Author Options:

Computer science in schools - advice and arguments needed. Answered

You may have heard that UK schools will be teaching Computer Science from September, instead of teaching ICT (= "how to use Microsoft products").

Most people will agree that this is a good thing, since the basics of Office can be grasped in an hour or so, and hardly need the current years of study.

However, last year, whilst several thousand people qualified as ICT teachers, only 3 people qualified as Computer Science teachers.  Many existing ICT teachers only ended up as ICT teachers by chance.  That group includes me, but I am fairly sure that I will be asked to teach Computer Science next year.

So, here's the thing:  I am not confident that those with a grasp on the purse-strings know enough to make an informed decision regarding the route to follow in September, investment-wise, and  I know I'm not.

Possible routes that occur to me;
  1. The school teaches programming etc on PCs, using software to model the device being controlled by the programmes children write.
  2. The school invests in Arduino or Arduino clones, and forges closer links between the ICT and Technology departments to teach Computer Science through the medium of robotics.
  3. The school invests in Raspberry Pi, plus the required peripherals, and teaches programming of computers from the ground up.
  • In all three cases, the existing ICT suits would remain as a resource for other departments to use.
  • In 2 & 3, I would like to see the hardware being treated as a consumable, much like printer ink or wood.
  • In all three cases, nobody currently employed has any skill in those areas and has no time to be formally trained in those areas, so would need to learn alongside the pupils.

What do you think?

Which of these routes should I encourage my school to go down?  Why?

What other options are there?


There are many issues that people overlook. I'll try not to ramble...

For the past 10 years the "ICT Strategy" (launched by the government to improve teaching ICT to make it more relevant) tried to move away from software specific learning into a more balanced and multimedia 'product production' type of learning.
This meant a focus on Audience and Purpose; choosing the correct tool for the job instead of adapting Word to create a poster.
In my LEA we were shown how to make podcasts using audacity, movie editing in digital blue, creating websites using open mind and www.webs.com, making interactive web based solutions using open office or MS office, using magnetic darts in the class, then using the computer suite to generate a score keeping solution that gave you a 'finish' using google docs, making cool computer games using scratch and 2simple diy, animating using blender and xtrnormal.
We still taught the basics of office, but based them on, for example, murder mysteries using access, letters of complaints about the design of the school website using word etc.

Then the OCR National qualification was introduced.

Lots of schools in my LEA abandoned the KS3 PoS and taught Level 2 qualifications to EVERY 11 to 14 year old kid(Level 1). This raised the results for the schools and now almost every school in the area teaches this! Students missed the fun of using ICT to make cool things in favour of a course that made the school look good on results day.

NOW to counter act this, the government have decided to forget the strategy focus, remove these 'basic office etc' courses and replace them with computer science. Back to programming code, making text 'guess my age' games and getting qualified in geek. A 180 degree turn and back to the early 90's.

I dont mind this, but just when we were getting kids back to enjoying being creative using tools, they will have to learn how to make the tools they once used. This is turning off students from choosing ICT, therefore even less students will leave with ICT basics other than making posters and using proxy websites to access facebook.

I'll never forget my mentor at college
"Education is just like ballroom dancing. You go around in circles to someone else's tune"

Unfortunately, there's a hardware issue (the factory fitted the wrong jack), so none have hit the wider public yet....

Yes, but here, at least a few individuals could test them, right? Or does the hardware problem preclude that?

No idea. I've signed up, though.

We have a "proper" ICT teacher starting in a few weeks, so we'll see what happens then.

Good, I hope things work out for the best for you all.

I'm hoping that Office will still be taught alongside this. While the arguments against it are numerous, it's still my most used piece of software even on an engineering degree.

(I'm aware this isn't especially helpful to your situation, just thought I'd make my two-monthly comment).

You can learn Office in a weekend. It's stupid to have an entire semester long class on it, let alone _years_ of it.

I was required to know Excel like the back of my hand when entering university, and knowing what I was doing put me ahead of quite a view classmates straight away. When spending all night trying to work out the optimum design for a pipeline using Excel, you're glad to know what you're doing.

The "years of Office" image that's portrayed isn't accurate. I had a good amount of teaching in Office, but spent an entire year long course learning to use Flash and Fireworks. The IT course I did was a total joke, but not because I was taught Office. I'd say Office was the most useful thing I became proficient in over the course of my IT education.

My cousin works for a major international technology company, and has basically survived the last five years by creating a series of supply inventory metrics, which run on Excel.

His data-driven analyses are viewed daily by plant managers around the globe.

This is especially interesting since he's an engineer, and has been project manager for several products manufactured by the same company. He developed the software to help him in the job, and later discovered it was useful for others.

I mean, that's great for engineers. And I mean that.

