Computing In Schools: Who Will Gain?

Recently, the draft UK national curriculum was published that added Computer Science to the curriculum alongside IT and digital literacy, and named this combined subject “Computing”. This was a bolder step forward than many had expected, and to me represents the success of the lobbying by organisations such as Computing At School (disclaimer: I’m a member, but this post shouldn’t be taken as representing their views). There have however been vague accusations of bias and conspiracy surrounding this process (here, here, here) and last week I saw a tweet that was fairly clear in its view of the changes:

The rest of the tweets are in this short storify page, but it ended with this tweet concerning the Royal Society report:

I think this set of accusations is over the top, but it’s perhaps an interesting question to explore: who does stand to gain now that it seems the Royal Society’s recommendations — essentially, to add Computer Science (CS) to the curriculum alongside IT and digital literacy — are being implemented?

Industry

I can’t see a direct benefit to Microsoft, Google or similar to re-introducing CS in schools. Microsoft are unlikely to sell any more licenses to their software (Visual Studio is nowhere near as popular as Office, and has a free edition), and Google have no obvious way to increase profits from CS in schools.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt's 2011 UK speech gave the CS campaign a push.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s 2011 UK speech gave the CS campaign a push.

The only benefit that I can see to industry is that they may increase the strength of their hiring pool. Companies like Microsoft and Google hire graduates, but these reforms only affect education up to age 16, so it will be a minimum of five years before there is a benefit, and really it’s only going to be a noticeable effect for students currently in primary school, so that’s at least ten years before there is an increase in the hiring pool. That’s admirably long-term thinking for a company in the present day! And of course, this only affects the UK: Microsoft and Google are international companies for whom the UK is a fairly small part. There would be more noticeable benefits to companies like BT who primarily operate in the UK.

Universities

Universities are of course closer to schools in the pipeline than industry. So universities might start seeing an increase in CS applications in more like five to ten years. However, university CS admissions have been stable for the last five to ten years despite a lack of CS in schools. Subject classification has changed a bit over the years, but UCAS figures suggest 10,200 UK CS entrants in 2004 vs 9,800 in 2012. That stability is not really a coincidence: UK university admissions are strictly regulated by UCAS. Essentially, the government budgets a fixed amount of money for students to attend university (even under the 9k fees system), so the number of students is capped to meet the budget. This allowance is divvied up among universities by UCAS, and then parceled out to different subjects by the university. Trying to increase the allowance for a university department is a long, slow fight — it’s a zero-sum game for the university as a whole, because increasing one department decreases another (and thus there is no increase in total income).

It will take a while for the new computing pupils to reach university.  Photo by wrightbrosfan.
It will take a while for the new computing pupils to reach university. Photo by wrightbrosfan.

So university CS departments are quite unlikely to have any significant increase in their domestic admissions because of more computing in schools. They will likely get a stronger intake of students, and could teach higher-level material, which would be good, but that doesn’t yield any financial benefit to the university. The only financial benefit would be that drop-out rates will hopefully decrease as students become a bit more aware of what CS involves, and thus will be able to make a more informed decision about subject choice when applying. But that’s more benefit to the students (who don’t waste their time starting a degree they won’t finish) than the universities.

BCS

A similar story occurs with the benefits to the BCS (the professional membership organisation for computing): they may see a long-term increase in membership figures starting in about ten years. But BCS membership is driven by computing jobs, not the number of people who study computing. So BCS are dependent on the computing economy, not computing education. Despite this, BCS are particularly invested in the campaign for computing in schools: Computing At Schools became part of the BCS Academy a few years ago, and BCS now provide funding and support for CAS, which is a direct loss to the BCS, for only indirect gain.

Summary

To my mind, none of the organisations involved in the campaign for more CS in schools really had anything to gain. I intimated this in a section I wrote for our SIGCSE paper: part of the reason that computing in schools declined was because it didn’t really affect industry or universities, so they disengaged somewhat and the whole thing sunk while no-one else was watching. Now, to fix the problem, it has taken a loose alliance of industry, universities and schools to all push a similar message, through vehicles like CAS or the Next Gen report or all sorts of other developments.

Where some seem to see conspiracy in Google and Microsoft joining the lobbying for computing in schools, I instead see altruism. Nobody who has been doing all the lobbying really had anything directly to gain, and usually lost a bit — but they all persisted in lobbying anyway. And it’s not just the computing industry who should benefit from re-introducing CS — we should be empowering the next generation to become better users and clients for software and teaching them the underlying principles of computers: the computer equivalent of knowledge of atoms and molecules (see last post).

