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"At the moment, because the qualification is out of date, we don't insist on Higher computing and opt for maths instead," she said.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:
- the need for computer security and approaches to improving it, such as good passwords, encryption, security protocols, etc;
- how computer programs can be used to model natural, artificial and unreal situations;
- the structure of the internet, both at hardware and software levels;
- the concept of an algorithm through examples such as sorting, searching, shortest path, etc; and that one algorithm can be more efficient than another;
- programming concepts such as branching, loops, recursion, sub-routine, co-routining, and hypertext links;
- philosophical issues involved in artificial intelligence.
On top of their games
When the number of pupils opting to study computing began dropping at Forrester High in Edinburgh, Julie Mclaren turned to her pupils for advice about how to reignite interest in the subject.
The National Progression Award in computer game development, which she hopes will be taught in schools from August, is the result.
The qualification spans SCQF levels 4-6, plugging the gap between the new Curriculum for Excellence outcomes and experiences in technology, which require pupils at levels 1-3 to experience computer games development, and the planned Higher National Certificate in the subject.
Ms Mclaren, now principal teacher of computing and business education at Madras College in St Andrews, said: "There will be a perception the qualification is about playing games, but it's about planning, designing, video-editing, animation, teamwork, giving constructive feedback and creating their game.
"We have one of the largest gaming industries in Europe, but falling numbers studying computing."
There are more than 50 computer game firms in Scotland, including Rockstar North which created Grand Theft Auto, a role-playing game in which players aim to rise through the ranks of the criminal underworld.