What Is Computing?

Andrew Virnuls
2015-11-27 15:30


Andrew Virnuls, Subject Genius, What is computing?

If I were to introduce a new subject, topic or idea to my students, I would first explain what it was, and what it was for.  I find that students who struggle with a particular topic – especially the more conceptual ones, such as algebra – have often missed the explanation that gives the topic context and purpose.

When Computing was added to the National Curriculum, that step of explaining what it’s for was omitted.  In fact, for a brand-new, high-profile National Curriculum subject, Computing had a rather curious launch.

Firstly, when was it launched?  It officially became part of the National Curriculum in September 2014, but due to the unusual way in which ICT was "disapplied" from the previous version of the curriculum, some of us were teaching Computing to KS3 classes for up to 18 months before that.  Academies aren't bound to follow the National Curriculum, so not all schools appear to be teaching Computing now.  Computing, therefore, was denied a “Big Bang” introduction.

Secondly, there's the issue of what Computing actually is.  It's something that Computer Science graduates had always hoped that ICT would become, and for others it appears to be something to be terrified of.  But that doesn't answer the question.

In the early noughties, one of the questions at the start of an A level ICT paper was, "What is information and communication technology?"  Some of my students were completely thrown.  They'd been looking at the detail, and hadn't thought about what the subject was as a whole.  My feeling is that the same is true of Computing.

In the old days, it was easy.  The DfE (or whatever they were called at the time) would publish a new National Curriculum, teachers would gather in front of the local authority subject advisers, and we'd discuss the changes and the underlying rationale.  I remember a lot of discussion of "mastery" in 2010, for example.  We’d often also be given exemplar materials. 

Local authority cuts have led to the disappearance of subject advisers, which means that we've skipped that stage.  The National Curriculum document appeared, without any supporting documentation about the relative weightings of different sections or any examples of what we might teach, and we've all made up our own minds about what it means.

The Computer Scientists amongst us thought we knew what it meant, and those from a non-Computing background hoped that it meant that they could carry on as normal, maybe with a bit of Scratch thrown in.  Various organisations, including NAACE and Computing at School, also promoted their own views of what Computing is.

There are obviously still quite a few people convinced that what they’ve read of Computing, or the view they’ve formed of it, isn’t for them.  So I'm going to tell you what I think it means, and a couple of reasons why Computing is better than the subject it replaced - and more suited to the population as a whole – in the hope that my enthusiasm might rub off.  I'm also going to tell why the two positions outlined in the previous paragraph aren't as far apart as you might think.

Before I do that, though, I'll briefly mention that I think a third confuscating factor is Computing at School.  For me, school is for education, not for vocational training.  Having the subject run by the BCS (effectively the trade organisation for the software industry) appears to suggest that Computing is a vocational subject, and validates the criticism of the Computing-phobic that it’s a niche subject only for students who are interested in a career in programming.

In Visible Learning, John Hattie suggests that a good way to think about a subject is to ask yourself, What does it mean to be good at Computing? and also, What are the success factors?  How will you know when you can do something?

If I were to try to sum up the point of Computing in one phrase, it would be, How does that work?  I will feel that I have done my job if students leave my lessons, look at something outside of the classroom, and think, "Hmm - I wonder how that works?"

There's the oft-quoted Dijkstra observation that Computing is "as much about computers as astronomy is about telescopes".  He's right - Computing isn't about understanding how computers work, it's about understanding how things work so that we can get computers to do them (although, admittedly, we also need to know a bit about some of the computer's limitations before we can do that).

That brings me to the two most common complaints of the Computing refuseniks - that they can't possibly learn all about Computing because it changes so quickly, and that it's somehow less useful to their students than ICT.

In fact, ICT dates quickly and Computing doesn't.  When I started teaching ICT, in the mid-90s, we used Windows 3.11 workstations booting from an OS/2 server.  I then moved to a school that used a mixture of Windows PCs, RISC-OS PCs and Network Computers (NCs - remember them?).  I've taught ICT using Office 2, Works, Lotus Approach, Office 97, Office 2000, Office 2003 and now Access 2007, but some of my students have Office 2010, Office 2013 or even LibreOffice or Google Docs at home.