Of course, things are not yet perfect — the next challenges are to tweaking the curriculum, and train up a lot more CS-capable teachers! Onwards and upwards: many more challenges lie ahead.

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19 thoughts on “Computing In Schools: Who Will Gain?

  1. Thanks for this. As you have used a couple of my tweets I thought I should respond.

    Are you honestly suggesting that Google,Microsoft,are motivated purely by altruism?

    As I work for a Global Technology company I can tell you they take their CSR seriously but to suggest there is no commercial gain is a little naive perhaps?

    As for the BCS and the Universities I’m afraid I have to disagree with you.

    It is the BCS and its offshoot CaS ( I declare an interest as I am a member) who have already gained surely? What grant have they had from DfE?

    I similarly don’t follow your logic on the University front either? Have you read the Steve Furber foreward in “shutdown or restart” That was the purpose of the report surely?

    We are where we are so my main focus now is how do we bridge the skills gap in schools,especially primary. Secondly how can we encourage people to respond to the public consultation to remind the DfE,The Minister,and the BCS that Computing has three components not just computer science.

    The other question I am struggling with (as a regular attendee at the working groups who drafted the pos submitted on 30th November is why did I bother when the BCS or a couple of individual BCS members rewrote it at a later date?

    It made the process a bit of a sham,and as a BCS member, damaged the organisations integrity and credibility at the same time.

  2. Bob – thanks for your reply. If you believe that Google and Microsoft make a commercial gain, can you explain how, so that it is clear? Similarly, you say BCS have surely gained — but how? I’m not privy to CAS finances so I can’t say at all whether they have money from the DfE or not. Only as much as Naace or any other subject association, I presume (I have no idea if DfE funds those).

    I have read the Steve Furber foreword — it makes no mention of universities except to say that they should get involved in after-school clubs, so I don’t understand why you pinpoint it? As I say in the post, UCAS statistics suggest that university CS departments weren’t suffering much from the problems in schools. And as I mentioned, increasing CS in schools will not really increase income in CS departments, so I don’t understand why you think universities will gain. (And most universities who are offering training for teachers are doing it at a loss, certainly if they try and scale it up).

    1. Thanks…the BCS and CaS are direct beneficiaries of DfE funding.

      Why would Google and Microsoft fund the RS research? It is not as simplistic as straight “commercial gain”?

      The Universities who sponsored the RS report obviously want to increase the applications for CS degrees,that’s implicit in all the BCS/CaS presentations.

      As a matter of interest I think UCAS will also have stats on the lowest UCAS points for entry and lowest progression rates into employment?

      In any case that is all water under the bridge.

      I am more concerned with Peters point about balance and will be working very hard in a variety of roles to try and ensure schools have confidence and capacity to deliver Digital Literacy,Information Technology AND computer science.

  3. I think a more interesting question might be who might lose out if the draft Computing PoS goes forward in its current form, in which it is disproportionately weighted towards computer science at the expense of digital literacy.

  4. Neil – A useful piece, but I do think you are perhaps being rather literal and perhaps simplistic on the ‘who benefits’ front? Whilst not a ‘conspiracy theorist’ on this issue, I do think altruism doesn’t cut it as a complete explanation! And vested self-interests are definitely part of the picture.
    As someone in education who has worked with and valued support from, large IT companies I do not doubt they have an element of altruism in their CSR approaches. But that really is only one part of the picture.
    Big IT has been regularly in and out of No 10 these past 15 years or more to try and ‘grow the knowledge economy’, or whatever phrase is current, and to increase the IT skills and workforce numbers in the UK (and elsewhere). One seventh of the current UK workforce self-identifies as being part of the IT industry, and ensuring a steady and educated supply of new workers is crucial to the success and prosperity of all major IT players (and the myriad smaller ones).
    The big players know that the plentiful supply of educated and highly-skilled workers can both increase their own productivity, and also reduce their wage bills, as increased supply of qualified workers reduces premium for skills. Furthermore a high-level knowledge economy also greatly increases demand for their own products and services, and overall growth of the sector. Throw in some important big brand recognition and marketing opportunities disguised as philanthropy, and it is a clear win all round. And they are used to working to long workforce lead-times, while using migration and off-shoring to handle supply-demand lags en route.

    And surely University departments are fuelled by boosting their own market share and status? Overall it may be a zero-sum game, but within the zero-sum are ambitious departments climbing the status and success ladders, whilst others decline and lose share. There is a recognised and large shortfall of those emerging in a number of academic domains to meet the IT sector need (which is far wider than Computer Science). This provides opportunities for massive market share growth in those departments creative and innovative enough to develop degree-offerings that match this demand (which is another story needing telling).

