Cambridge University and computer science

The University of Cambridge Computer Laborator...
The University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory in West Cambridge, south of the Madingley Road. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cambridge University has a stellar reputation for Computer Science in the UK.

The Computer Laboratory can trace its history back over more than 75 years (to a time when ‘computers’ where humans making calculations), while the wider University can claim Alan Turing for one of its own. And Sinclair Research, ARM, the Cambridge Ring – the list of companies and technical innovations associated with the University is a long one: they even had what was possibly the world’s first webcam.

But, according to today’s Guardian, they might need to work a bit harder with their undergraduates – the Guardian’s 2014 University Guide rates Cambridge as the best University in Britain overall but slots it in only at 8th in computer science and conspicuously gives it the worst rating (1/10) for “value added” – namely the improvement from entry to degree for students.

Now, possibly this is because it is the toughest computer science course in the country to get a place in – the average student needs more than 3 A* grades at A level (and 3 As at AS) to get a place, compared to Imperial, the next place down where 3 A*s would probably set you right – but there has to be more to it than that. It is even harder to get into biosciences at Cambridge and yet they are rated 8/10 in the value added score.

Don’t get me wrong – I am sure Cambridge is fantastic at teaching computer science, but it is also given a lot of money on the basis that it is an elite institution and so it seems reasonable to ask for an explanation (from the Guardian too of course!)

(Incidentally, it seems that Oxford teaches so few undergraduates computer science it cannot be rated at all.)

OLPC “fails in Peru”: Economist

Image representing One Laptop Per Child as dep...
Image via CrunchBase

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has failed to live up to its sponsors’ expectations in Peru, reports The Economist.

As the paper says:

Part of the problem is that students learn faster than many of their teachers, according to Lily Miranda, who runs a computer lab at a state school in San Borja, a middle-class area of Lima. Sandro Marcone, who is in charge of educational technologies at the ministry, agrees. “If teachers are telling kids to turn on computers and copy what is being written on the blackboard, then we have invested in expensive notebooks,” he said. It certainly looks like that.

I was working for the Labour Party when, in his 1995 conference speech, Tony Blair made a pledge to deliver laptops to kids in schools (the exact details escape my memory over this distance but it was not quite at the OLPC level of provision). Even then I was a bit dubious – a computer needs to be for something – but the pledge was also extremely popular.

The problem in Britain – and I suspect in Peru also – was that computers were handed out to people to write documents, spreadsheets and presentations. But if you cannot write good English, or understand percentages, then having a new wordprocessor or spreadsheet is not going to help.

In Britain we have created a culture where computer science has been neglected in favour of teaching children how to use (as in type in) wordprocessors. It bores kids of all abilities and no wonder.

Computers need to be used as educational tools aligned with the core curriculum subjects if they are going to make a difference. This is why teaching some programming would be far more useful than how to manipulate the last-but-one version of Microsoft Powerpoint.

I sent off my order for the Raspberry Pi – the device which many hope will lead to a revival of computer science (as opposed to ECDL type teaching) in British schools today – I registered for it close to three months ago but was only give the option to “pre-order” it this week, so huge has the demand been. Reminds me of the “28 days” of the Sinclair era – though I am sure Raspberry Pi’s makers are not making their money from cashing money in the bank, given today’s interest rates.