Wednesday, October 17, 2007

the decline of IT in education

Enrollments in IT courses have fallen dramatically in senior secondary courses in recent years and IT as a subject has been wound back in the middle school years in favour of integration of computing into other subjects, eg. the VELS approach in Victoria.

It is now crunch time because numbers have declined to the point where IT teachers are losing their subject and having to reconsider their futures, eg. go back to teaching maths or whatever

Some despair and bewilderment has been expressed on some IT teacher lists. Comments such as:
It seems unbelievable that in the Information Age students are not formally taught ANY ICT
I too am puzzled at the idea that 'integrating' IT into other subjects will allow anything approaching an adequate skills base for the 'information age' and current employer expectations. Why not 'integrate' the teaching of English into other subjects - after all we can all read and write, and unlike IT, most if not all of us have done Year 12 English!
So, although there are more computers in schools than ever before the expectation now is that all teachers ought to be "computer literate" and the proper place of computers is for them to be used in the context of traditional subjects. Word processing goes with English, Spreadsheets goes with Maths (if there is time left over after using the graphics calculator), web based research goes with Society and Environment, etc.

When computers first came on the scene they were new, exciting, important and vocational (new career pathway). Every parent was reported to have said or thought: "I want my child to learn computing". Now all that is changing and computers have just become part of the background hum of society, to be integrated into the traditional, long lasting, more fundamental subject domains: English, Maths, Science etc.

The stakeholders no longer see computing as important as a standalone subject. The students see themselves as "digital natives" who often know more than their "immigrant" teachers. The university IT departments prefer that students have a maths background, they believe that School does not know how to prepare students correctly for programming. These perceptions are neither right nor wrong (it depends). What they do signify is that IT has not clearly established its own internal strong criteria for its ongoing sustainability.

Who speaks for the computer? What is the computer for?

This is a failure of imagination and analysis. School has adapted the computer to its traditional goals. The early voices of the pioneers such as Ted Nelson, Seymour Papert and Alan Kay are not heard anymore. Once logo (which had a philosophy attached) went into decline and was replaced by Office (metaphor for apps) and the filtered web (metaphor for research) then it became inevitable that IT in general would go into decline. IT cannot justify itself as a standalone subject once it loses its powerful philosophical justification

IT specialist teachers can argue correctly that many English teachers do not teach word processing correctly, that many S&E teachers do not understand "web2.0" apps etc. but you can't really justify a whole subject just on the basis of skilling

Although School is pretty much dominated by narrow instrumentalist goals the traditional subjects do not occupy the same mental space of some of the arguments that have been used for IT. The continuation of English in the curriculum does not derive mainly from arguments like "there are jobs in English" or "you need English skills for a good job" even though both of these arguments are formally valid. Rather the English co-ordinator at the curriculum committee would say something more like: "the study of Shakespeare or John Marsden provides our students with valuable new insights into the human condition"

Does "web2.0" connectivism provide the basis for a brand new education system? I think probably not. I would see it as just one part of the puzzle, a new piece of the jigsaw built on top of the much larger edifice of modernity and the Enlightenment. The information age began with the printing press.

It is the failure of many of those who love computers to develop an equivalent argument and the failure of Schools to hear the equivalent argument when it has been developed, which explains why IT teachers are now losing their subject.

The argument does exist and can be articulated. The answer my friend has been blown in the wind, the answer is blown in the wind. The problem is one of hearing it, a social hearing in sufficient numbers that would make a difference.


Unknown said...

The idea of integrating ICT into other subject areas under VELS does not necessarily mean that there is not a role for specialist ICT teachers. It could mean that the role of the specialist ICT teacher is widened from the current concept.

Specialist English teachers teach a lot more than pencil holding or punctuation. They teach "powerful ideas" such as tolerance and democracy too.

Bill Kerr said...

hi tony,

In those many schools (not all schools) in which IT standalone enrollments are dropping there seem to be 2 possibilities.

1) the pathway you suggest, a creative ICT specialist
2) go back to teacher maths or whatever and integrate ICT into the subject that way

I do anticipate problems with either choice.

Choice 1: The whole culture of IT in Schools is so apps orientated and teachers are so busy it can be difficult to find teachers who will put in the hard yards to do creative things with computers

Choice 2: Computers in schools are confined to labs and those labs get busy. It can be difficult to obtain the access you need to do creative work with logo or gamemaker in maths, for example

I think I prefer choice 2, working with kids rather than teachers who, to be honest are often reluctant to experiment

At any rate exploring these scenarios is not leading clearly to the very positive role that computers could be playing in schools. I think the big picture vision is required as well.

Anonymous said...

This is just speaking from the U.S. POV, but I don't think computing in most schools was ever driven from a philosophical viewpoint. It was more driven by a kind of fear, and a futuristic vision. The vision was "this represents the future", whatever that happens to be. There were many positive futuristic visions of what this meant, some of which have come true. People got a sense that there was a need for computer literacy, not for the sake of society, but rather a fear that if people didn't do this they would be "left behind". They wouldn't be eligible for jobs, etc. This has also proved true. When I was a child there was a push to get the kids literate. There wasn't so much of a push for the adults, though there was always room for them.

Now that kids for the most part have computers at home--they've grown up with them--they're partly literate by the time they reach school. The calculators and cell phones that kids have are more powerful and more capable than the desktop computers I grew up with.

The trend you talk about of English teachers teaching word processing is not a bad thing in my mind. What word processors do is model a written document. Personally I think it's alright that they're teaching spreadsheets in math class, but I think they're more appropriate in science, because they show mathematical relationships, and science deals with this more.

When I was in high school in the late 1980s word processing had started to be connected with English courses. It was no longer a separate subject. The kids seemed to get along fine with that.

I agree with you that the reason computing as a specialty in school is losing ground is because there is no strong philosophical basis for it. What I'm saying is it was never really there in the schools. I'm sure you're aware of what Alan Kay talked about when Logo was first introduced. Most schools didn't understand what was powerful about it. My school certainly didn't. So it's not surprising that it went by the wayside.

Mark Guzdial grappled with the same questions you're asking in Why Latin?!? Making CS count for SOMETHING. He said that even though Latin is a dead language, a lot of students were taking it because they realized it helped them do better on the English portion of their standardized tests. He wondered if there was some equivalent benefit for students learning computer science at the high school level. He suggested it might in the future help with science, since universities are increasingly bringing computer programming into science classes. I said I was doubtful about this, at least in the short run, because you don't need to know programming to do well on the science portion of the standardized tests. To me, the two skills didn't meet up.

I can only imagine it working out this way if the science portion were on a computer itself, where questions like, "How does a flock of birds behave when encountering obstacles?", and it can show a few scenarios of simulated flight on the screen. This would challenge the student to model a process, which would best be achieved via. programming. Programming would only become relevant if simulation were part of the test.

At the time he wrote this I proposed that CS--specifically the practice of programming, not the theory--helped with the IQ test, because it helped with understanding patterns and functions, and therefor transformations. He thought it was a creative idea, but said there's emperical data to the contrary. CS doesn't help with IQ scores.

Anonymous said...

"This would challenge the student to model a process, which would best be achieved via. programming."

Another way of saying this, I realized, is, "This would challenge the student to model behavior, which would best be achieved via. programming."