Wednesday 24 September 2014

The New Computing Curriculum, Politicising Technology and Ephemerality

I'm doing some teaching of computing at the moment (a long time since I've done this, so have to brush up my Java!). The circumstances I am doing this in are strange. It's all about fear - it creates absurd situations. I enjoy teaching, but this stuff makes me depressed: I think of Shostakovich who always kept a packed suitcase under his bed lest the KGB came knocking armed with giant screwdrivers (I'm embellishing Shostakovich's account adding the screwdrivers - I think it improves it!)

Anyway, I want to talk about computing as a subject. One of my fantastic PhD students, Kurt Lee (see  is researching the new changes to the computing curriculum and their impact on teachers and children in the context of Free Schools. Computing is a weird subject: it keeps changing (a bit like institutional politics!). Indeed, the changes to technology are political in a way: every technical development is effectively a proposal for social change. However, technological developments are never voted for; they just happen (or not). A proposal for technical development may take-off (i.e. gain a critical mass of followers) or not. However, even when a technical development takes-off, we know that it won't last for ever. We know that any technology's status is time-limited. This produces an educational problem when we try to define a computing curriculum: whatever we teach will be out of date very soon; so what do we teach?

Of course, there are 'generic' skills related to programming, and ways in which students can practise in any language, any environment, and gradually make themselves flexible enough to move with the times. This is one of the reasons why Java has maintained its position in the computing curriculum for at least 10 years or so. However, when I learnt to program on my Masters course, everybody was learning Modula-2, which was a variant of Pascal. Indeed, even the operating system of the original Apple Mac was written in Pascal. Before that, it was Fortran and COBOL. Things change.

However, moving with the times only happens if individuals are really interested in what's going on, and usually if they are in an environment which forces them to change. Not everybody is that interested in computing. Indeed, of the population in a typical school, only a tiny percentage of students will be passionate about the technology world. Yet now they all have to learn to program. What use are those 'generic skills' of programming if there is isn't a real passion and curiosity for what is happening - either in many learners, or indeed, in many teachers? Doesn't it become just another box to tick, just another item on the curriculum which has to be delivered and studied under pain of failure for students, or losing one's job for teachers? Fear again.

The motivation for the new computer science curriculum is that whilst technology and innovation are fundamentally important to the economy, the teaching of technology had become boring in schools and doesn't address programming skills: its all spreadsheets, databases, word processors, etc. Yet everyone knows that technology can be really exciting (if a bit scary and alienating): it can do amazing things like the Oculus Rift, 3D printing, Open source hardware, bio-hacking, big data, etc. All of  this stuff is important not only because it will excite many kids - particularly if espoused by teachers who are similarly excited - but also because at the root of it all is the fact that all of these things are propositions for social change. Technology is political (technology is in the mix in the political situation that gave rise to my teaching stint at the University!) What sort of a technological world do we want? I agree with Andrew Feenberg that we need to 'politicise technology'. Slavishly trying to bang algorithms into the minds of the young is anti-political, alienating and socially counter-productive.

After my teaching stint, I invited my students (who had already sat through 4 hours of Java) to join my research department in a presentation on learning analytics given by a a representative of the educational systems company, Talis. The Talis representative pitched the learning analytics work as a way of making the students' lives 'better' (the social proposition): "it will inform you of the resources you need to spend more time on if you are going to succeed", however, it was clearly the institution which would be the ultimate beneficiary. One of the students replied with a sharp criticism: "Why should I install your Spyware?" He didn't really have an answer to that. More of this is needed.

But what's going on here? A powerful organisation is declaring what Searle calls a 'status function': "this is a technology for helping you succeed in your learning". It's a peculiar status function, because it's not at all clear what it means: Succeed? Learning? Help? Talis can only make this fly if others agree to it. The status function to learners didn't meet with much approval from the learners in the session. However, this status function is not the only one made. There's another status function which says "This technology will help you monitor and enhance the educational provision of your staff to ensure the successful retention of your learners" Another powerful group hears this: the university management. The management are who Talis wants to sell to, not the learners. The management is also in a position to declare their own status function to their staff: "This is the technology you now have to use in order to keep your job". That's the really powerful one. Where are the learners' interests? Well, a new status function is declared to them: "this is technology by which we will measure your progress and gauge the level of support required" Learners want to pass. What choice do they have? The position "Why should I install your Spyware?" is drowned out by the trump card of the institution.

What emerges here are the conflicts and trade-offs of the different commitments individuals have, and the way that powerful organisations manipulate the status functions that they make to different audiences. So what of the computing curriculum? Another status function: "This is the new curriculum for computing which is compulsory". Those who engage with passion will be those who were always passionate about technology. Everyone else will find the path of least resistance to uphold the new status function whilst not threatening any other commitments they have. But there's something else about this status function: "This is the new curriculum about lots of stuff which is likely to be out-of-date soon". How do people respond to that? Again, one is tempted to take the path of least resistance. However, the whole business of these things being around for a short time and then being replaced by something else really IS the subject of technology. That is the thing that the enthusiasts really know about - everything they commit to they do so in the knowledge that it will change. Technologists commit to continual change.

How many teachers commit to stability? How many institutions commit to stability? How many government education departments commit to stability (even when they say they want to encourage innovation)? My guess is that for these people technology, enthusiasm and change is great - so long as it doesn't threaten the status quo! What a contradiction!

1 comment:

Kurt Lee said...

I have written a reply to your blog post on my blog

......Maybe we should be focusing on teaching young people skills to stay afloat in this sea of politics and ephemerality of technology rather than the technology itself – it’s too far to swim to shore! (By the time you get there, the island would’ve moved anyway….)