    Then there are the professional organisations like the BCS, or RAE. Of course they are passionate about what they do, and seek every opportunity to promote it, and quite right too. But the higher their profile, and apparent impact and status, the more members that they can attract. The Saggar Maker and Bottom Knockers Association probably isn’t thriving these days – but as current governments are seen to take notice of BCS, RAE and other similar organisations, of course their perceived value, status and hence membership increases. And increased membership means financial security.

    So you don’t need to be a ‘conspiracy theorist’ to subscribe to the opinion that many of these organisations stand to gain from these moves. Money makes the world go around, after all. And you don’t even have to believe that it is a bad thing for these organisations to strive to achieve this… it is surely what one should expect, and their duty to their shareholders and members?

    It is only becomes a problem when their interests and opinions over-ride what is in the wider interests of the learners in the educational system, and society at large. Where it is being subverted and redirected solely to meet their own needs and demands. The wider economy, even in the IT sector, needs a broader sweep of skills and capabilities. We need the psychology graduates to create the human interfaces that that the Computer Science specialists relentlessly show themselves ill-equipped to design. We need the entrepreneurialism of of designers and innovators for the start-ups that Big IT is too slow and out of touch to create. We need the artists and musicians to work with those entrepreneurs to produce hiqh quality and aesthetically pleasing products. We do NOT need everyone to be computer scientists, we need a vibrant balance where all students appreciate what computing has to offer, but choose their own way of integrating that into their own career paths and capabilities.

    The new Computing curriculum (or ICT .. a rose by any other name) identifies a balance for Computing alongside Digital Literacy and Information Technology (which appears to be almost invisible at present). It is not EITHER, OR but AND. It was wrong when Charles Clarke as Secretary of State ignored the key role that Computing as a subject has to play – but it is equally wrong for the pendulum to swing to the opposite extreme. We need a good balance of all three aspects, and must resist the efforts of vested interests to hijack the curriculum to meet their own needs.

    The geeks should not inherit the earth, but they should get their fair and honest due, along with the rest of us! 🙂

  5. Completely under specifying digital literacy in the latest draft POS sends a poor and weak message to schools. Excellent schools and teachers who understand that knowledge of programming alone is of little use without an understanding of digital literacy to design and create the kinds of artefacts that people want or need to use will develop the programme of study accordingly. However, many teachers did not really ‘get’ the old POS. I suspect that this latest draft could end up being taught in a very dry and meaningless way, which would not do the subject of ‘Computing’ any favours at all. I’m all for more rigour in Computing but Computing without digital literacy makes no sense at all. A bit like teaching handwriting but not reading or writing with purpose….or how to read and write music without composing or performing.

  6. I agree with what Tony and Ian have posted. I am more concerned about what can be done?

    1) Encourage teachers and industry to respond to the Consultation
    http://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/departmentalinformation/consultations/a00221262/reform-national-curriculum

    2) Try to bridge the skills gap in schools
    The Teaching Schools are working hard with Computing at Schools Network to run joint events for teachers in the coming months and the Teaching Agency are working with ITE providers to make sure trainee taechers will have the knowledge and expertise to deliver the new curriculum whatever it contains.

  7. Just a small addition to the argument (whee does Mr Parkin find the time?).

    In this country the big IT companies are largely speaking sales and marketing agencies for their US parent companies. Yes, there are some technical people but in comparison to the whole they are a very small proportion, and they are largely not carrying core systems programming functions.

    So my question is why should we in the UK be taking advice from sales and marketing companies about what we should be doing with our ICT/CS curriculum? Hyperbole yes, but with a dash of truth.

    Frankly, the programming jobs have gone. We’ve missed that boat. We were too busy phaffing around with the aforesaid Charles Clarkes IWBs. Development in India is 1/10 of the UK cost. Get over it.

    Yes, it will be helpful for the systems analysts, project managers and business engineers to have a knowledge of how programming works, but the focus has to be on those higher level skills, which does of appear to have happened with the new NC.

  8. I agree with the excellent points made by Bob, Ian and Tony – it boils down to a need for an education that will enable youngsters to make real use of their skills and knowledge – for example those that choose the programming path will make a more meaningful contribution to society than participate as code monkeys developing the lastest computer dating scam site ; )

  9. found an interesting article from the archives by Roy Pea about programming with Logo. Much of it is being echoed in the debate around CS and programming today. Im not saying I agree with all of this but I wonder if some of the grand claims being made for CS at the potential expense of digital literacy are ignoring lessons learnt from the past. Anyway see article from Pea definitely worth a read http://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/docs/00/19/05/46/PDF/A39_Pea_87d_CCT_TR_MS.pdf

    1. Very interesting link, Keith. Thanks. I would just say that there is a difference between saying that “we should teach programming” and “we should use programming as a means of self-directed discovery learning”. Logo was much more than just a part of the curriculum.

