High School IT – It’s time to start from scratch

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Image: Kelly Smith/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Image: Kelly Smith/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In response to the ever-increasing role of technology in society through various academic and engineering developments, one fundamental question remains in the movement to arrest the decrease in students studying Computing at high school and university: what should we be teaching about IT to high school students?

It can be said that many contributors and editors on this website, myself included, have taken at least one IT subject during their time at high school. It would seem to be the natural thing to do for people who already demonstrate passion for technology by writing about it.

My academic background in IT coming before starting at the University of Melbourne was a little different, having completed VCE IT Applications in Year 11, and subsequently completed two first year subjects at Monash University with Executive Editor, Terence Huynh, through its Year 12 extension program. While I can’t speak on personal experience of VCE Software Development (as my high school did not offer it), I can attest to the fact that taking a first year university programming course prepared me more for my computing subjects at Melbourne than what IT Applications ever did. Ultimately all those hours spent preparing elaborate reports and annotated screenshots for systems that would never see the light of day in any reputable business, and rightly so, could only be used for the purpose of getting ‘runs on the board’ for that ‘life-defining’ ATAR.

What is clear is this: Enrolments in this subject area are declining. In Victoria, IT Applications enrolment numbers dropped from 13356 students to 3649, and Software Development enrolments from 3491 students to 1257 from 2001 to 2010. In 2012, IT Applications numbers were lower than the enrolment figure for Software Development in 2003, and Software Development enrolment figures in 2012 were at an all-time low of 1046 students. This trend is also replicated across many higher education institutions across the world, as indicated in various studies.

The IT industry is a broad church, in the sense that one can specialise in a wide range of fields from Consultancy to Computer Science. The recent trend within the university sphere is to offer specialised degrees or majors to cater for the many specialisations that exist. Associated with the devolution, the current trend indicates comparatively lower enrolments in Computer Science courses, a point that Google Australia has made about Australian graduates. Moreover, a study by Dr Lori Carter of Point Loma Narazene University based in San Diego, California showed that many students are unaware of what students do in a Computer Science major.

Computer Science training should be prioritised given the flow-on effect that developments in Computer Science can, and already have, in the practice of other disciplines inside and outside of that broad church. Given there is now a trend with steadily decreasing enrolments at the high school and tertiary level, perhaps a change is needed at the high school level to attract more students to Computer Science?

Image: The Royal Society (Creative Commons)

Image: The Royal Society (Creative Commons). The current issues of ICT education represented as a status-quo preserving cycle.

The Royal Society, the independent Academy of Science for the United Kingdom, commissioned the “Shut down or restart? The way forward for Computing in UK schools” report in 2012. The report was commissioned by the Royal Society in the wake of a similar trend of declining enrolments and course relevancy in the UK, in a bid to influence future education policy development in this area by the UK Government.

Within the report, Prof Steve Furber, principal designer of the BBC Micro, explained that too many examples of demotivating and routine activities in ICT that has lead to the development of a negative perception towards ICT as “boring”. Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, wrote about the importance of implementing courses in Computer Science as it is an ‘underpinning’ discipline that provides a ‘way of thinking’ like mathematics. These introductory remarks have effectively captured the situation we now have in Australia, and the direction that Computing education must take.

Many recommendations were made in the report. The key recommendation made was that: Awarding Organisations should consult with the UK Forum and HE departments to develop rigorous Level 3 (A-Level) academic qualifications in Computer Science.

For context, let me explain what the University of Melbourne offers for first year university students wishing to study IT. Typically, for a student who elected to not sit a programming test, in first semester a student would take Foundations of Computing. This subject uses the programming language Python, and gives students the opportunity to quickly build small-scale programs, learning about fundamental programming constructs (such as selection and iteration), data structures (such as arrays) and abstraction through defining functions.

Following this, the next subject taken would be the C-based Foundations of Algorithms, which adds extra theory on top of the base understanding of programming tools built in Foundations of Computing. The core of the subject centres around computational thinking, largely in terms of analysing algorithms (programs) to determine relative algorithmic performance and allowing for critical thinking in determining how a program can be made to run efficiently. I note that neither of these subjects use object-oriented program languages, which I have found to be advantageous as it allows focus on the theory at the heart of the subjects without needing to learn a complex programming paradigm on top.

