if we take Bloom’s Taxonomy, revised to incorporate digital elements, we can see that ICT is fundamental in being able to deliver this capability – from the lower order communications skills such as texting and emailing right up to the higher order collaboration, negotiating and debating, we can see that the highest order thinking skills can be achieved through the effective teaching of ICT.

The National Curriculum Programme of Study states: “The increasing use of technology in all aspects of society makes confident, creative and productive use of ICT an essential skill for life. ICT capability encompasses not only the mastery of technical skills and techniques, but also the understanding to apply these skills purposefully, safely and responsibly in learning, everyday life and employment. ICT capability is fundamental to participation and engagement in modern society. ICT can be used to find, develop, analyse and present information, as well as to model situations and solve problems.” 

Really, what is there to argue with here?  Does this sound like a subject we can afford to ditch?

What can be argued – and the Computer Scientists DO legitimately argue, is that ICT is not often taught well.  It is rarely taught by specialists – and along with subjects such as PCSHEE- suffers as a consequence.  In addition, teaching is historically towards a qualification which is poorly constructed and tends not reward students who demonstrate higher level skills and thinking.

This does not mean it is not a valid subject.  Poor national qualifications, poor provision and poor teaching do not invalidate ICT as a subject.

What examination bodies and schools must do is recognise the value and importance of ICT.  Do we want our students to go out into the world with the fear and lack of confidence in technology that we see their teachers and parents exhibit in their attempts to function adequately in the modern world?  Technology is not going to go away.

To return to Gove’s comment about ICT  being a subject which is changing all the time, well what better subject within which to incorporate the teaching of and development of independence and transferable skills? 

ICT should be taught to all and at every Key Stage.  Computer Science should be taught more widely – agreed, but in reality, this is likely to be suited to a somewhat narrower body of students, those with a particular and more intellectual interest in the Science behind the practical and more general application of the subject.

both these subjects can and should exist,  as do English Literature and Language in the best of schools: complementing and enriching each other.  ICT should be at the ‘core’ of this relationship: studied by all, helping to deepen and enrich the study of Computer Science where this is chosen.

No chatting, please!

This is a ‘hot’ topic of conversation at MPoW these days and throughout the country, I believe.  Again, the views expressed are my own, but as usual, I AM right!   (Hmm…)

With the introduction of the latest VLEs, the opportunities to introduce all sorts of  ‘bells and whistles’ abound.  Suddenly, new and complex issues raise their heads, placing leadership teams across the country in challenging, often difficult positions they haven’t found themselves in before.  This is particularly true of schools where the embracing of technology has been later rather than sooner and where there has not necessarily been a clear vision in place. 

As part of  the introduction of our new VLE (Frog if you are interested), we decided to open up a chat facility for our students.  And of course there have been concerns.  On both sides of the fence, these concerns have been understandable, although not all have been well- informed.   Below, I argue the case for allowing our students to use chat, rather than locking the facility down.  Lock down is so, so easy, but does it do our students justice?

Why did we introduce it?  After all we didn’t have to and it would have saved a lot of work and ‘grief’ to simply untick ‘that’ box in the VLE toolkit!

  1. Frog recommends the use of chat, as did other schools who hadalready implemented their VLEs.  They recommend it as a way of encouraging students to engage with the VLE.  Once logged on, the idea is that they will then visit other areas of Frog for more constructive purposes.
  2. More importantly, in my view, is that Chat offers an opportunity for students to make low level ‘mistakes’, within a safe environment.  This is an important element of their eSafety training.  They may not make these mistakes themselves, necessarily, but as they see and hear about other students being disciplined for infringements, they too will learn about boundaries.  It is important that they are educated to a degree that reduces the likelihood of them making mistakes with potentially more serious consequences, outside of school.
  3. It offers students an informal method of communicating with each other, for instance about what they missed in a lesson. This is in keeping with their preferred methods of communication such as MSN,or BBM,  but within a controlled facility.