      I think there some merit still in the second point – but the flaws outlined in Roy Pea’s paper sound plausible and it seems to me that discovery learning needs to be blended, in appropriate ways, with more didactic approaches. Either way, I don’t think it reflects on the merits (as I would see it) or demerits of programming as a discipline to be studied.

      Good job picking up on the rather silly conspiracy theories floating around.

      1. Yes Crispin I agree there is mileage in the distinction you make between teaching programming and teaching as a means to developing independence and a tool for thinking with. But also as you point out the pedagogy is vital. I would posit that while many teachers have the pedagogical understanding but not the understanding of programming, likewise many of the computer scientists may have the programming expertise, but lack the knowledge and understanding of pedagogy.

  10. Keith,

    I agree with most of that, though I suspect that the pedagogical understanding of most teachers is not as high as teachers would claim, mainly because there is a poor body of research evidence and what research evidence there is, teachers generally don’t read (in sharp contrast with doctors for example). This is a point that the guys at the IoE have been making for some time.

    The answer to both problems – at least in the realm of education technology – is I think to encode good pedagogy into good software tools – not only at the level of individual learning activities, but also to manage learning progression, remediation etc.

    The failure highlighted by Roy Pea does not seem to me to be a failure of LOGO in itself, but the teachers’ failure to use that pedagogical tool appropriately by e.g. alternating creative activity with tasks that got the students to articulate their understanding and suitable assessment to check basic skills and knowledge. To realise, in other words that “independent learning” is a bit of a cheap slogan when used as a silver bullet to solve all problems.

    Thanks, Crispin.

    1. Yes I agree Crispin re variable quality and teachers’ take-up of research evidence. Also yes I should have qualified that not all teachers’ pedagogical knowledge and understanding is high. I would question the extent to which we can encode good pedagogy into educational technologies. There are always unintended outcomes some of which create opportunity and others which can constrain The main variable as far as I have found from my research and experience is the teacher and their pedagogy. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t also be trying to encode effective pedagogy in technological tools. The problem also is that many technologies are just not designed with education in mind. The tablet or iPad for example was designed as a consumer product first.

      Anyway, good to a exchange ideas with you.

      Best wishes

      Keith

      1. Keith, Thank you – I find this conversation very interesting.

        I agree on both your points (a) about the need to cater for the unexpected (what Dylan Wiliam calls the importance of “contingency”) and (b) about the lack of education-specific technologies.

        On the latter, I think this has been a key flaw in the whole orthodox account – what I think of as the Heppell model – of ICT in education during the Becta years. It is that you pick up some “technology” (anything will do) and then sprinkle it all over your cornflakes like magic dust, and out pop creative, independent learners, well versed in “21st century skills”. In this model, it is the teachers who need to innovate – but this has proved to be way beyond their capabilities.

        The key, it seems to me, is to create an efficient market for the creation of education-specific technologies which will automate the bits that can be automated (which in my view is a fair amount), applying interactive paradigms to the business of instruction and administrative paradigms to the business of managing the learning process (progression, differentiation, remediation, grouping). That will leave the teacher in control to react to the unexpected contingency and manage the top-level pedagogy.

        I am sure your research is right that (in the current set-up) things are largely down to the teacher and his/her pedagogy. But why should pedagogy (which is a matter of design rather than personality) be so personal to the teacher – and where does that leave us, faced with an endemic shortage of good teachers?

        I think that schools should follow business practice and formalise their procedures and transactions, moving from a pre-industrial model of teacher-as-craftsman to a post-industrial model of system design. Bearing in mind that the system must allow for the flexibility required to respond to the unexpected and that (given that much learning is by imitation) personality is also an important part of the mix.

        Interested in your views on the above and, if you have time, on my recent essays on the need to systematise education at http://wp.me/p27xY2-8o and http://wp.me/p27xY2-8F.

        Best wishes, Crispin.

  11. Keith,

    Just to clarify my last – I am suggesting that, from the point of view of the systems designer, personality is a resource to be deployed in the right circumstances and the right way. It is like a TV or radio producer talks of “the talent” as one of the pieces on their chessboard. Just because someone has a strong personality in front of camera, does not mean that they make a good producer.

    So I am saying that personality is important – but it is not the controlling element. And because it is rare, you waste your personalities/talent by getting them to do all the routine marking and administration as well. In fact, it is worse than that: the better you are as a teacher, the less of it – in our system – do you do.

    Crispin.

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