School IT

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi computer. The machine costs £20 and is a fully-fledged computer. The user has to 'do' things and 'know' things in order to make it work!

Above all, education should empower children. And yet when it comes to Information Technology, IT, we are in danger of doing the opposite. Training courses such as the European Computer Driver’s Licence course show students how to use Microsoft’s ubiquitous ‘Office’ suite of applications and this is useful. So for example, learning to drive a car is useful: but it’s also not very difficult. And learning to use ‘Office’ applications is similarly, not very difficult.

In contrast, learning Newton’s laws, thermodynamics and materials science is hard, and you won’t actually be able to drive a car at the end of your training. But you will be able to understand, how a car works. And not just that: you might be able to imagine different types of cars, or even aeroplanes or rockets or submarines. Similarly, teaching computer programming will not directly help students to use a word processor. But they will understand how a word processor does what it does, and maybe they will even imagine new ways to use a computer. This is genuine empowerment. On this issue, if on few others, I am surprised to find myself agreeing with Michael Gove.

It is only when students take charge of computers that they become empowered, and I hope the Raspberry Pi computer will enable a resurgence in that. The Raspberry Pi is a fully-fledged but bare-bones computer costing around £20, and when it went on sale recently, it sold out in minutes. It was sold to people who are probably a bit like me. But my hope – and the hope of the Raspberry Pi foundation – is that it will find its way into the hands of children who will be excited by the prospect of making this device do what they want it to. In all probability this means using it to play games!

When my colleagues Gavin and Robin were teenagers the hottest technology available  was the Sinclair Spectrum, and a key attraction was the ability to create and play games! This ability fascinated them, and now – I think as a direct result of this early experience – they incorporate a profound understanding of programming into their skill set. Even now when any of us write software that works, and we control a machine or calculate the answer to a complicated problem, we all smile in appreciation at the technical sweetness of the process. In the case of my own programming achievements, Gavin and Robin smile mainly in sympathy 🙂

Being the age I am – 52 – it was not until I reached University that I met a computer. And I loved it! Using Commodore PET, a WANG, and an Apple II I learned the power of computing to set my imagination free. As an undergraduate  I calculated the orbits of planets in systems which Newton would have found impossible! Learning to program computers empowered and inpsired me.

One could take the view that a fascination with the minutiae of computing is as relevant today as a fascination with the details of a steam engine! ‘Chill out man‘ I hear some of you say, ‘Just consume media on your iPad and be grateful‘. I respectfully disagree. Empowering our children means enabling them to be creators, and not consumers, and computer programming is one the most creative of all activities.

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2 Responses to “School IT”

  1. teddnet Says:

    I am, for what it’s worth, a ‘Toshiba Education Ambassador’- in that while we were building the new school, they thought that my views were worth spreading around the education IT community. So I get invited to an annual get-together of ambassadors, sponsored by Toshiba (but not sold to- they genuinely provide the facilities and let us get on with it.) Last year, when they were entering the tablet marketplace, they shared with us their view on tablets- that there was a fundamental divide between tablets and personal computers; that anything without a keyboard was a content consumption device, and not a content creation device. I agree both with them and with you- in education, IT has to be a tool enabling students to create more. The current argument that Apple is proposing, that iPads are good devices for schools because they inspire ‘engagement’, is in my opinion bogus- engagement dies as soon as devices become ubquitous. One of our teachers came in today and mentioned how she writes by hand on a real whiteboard regularly, just to keep the skill; she’s amazed how attentive the students are when she does so, because they’re not used to seeing real writing.

    iPads do have their uses- you’ve pointed out specialist apps of remarkable utility yourself- but the way I see it, in education IT has to make things easy for teachers, but make it easier for students to do more challenging things. And ‘ask Wikipedia how high Everest is’; or ‘listen to this book being read to you’; or ‘prod this element and see it spin’ don’t fall into that category…

    We need things to make students think harder and understand more, not things to make them prod glass and pose for publicity pictures showing IT in use in education. On this issue, you and I could rant in such unison the words would lase.

  2. Michael Gove and the Exam Boards « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] he abolished the Qualifications and Curriculum development Authority (QCDA).  Secondly he pointed out at that school IT lessons are at best uninspiring. And now he has gone and […]

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