What we have recognised from the outset – some, but not all of which has been confirmed in practice:

  1. Chatting amongst students may well include inane and time-wasting entries.
  2. Student behaviour on Chat may add to the pastoral ‘load’.
  3. Bullying and unpleasant language may appear on Chat.

Oh dear: aren’t these clear enough reasons to remove Chat? (Addressed by number, as above.)

  1. No: as long as the person responsible for monitoring Chat (and there does need to be an appointed person(s))  is content that the entries are happening in the girls’ own time, this should not be an issue. What is the difference between them wasting time orally and on Chat? There can indeed be useful benefits as far as the school is concerned. More of this later.
  2. The perception that this might add to the pastoral load is not necessarily the case.  There is some time involved in monitoring the Chat facility, but in my experience this can be done quickly, yet effectively.  If borderline activity is ‘nipped in the bud’, the word spreads amongst the students and that behaviour does stop. At the same time students are learning useful lessons about what is and is not acceptable.   Staff, too, can learn valuable lessons about individual students through the way in which they behave and interact in Chat situations.  (Is that really quiet girl in your lesson, quite so quiet when active in Chat?) Again this can help to draw attention to students who have the potential to behave badly – but before they do any real harm, saving pastoral time in the long run.
  3. It is true that Chat opens up the facility for these things to happen, however, my argument in favour of maintaining the facility is twofold.  By behaving like this on our network, we have the evidence to do something about it early and effectively before the behaviour gets out of hand. Those who behave like this are not going to change their behaviour simply because Frog Chat is removed.  They will do it elsewhere, where it is much more difficult for school to obtain any evidence of their behaviour.  The result is that dealing with these issues becomes more time-consuming for the pastoral team.

In schools, do we need extra documentation offering guidelines on the use of Chat?

  • I would argue not.  Students in our establishment are introduced to the AUP in their very first ICT lessons.  In form time, they are introduced to the School Care and Consideration Rules.  Misuse of Chat directly relates to key areas in each of these documents. I believe they are behavioural issues, not Chat issues and should be dealt with as such. An additional document complicates matters, unnecessarily and distracts from the fact that this is a behavioural issue.  The staff responsible for disciplining students can confidently refer to either of the above documents in the knowledge that the rules and regulations therein  have been clearly explained and discussed to students.

Looking ahead:

  • Students could be appointed and trained to take a more active role in monitoring the Chat facility and reporting back to staff, acting as extra ‘eyes’ on the system.
  • The BCS is offering a new eSafety qualification.  Comments are welcome from anyone who knows more about this!

PowerPoint is dead: long live Prezi!

October 10, 2011 1 comment

I disagree.  There seems to be a pervasive snobbery about the use of PowerPoint and, indeed, Microsoft could do more to ‘freshen’ it up: add a few more modern design templates and features, but it is not dead – YET.  When used effectively, it can be an excellent support to a well delivered presentation.  Emphasis, however, is on the qualifying When. 

In my view, it is not the tool which is the problem; it is the user!

The problem is that just about anyone can use PowerPoint.  How many of us has seen it used effectively, however?  I know I can probably count on just about one hand the number of good presentations I’ve seen over the years.  The answer is not to ‘kill it off’ and replace it entirely with applications like Prezi.  I enjoy watching a Prezi presentation, but if I’m honest, I can’t quite get my head around putting one together – my brain simply doesn’t work that way and I don’t think I’m the only one.  Prezi is great, but it is not for everyone.