From this, it becomes clear that Computer Science is not about trivial skills. People can see from this that Computer Science has the same level of academic rigour of a maths or life science subject. This is in complete contrast to the IT subjects in high school today, whereby downward scaling applied for ATAR Calculation by VCAA is indicative of the academic rigour of VCE IT Applications and Software Development.

In July 2012, a Fairfax article was published on a pilot program being introduced by the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. The intention was to trial a Year 12 Computer Science subject based on the syllabuses of the first year computer science subjects offered at both Universities, in response to the aforementioned shortfall of IT students.

Preceding the announcement from Associate Professor Steven Bird was a Google-sponsored program called CS4HS that funded universities to offer 2-3 day workshops for teachers. The CS4HS Victoria website includes the PowerPoint slides presented to invitees to the three conferences held, and the recommendations from working groups formed among conference attendees.

CS4HS Website Home Page

One of the more telling presentations from the November 2011 CS4HS Victoria workshop was delivered by Dr James Curran, Director of the National Computer Science School.  In short, his presentation underpins the notion that computer science is currently not being treated as a distinct entity from basic programming, let alone basic computer literacy. It is worth reading the entire presentation for a good overview of the current situation and the initiatives undertaken by NCSS in Computer Science education for high school students.

Many other presenters also shared similar views at the workshop. Dr Therese Keane of Swinburne University stressed the importance of academic rigour in high school information technology to ensure it reflects the content of Computer Science courses at universities, instead of the ‘life skills’ often emphasised.

Prof Alistair Moffat, the inaugural Foundations of Algorithms lecturer at the University of Melbourne, demonstrated that a programming language is merely a tool for implementing algorithms designed to efficiently and accurately perform a task.

The recommendations made by CS4HS Victoria laid a vision for how Year 12 Computer Science would be differentiated from the current Information Technology curricula. This vision focused on developing a subject focusing on computational thinking, that can be used as a university prerequisite. Collaboration with universities, teachers and other relevant stakeholders to develop relevant course material was also stressed.

It seems that this vision inspired the pilot proposal that Steven Bird was promoting last year, though the progress of that pilot program remains unclear. It can be presumed that, as far as the VCE is concerned, that the Computing void is still mainly being filled by Tertiary Extension programs offered by Monash and RMIT.

As far as the national curriculum is concerned, the F-10 Technologies curriculum is going through a consultation process due to end in May 2013. Based on the information sheet provided, the intention is to manage a Digital Technologies subject alongside a Design and Technologies curriculum for non-technical materials. The focus seems to be on students developing “future-oriented” solutions for a wide range of situations, which I hope does not come at the expense of the computational thinking skills emphasised by CS4HS and the Royal Society report, which the information sheet cites as inspiration for the curriculum. ACARA does not seem to have started work on a Senior Digital Technologies program yet.

I think it is time we looked at devising a curriculum that prioritised development of theoretical and analytical skills alongside technical programming skills, instead of the current practice of trying to find ways to scale down big-picture business scenarios for consumption. A new curriculum has to be designed in consultation with the Universities that have been driving Computer Science education solo for a long time, to determine what sort of a curriculum can be developed to allow students to claim advanced standing within the current framework of university Computer Science degrees.

The notion of a high school Computer Science curriculum now has the support of way too many stakeholders to be ignored. From the early indications provided by ACARA in the F-10 Digital Technologies information sheet, the proposed curriculum has gone some way into implementing the recommendations of reports like that of the Royal Society by promoting computational thinking.

As far as a senior curriculum goes, I hope that the desire of ACARA to have a breadth of problems for students to solve won’t detract from the depth of theory covered. So far the College Board in the US has implemented a Computer Science course, as well as the International Baccalaureate, for senior students. In developing a rigorous senior high school Computer Science curriculum, it is entirely possible to address the shortfall in computer science students we are currently facing.

With the development of the National Curriculum in Australia, now is a better time than ever to start with a clean slate.

EDIT: Updated to include raw enrolment figures.

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