Dr Tim Bell is Associate Professor of Computer Science at Canterbury University and has been heavily involved in changes to ICT education in schools over the last two years.
Edna Kerr was once quoted by Dale Carnegie in his best seller How to stop worrying and start living as saying:
"The greatest tragedy I know of is that so many young people never discover what they really want to do".
This is something that I find holds true to this day.
I often go into schools and ask students what they think a computer scientist, or even an ICT Professional, does for a living. If I'm lucky a few might say "work out how to use computers", or "hack".
Blank stares however and shrugged shoulders are more common. Very few students see a career in computing as an attractive option. Many of those who do may assume that it mainly involves writing computer games, or at least testing them. That'd be nice!
The new Digital Technologies Achievement Standards that were discussed in Paul Matthews' column last week are intended to address this problem. At the same time they give students some foundation for further study in computing.
Until now computing in schools has done the opposite. Computer scientist Edward Tufte pointed out that only two industries refer to their customers as "Users", drug dealers and IT.
Sadly schools in many western countries, including NZ, focus heavily on turning out people who are well versed in being users (of computers, not drugs), but not developers.
Not only has this prevented students from feeling the empowerment of being able to create new products out of nothing. It has also actively modelled computing work as being primarily concerned with how to work with other peoples' systems and pay them for the privilege, rather than creating one's own.
Of course, nearly everyone, developers included, will end up being a user of digital technologies. Producing developers however means that as a nation we'll be paid by other countries who want to use our software, and not vice versa.
More importantly, students are now more likely to make sensible decisions about the possibility of a career in computing. This is particularly true of female students who tend to assume that working in computing is an uncreative and anti-social existence.
Computer Science and Programming
A particularly important component of the new Digital Technologies standards is the "Computer Science and Programming" strand. This exposes students to the possibility of creating software, and more importantly, that there are skills beyond programming that are important in the creation of efficient, reliable, usable and scalable systems.
The level of programming is introductory, and the choice of programming language is up to each school.
The computer science part of the standards has students explore topics that touch on a variety of areas of computer science, mainly based on the USA's ACM K-12 school curriculum [PDF].
For example, students explore different algorithms for solving the same problem, such as linear search compared with binary search. They don't need to be able to program the algorithms, but they need to estimate running times. This could be as simple as estimating how long it takes to look up a name in a very large phone book using either a convention divide-and-conquer approach, or a linear search through every page.
The scalability of the binary search approach becomes apparent quickly, and by running supplied programs students soon learn that even on a fast computer linear search doesn't scale well.
Other topics include exploring Human-Computer Interaction principles and usability by evaluating simple interfaces that frustrate people, like having a grandparent try to send a text message on a mobile phone.
Also covered is encoding of information by compression or working out what their world would be like if MP3 hadn't been invented, error correction such as exploring checksums in bar codes, and data representation such as whether or not 24-bit colour is better than 16-bit, or what 16-bit Unicode can represent that 7-bit ASCII can't.
Teachers and Resources
Being asked to teach new topics like "encryption" and "algorithms" can be daunting for teachers who don't have a background in computer science. However, the topics are only taught at a level of appreciating what the issues are and measuring effectiveness.
This could be for instance how much smaller MP3 files are than WAV files without delving into how they work. At this stage, there is no need to know about Discrete Cosine Transforms that are the basis of MP3 coding!
Fortunately there are hundreds of high quality free resources available on the internet to support teachers and students as they explore these topics. In fact, nearly all of the new topics have already been taught in the past to primary school students. For the sceptical in the audience, watch this demonstration of Quicksort by a young kids:
The challenge is finding enough time to help teachers prepare to teach this material. It's been good to see industry and tertiary organisations providing practical support, with resourcing to enable teachers to undertake professional development, and encouragement for students to take an interest in the new standards.
The good news is that over 3,000 students have already registered for standards from the new Programming and Computer Science strand this year. That's 3,000 who have a new opportunity for "discovering what they really want to do."
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ITCP, or Information Technology Certified Professional, is the professional accreditation of ICT professions in New Zealand