Proposals for a new English ICT curriculum

This morning’s Times carries an full page report – on page 3 no less (subscription required) – of the British Computer Society’s (BCS) proposals, on behalf of the Education Department, for a new ICT curriculum.

In fact the newspaper report seems have been injected with more than a little bit of spin – The Times says that pupils should, by the age of 11 (ie Key Stage 2), be able to build a mobile phone app – but the draft programme for the curriculum (thankfully) says no such thing. It states pupils should be able to:

Write programs to accomplish given goals; solve problems by decomposing them into smaller parts; recognize that there may be more than one algorithm to solve a single problem; detect and fix errors in algorithms and programs.

Which is much more sensible.

(The Times also states that KS4 – A level – pupils should be able to build their own languages, presumably meaning some teaching of compilers and related CS concepts such as automata, but again I can see no reference to that.)

Today’s, discredited, ICT curriculum concentrates on what the BCS calls “digital literacy” – basic skills at manipulating “office” products. It has cemented Microsoft’s monopoly position, stripped the UK of its historical lead in teaching kids programming skills and stifled innovation and, frankly, seen schools waste money.

The new programme appears much better but given the tendency of existing software and hardware providers to demand their products and paradigms are included in any curriculum then ideas that kids should be taught to build mobile phone apps or anything similar should be resisted – do we really think that today’s shared memory, lock-controlled, programming model is going to be that relevant in a decade’s time? I do not but can see why many companies with billions invested in existing technologies and models would want to resist the disruption that many-core technologies will bring.

Computing stands on the edge of another revolution:

As multicore chips scale to larger numbers of cores, systems are becoming increasingly complex and difficult to program. Parallel architectures expose more of the system resources to the software and ask programmers to manage them. In addition … programmers are forced to optimize for both performance and energy; a task that’s nearly impossible without knowing the exact hardware and environment in which an application will run. As machines scale to hundreds of cores, it will no longer be possible for the average programmer to understand and manage all of the constraints placed upon them.

(From Eric Lau et al’s paper “Multicore performance optimization using partner cores”, in Proceedings of the 3rd USENIX conference on Hot Topics in Parallelism, USENIX, May 2011)

Even we do not agree with every idea expressed in the above comment, the basic argument is sound – all your programming are belong to us. A new ICT curriculum must be flexible enough to respond to the huge changes that are coming and resist any attempts at technology lock-in. Previous stories about the ICT rethink are littered with corporate name dropping, and the government (any government, frankly) are always too keen for corporate endorsement. So we need to beware.

The BCS programme looks like a promising start, if it can manage to avoid falling into populist traps like the one it seems to have set itself in the Times this morning.

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