The future holds more than just coding

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The new GCSE in computer science is destined to have just a niche appeal, argues Anna Pedroza, and could leave those students who aren't engaged by algorithms lacking a grounding in IT and digital literacy.

The launch of the new GCSE in computer science and the withdrawal of the ICT GCSE was something I welcomed when Michael Gove announced it in January 2012. He offered a decidedly economic perspective that made the case for investing in computer science and programming skills to specifically support the future growth of the high-tech sector in the UK. 

However, Mr Gove’s speech overlooked the role schools need to play in equipping young people to lead successful lives in a world profoundly shaped by digital technologies. 

This is much more wide-ranging than simply aiming to grow the skills required for the high-tech sector. In a speech of some length he made only one passing reference to “technological literacy and knowledge”.

Interestingly this broader perspective is cited in the Department for Education’s own guidance about ICT teaching which states that ICT capability is “fundamental to participation and engagement in modern society” – a much more comprehensive view of the role it should play. 

The new GCSE in computer science goes part of the way to addressing this but it’s a subject that is likely to have niche rather than popular appeal. Talking to teachers it’s clear that students will need to have a keen interest in data types, algorithms and computer systems – not things that engage every teenager.

The recent release of the draft ICT programme of study (PoS), provisionally titled “Computing”, has been met with widespread dismay from ICT teachers who argue that the balance between computing, IT and digital literacy has been tipped in the favour of computer science.

The concern is that many students at key stage 3 won’t receive a solid foundation across all three elements and will be turned off the subject. Furthermore, if the current PoS gets the green light, thousands of ICT teachers will require CPD and technical training to be able to teach it effectively.

From my perspective, as a founding member of Digital Education Brighton, there are three things that I think teachers, schools and stakeholders should remember as the draft PoS enters its final consultation (www.naace.co.uk/naacecurriculum/programmeofstudyconsultation). 

First, accept that today’s children will inhabit a future that you are poorly equipped to imagine. Predicting the future is notoriously tricky. Apart from large, slow-moving trends such as population growth or energy resources, it can be very hard to be accurate. Instead schools need to equip students with the confidence to engage fully as citizens in both a virtual and real world. Students need to be actively encouraged to investigate, participate in, communicate with and collaborate in the online world. 

Second, digital literacy is too important to assume that coding on its own is enough. The upsurge of enthusiasm to encourage children of all ages to code is positive but it needs to be part of something wider. Children also need to be able to evaluate sources of content, understand the difference between their private, personal and public online persona, communicate in a wide range of contexts and, most importantly, stay safe. Schools can use coding to teach these, but it is not the answer for every student. 

Three, digital literacy is the responsibility of every teacher, not just the ICT teacher or the tech enthusiasts. Many teachers I speak to still believe it is important for ICT to be taught as a discrete subject but it does need to be part of a wider joined up approach. If a school and its workforce model a digitally literate, open approach to ICT, their students will also learn from this behaviour. ICT needs to be embedded in the curriculum, but furthermore it needs to be embedded in school life.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has previously spoken about preparing young people for the “rigour of the future”. All young people need to be digitally literate in order to engage actively with the online world, to shape it rather than passively consume it. Although I can’t easily predict what the rigours of the future may hold, it’s going to need more than just good coding skills.

  • This guest SecEd editorial has been written by Anna Pedroza, a founding member of Digital Education Brighton.


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