An open approach for the benefit of our ICT education

Last week, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that the current ICT curriculum, characterised as ‘demotivating and dull’, is to be replaced by a computer science programme. Gove said that the Programme of Study will be withdrawn and teachers are given freedom over what and how to teach.

Later that week, the Royal Society published the study on Computing in Schools, named ‘Shut down or restart?’. The main recommendation of the study is to restructure ICT education and make a clear distinction between these three main components of ICT education:

1. Digital literacy – How to use the most important IT applications.
2. Computer Science – Learn how the computer works.
3. Information technology – How to use ICT to solve important problems in business and industry.

A major problem, highlighted by the Royal Society, is the small proportion of ICT teachers who have qualifications in the area. Only 1 in 3 ICT teachers have the relevant qualifications, whereas on average this is 75%. It remains to be seen if giving teachers the freedom over what and how to teach, when most of them don’t have the qualifications in the field, is the best way forward.

In any case, there are some open initiatives that may help develop better ICT education. First of all, there are developments towards sharing teaching materials as Open Educational Resources, that can benefit ICT education. Repositories such as Jorum and OER Commons make it easier for teachers to share and learn from their peers.

There are also exciting tools available, such as ToonTalk and Scratch that will help children learn to programme in a playful manner. Although Scratch itself is not open source, it is available for free and it is built upon the open source tool Squeak, a Smalltalk language and environment. The One Laptop per Child project distributes the open source tool Etoys, built on Squeak, to help children get familiarised with programming. Websites dedicated to open source in schools, such as Schoolforge.net and Open Source Schools are also useful in sharing the relevant software and expertise.

Finally, there are exciting initiatives to help get more computers into the classroom. The Raspberry Pi project is creating a computer the size of a deck of cards, available for $25-$35, that is still powerful enough for all common tasks that you would need in the classroom. Although it sounded implausible when I first heard about it, they are now actually started manufacture! It reminds me of the old BBC Micro, a project where the chair of the Royal Society’s study mentioned above, Professor Steve Furber, was actually the principal designer of. If we could supply computers to our kids in the same way that we supply pencils, we may be a step closer to ensuring our next generation is ready for the future.