Computer Science is being officially included England's national curriculum. During September details of what will be expected at each of the four key stages were announced and a video course was launched to help students and teachers.
The new computing curriculum will become a mandatory for English school pupils from September 2014 and replaces the existing ICT (Information Communications Technology) one that was described as "harmful" by the Department of Education in its official announcement.
At the time Education Secretary, Michael Gove said:
The best degrees in Computer Science are among the most rigorous and respected qualifications in the world… and prepare students for immensely rewarding careers and world-changing innovations. But you’d never know that from the current ICT curriculum.
Now the subject content to be taught to primary pupils (Key Stages 1 and 2) and secondary pupils (Key Stages 3 and 4) has been outlined in a set of government publications.
The aims of the national curriculum for computing are that all pupils:
can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science, including abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation
can analyse problems in computational terms, and have repeated practical experience of writing computer programs in order to solve such problems
can evaluate and apply information technology, including new or unfamiliar technologies, analytically to solve problems
are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology
Elizabeth Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, speaking about curriculum reform, told the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) :
In an era where human capital is more important than physical capital, it means we need to improve education.
She told the audience of industry leaders:
Coding - one of the essential skills of the 21st century - will now start at age 5. We are aiming to develop one of the most rigorous computing curricula in the world, where pupils will learn to handle detailed, abstract computing processes and over-11s will learn 2 programming languages.
She expressed a personal interest in this area of the curriculum saying:
I remember being at school and using early computers. Yes, I was in computer club - and I loved it. I think we’ve lost some of that sense of joy and excitement in computing, and have just become focused on just training kids to use Windows. We want to bring some of that excitement back.
Although the Department of Education has itemized in general terms what should be taught to pupils it has deliberately left choice of how to go about it to teachers. So the first three items at Key stage (age 5 up) 1 is that pupils be taught to:
understand what algorithms are; how they are implemented as programs on digital devices; and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions
create and debug simple programs
use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs
it doesn't specify which digital devices nor does it suggest a programming language. At Key stage 3 (age 11-14) pupils are expected to:
understand several key algorithms that reflect computational thinking [for example, ones for sorting and searching]; use logical reasoning to compare the utility of alternative algorithms for the same problem
use two or more programming languages, at least one of which is textual, to solve a variety of computational problems; make appropriate use of data structures [for example, lists, tables or arrays]; design and develop modular programs that use procedures or functions
Square brackets are used to denote example content rather than content that has to be covered.
To a certain extent leaving so much to be decided by teachers just makes the task of preparing to teach the new curriculum even more daunting. All they have been expected to teach until now, and what they would have learned as pupils themselves, is the old discredited ICT that concentrated on using computers rather than understanding and programming them.
So how they are expected to be ready in time for the introduction of the curriculum? One resource that was launched last month is a video course created by the OCR exam board, Cambridge University Press (CUP) and the Raspberry Pi Foundation to help students prepare for the GCSE in Computing. The course is free and open to all. It has been designed for a target audience of 14-16 year olds either by individual or a resource to support class teaching - but it is obviously accessible to teachers as well.
The Cambridge GCSE Computing Online course, which is described as a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in which the Raspberry Pi is said to play a "starring role" will consist of around 350 short You Tube videos covering a total of 100 computing topics, from the basics of "what is a computer?" to in-depth discussions on algorithms and logic.
It is being rolled out in three phases, completing in April 2014. In September 80 video snippets became available. They are typically less than two minutes in length, although some last as long as five minutes, and are supported by pdf transcripts and quiz questions to test understanding. The videos on offer at the moment cover patchy sections of the entire course with lots of missing content. Once Phase II is completed in December it will be possible to move logically from start to finish without any missing topics.
Participants can choose to receive "statements of participation" to prove that they have taken the course, with details on how they have performed in the tests. It is a shame that it will be April before anyone will be able to complete the MOOC and comment on its effectiveness.
Many of the videos already available are presented by Clive Beale, Raspberry Pi's Director of Educational Development. Here's one that is part of the first set on What is a Computer System.
Will this help students understand the concept being taught about the salient parts that make up a computer?
In a MOOC where lots of people are moving through the course according to a schedule, you might expect a lively discussion about the merits of this particular video but the course doesn't have a general community forum. It does have a Computing Forum but it is for submitting questions, the top twenty of which will be answered by an expert on set dates.
Most MOOC participants would agree that a discussion forum where they can exchange ideas and comments with fellow participants and get prompt feedback when they have questions is an important component of a successful MOOC. Not fostering such a community is a missed opportunity.
So while the idea of having a MOOC that could provide a resource for teaching the new curriculum, and to help teachers themselves get up to speed with concepts they might not be familiar with, is obviously a good one, this one needs a rethink if its going to be the massive help that is needed.