But...most people *aren't* engineers. Schools have to teach skills that will be useful for the maximum number of people, not the subset that will have jobs where all they do is Excel or some other MS product. Knowing the specifics of Office (as opposed to just knowing how to run essentially any word processer and having basic computer skills that generalize to any program) is not going to be _crucial_ for most people - just marginally nice, or perhaps moderately helpful. So the edge cases, while valid, aren't really a good argument for the vital need to teach Office in schools.

My reply was really just an aside, but maybe I'll elaborate...

While spreadsheets are dominant in business and finance, they are certainly used by engineers, too. What makes my cousin's story interesting is that, as engineer, he is proficient in other computer languages--and had used them in product development.

He does consider his use of Excel as programming. His spreadsheets import masses of data, crunch it, then output a series of graphic displays that communicate the distilled results (an interface).

I'm sure that his other comp language skills helped him develop his Excel app. But his Excel skills are high level, so they were acquired concurrently with his other programming knowledge--perhaps due more to the project/people manager aspect, than engineering (sorry, engineers). But it's not a clear cut, one-or-the-other situation.

So, as a devil's advocate, I'd expect far more people "program" Excel and Access, as opposed to C++, C#, VB, etc. That makes it a valuable skill.

Or open source equivalents. I'm a M$ fanboy. Oh no.

A deeper aside:
As a professional in the graphics industry, you'd think I'd disapprove of the use of Word (or the equivalent), and favor Quark or InDesign for projects. I do, but only to some extent.

OK, Word is poor for page layout. For design work, it's not a professional tool. However, for a large group of people who can't afford the other, it's a viable, useful program--and one that almost everyone has access to.

Case in point-- I was on the board of a non-profit group, and we always made flyers in Word. At first I though that was foolish, until we had a new board member who insisted their spouse would redesign all the literature in Quark. I left the board soon after, and within a year the newer member was gone, too. Consequently the existing board was stuck with updated documents that no one could edit...

(Sorry, I haven't even commented on the original topic ;-)

Clearly, I meant to write "I'm not a M$ fanboy."

Sigh. Editing posts will never happen here...

"Schools have to teach skills that will be useful for the maximum number of people"

Would you say that knowing how to code is going to be useful for more people than knowing how to properly use a word processor and a spreadsheet?

It isn't the function of the schools to push a particular product. By all means teach the use of an office suite, but to insist on MSFT products is not a good idea.


It may be different in other areas, but I don't know any local school that has successfully switched to open-source software.

My old school flirted with the idea, but couldn't manage to meet the levels of "cyber security" required by whoever it is that requires these things, and there were great problems of compatibility with subject-specialist software not running under an open source OS, and it was a major pain transferring documents between school and home.

Given the well known discounting and other activities of Msft, and the fact that school IT people are almost entirely brought up in a MSFT environment, that's not terrinbly surprising.

We run OpenOffice at work and we have no problems with .DOC files or .XLS files at all.


True, but you're only dealing with a couple of home PCs used by competent individuals - we had to deal with about 600 homes (potentially over a thousand computers), no two of which will have been set up identically, and a large number of which were used carelessly by a horrifyingly large number of families where the parents abdicate all responsibility for the home PC or laptop to teen and pre-teen children.

The point is, though, that it's not surprising given that such difficulty has little to nothing to do with any kind of inherent inferiority of FLOSS, but the training of the people responsible for setting up and maintaining the system.

Oh by all means, I'm not thinking schools should act as ambassadors for Microsoft at all, merely making the point that proficiency in some kind of office suite is an essential skill.

Apologies if it comes across as a bit pro-MS, it wasn't meant that way.

Question: why do all of your scenarios assume you are going to be teaching them to write programs intended for hardware other than the computer itself?

My 2 cents is to teach them to program for the hardware that you already have - regular computers - with the emphasis on underlying principles. The choice of language should be well thought out (for example, whether to use a "real" language or one specifically designed for this purpose - yes, they exist), but I think it isn't nearly as important as teaching them principles, terminology, and ways of thinking.

Because the Raspberry Pi device keeps getting mentioned by the same people who announced the change in focus of computer teaching. They also all about writing apps for "smart" devices, but since there is a 5-10 fold difference in price between such as RasPi or Arduino vs iOS devices, so you can guess which way school budgets will be directed.

:( Sounds like this program isn't actually going to change anything except the focus - Raspberry Pi hardware instead of MS Office software. I guess it is a step in the right direction, but it sounds like those who control the purse-strings have just latched onto a new buzzword rather than a new philosophy...

I wonder how many people who keep mentioning the Raspberry Pi aren't in some way 'involved' with the U.K. based company where they couldn't benefit somehow from the push (directly or indirectly). The 'ol "you scratch my back"... thing could be going on here. I would think that Arduino would be a better budgetary fit considering their open source options. That, and the fact that Arduino is already established in the marketplace.

