the tech post

This blog is about technology, software and social media. It's aimed as much towards 'normal' people as the tech savvy. The author is Tony Gallacher.

STEM with a Silent T (Part 2)

Computer Programming

Computer Science

This is the 2nd Tech Post about the Royal Society’s recent report ‘Shut Down or Restart: the Way Forward for Computing in Schools’ and the lack of coverage of Computer Science in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) programmes and also science communication.

(A short version of this article was first published as Computing in UK Schools is Failing Students on Technorati.)

The Royal Society report makes a number of excellent proposals. In the main, it demonstrates careful consideration of the current issues around Computing education. Among its recommendations, it suggests the term ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) possibly should be dropped. (The UK government has already accepted this recommendation.) Instead three main areas of Computing should be recognised.

Computer Science is ‘the rigorous academic discipline, encompassing programming languages, data structures, algorithms etc.’ This also includes the theory behind the ‘architecture’ of computer systems; they are made up of a number of hardware and software components that need to work together.

Like all Science disciplines, it has a wide range of specialities. These include fields such as artificial intelligence, speech recognition, natural language processing and informatics (the theory behind the processing and management of information).

Information Technology is the practical application of Computer Science to systems architecture, development, maintenance and project management. For illustration, this is what most IT professionals in industry do. It also includes IT support, as well as activities to develop software.

Social Media Outposts

Social Media Outposts (Photo credit: the tartanpodcast)

Digital Literacy includes skills that we all must have, to use computers, mobile technology and internet services in our daily lives. These are core skills, on a par with reading and writing. The Royal Society recognises that all pupils must learn these skills, in order to successfully progress, through school, into work.

For example, the A-level Geography curriculum assumes that prospective students already have a grasp of writing skills and critical thinking, commensurate with their level of study. To the same degree, pupils must also acquire digital literacy skills as they progress through school.

It makes good sense to subdivide the discipline into the 3 categories outlined above. Once implemented, the new Computing curricula in England will cover all three. Hopefully, the report’s findings will be acted on throughout the UK as well.

The Curriculum for Excellence, in Scotland, will start to make changes to the Computing curriculum this year, to introduce Computing and Information Science.

The Royal Society has some concerns, including that the syllabi, in Scotland, could be delivered to different standards, depending on the availability of ‘appropriately qualified teachers.’ This problem was faced previously by the English National curriculum. The onus is on Education Scotland to ensure that suitable teachers are made available to schools and that the ‘entitlements’ they have prescribed for students are met.

I would not have hesitated to drop the confusing term ICT – and not just from curricula. It would be better to replace it with ‘Computing,’ as the over-arching name for the field that includes Computer Science, Information Technology and digital literacy.

Shutting the barn door?

All the same, these changes in terminology and many of the other recommendations in the Royal Society’s report, have been self-evident for a decade or more. I would argue that the evidence that supports them could have been gathered at any time, during that long period.

A lack of adequate education and understanding of Computing have brought us to a crisis point. The problem has been ignored, due to an ill-judged bias towards traditional Science disciplines, such as Physics and Chemistry. This applies to education curricula, STEM organisations and science communication as well.

There has been a dearth of initiatives to promote the understanding of Computing and its study. Lessons learned from poor uptake of Science and Engineering, in the past, should have informed our approach to Computing education; before the horse not so much bolted, as sauntered past us, while we calibrated our slide rules.

Public understanding of Computer Science

I think it’s great that we have worked to inspire and encourage students to pursue a career in the traditional Science disciplines; but those efforts have all but excluded the equally vital field of Computer Science. It’s also important that we continue to work to enhance the public understanding of Science and its role in our lives. It’s even more important that we work to improve digital literacy. It’s becoming essential for everyone to have adequate skills in this area, just to operate in today’s world.

