Communicating computer science – lessons from recent history

In any form of communication, four things are key: message content, mode of delivery, timing and intended impact. Over the last two decades our educational system has made some serious errors in all four when it comes to communicating computer science to the younger generation. In 1988 the newly formed National Curriculum gave priority and focus to the subject described as ‘Information and Communications Technology’ (ICT). ICT was designated as a ‘foundation subject’ in primary education for both Key Stage 1 (year groups 1-2, pupils aged 5-7) and Key Stage 2 (year groups 3-6, pupils aged 7-11). Secondary education also included ICT as compulsory. It took over two decades for the UK government to realise the error of its ways. In his speech at the BETT Show in 2012, Michael Gove acknowledged that the ICT curriculum was off-putting, demotivating and dull. This is the result of serious errors in message content, mode of delivery, timing and intended impact. Inspiring, motivating and exciting teaching pays close attention to all four of these elements, selecting content that is relevant to the learner, and delivering it in a manner that is engaging, pitched at the right level (this involves good timing), and which has the desired impact.

The problem with ICT in the National Curriculum, however, goes much deeper than that and had a serious negative impact on how Computer Science was perceived by two generations of young people. The ICT curriculum, which contained some elements of computing, somehow became synonymous with Computer Science as a whole (due to a lack of clarity in message content). Consequently, these children were put off Computer Science by association, believing it to be boring and unrewarding. The impact of this included a significant drop in applications to Computer Science degree courses between 2000 and 2012, and a yawning gap in the skills set that is much needed by UK industry. Michael Gove acknowledged that “the UK has been let down by an ICT curriculum that neglects the rigorous computer science and programming skills which high-tech industries need”.  [1]

Thankfully, a small group of teachers who realised that this was happening back in 2008 formed a group called Computing at School (CAS) which has led to the reintroduction of Computer Science into all key stages of the national curriculum. Staff in the department of Computing and Communication Technologies (CCT) at Oxford Brookes University have been working with CAS to run continuing professional development courses for school teachers in the Oxfordshire region. Oxford Brookes University is also in the CAS Network of Excellence.

In addition to this work, the CCT department has also introduced a new module for our undergraduate students entitled “Communicating and Teaching Computer Science”.  The primary purpose of this module is to:

  • Enable students to take part in the Undergraduate Ambassador Scheme 
  • Provide undergraduates with an opportunity to gain marketable and transferable key skills including the communication of their knowledge of the subject in a challenging educational environment
  • Give undergraduates a better appreciation of the level of their own expertise in their subject, and to build upon this through the process of explaining the subject’s core ideas and concepts to others.
  • Help undergraduates learn to address the needs of individuals and to think about methods of presentation which are appropriate to the groups they are working with

The students on this module are linked to schools and engage in the following activities:

  • Classroom observation and assistance: Initial contact with the teacher and pupils will be as a classroom assistant, watching how the teacher handles the class, observing the level of computing taught and the structure of the lesson, and offering practical support to the teacher.
  • Teaching assistance: The teacher will assign the student with actual teaching tasks, which will vary according to specific needs and the student’s own ability as it develops over the term. This could include offering problem-solving coaching to a smaller group of higher ability pupils, or taking the last ten minutes of the lesson for the whole class. The student will have to demonstrate an understanding of how the level of the computing knowledge of the pupils they are teaching fits in to their overall learning context in other subjects.
  • Special projects: The student will devise a special project on the basis of discussion with the teacher and their own assessment of what will interest the particular pupils they are working with. The student will have to show that they can analyse a specific teaching problem and devise and prepare appropriately targeted teaching materials, practical demonstrations and basic ‘tests’.
  • Extra-curricula projects: The student may be supervised by the teacher in helping to run an out-of-timetable activity, such as a lunchtime club or special coaching periods for higher ability pupils. The student will have to demonstrate an ability to think laterally in order to formulate interesting ways to illustrate more difficult concepts from computer science.
  • Written reports: The student will keep a journal of their own progress in working in the classroom environment, and they will be asked to prepare a written report on the special project.

Although so far we have only had a small number of students taking this module, the positive impact that it has had on them is remarkable both in terms of their personal development as computing professionals and in their careers aspirations.

The issue of how we communicate Computer Science at all levels in our education system is now recognised to be of great significance. In this special issue, we present work that is focussed on understanding how to communicate this subject well, how to get the message right.

Michael Heron and Pauline Belford explore issues in teaching computer ethics in an undergraduate computing course. In teaching this topic they use a blend of social psychology to illustrate the importance of the topic and a range of case studies to link discussion to actual real-world incidents. The authors suggest that their experiences argue persuasively for more widespread adoption of the model.

Arantza Aldea, et al., reflect on the evolution of approaches to teaching programming to undergraduates at Oxford Brookes University and discuss a recently-introduced apprenticeship model. They present preliminary evaluation data that points to improved student engagement, improved attendance and increased confidence in programming tasks. The paper also includes guidelines to using the approach which have been distilled from experience gained so far.

Stanislao Lauria describes how school children are encouraged to find the fun and excitement in STEM subjects and computer science in particular through hands-on events in which children learn to program robots. The paper describes the event format and the success achieved to date, then concludes with a discussion of how a more thorough evaluation of the approach might be carried out in the future.

Carey Freeman and Peter Plassmann, discuss how technology, including radio frequency identification (RFID) swipe cards and computer login data, has been used to monitor the attendance of first year students at practical sessions, with the aim of using derived information to improve course structure and tutor support. A future aim is to look at whether attendance data can be used to influence whether students persevere with a course or withdraw.

The issue concludes with a short paper by Andy Austen and Clare Martin, which discusses ways in which the Raspberry Pi computer has been used in extra-curricula activities in secondary schools. Students are introduced to the elements of programming in the Python language through writing programs to control a variety of simple sound and lighting systems. Undergraduates undertaking a school placement module have built on the pilot work to develop more fun programming projects.



[1] An extract for Michael Gove’s speech at the BETT Show 2012 on ICT in the National Curriculum

Nigel Crook

Nigel Crook is Head of Computing and Communication Technologies at Oxford Brookes University where he is leading research in cognitive robotics. He graduated from Lancaster University with a BSc (hons) in Computing and Philosophy in 1982. He has a PhD in medical expert systems and almost 30 years of experience as a lecturer in Computer Science and a researcher in Artificial Intelligence. He is an expert reviewer and evaluator for the European Commission and is a member of several scientific committees for AI conferences. His research interests include biologically inspired machine learning, embodied conversational agents and social robotics. In his more recent work, Nigel has been investigating the effects of biomimetic movement on the anthropomorphism and likability of robots.

David Duce

David Duce is a Professor of Computer Science at Oxford Brookes University. He is the chairman of Eurographics, the European Association for Computer Graphics. Professor Duce’s recent research includes a wild fire management scenario for which he developed a proof-of-concept system to enable fire fighters and controllers to communicate through a graphical sketch pad. This work also links with work in Grid computing and research into middleware to support highly dynamic and reconfigurable systems.

Clare Martin

Clare Martin is a Principal Lecturer for Student Experience at Oxford Brookes University.  Her research interests include using mathematics to reason about the semantics and general algebraic properties of programming and specification languages. Clare has worked previously as a computer consultant and then as a lecturer at the University of Buckingham.

Posted in Editorial

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