Good point. (I don't use Arduino). With that in mind, I would guess that Raspberry Pi is their best bet. I would imagine they'll run in Linux and program in Python? That may or may not be good, depending on the teachers and this issue that Kiteman's presented.

An Arduino is also not its own programming environment, the Pi is.

Once you can run Linux, you can essentially use anything.


I still don't understand the emphasis on special hardware. Just dual boot linux on the machines you've got!

The idea of the Pi in GENERAL, is to brng back the days of the early Sinclair machines, when the box plugged into your TV and everyone could have one.

Don't get me wrong - I love the Pi. But I am struggling to see the point of the educational application. Computers are already just about that commonplace. For kids whose families don't have the means, schools already have programs to lend them laptops for some given period of time.

If the general idea is to give them skills that will translate to common real-world scenarios, surely it's better to practice on the actual common machine that everybody uses, rather than an esoteric stand-in (how many are actually going to be engineers as opposed to something else?). Why dumb it down in the interests of "making it simpler/easier to understand and teach"?

Its not just that, its the programming on the metal, if you want to that the Pi is trying to encourage again- where our current batch of UK power house software and hardware designers started, back in the 1980s.

I don't know how schools in the USA are about it, but you would be expelled from some here for DARING to program on a school computer.


That will be a large part of it - being able to programme computers connected to the school network will require being able to bypass school security protocols, and could potentially leave the machine as a brick, useless to other classes who might need it for non-programming reasons in the next lesson. The solution to this is stand-alone machines, but an extra room or three full of normal PCs will beyond most schools' budget and available space.

If its set up properly, no it wouldn't - the kids computers would be thin clients and running in virtual machines on the school servers - but that means LESS for the IT people to do. Screwed up the VM ? Who cares ? click, restart VM.

We should be pushing for a heterogenous computing environment - with kids being able to use their own hardware on the school network, without it being any issue at all.

OK, we're outside my knowledge-base now (which is a large part of the problem with the proposals, of course).

Unfortunately, most of the decision-makers (even the tech services people) will also be similarly outside their knowledge-base.

ON the up-side, I have persuaded my school's tech guy that it would be useful for people to be able to use their own iOS devices on the school's wifi...

Mainly politics - the IT tech chap uses an iPad

Plus, the only pocket android devices I know of are phones, and the students are not allowed phones around school, whilst they are allowed their iPods.

Oh - I thought you meant they specifically disallowed traffic if the header didn't specify iOS or something.

ON the up-side, I have persuaded my school's tech guy that it would be useful for people to be able to use their own iOS devices on the school's wifi...

WOW, that's one heck of a result. Well done.


Not yet, it's not, though, because his attempt to set up a "public" wifi access with "safe" access to the internet (remember, kiddies have iPods as well), gave the proper wifi network some sort of indigestion...

If they access the net on their devices (which they can do with the 3G network ANYway, I can't see what the problem is.


ha ha ha... nothing an antacid can't cure. :D

As you know, computer science is such that once a teacher has become qualified to teach a topic, the technology is already being replace, upgraded or perhaps obsolete. That being said, the change is a far cry better than teaching kids MS Word and Excel to the point of unconsciousness.

The article you referred to says, "it will be replaced by a flexible curriculum in computer science and programming, designed with the help of universities and industry." - Do you know what help or industry tools you may receive?

If you're going to be part of the solution, I would think its rather important to have your opinion on the direction of this change. Simply having heard of certain technologies is not the basis for being motivated to educate.

Also, has anyone asked the students what they would like to be taught? I know this may be a foreign idea in the education system, but kids are far brighter and knowledgable in the latest technologies than they are give credit for. Maybe they would like to work with 2D & 3D programming. Perhaps they'd like to work in graphic arts and design within PS and develop their ideas onto the web using something like DW.

I applaud your desire to research and ask for opinions on this, versus simply "moaning about the government".

You got that right (first paragraph). I was learning COBOL II in 1982 on an IBM System 3.....with punch cards.....a good 4-5 years after graduation from highschool...

I half-remember some joke where the punchline is "A load of old COBOLlers.". (that half.)


Haven't touched that language since 1984 though ;-) ...I know, I know....it isn't that I didn't "get it", it is more like "I'm ignoring it" LOL

They say there's actually a small but lucrative market for COBOL programmers - many legacy systems, including really important infrastructure, are running COBOL but nobody learns it anymore...

ANS COBOL, the type that ran on the IBM system 3, is almost completely replaced now with COBOL 2002 or if not COBOL-85 at least. Although, had I kept the language alive by using it, I certainly would have a shot at using said skills with a bit of updating (mostly new commands to learn). BUT as with many things (like the GERMAN I learned in H.S.) if you don't use it ever, you lose it. Had I kept it "fresh" I could have been extremely valuable in 2000 when the "big scare" occurred :-) At this point, I'd have to relearn it.

oh come on... someone needs to tell us the other half of the joke. :D

I 'aven't been been able to find it on line....