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The Mercurial State of Computing Education

Back in the day, I elected to study Computing (then called ICT) at AS-Level. Bright-eyed and expectant, I rolled up to my Sixth Form on the first day of term, ready to learn about programming, website design, and the mysteries of binary machine code. I had already learned to touch-type from my frantic late-night chatting sessions on MSN Messenger (an Instant Messenger application popular in the 2000s), so I felt like I had a good grounding in the subject.

Imagine my shock and horror when I was shown how to build a website in Microsoft Powerpoint. Supposedly, the best way to build a site is to create a separate slide for each web page and export the resultant slideshow as an HTML file.

Needless to say, I didn’t continue to study ICT through to a second year.

Since then, thankfully, ICT education has reached the collective conscience of education trendsetters, garnering attention from politicians and major influencers in education, and we’ve made great advances away from teaching the finer points of WordArt and Powerpoint. Notably, 2014 saw the introduction of a shiny new National Computing Curriculum, with a much greater focus on advancing core skills (including proper website design!).

In stark contrast to older, more traditional school subjects, the world of digital education is in a mercurial state, evolving at a frantic pace over the past few years – most recently into practical programming application thanks to physical learning systems such as the Raspberry Pi. Perhaps as a result of this, there is a steep and never-ending learning curve for educators that may be intimidating would-be IT teachers away from the profession.

However, despite the endless advances being made in modern computing technology, there are fundamental basics of coding and computing that won’t be changing any time soon. These principles are the crux upon which secondary school ICT and Computing teachers can base their curriculum: computational thinking, coding skills, and Internet safety.

It’s easy to be led into thinking that nowadays, all children are highly computer literate and already possess these core ICT skills. Certainly, most young people have access to powerful Internet-connected computing devices and use them on a daily basis. However, being able to access and understand the simple user interfaces found in popular software such as social media and modern computer games doesn’t necessarily correlate to a high degree of computer literacy and the acquisition of essential skills; these products have been specifically designed to be easy to use.

Computer safety is also a crucial life skill, a point made all too clear by a slew of recent cryptolocking scandals involving major institutions – most notably the NHS. While modern cyber attacks can be highly sophisticated, perhaps these disasters could be avoided or mitigated in the future if today’s students are able to gain a deeper understanding of these modern-day threats.

5Rights Framework Planner Page

Our 5Rights Framework page from the SPC Online Library.

However, as digital companies continue to focus on children and young people as a source of revenue, children’s online safety also goes deeper than personal responsibility and blaming the victim. It’s become routine practice for online and software businesses to build addictive cycles into their digital products that are specifically targeted at hooking children in. Thankfully, organisations such as 5Rights have emerged that campaign for children’s digital rights, arguing that children’s fundamental rights should extend to the digital space and placing the onus for change squarely on the companies responsible. Children also need to learn about digital citizenship and their rights as a denizen of the Internet, something which I’ve previously discussed at length here.

Ultimately, coding, programming, and machining skills are essential for future technological progress. Relatively easy-to-learn multipurpose computing languages, such as the ever-present Python, can act as a gateway to other languages. Even if students don’t develop an active interest in coding and computing technology, it can be enormously beneficial to develop an understanding of how their devices operate and to develop computational thinking skills, especially in today’s digitally integrated economy.

It’s clear that we need to support children’s progress and hand them the materials they need to succeed. Our new Secondary School Computing Pack includes a slew of planner pages that have been designed to comprehensively cover and support the statutory requirements of the National Curriculum, fortifying your school’s Computing curriculum. We’ve meticulously researched and designed HTML cheat sheets, computer safety guides, and curriculum-specific advice sheets, all of which can be customised to your heart’s content.

You can click here to view these pages online today. Last month, we also released our new Primary School Computing Pack.