Cars don’t run the world

Cars don’t run the world

I’m pleased to say that this article also appears in the Edudemic iPad magazine, which is available for download at the iTunes store. Check out the Edudemic website to get a taste of what they’re all about.

To pass your driving test in the UK you need to be able to see a certain distance, show an awareness of the rules of the road, be able to point to where your oil is and explain how you might change it and obviously show a certain level of competency on the road. If you can do that, you’re free to roam the streets anytime, anywhere.

The ECDL (European Computer Driving License) course follows a similar format in that, as with your car, you don’t need to know anything about the mechanics of your machine. ECDL is a program of study many schools in the UK follow in order to give their students a recognised qualification in how to use a computer, one which is supposedly respected and perhaps even actively sought out by employers.

However, the types of task we ask our students to complete in order to gain this qualification are extraordinarily basic. Students must for example, ‘Create, spell check and send email. Reply to and forward email, handle file attachments and print an email,’ ‘work with documents and save them in different file formats,’ and ‘Open an existing image, save an image in different formats, and set image file options.’

Perhaps ten years ago this might have seemed like a worthy or even cutting-edge series of task, but in today’s climate of Smartphones, touch screens, wifi and workarounds these seem like pretty inane tasks. Most children could complete most of the ECDL course before they leave primary school and frankly we shouldn’t be giving them a certificate for it, it should be expected. In the schools of the future, these are entry level skills; a foundation upon which everything else will be built.

The current Education Secretary is desperate to reform the state of education in the UK. In a relatively short space of time he has introduced a number of changes. Many of them completely miss the point about where education is headed; his desire that students revert back to the Victorian system of rote, fact learning seems anachronistic when contrasted with his realisation that the ECDL course simply doesn’t work.

He announced at the 2012 BETT (British Educational Training and Technology) exhibition that the government would cease to enforce ICT training as it currently stands and that schools would be free to introduce whatever program they would like.

So something to rejoice about? No more having to teach kids how to save a Word document. But here lies the problem…what else do we have to teach them?

The UK, so I am told, has a proud heritage of computer programming. However, as a child of the 80s this has entirely passed me by. Whilst I remember my older brother (10 years my senior) rebuilding his Spectrum ZX, when I finally got my hands on it, I struggled to get the cassette to play at the right time to ensure the game loaded. In about thirty attempts, I probably managed to play Pac-Man twice.

I hope that it will become fairly standard for schools to teach Computer Science either as a formal or informal curriculum for all students. This is something that probably needs to start in primary school, but I would certainly like to think that students could take a test in it at GCSE.

I would like to be one of those students.

But who will teach me? Who will teach them?

You would be hard pressed to find a primary school teacher who could pass on the basics of logic and even in secondary schools, a Maths teacher might cope with logic, but do we have the personnel to teach the rest of the course without alienating the average kid who doesn’t already speak ‘computer;’ and at the moment only has lukewarm feelings about changing this. How do we win more of these people round?

Throwing these kids at the mercy of your IT department’s one die-hard programmer may not be the answer.

Teachers need training so that they can embed the skills of computing into their teaching, but how many teachers have the time or inclination for such things?

Next year iPads will be introduced into my school. At first it will simply be a class set, bookable by teachers as and when they need them. Part of my job will be to run sessions that show teachers what this kit can do and how they could best utilise them in the classroom. Similar practise is going to be necessary for advancing the general computing skills that future generations need.

Programs like MIT’s Scratch and the brilliant Raspberry Pi, will clearly lead the way for self-starters, but it might take a more human approach to win over some of the disbelievers you find in a staff common room.

The current cohort of teachers in the UK is divided by those who were born on the cusp of ‘digital literacy’ (albeit a more simplified version that the literacy we wish to instil in our students) and those for whom literacy will only ever refer to the printed or handwritten word and the rigorous pursuit of grammatical accuracy. Because of this, it looks to be an uphill, but entirely necessary struggle. We need ‘champions’ in schools pushing this agenda forward and we need to get the students in on this.

They know things we don’t.

It’s a frustrating admission for some, but if there is someone in your class who has learnt to program using BASIC, then why wouldn’t you utilise him? Here is the champion you’ve been waiting for.

We may not all be so lucky, but we must persevere and ensure that we do not disadvantage the workforce of the future by shutting down the possibility of working for an ever-expanding and important industry.

The humble driving license suits our travelling needs well enough. So long as we are qualified to get ourselves from A to B we will get by, happily deferring to those that know better if a problem arises. Computers on the other hand, have infiltrated our lives on a considerably deeper level. In the very near future they will undoubtedly become integrated into our very being (if you don’t already consider your iPhone to be an additional appendage), the internet connects us with people and material that just a few years ago would have been impossible, we can communicate and produce content in new and ever-advancing ways. But all of this comes at an extraordinary cost if you don’t understand the mechanics behind the scenes.

Cars don’t run the world. And whilst it’s not quite true (yet) that computers do, it is probably fair to say that it is the people who sit behind them and understand them that have all the power; to monitor us, to collect our information, to manage our bank accounts and recommend who we decide to be friends with.

We need to learn new skills. These are the skills of the future, skills that could reinvigorate a fading industry, but more importantly, these will be the skills that allow us to take control of our lives.



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