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Plan to overhaul Higher computing offers chance for academics' input

University specialists urged to seize opportunity to influence subject in schools and help reverse decline in pupil uptake

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University specialists urged to seize opportunity to influence subject in schools and help reverse decline in pupil uptake

Academics have been given an unprecedented opportunity to influence how computing is taught in schools, thanks to plans to revamp Higher computing by 2014 and the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence.

University computer scientists are urging their colleagues to seize the chance with both hands since the higher education sector has led criticism of schools' computer studies courses for being irrelevant, boring and responsible for turning youngsters off the subject.

In 2007, they blamed schools for a halving in the number of students over five years who chose to study computer science at university, leading to a dearth of expertise in the Scottish computing industry (TESS, September 14, 2007).

The Scottish Qualifications Authority, however, is now planning a "complete rewrite" of the Higher computing course, and universities have been asked to feed into the process.

The SQA is also hoping to launch a qualification in computer games development next year which teachers are optimistic will help to reignite pupils' interest in the subject (see panel).

Alan Bundy, a professor at Edinburgh University's School of Informatics, said: "A few years ago, getting a computing qualification was considered a negative qualification for computer science degrees. This got a bit worse with the recent emphasis on ICT skills. These, of course, are important but it's like the difference between being able to drive and understanding how your car works."

Professor Bundy is now optimistic, however. "Everybody agrees on the underlying principles of Curriculum for Excellence but it has not been populated with teaching plans," he said. "Some teachers are feeling a bit at sea and would like help in realising this ambitious proposal. Universities have an unparalleled opportunity to provide some of these materials in a way we think the subject should be taught."

A new Higher course would be a "really important" development and could become a prerequisite for entry into computer science courses, said Judy Robertson, a senior lecturer in computer science at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

"At the moment, because the qualification is out of date, we don't insist on Higher computing and opt for maths instead," she said.

Professor Bundy has outlined his plans to the Scottish Government, identifying the key "nuggets of knowledge" pupils need to advance in computer science, which could be a starting point for the new Higher.

Beginning in pre-school and P1, children should acquire "the confidence and pleasure of playing with a computer", his report says. They should also be introduced to email, the internet, word-processing and games.

By the end of secondary, they should understand:

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