Newsletter March 2012

Falling Asleep At the Keyboard

I remember my first ICT lesson vividly.

My friends and I were ushered into a newly refurbished classroom, the smell of paint still hanging in the air. Inside, there were twenty-odd grey boxes, buzzing excitedly, wires spewing out of their backsides and disappearing beneath the floorboards. We all ran for the nearest terminal, barging each other violently out of the way, before diving onto, what I soon discovered, were not just ordinary classroom chairs. They were swivel chairs. Chairs that swivelled. By this point, my head was about ready to explode. Leaning over the edge of the desk, the friendly, turquoise Windows 95 screen, with its massive icons and giant task bar, smiled down at me. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. The teacher called for quiet, and the lesson began.

Any excitement I had quickly dissipated within that first hour. We were immediately instructed to log out and then re-enter our username and password. That was our first lesson. I wasn't worried to begin with; though impatient, I supposed it would take some time to work up to the really fun stuff. But little did I know that I would have a whole year of "Touch Type Tutor", table formatting and pie charts to look forward to. It was devastatingly dull. But then something strange started to happen. In their spare time, students would head back to the computer room and do things our English-turned-ICT teacher didn't even know his machines were capable of. Later that term, a Russian exchange student joined our fold and taught us all how to use java. Before long, I had my own website, dedicated to reviewing games online. But in class, we'd go back to entering data into an excel spread sheet. It all seemed rather pointless.

But that was 15 years ago – we have sleek Apple computers now, Facebook and Windows 7. Surely things have changed since then? Not according to last year's ICT GCSE mock paper. I should mention that even reading the word 'spread sheet' still gives me heart palpitations, so I found this week's research extremely traumatic. Nevertheless, here are some of the questions on offer:


This question is worth a stonking great 6 marks. The paper is out of 90. Maybe it gets harder as we go along. Let's have a look see shall we? Ah, here we are. Question 11: "Paula wants to go on holiday with her friends…" Good start, convincing back story – they've certainly got me interested. "Paula wants to go on holiday with her friends and has used a spread sheet…" Oh God. Let's just leave it there.

Mercifully, a little bit more research into the ICT curriculum reveals that the exam is worth only 40% of the overall grade and that coursework amounts for 60% of the final mark. So what are our tech savvy teens doing for their projects? Building websites? Designing apps? Programming new software? I think you know the answer. Yes, the powers-that-be think it is much more prudent for our students to learn how to – wait for it – compile databases! Here's the example they provide:

"My uncle Eric is the manager of a cheese shop. He is completely disorganised and he is always losing important files and scraps of paper. Auntie Ethel bought him a PC for Christmas and I would like to produce a database for him that will make his business more efficient"

In essence, GCSE ICT coursework is geared towards brainwashing our children into supporting our technophobic, aging relatives. The people who draft the exams are probably in their late 50s or 60s, so it certainly suits them. You might as well skip ICT and get a qualification in nursing.

So while British teens are assisting Uncle Eric with his tax returns and helping Paula plan her debauched weekend in Marbella, what is the rest of the world doing? Well, last year, 12 year old Thomas Suarez' gave a speech hosted on the TED website which went viral overnight. Even at such a young age, he has two apps to his name: "Earth Fortune" and "Bustin Jieber", a whack-a-mole game in which the user is invited to pummel the teen sensation to their heart's content. Take that Excel!

In his talk, Suarez paid homage to the iPhone Software Development kit which has helped educate young developers to make their own apps. Inspired by this, he went on to found the 'App Club' at his school, where "anyone can come and learn how to make an app". He shrewdly points out that students are beginning to outshine their teachers, and it is now up to them to take the initiative – to educate themselves.

Our computer knowledge is not static – since my first computer lesson, it has changed beyond recognition. Yet, schools continue to show a lack of ambition, educating children the same way they did fifteen years ago. Worse still, they make it incredibly dull. How are we supposed to inspire the next Suarez on British shores when our children are falling asleep at their keyboards? Fortunately, the government agrees with me.

Michael Gove has invited business and universities to design a new, exciting and intuitive ICT course, bemoaning that as it stands students are "bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers". Amen. He even wants to see 16 year olds designing apps for smartphones. Let's just hope the government stick to their promise on this one. We have let the rest of the world overtake us in nearly every other sector. This is not a battle we can afford to lose.

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