John Naughton had a nice column in The Observer last month about the chronic problems with IT courses for kids. There had been a plan for a new required exam in information and communication technology (ICT) for 14 year olds in the UK, but enthusiasm for the requirement has waned and it looks like it ain’t gonna happen.
The requirement and the exam are sadly typical of so much K-12 tech education. As Naughton put it, these kinds of requirements (and courses) tend to be “An Old Person’s Guide to ICT”:
There’s a surreal quality to it, conjuring up images of kids trudging into ICT classes and being taught how to use a mouse and click on hyperlinks; receiving instructions in the creation of documents using Microsoft Word and of spreadsheets using Excel; being taught how to create a toy database using Access and a cod PowerPoint presentation; and generally being bored out of their minds.
Then the kids go home and log on to Bebo or MySpace to update their profiles, run half a dozen simultaneous instant messaging conversations, use Skype to make free phone calls, rip music from CDs they’ve borrowed from friends, twiddle their thumbs to send incomprehensible text messages, view silly videos on YouTube and use BitTorrent to download episodes of Lost. When you ask them what they did at school, they grimace and say: ‘We made a PowerPoint presentation, dad. Yuck!’
When I came to UMM in ’91 we had a computing requirement as part of our general education requirements. That was dropped in ’99 when we converted from quarters to semesters, largely based on an understanding that the state was going to be requiring some sort of computing course for all high school graduates. Unfortunately those high school courses are typically just the nightmare that Naughton describes, leaving the students with little real understanding of the underlying technologies or larger issues, and with a seriously bad taste in their mouth regarding these sorts of courses (a bad taste that carries over to college when we get here).
While I certainly think we need more science, math, and technology courses in K-12, it’s also clear that we need good classes and not misguided exercises in teaching outdated ideas that end up being a really annoying form of babysitting.
I tend to have mixed feelings about Morris dropping our computing requirement. The requirement was certainly good for our program. It brought lots of students through our courses, many of which would probably have not taken a computing course otherwise. Quite a few of those became majors, and those “walk ons” represented a very large proportion of our female and minorty computing majors. Now that the requirement is gone, our majors consistent almost entirely of students who come to college intending to be computing majors, and we get almost no “walk ons”. Consequently, our pool of majors (who I love dearly) is nearly 100% pasty white boys.
My experience with the students here is that they are often very familiar with Facebook and MySpace like Naughton suggests, but it’s by no means universal. I used blogs in my First Year Seminar course last semester, for example, and found considerable variation in the students’ experience with blogging. While many were very experienced, others were still very uncomfortable around the technologies.
Would a computing requirement here help? If so, how? What do our students need, and how do we serve them? And how do we avoid teaching just the sort of courses that Naughton so rightly skewers?