Computer says yes: praise for creative focus

14th December 2012 at 00:00
US technology guru lauds Scottish schools' real-world approach to computing

A world-leading figure in computing has praised Scotland's new teaching materials for the subject.

Hal Abelson, of the MIT Center for Mobile Learning, has been impressed by the emphasis that the "wonderful" exemplification materials - for S1-3 - place on real-world situations and creating mobile phone apps.

"Your ideas really take life, rather than being abstract, and you see yourself as a creator in this digital world rather than just a consumer," said Professor Abelson, who also works with Google as part of the team behind the educational application App Inventor for Android.

He spoke online from the US during last week's Edinburgh launch of the materials, which are a joint endeavour by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Computer Society.

Jeremy Scott, head of computing at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh, has been seconded since August 2011 to lead work on the materials. He described his aim as creating "a flexible resource that any teacher can understand and adapt to local circumstances".

But speakers at the launch did not play down problems that are holding back progress, such as some schools demanding that a form be filled out every time a piece of software is downloaded.

Mr Scott tempered excitement about the materials with what he saw as the increasing problem of internet "lockdown" in schools.

"There is a danger that the IT infrastructure could be the master, not the servant, of education," said Mr Scott, who is now turning his attention to materials for older pupils.

The disappearance of computing from some schools - a recent survey showed that Scotland had lost more than 100 computing teachers in five years - was another concern for Mr Scott, who set that against what he believes is an epochal global shift towards digital technology.

"We have had another industrial revolution, but the subject which drives that isn't offered in some schools; it's barely in existence south of the border," he said.

The situation in England was also highlighted by Alasdair Allan, minister for learning, science and Scotland's languages: with 4,124 taking Higher computing, that was about the same number of candidates taking A-level computing throughout the UK.

Alan Bundy, the British Computer Society's project ambassador, highlighted research that suggests the industry with the biggest shortfall in potential employees is computing.

He stressed the need for schools to teach children computational thinking - a logic-based approach that does not necessarily require expensive modern technology.

"Computational thinking pervades every aspect of 21st-century life," said Professor Bundy. "It's vital for every Scottish school leaver to think computationally."

ICT education, he added, was too often reduced to "boring and repetitive" office skills; the situation in Scotland was less serious than in England, but "still in need of an overhaul".


Many pupils may not have the mobile technology required for a "bring your own device" ICT policy to work, a survey by an Edinburgh secondary school has suggested.

Some 35 per cent of senior pupils at Portobello High - which has a roll of 1,300 - did not have an "appropriate" device.

This was defined by the school as a netbook, tablet or laptop. Although smartphones are considered useful in some circumstances, they are not viewed as suitable for tasks such as extended writing.

The survey was driven by the school's aim to introduce a bring-your-own- device approach, initially with the S5-6 cohort in 2013-14, which Portobello staff consider pragmatic - although if money were no object they would prefer to use a single platform such as the iPad.

Edinburgh City Council is exploring ways of issuing suitable devices to pupils who cannot bring their own.


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