Computing, on the other hand, and GCSE Computing in particular, is almost identical to the subject I knew as Computer Studies when I was at school in the early 1980s.  I’d go further and say that Computing is largely the same as it was when computers were first invented in the 1940s - even things like Quicksort and TCP/IP (the internet's underlying protocol) were invented in the 1960s.

Is Computing less useful?  The common perception is that KS3 students spend all of their time making PowerPoint presentations.  Is that useful?  I don't personally know anyone that isn't a teacher who uses PowerPoint in their job.  What proportion of adults use spreadsheets?  Who ever made a "multimedia product" using Microsoft Office?  No-one.

What proportion of adults needs to approach a larger task by breaking it down into smaller steps?  How many people need to search for, or sort things?  Who could benefit from understanding how things work and from working more efficiently?  Almost everyone.

So Computing concepts aren't only of use to people destined to work in the software industry.  They're not even only of use for people who go on to work with computers.  I'll give you an example.

Back in the days of hand-written reports, my school had a system where there was one page per student per subject.  After writing the page for a student, the subject teacher would drop it into the box of the form tutor for collation; each student would receive their set of pages, sorted into alphabetical order of subject, but they were also supposed to be sorted into alphabetical order of student name for pastoral heads to check.

I was sitting in the staffroom one day, when a colleague was complaining that it had taken her ages to sort out the reports for her tutor group. It had taken me less than ten minutes during one tutor period.  She'd spread them out across her dining room floor and sorted them herself, I'd handed mine out to the students, they'd sorted their pile and I'd collected them back in as they left the room in alphabetical order.  I'd used an efficient parallel sorting algorithm and she hadn't.  No computers were involved.

In fact, some of the most powerful demonstrations of computing techniques can be done without using computers - have a look at CS Unplugged for examples.

I also like the way in which the topics in Computing link together to form a coherent whole.  ICT had become rather bitty - "Today we're reviewing a web-page, but tomorrow we're making a spreadsheet" - but almost every topic in Computing (apart from possibly the e-safety aspects) can be linked to another.  Have a look at this Computing curriculum map as an example of how it can be done.

So, is Computing new and exciting, or is it business-as-usual-with-a-bit-of-Scratch?  Well, it's both.

The only thing from the new KS3 curriculum that I’m not sure I had taught before as part of a KS3 ICT lesson was binary.  The first lesson I ever taught, during teaching practice in 1997, was programming (the head of ICT was a science teacher who "corrected" my [correct] explanation of sub-routines because he'd always done it wrong, but he was enthusiastic about the subject).  My second lesson was a league table modelling exercise of the type that has since fallen from favour (to be replaced by business-like spreadsheets of event costings), but is the sort of pure modelling task that would work well in a Computing lesson.

You could do some of the same tasks as you did before, just with a different emphasis.  As Computing is more academic, it’s a good opportunity to reappraise the point of some of the lessons.  With ICT tasks, quite often we were concerned with what the result looked like; with Computing, we should be more concerned about how it works.

Students could still make a web-page, for example, but instead of thinking about audience in terms of wording, preferred colours and fonts, etc., you could discuss audience requirements in technical terms - the limitations of the device that people might use to look at the page, whether Curlz MT is available on the iPhone, and how much of your data allowance would be required to download that poorly-compressed image.

Similarly, if you want to add a rollover, there’s no point in doing it in Fireworks and Dreamweaver, because that’s only teaching you which buttons you need to press in Fireworks and Dreamweaver (even if students were to use those applications again, it’s unlikely to be the same version).  It’s also only concerned with appearance.  A more “Computing” approach would be to think about what a rollover is (i.e. two styles applied alternately) and to create the styles using CSS and the :hover selector (it also produces a much more compact result than Dreamweaver, so will be quicker to download).

One final thing that has no place in KS3 Computing is the "project" - but that's a topic for another day!

So, if you’re trying to introduce Computing in your school, or you’re feeling a bit resistant to the idea, reflect on why that might be, and think about what you’d say if one of the students or parents were to ask you, “What is Computing?”


Andrew Virnuls teaches Computing with the Warwickshire Ill Health Team