Martha Lane Fox

Martha Lane Fox (Photo credit: The Prime Minister’s Office)

Martha Lane Fox, the UK’s Digital Champion commissioned a study: ‘The Economic Case for Digital Inclusion,’ in 2009. It reported that 9.2 million people in the UK were digitally excluded. Not only that but it would be worth £22 billion to the UK economy just to get them online. Yet, in 2012, 8.2 million people in the UK are still considered ‘digitally excluded.’

Even once they are online, the next problem to be addressed will be to help them to become sufficiently digitally literate. This will, among other things, help them connect with others, run their businesses and improve their chances of employment. As Martha Lane Fox puts it:

‘The wellbeing gains of learning to use the web are particularly dramatic for the unemployed (you’re 25% more likely to find work) and for the elderly, 3.1 million of whom go more than a week without seeing a family member or friend.’

While many of us are comfortable using mobile technology, social media and the internet, some must find the morass of online resources bewildering. It seems to grow by the day. (I cover this more in Do you have Social Media Exhaustion?)

I would like to see governments throughout the UK begin an initiative to improve digital literacy. Adults who will not benefit from the prospective backfilling changes to Computing Education, are in danger of being left behind. We need active initiatives to provide them with what are often alien skills.

For example, many small business owners find themselves having to constantly adapt to an increasingly digitised environment. Approaches to public relations, advertising and marketing are still undergoing a tectonic shift, due to the influence of social media. Without the necessary skills, people are trying to promote their businesses in an increasingly complex online environment.

Could do Better

Encouraging as it is, I think the Shut Down or Restart? report loses marks in a key subject. It describes the STEM Directories (a resource for teachers) as:

“An online database of activities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Teachers may search this database by subject; an ‘ICT/Digital’ category exists and includes many…examples.”

The directory does have a lengthy list of events for students and CPD (Continued Professional Development) courses for teachers labelled; ICT/Digital, Computer Science or ICT. Wearyingly, few have much to do with Computing in reality. In fact, a bit of content moderation should really have pruned many of those activities from the ICT/Digital category.

If, as the Royal Society suggests, much more funding is made available for STEM promotion of Computer Science, will initiatives that actually promote Science and Engineering simply be marketed to attain that funding? I think there’s a real danger of it. The Royal Society doesn’t seem to have done it’s homework, on this point; even for a high-profile report, like Shut Down or Restart?

Over the next 5 years or so, I expect Science museums and events up and down the UK, to rebrand themselves using the word ‘tech.’ I’m fine with that, as long as Information Technology and Computer Science are strongly represented in their programmes. Also, Computing programmes must be designed by experts who really understand the subject.

The way forward

There’s no doubt that Computer Science is a vital branch of Science in its own right. It also facilitates every other branch of Science and Technology. Not only that, advances in Computer Science have made a range of Science projects, such as those at the Large Hadron Collider, in CERN and the Human Genome project possible. This makes it unique among the Sciences.

Digital literacy has joined reading and writing as a fundamental set of skills for everyone; a unique set of skills that constantly need to be updated. The Royal Society, the UK government and many others have recognised that Computing curricula have been failing for some years. It stands to reason that many adults have already left school with insufficient digital literacy skills. It’s critical to the UK economy to address this problem.

Guttenberg Information Technologies Center

Guttenberg Information Technologies Center (Photo credit: williamhartz)

Information Technology, the application of Computer Science, is also fundamental to our economy. According to ONS (Office of National Statistics) data the gross value-add to the UK economy, from the IT industry, is over £30 billion. In fact, when you consider IT and telecoms together, they contribute nearly 10% of the UKs GVA (Gross Value Added).

We need a new approach to resolve these unique problems. To provide Computer Science support for teachers and students, and to address our adult digital literacy problem, we need specific resources and initiatives. They must be designed, set up and run by Computing academics and professionals. As well as a STEM directory, we need a Computing Teaching Resources directory, as well as an Institute of Physics, we need an Institute of Computer Science.

Specific, targeted funding should be channeled through bespoke resources. Only this way can we be sure of clawing back the ground that should never have been lost.

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One comment on “STEM with a Silent T (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Computer science in English schools: the debate rages on | cartesian product

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