An insightful response to the Digital Pathway paper

This is in an insightful reply to the draft position paper on how to develop digital education in Blackpool.

Hello Frank,  

While I was collating my views about whether coding turns our young learners off taking GCSE Computer Science, my note making started to turn into more of a written analysis so I thought I might as well send it for your perusal.  

If there is anything that you would like further clarification on, we can still meet but I think I have covered my thoughts on the subject. ‘Do the requirements of Computer Science GCSE sift out many who might have a great career in Digital businesses but are not great at coding?’  

The initial event that will sift out young people is in Year 9 when they are told that they will only be given the option to do GCSE Computer Science if they are in top set Maths. This may not happen in every school, but it does in some. The reason given for this is there is a high drop-out rate, however this may not be due to only the coding. This event is unfortunate for many as it gives the impression that it is essential to be a mathematician to have a successful digital career. This is not the case.  

Because of this, at a stage when they are really considering what path to take, they may be turned off from aspiring to a digital career. Teachers are not to blame for this as they are only trying to ensure students choose a GCSE option that they will not find too difficult and can achieve in. However, it does give an inaccurate impression about digital careers in general.  

So, why is there a high drop-out rate? Is it coding that turns learners off taking the subject or makes them drop out? In my opinion, coding isn’t the only reason. Many young people see coding as the most interesting part of Computer Science and it’s their chance to get hands on and creative in Computing. The high drop-out rate may be due to the theory which can actually be quite mathematically intense and sometimes a bit dry unless you have specific interest in that area. 

Modules in Data Representation that include binary maths, converting between different bases of numbers e.g hex to binary, and text representation using ASCII are where excellent mathematical skills are required and may also, to the student, seem very irrelevant to many digital jobs.  

Here are some example questions that illustrate the complexity:  

Which of the following is the hexadecimal number 8916 expressed as a binary number? 

Mike has an image with a 4-bit colour depth and a resolution of 100 × 200 pixels. How many different colours can there be in this image?  

What is the largest decimal number that can be represented with 5 bits? 

Coding is now taught in primaries, clearly some schools will give it more time than others and some schools will teach in a more interesting and accessible way than others, but this means that many children are moving into KS3 with a sound understanding of the fundamentals of coding and computational thinking. The variances in the standard of education in this area can hopefully be addressed by more schools following the NCCE lessons. This is particularly important where primaries do not have a computer specialist to teach their lessons as these lesson plans will give them a minimum standard to be teaching to.  

So, if coding lessons continue to be delivered in an interesting and engaging manner then that should not be the reason people are turned off Computer Science. However, due to a shortage of specialist computing teachers this may not always be the case.  

What cannot be ignored is the big jump in complexity from block-base coding to text-based coding which may put some learners off as they will go from being able to make games in primary to more simplistic projects to begin with in secondary. Also, once programs get more complex, more debugging is needed to make it work and not everyone has the patience for such.  

Coding is not for everyone. Logical thinking does not come naturally to everyone. So, if a learner does not enjoy coding, then they probably should not take Computer Science as it certainly is a strong aspect that runs through the two years. It is also true, however, that potentially excellent computer programmers could also be sifted out by the requirement to have strong mathematical knowledge to achieve some requirements of the qualification, which is a great shame.  

In conclusion, most of the Computer Science GCSE requirements are specialist but we need it, and its requirements to give those students who wish to follow a highly technical or software engineering role an in depth knowledge. However, we also need something else, a qualification that shows learners are proficient/expert users of technology and they can turn their hand to many different environments.  

Ideally there should be a qualification/certification that shows proficiency in digital skills including but not restricted to word processing, desktop publishing, spreadsheets, presentation software, databases, computer aided design, web design etc. To some these may seem quite low-level but they are so important and really there are so many functions in these software packages that to be an expert would be quite an attractive achievement. Most of us only know how to use a fraction of what is available. Also, a sound knowledge of directory and network structures, security, backup protocols, copyright etc. would be useful.  

We can show the children through more links with businesses that you do not always need Computer Science qualifications to get a digital job but how can those young children with potential to be expert users of technology become proficient and prove to employers that they are proficient? Are we going to get a new GCSE qualification introduced? Probably not.  

Ideally all work in all subjects would be completed on digital devices, but are teachers going to be able to give young learners the opportunity to improve their digital skills by completing more work on digital devices rather than writing in book? Not likely, not enough time or devices.  

Can teachers encourage learners to do their homework using particular packages e.g create your history newspaper report using a desktop publishing package? Yes, and this would be great encouragement for many but not all have the resources needed.  

Do we need to introduce more extra-curricular learning opportunities, lunchtimes, after school ICT clubs? Maybe, how popular they would be I do not know but maybe if the young learners felt like they would be achieving a certificate at the end that they could show to potential employers to prove they were proficient/expert users of ICT it might encourage some.  

I hope some of this can be of use,  

Claire 

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