The Bad State of School Computer Lessons

14 May, 2011 | ComputersTechTdp

I don't know much about what goes on in education, I've been out of it a long while and don't have kids to drag my attention back to it, but I've seen two fairly recent articles belittling the state of computer lessons (or Information and Communications Technology, ICT, as it's more commonly known) which make me wonder.

One was about David Braben, perhaps best known for co-writing the computer game Elite back in the 1980s (you can read a great excerpt from Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford which explains what an achievement this was), who plans to launch a computer for £15 to encourage people to 'tinker' with code.

The second is about the UK's special effects industry, an area where we're a world leader, but which is having trouble finding skilled people so is having to draft them in from overseas.  They both lament what is taught in ICT.

"The level of IT that they teach [in schools] is ridiculous," said Lee Danskin, Escape Studios' training development director.

"It is like, 'here's Powerpoint, here's Excel and here's Word'. ICT lessons are just pushing packages around rather than coding or programming."

Braben thinks the same thing:

They believe that what today's schoolchildren learn in ICT classes leaves them uninspired and ignorant about the way computers work. David Braben says the way the subject is taught today reminds him of typing lessons when he was at school - useful perhaps in preparing pupils for office jobs, but no way to encourage creativity.

I don't think that's changed much, looking back I probably did do some BASIC at school, mainly to control Lego motors on a BBC Micro in CDT, along with the practice of typing up code from magazines into whatever computer we had at home (my parents were pretty tech-savvy, we had computers from a fairly young age) but I didn't really start coding (with Pascal on the Acorn Archimedes, which shows you how old I am) until I did my A-Levels.  Most of my subsequent coding skills have been self-taught, picked up by reading how-to guides online and through trial and error.

Which probably explains the importance of Braben's project, a small machine that anyone can afford and which allows you to have a go at producing something.  I'd argue an internet connection was important too, so you can make use of the tons of online guides and advice, ask questions on forums, etc.

In a world that is increasingly governed by computers, the importance of which is only going to increase, as is the reliance on them to create wealth, more programming skills are needed.  Even writing search terms now seems to be becoming a programming language, let alone writing formulas in Excel and with more and more data stored in databases how long before we all have to speak SQL?

Computers can just be used for what an application lets you do, but they're so much more powerful and useful when you can through together a few lines of code to make them dance to your tune.

Update (4th June 2010): The BBC's Click programme has some more details, including interviews with Peter Braben, Ian Livingston and teacher Ian Addison.