No, in my view, as educators, what we need to do includes:

  • teaching PowerPoint properly – not teaching the skills in isolation from the idea of audience, purpose and delivery.  Lesson objectives should place equal weight on each of these.  What is the point of being able to embed a video, if the presenter stands in front of the screen and at no point engages with the audience or its needs?
  • spelling out to our students that it is the presentation that is important, not the application itself – the skills we teach using PowerPoint need to be transferable and this is where an introduction to something like Prezi at the same time can help;
  • finding out what students already know and ensuring we are moving their knowledge and understanding forwards, not sideways, or even worse, backwards. A brief conversation with a feeder school colleague, this morning, allowed us to compare notes in this respect.  It doesn’t take long to get a sense of what they have already been taught and to discuss progression!
  • As staff, weaning ourselves off using it for non-presentation purposes!  It sends out the wrong message.  Yes, it can be really handy for structuring lesson material and I’ve got to say, I’m reluctant to give that aspect of it up, but let’s look at alternatives.  (Ideas welcome!) Just because it is easy doesn’t mean it’s right – which returns us to my main criticism of PowerPoint! (User, rather than tool, error.)
  • Discourage staff  from allowing their students to submit work which should be on Word, or a similar application, via PowerPoint.  Why are they doing this?  Surely, this is the equivalent of trying to open a bottle with a knife, instead of a bottle-opener!  It makes no sense.
  • Too much of anything is boring and does not engage.  Avoiding the overuse of PowerPoint is another area we must aim to address.
  • Being more critical of students when they present using PowerPoint in forums such as assemblies. Just because they have spent a lot of time on it doesn’t mean it’s good and they shouldn’t be led to believe it is: these students have to go into the real world to pitch and sell – they need to be told it how it is!

Digital immigrants continued…

I’m liking what James Shackley is blogging about the transparency of  technology:  http://franticbuttonbashing.wordpress.com/  I could not agree more with his assertion that “technology has to be reliable… if equipment cannot be trusted and staff have no confidence in it, it is destined to fail.”  We can have all the equipment we like in our classrooms and other spaces, but if it is not reliable and, equally, if staff are not trained and confident in its use and benefits, then what is the point? – staff end up frustrated and with a growing aversion to and fear of technology, whilst students are short-changed!  None of this helps towards the end goal – learning! (Well, staff learn to hate technology, more!)

I was interested to read what Brian Lockwood, Director of IT at Egglescliffe School has to say about empowering staff to use IT effectively.  The approach at his school is for individual departments to choose their use of technology, rather than chasing it at a whole school level. “There is no sense of wanting to keep control of IT from the centre; instead the IT service at the school is based within teachers’ own specialisms.  Individual teachers are the experts in how IT can be used within their subject, not the people in the IT Department.”  This sounds like a model to aspire to, however, how realistic is it for most schools of the present? Lockwood believes that, “the days of seeing a division between staff who are competent and those in the dark ages has gone.  Now the generation who were talked about for their computer skills are coming into schools as teachers and they are encouraged to be the main contributors to development.” 

But is this representative of the experience of most schools, today, and if not, what then? 

In my experience, there remain staff, in large enough proportions, who neither see, nor understand the benefits of using technology,  and are resistant to developing their skills in this area because, ‘Our results are excellent, why would we change the way we do things?’  Should this be of concern?   I believe if our aim is to prepare young people for the modern world, then yes, it is.

At the same time, technology must never be the master of education, but the servant.  Returning to my initial point – technology MUST be reliable.  It MUST do what it is intended to do.  Otherwise, it simply will not be used by teachers.  Obviously, there will be occasions when technology by its very nature fails, but this should be the exception rather than the norm. Time is precious in the classroom and there is no room for ‘messing about’ with teaching tools that do not work.  We have been taught to recognise, and research demonstrates, that young people are used to receiving information very, very fast and they have relatively short attention spans.  They thrive on instant gratification.  They are no longer the young people I, and people like me, were designed to teach.  Neither are they being prepared for the world we were trained to embrace: something I recognise and attempt to address in my teaching. But what hope  for the teacher who, right at the start of the lesson, cannot open  her electronic register as the connection has failed again, or she who has taken the class to the IT suite for her ‘once that term’ IT lesson, only to find that the network is down or a number of students cannot log in?  Here we fail to engage and, more likely, enrage our students.  For them, the whole process and procedure of our teaching is TOO SLOW!  Whilst trying to powerup the pcs, our students are in the process of powering down! In these instances, the lesson WOULD be better without the access to technology.  This is where IT targets being forced on individual teachers often does not work, failing both staff and students.

