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IT at School

Back when I was a lad and woolly mammoths roamed the Earth - computer studies involved writing programs from the outset.  Granted it was in Basic on an 8-bit machine (a Commodore PET)- but as the IBM PC hadn't been invented at that stage it was the state of the art for desktop machines.

With my children, IT starts earlier but seems to revolve around using MS Office.  Finally our eldest boy (17) has started programming at sixth-form college*  So far he has been taught:

• That they are using the lastest version of Visual Basic - that is Visual Basic 6
• That Linux is interesting in theory  but doesn't have many applications.
• That MS Office is the only office suite available.

Since before he even started the course I'd put SharpDevelop on his machine, he's used Linux previously (he doesn't like it but he has used it) and does his homework on he hasn't made himself very popular.

Is this everyone's experience of school IT?  Or is it just Britain where it's this bloody awful?

*I think the US equivalent is probably the last two years of High School.

A cynic writes
Thursday, December 04, 2003

Hey, two out of three correct facts ain't bad! ;-)

All I remember from Computing at school (in England) is interminable hours spent learning about library database and POS systems. We had BBC Model "B" computers and later on the Master series. They had some PCs in the technology department but we weren't allowed near those and no one seemed to understand them anyway.

I remember we got excited because the school had spent a lot of money on buying some Acorn Archimedes machines that actually had a GUI! This was in the late eighties/early nineties.

My most vivid memory is of our teacher using a big ruler to trip the power switch in his cupboard when he caught us playing Elite at the back!

John Topley (
Thursday, December 04, 2003

My daughter is 9 and they're using Office at school I don't think she's being fed such distortions though.

Simon Lucy
Thursday, December 04, 2003

"...two out of three correct..."
very droll.

I think I'm a bit older - I did my O-levels in 1980-82.  I'm not saying it was better then, because it wasn't - we wrote programs on paper and then would test them once a week.  If we were very lucky we got to save them to tape (as in audio tape).

I think the thing that concerns me most is that the idea of understanding a machine has disappeared from the curriculum to be replaced by learning how to use a single vendor's products.  I'm not bothered who the vendor is by the way  - I'd be just as worried if it was StarOffice.  The result seems to be people who don't even know the abstractions are there, let alone that they leak.

What I like to see kids receive a general  overview with something along the lines of "these are the various programs that do <whatever> , we will be using <whichever> because <reason>".  and I'm prepared to accept "because it's the industry standard."  as a valid reason. 

Let's face it I'm just becoming a grumpy old man.

A cynic writes
Thursday, December 04, 2003

I could rant so much on this.

Most people teaching aren't good, in fact most don't have ANY clue what they're talking about.

Any idiot who believes what they're taught blindly can just stay that way.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

"Hey, two out of three correct facts ain't bad"

Which two??
Or did I miss the sarcasim in that post?

Thursday, December 04, 2003

I think he was pulling my leg...

(which I do hope is an international expression or there are going to be some very odd posts)

A cynic writes
Thursday, December 04, 2003

At college I learned that the one true database was Oracle and the one true Office Suite was Microsoft.

That had absolutely nothing to do with the gigantic donations of software that Oracle and Microsoft had made to the school...

Thursday, December 04, 2003

I liked the post about how "understanding of the machine" was replaced by "how to use a single vendor's product".

The modern PC or the modern Macintosh, and the operating systems that run on them are A LOT more complex than the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Z80 CPU, 48 K RAM, BASIC interpreter stored in ROM), the Commodore C64 or the Apple II.

So.. you can't do this in high school, in a limited amount of time. You can do it only if you invest a lot of time.

You also have to ask yourself - do you train the children to be computer programmers, or do you train them to be computer users?

I belive that in high school, a bit of both is required.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

I'm 27 now and in the US.  In high school we had an intro to computers course (no programming).  We used apples and clarisworks.  We learned to type on word processors, not computers. 
  I say we've come a long way.  Now a lot of kids have their own computers at home.  Let the school teach Office and Windows, afterall it is what the majority of the world uses, like it or not.  Supplement his education with what you have learned and experienced.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

I did my "O" levels in 1969 when we still used four figure log tables. Perhaps as a result, I don't really see the merit in much, if any, IT in schools. Teaching the concept of algorithms, and the types of problems computers can and can't be used to solve would be good - the sort of thing covered in David Harel's books such as "The Science of Computing". Programs like Excel can be useful as exploratory tools in maths, but they can often be used as a substitute for thought. At my son's school, at least, Word is used as part of an overemphasis on form over substance, and the internet is used as a handy source of factoids to pop into assignments, rather than teaching kids how to research a topic properly using ghastly old-fashiioned things like libraries and encyclopaedias. But then I'm already a grumpy old man.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

I took a typing course in high school (1996?) and we were still being taught out of a textbook that taught you correct spacing.  Assuming, of course, that you're using an 80-character-wide page.  We learned to set the margins appropriately, and how to 'manually center' text.  I believe the computers were old 286's and 386's.  The program might have been WordStar.  I honestly don't remember/supressed memories.

In college, I have helped non-CS majors with their (Non-Major) Introduction to CS quizzes.  One question covered VESA Local Bus.  This was two years ago--I was, and still am, appalled.  VESA technology is irrelevant for this course on many levels--it's old, and what computer user ever needed to know what it did?  As far as I know, it was only used for video cards for a brief period during the 486-period.  Then came PCI, which blew VLB away.  The point is, this is just a taste of what the non-majors are learning about computers.  They're furiously memorizing the definition of BIOS and CMOS, HDD, etc.  What's the point?

As far as my CS coursework, so far we've been very balanced as far as Microsoft (or open source) loyalties go.  One course allows us to submit our programs in a variety of languages.  If we want vendor-specific courses, we can take a Java course or a VB course or any MIS (synonyms: IT IS business computing) course.   

