Has Google's boss harmed computer teaching?

Eric Schmidt Google boss Eric Schmidt thinks computing education needs "rebooting"

"The last time I spoke in the UK," said Google's chairman Eric Schmidt, "it went better than I ever imagined." Mr Schmidt was referring to his speech at Edinburgh's Television Festival last year in which he called - among other things - for a revolution in the way computer science is taught in schools.

And he's right - his few sentences seemed to have an extraordinary effect. The computer and games industries renewed their calls for ICT teaching in schools to be revamped, the movement to promote the teaching of coding took heart, and eventually the Education Secretary Michael Gove, quoting the Google boss's remarks, announced that he was scrapping the ICT curriculum in English schools.

Last night, in a speech at the Science Museum, Eric Schmidt returned to this theme. He told an audience which contained many of those battling to change computing education that it still needed "rebooting". Computing represented less than half of one per cent of A-Levels taken in the UK, just 4,000 students a year.

He told us that only 2% of Google's engineers said they had not been exposed to computer science at school, and while the kind of stuff taught in ICT lessons - spreadsheets, online safety - still had a role, it was vital for our country's economic future that we taught computing as a proper academic discipline.

The speech, entitled Why Science Matters, was also a battle cry for scientific values to be more widely understood and honoured in society, and it was no surprise that it was very warmly received by last night's audience. But is there a danger that the revolution unleashed by Mr Schmidt is actually causing damage to the cause of computing education?

Start Quote

Not everybody is going to need to learn to code, but everyone does need office skills”

End Quote Teacher on ICT classes

Earlier yesterday I was at a conference on e-learning, where teachers came to share ideas about transforming education with the use of technology. There were some inspiring case studies, with children from one school helping to demonstrate the use of tablet computers in the classroom.

But afterwards one teacher approached me with a disturbing story. He was a head of ICT and said after Michael Gove's decision to scrap the curriculum, he and his colleagues had been summoned to a meeting with the school's leadership team. They were told that they would have to think about finding new roles or taking redundancy. And he said the number of students taking any kind of computing qualification at the school was now dropping sharply.

Another teacher defended the much-derided ICT: "Not everybody is going to need to learn to code, but everyone does need office skills."

Even in the community of teachers committed to change in the way computing is taught, I'm sensing a rising level of anxiety. Their fear is that schools are simply going to use the excuse to move resources to other subjects, and that the training needed to provide a new generation of computing teachers will never be forthcoming.

Eric Schmidt seemed to recognise that danger last night, unveiling a plan to invest in computer science teachers via the Teach First charity, and provide them with equipment such as the Raspberry Pi or Arduino kits.

But funding 100 teachers is not going to make a huge difference. What the teaching community fears - pardon my tortuous metaphor - is that the computing science baby risks being thrown out with the ICT bathwater. They will hope that the government pays as much attention to the Google boss this time as it did before. He says pulling the plug from the wall was a good first step - but powering up again is even more important.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • Comment number 31.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I think that teaching a rounded curriculum is important. In primary school learning something like wordprocessing is probably right. Then in secondary school some systems design, basic programming, app develpment and web design is probably good.

    It is worrying that the efforts of The BCS is not being mentioned. See http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/data/uploads/ComputingCurric.pdf

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Personally, I applaud Google's efforts to promote the use of the Raspberry Pi as an educational tool. The fact that it runs Linux is very fitting, given Linux's educational heritage. It is important in this day and age that children at school get exposure to a variety of platforms, including Windows. Linux, in one form or another is growing but interaction with Windows is still required.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    @spindonkey #27

    The ICT thing has been covered in about 20 BBC blogs so far, every one of them just hundreds of complaints about "single platform" when the platform under discussion was Windows. Now the single-platform is something else all of a sudden the comments are "what does it matter what the platform is?" Another fanboy perchance?

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    Comment number 27.

    Computer Science is _Computer Science_.

    Same as if Sports science is conducted by subjects wearing Brand A shorts or Brand B shorts, it is still _Sports Science_.

    It's the _SCIENCE_ that matters; the theory, the knowledge.

    If the 'platform' is the biggest thing people are arguing about then there is a severe lack of understanding what we are meant to be teaching the next generation here..

