Cornwall is home to an increasing number of software businesses with a high proportion of employees that require deep technical skills, sometimes approaching 100 per cent. They want and need to recruit people with the skills and expertise to support this growth, but struggle to do so.
How can this need be met in a 21st century school? What role can industry play? What is the scope for what we might refer to as digital technology?
In Cornwall, a project has been set up called Connected! It is a partnership between local software companies, secondary schools, Cornwall Learning (which provides support and guidance to schools) and the Pool Innovation Centre. This has brought together practitioners, teachers and curriculum developers.
We have read the high profile warnings from Google’s Eric Schmidt (“throwing away your great computing heritage”), education minister Michael Gove (“the current curriculum is too off-putting, too dull”), and Nesta’s Next Gen report (“skills shortages at home ... mainly a failing of our education system”).
ICT programmes of study have been disapplied pending revisions and there has been a recommendation that ICT should become compulsory but with schools determining the specific nature and reflecting current trends. This provides a challenge – and an opportunity.
Then there was the launch of Raspberry Pi as a pocket-sized, competitively priced and versatile computer aimed at education. Every so often a product is launched that chimes with the zeitgeist and the interest generated makes using it a “no-brainer”.
However, there are challenges, including the perceived value of technical subjects in schools. For example, the English Baccalaureate, an increasingly influential performance indicator, includes no technology. It recognises a broad and balanced academic education and while it does not preclude other subjects being studied, it clearly implies the primacy of a classical liberal education. This has not helped to raise the status of studying digital technologies.
Furthermore, digital technology does not have an obvious single home in the modern curriculum. This does not necessarily mean it is orphaned, but rather that it draws upon skills from a number of areas.
Pedagogically it sits with product design and development (and therefore technology) but the mathematical nature of programming is critical. Its capabilities regarding interfacing interest some science teachers and there are ICT teachers for whom this represents why they came into teaching.
Its intended audience also needs to be carefully considered. Is digital technology seen as a mainstream component with valid outcomes for a large number of pupils or is it a way of quickly identifying the smaller number of “geeks” who are tomorrow’s programmers?
This affects not only timetabling but also lesson design and delivery. An entry level structure might well be the after-school club but that may not develop a teaching approach suitable for the mainstream. Geeks may well be auto-didacts, but other students may need more support. So we are encouraging schools to:
Consider what they want to achieve – whether it is extra-curricular activities for a few, a broader offer in key stage 3, or accredited courses at key stage 4 (or any combination). Marketplace events with a range of activities help with this.
Find their digital champions (in whichever curriculum team they are in), let them develop some curriculum materials and encourage them to share like mad. The Connected! website allows the showcasing of ideas and for discussions and developments.
Identify the sticking points and provide some assistance – be that materials, technical support, competitions or showcasing. The software firms are offering hands-on technical assistance.
Why are we doing this on top of all the other curriculum changes that are going on? We are convinced that this is something that will “float the boat” for some students. They will get it and run with it; for some of them it will be one of the most satisfying things they do.
It is also a vibrant area of commerce. Not only are there jobs going here, but challenging and rewarding ones. It also develops transferable skills. Get good at programming and you have got good at logical sequencing, debugging systems and problem-solving. Everyone needs those skills.
Bett Learn Live Seminar
Ed Walsh is a science advisor with Cornwall Learning.
SecEd Bett 2013 Show Guide
- Bett 2013 takes place at London’s ExCel from January 30 to February 2. Ed Walsh will run his seminar, Hands-on Digital Technology – Using Raspberry Pi and other resources to develop an effective curriculum, from 3:15pm on February 1 in Theatre F.