Just realize--your computer education could be much worse...

Thursday, December 04, 2003

I think that the fact that my IT teacher did not know about the kinds of programs that are Linux compatible was horrendous, she did not even know that you could get software packages like star office or open office that are readily downloadable, and FREE, she really did not beleive me about not having to pay until i directed her to, she was embarrased, but did not say much, and whenever she says Linux now she looks at me as if to tell me i had better not say more about it. It is really quite funny


a cynic's son writes
Thursday, December 04, 2003

> What's the point?

Actually I know the answer to this one. The answer is that if a teacher does not know anything about a subject and does not care anything about it to learn, then the class will be focused on memorizable sound-bites called 'facts' that can be placed on multiple-choice exams which may be automatically graded by a Scantron(tm) reader.

It's not just CS, but other classes too. History teachers who do not know about history or care about it will use multiple choice tests and have students memorize names and dates and never discuss why things happened or dare I suggest it look at what was happeneing world wide at different points in history and how different cultures influenced each other.

It would be better to let the students go to the beach and learn how to surf than to subject them to a class that is about memorizing facts and never touches on trends or the concepts or the big picture.

Dennis Atkins
Thursday, December 04, 2003

In my CS courses my instructors were very knowledgeable people who had barely written a single working program in their lifetimes. 

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Even knowledgeablle teachers use multiple choice questions for most things. What time you lose writing you save marking, they can be mixed and matched later at random, and they do ensure fair marking across the board for different teachers.

I'm old enough to remember the days when Reading questions were not multi-choice. Ahh!

Stephen Jones
Friday, December 05, 2003

> Even knowledgeablle teachers use multiple choice questions for most things.

I contest this assertion.

Dennis Atkins
Friday, December 05, 2003

i would also like to object to that statment, i have onley ever done multiple chioce questions in a coupl eof subjects, and especially in history i have had to papers that make sure that we understood it, we had essay questions!!!

And in my 'CS' classes as you call them, i do not have any multiple choice questions, but the teacher is just reading out of a book, getting a few things wrong along the way, so yeah she doesn't really care all that much, but at least my other teacher who is attempting to teach us VB is doing a good job and knows what he is speaking about.

Talking of which, does anyone know how to code the backspace button on a calculator?

A cynic's son writes
Friday, December 05, 2003

Dear Dennis,
                    Having taught for near on thirty years and being an increasing believer in multi-choice questions I would be tempted to consider that question insulting.

                    Above all because it is much, much harder to make a good multi-choice examination than it is to make a good essay or short answer type question. You have to isolate the individual point or skill you are testing, then test out each individual item and throw out the questions that don't fit the pattern you have decided for the test. Then get the answers checked out by people who are your peers because wrong or confusing answers can get through and you don't want to throw the good candidate who can see the fault, and there is such a thing as craftmanship.

                  Now there are some things that lend themselves much more to multi-choice questions than others, and there is also the danger that students never learn to write coherently in many subjects because those have multi-choice questions and the bad teachers all teach multi-choice questions for the exam instead of teaching the subject, but if you want to get consistency over more examiners than can sit over a small coffee table you will nearly always do better with multi-choice questions for your exams.

                    Possibly what you mean is that incompetent teachers use other people's multi-choice questions in the wrong context (i.e for teaching and not for assessment).

Stephen Jones
Saturday, December 06, 2003

Jones, perhaps you are misreading me.

"if a teacher does not know anything about a subject and does not care anything about it to learn, then the class will be focused on memorizable sound-bites called 'facts' that can be placed on multiple-choice exams which may be automatically graded by a Scantron"

Here I say that really bad teachers teach memorizable facts and their tests are multiple choice, or in the past, fill in the blank.

You said that good teachers use multiple-choice for MOST things. A teacher in a regular classroom situation using multiple-choice for MOST things is one of the teachers in the above.

I've talked with kids from Japan and other areas where these tactics are used by poor teachers and the poor kids have no ability to reason or to think. Of course there are always some who manage to get by due to sheer force of the will. These kids often have poor academic records or have even been thrown out of the schools. (Me, I was expelled from at least two schools for writing the wrong sort of essays. I went on to graduate with top honors and now hold several important patents.) They only know and obey what the media or other authority figure tells them. Perhaps that's why these techniques are used. Actually, most teachers probably are like this nowadays. The key is did a kid get at least two or three teachers that didn't think this way so they didn't give up hope completely on life. Not every kid is like this, probably the system of 'memorize and obey' works for the average status quo sort of person since that's all they aspire to, never wanting to be accountable for more than watching TV and collecting a paycheck from the man or iman as the case may be.

Multiple-choice I never said was bad. It makes sense on the SAT for example where economics prohibit grading and it is only used to generate a metric. You are absolutely correct that these sorts of tests are extremely hard to get right. In particular, they need extensive scientific evaluation by people with extensive training in the test making discipline to be valid. Needless to say, no primary school teachers are so qualified.

Dennis Atkins
Saturday, December 06, 2003


It's worth pointing out at this stage that the posts from "a cynic's son writes" are actually from my eldest son, who is referred to in the original post. 

If you get past the appalling typing he makes an important point - here in the UK multiple choice is *not* commonly used and most coursework consists of essays.  It's also worth pointing out that coursework directly and significantly contributes to final results. 

Pupils here specialise to an extent at 14 (some subjects are optional) - taking their main exams at 16 at which point they can leave school.  Most then go on to sixth form (which is attached to a school) or further education college for a 2 year course.  The first year they do 3-6 AS levels and specialise further in the second year taking 3 (ish) A -levels.    It is the results at A-level which determine their university course if any. 

A cynic writes
Monday, December 08, 2003

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