IT and Computer Science Education: A CIO call to arms – turn it off and on again


Posted on: January 20, 2012 by Mike Smith

The Royal Society convened and recently published a report with recommendations for the future of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in our schools. Entitled “Shut down or restart?” the report asks whether we should halt ICT teaching altogether, or redefine and kick-start it. The report is available on the Royal Society website: http://royalsociety.org/education/policy/computing-in-schools/report/.

The Royal Society, established in the 17th century, has a long history with the evolution of computing - Charles Babbage presented his paper on the Difference Engine to the society, receiving the Society’s gold medal and subsequent Government funding for its development. Alan Turing, shaping our thinking of a computing machine, was also a Fellow. In recent times (albeit a decade ago) Sir Tim Berners-Lee was also elected as a Fellow. (The Royal Society Christmas lectures are not to be missed – this year’s lectures on the brain were particularly good.)

Professor Steve Furber chaired the advisory board for the “Shut down or restart?” report. Part of the team at Acorn computers that produced the BBC Micro, which I suggest largely led to the current generation of CIOs, his credentials are impeccable.

The crux of the matter is that we have lost our way with “ICT” in schools; it’s a generalised curriculum that covers many of the less technical aspects of computing, and is delivered by inadequately skilled teachers. The redefined terminology (recommendation 1 of the report) drops the term ICT in favour of three focus areas:

- Computer Science – algorithms, computer programming, data structures and the like. - Information Technology – The use and uses of computing in industry and elsewhere; systems architecture, projects, solutions. - Digital Literacy – The skills required and ability to use computers and computing applications.

In total there are 11 recommendations across schooling infrastructure, development of specialist teachers, extra-curricular activities, technology, industry support and the creation of a “UK Forum” by the computing community. We need to provide a learning environment for these three areas for all of our children across primary and secondary schools.

A wonderfully related link is the new Raspberry Pi ARM-based computer. The Raspberry Pi Foundation, http://www.raspberrypi.org/, is a registered charity and has the vision of providing a $25 (c£15) computer for education – with the same aim as that put forward by the Royal Society; to improve the Computer Science skills of our young people. The link? Professor Furber was one of the designers of the ARM processor too!  Get ready to grab one of the first 10,000 Raspberry Pi Model B’s off the production line – this should be only a few days away now.

The third area I would like to draw your attention to is the Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org/), cited by Bill Gates as the future of education when Salman Khan presented at TED in March 2011. Salman has turned teaching on its head by enabling pupils to learn at their own pace using brief video lectures and self-assessment supported by technology – freeing up lesson time for 1-on-1 interaction with teachers. Incorporating gaming mechanics within the academy’s web-based service, one can earn points and achievement badges and battle it out to be top dog of the class. Whilst I have encouraged my own children to continue their learning in this way, I myself am leading with over 675,000 energy points in our own family class at present!

I support the findings and recommendations of the Royal Society report and the Raspberry Pi and Khan Academy initiatives. The whole IT industry now needs to get behind these changes and drive the future of IT, and of Computer Science, in the UK’s education system.

And if you haven't yet watched the BBC drama Micro Men, I urge you to do so! You’ll find it aired regularly on BBC Four.

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About Mike Smith

Chief Technology Officer, Atos Distinguished Expert and member of the Scientific Community
Mike has been in the IT industry for over 20 years, designing and implementing complex infrastructures that underpin key Government and private sector solutions. Setting Atos technical strategy, researching new technologies and supporting the consulting and architect communities. Previously Mike has held technical and management positions in British Rail, Sema Group and Schlumberger. He has a daughter and a son, both keen on anything but technology. Mike's sporting passion rests with Test Match Special, and is jealous/proud of his son's Ice Hockey skills.

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