Thursday, April 26, 2012

Does everyone need to know how computers work?

I read an interesting article in today's Irish Times about how Irish schools need to do a better job of teaching children about Information and Communications Technology (ICT). I tend to agree with the author's point that his children are not getting a significantly better education about ICT than he did 30 years ago despite the fact that there are now many more computing devices in the classroom.

Naturally what matters most is how the computing devices are used for educational purposes rather than the fact that they have the latest versions of all devices. Indeed it could be argued that some of the most recent devices are not good for learning because they configure themselves and hide much of the complexity from the user.

However, when making policy, we need to keep in mind that computing devices in the classroom can be used for two distinctly different purposes:

  1. Teaching pupils how computers work e.g. teaching programming skills.
  2. Using computers to facilitate teaching a completely unrelated subject. For example, the Irish Times pointed out that foreign language learning can be enhanced by using Skype to converse with a native speaker of the language in question (this does not require much knowledge about how Skype works).
Even the most enthusiastic supporters of the ICT industry would admit that the majority of the school children will not end up working in ICT when they grow up and so the 2nd type of teaching is more important. While this is partly true, I do think that all children should be exposed to at least a minimal amount of the 1st type of teaching (the Coder Dojo movement is perhaps an excellent way to tackle that).

I think that this is equivalent to teaching children about cars. The majority of school children will grow up to become car drivers rather than mechanics. This means that they don't need a detailed understanding of car maintenance procedures, but at the same time potential drivers are required to show some elementary knowledge of car maintenance in order to  pass the the test to get a driving license - this is so that drivers will be able to deal with issues that may arise while they are driving. 

In a similar vein I think everyone who uses computers in their daily life needs a basic understanding of how computers work so that they can work around issues that occur when they sometimes don't work as expected.  Since everyone needs to use computers in the modern world, this is means that everyone needs to learn a little about how computers work. Primary schools are an ideal place to impart these skills.

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