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    @Paul #25

    So you;re suggesting that Windows *doesn't* have "free languages"? I just can't take you seriously. Despite the fact I have already criticised fanboy misinformation you STILL come here to post misinformation lol Please educate yourself before you post again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Aidy, the difference between MS and "other platforms" namely Linux, is that Linux is free (as in beer), open source and has a plethora of free languages that anyone can download and try without fear of being locked into the Wintel monopoly.

    Linux is not a single platform. Android is based on Linux, Mac OS X is based on Linux/Unix, there are many variants of Linux for you to choose from.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    True, 100 teachers is nothing, but hopefully they'll create entire coursework that can be distributed to other teachers, and we'll have the Pi takeover the world (well, or give kids the footing to do anything).

    As for Microsoft - the problem there is they are a closed system, you code for MS using MS tools. The Pi is open, meaning you can code using anything. It is a much better proposition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @Under-Used #19

    The irony continues. Yes, it has to be *some* platform, but when that platform is Windows all we get are 100+ comments about how evil it is to use a single platform and misinformation regarding its cost.

    Yet when the platform is non-MS, the same issues exist...yet the complaints aren't there? Strange? No....just fanboism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Agree, but for all his faults as a technology writer with (an apparently) a very limited understanding of tech & tech issues, at least he flags up the big issue here, that the IT curricula in our schools is too limited. That schools are warning ICT teachers they should now be looking for other work says a lot more about the attitudes of those running English schools than about Gove.

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    Comment number 20.

    When I took 'A' level computer science in 1977/78 my course project was an editor written in IBM 430 assembler. What do they do now?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Are we really going to engage in a juvenile platform war? It's the sort of thing I'd expect to find in a MMORPG forum. The issue at hand is how we can best improve the provision of IT education in our schools. It's a truism to state that it has to be carried out on someone's platform. Depending on the resolution at which the subject is taught the platform itself is largely irrelevant.

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    Comment number 18.

    13 Aidy

    There does seem to be a lack of comment from those who are most vociferous in attacking Microsoft. Maybe they're keeping their powder dry for when MS releases a free version of Windows for the Pi.

    However, I'd have thought that if Google were that keen on promoting Android, they'd supply hardware that runs Android.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    "Computing represented less than half of one per cent of A-Levels taken in the UK, just 4,000 students a year." While the UK government and its education system are forever muddling about doing effectively nothing useful in this area, other parts of the world are pumping out in vast numbers the highly skilled students needed for the tech industry. Best wake up, it might not be too late to catch up

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    Comment number 16.

    Yep, as far as the use of metaphors goes, that one sucked.

    It's widely accepted as true that ICT in the UK isn't up to the task of ensuring a steady flow of potential computer scientists. Naturally that isn't the only use for IT skills, but educational institutions should put in place a wide body of study, and meet the many varied needs of business and science. Gove's actions seem confused.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    "Not everybody is going to need to learn to code, but everyone does need office skills."

    ICT skills are a fundamental requirement for modern business. We also need coders, the evidence I see shows that ICT skills are pretty terrible post A Level even - so it's hardly throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Knowing how and when to use a DB would be a massive start, most folks are clueless IMO.

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    Comment number 14.

    If we are saying pupils don't need to learn computing then surely pupils don't need to learn quadratic equations, understand the circulatory system etc. I am an ICT and computing teacher and too many other teachers think that teaching office skills is important. Every pupil should be given the opportunity to learn how the most transformational technology of the past 60 years works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @Miss Ingoff #12

    A: "MS products shouldn't be in school, they are too expensive"
    B: "MS products are free to schools"
    A: "That's only cos M$ is evil and wants to be dominant and stop kids being exposed to open source"
    B: "Google is giving Pi free to schools as it uses the same tech they do and wants to stop exposure to other tech"
    A: "That's ok though"

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    6 Aidy

    I'd be quite happy to see McDonalds putting money into teaching pupils how to cook for themselves, so long as they didn't promote their own products too heavily in the process.

    Likewise I'm happy for Google to support computer science teaching in disadvantaged schools, so long as it's not just teaching people how to use its own tools.


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