In my view, engaging our students on a level that they understand,  enjoy and learn from, involves a number of  considerations:

  1. A reliable infrastructure, reliably maintained and supported – this is an absolute key and unless it is in place, forget the rest!
  2. A clear vision supported by an Action Plan, neither of which should be a ‘box-ticking’ exercise, but living, breathing documents, subject to regular review – daily, weekly if required!  These should work equally, whether approached top-down or bottom up!
  3. Staff choosing, even to an individual level, within departments, what technology they will use and the systems being in place for them to download and trial software on their own school laptops.  Avoiding over investment in one tool for learning avoids being left high and dry when this tool is superseded by another.  This level of flexibility also gives greater opportunity for students to develop adaptable skills and to work and think creatively.  It means they are not doing the same thing in the same ways across the curriculum.
  4. For the above to work, the school must consider cross platform support; some individuals may prefer Macs and others Pcs, some netbooks and others ipads.  Acceptable Use and Esafety measures (more of this is a later post) for staff and students need to be in place and, at department level, annual proposals need to be submitted to the IT Department so they can plan the support required.
  5. The school needs to be able to respond to training needs beyond what an inset day can provide.  And training is of no use unless it can and will be followed up by opportunities to try things out in a relevant – often departmental way.
  6. Where all staff are not on board, this is the time for management to look at the whole student experience.  Will  the range of  subjects and staff encountered by an individual student permit her / him to gain the teaching and learning opportunities and experiences  that will  develop and instil the digital literacy skills required for progression in today’s world? If so, then isn’t this sufficient?  If not, then what can be changed?

If we have individual staff who resist employing technology in the classroom, what then?  If they are about to retire and their teaching is sound, well get off their backs!  If they are 22 years old and new to teaching, then they must be persuaded of the benefits.  Why has this ‘gap’ not been picked up at interview?!  Is it because the school does not value these skills, in which case need I say more about why these things fail at classroom level?

We are living in a world of change and that can be  frightening, challenging, but so, so exciting.  No-one has all the answers, but I take reasurance from what Hoffer said in 1973, “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”  It is not WRONG not to have all the answers.  It is wrong, however, to bury our heads in the sand, adopting an ‘everything was so much better in my day’ attitude which ignores the changing needs of our students!

Okay, here goes…

I know many adults, especially the younger ones I work with and meet, object to being classed as digital immigrants along with the rest of us antediluvian adults.  I, however, AM a digital immigrant who has somehow found myself to be Head of ICT and Director of eLearning!

How? you may ask, but let’s leave that for another post; this is my first one, remember and you’ve got to give me the chance to work it all out.

Having decided that it was inexcusable for someone in my position NOT to have a blog, or to at least have explored ‘that’ world, I have finally taken the plunge.  The pen in the header represents where I have come from – educated at a time when the odd BBC model was beginning to creep into the corner of the occasional classroom, but no-one knew how to use it, followed by many years as an English teacher.  The fact that I don’t feel quite comfortable with the biro, either in practice, or on my header, suggests I am not quite the fraud I sometimes feel! 

Whilst waiting to embark upon my life of blogging, I couldn’t quite decide on a focus: the idea that it should perhaps be worthy and academic has held me back –  there are so many better equipped people out there doing just that.  So, going back to my ‘ immigrant of another age status’, I’ve decided to write for myself – diary style!  And, I’m already enjoying it. The ideas are starting to flow! 

As well as the odd blog, I intend to use this ‘place’ as a repository of everything I find useful – I do know quite a lot about eLearning and indeed about ICT. (Okay, not so hot on the technical side, so just as well we have good support in my place of work! Hereafter referred to as MPoW.)

The hot topics of conversation at MPoW these days are eSafety, the use of mobile devices in the classroom, The Cloud, including the use of Google docs.  So expect lots of references to these in future posts and I hope to have begun to stalk anyone out there who is exploring the same areas!

Categories: education, ICT, misc Tags: , , ,
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