Open Government Data *wince* it’ll take a while… Open Education – next September? No probs

Bear with me, I have a point.

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, today delivered a complete coup de grâce for ICT education by accepting wholeheartedly that ICT education, and indeed the cross-curricular syllabus, was fundamentally broken. He accepted that traditional methods for mending a broken bureaucratic, micro-managed education system would not address the immediacy of the problem, and so he threw it open to the floor.

He made Open Education possible (potentially mandatory) in one speech, and he heralded the Government’s move into…” it’s over to you, gang, do your thing”.

To be fair I am obliterating much of his speech here, but the bit we are most interested in is the fact that Government has seen the problem, examined it and accepted that the answers probably lie out there – somewhere on the Internet.

Let me be clear, this is a good thing – Open Education is the future – BUT YOU CAN’T JUST SPRING IT ON US!!

We need to be able to relax about certain basic human needs: education, health, environment (getting the money in to pay for this through tax, our direct debit to government) and we have to assume that the elected governors will take care of that for us, with the right people helping and advising, steering and delivering – without brain-bleeding charges to the public purse. (Martha Lane-Fox took time and focused advice on how government delivered its open online presence, resulting in the Government Digital Service – which took years to curate, even after her report was published and it is still in its infancy.)

We know about Big Society and we know that the world and its borders are opening up and it is becoming fundamentally digital. We know this and are all pitching in as and when we can, but we definitely still look to government to horizon-scan and come up with a scalable, secure plan for the future – that goes beyond:

Have you *seen* this website? is awesome

Yes… it is, but…

Let’s pretend

Let’s pretend the education system was the tax system.

Our tax system is fundamentally flawed, we all know this. It’s:

  • Not fit for purpose
  • Deeply complicated
  • Is still run by people working without access to the Internet
  • Requires experts to explain information that could be easily garnered from the web (free – if you have the time)
  • The OFFICIAL BOOKS measure in inches, if you intend to master it yourself

Have you *seen* this website? is awesome <- link chosen to back up point, not after in-depth analysis

The fact is that out of all the 28,000 teachers who qualified in 2010, 3 – THREE – were computer science majors. Three chose to go into teaching, the rest chose to reward their hard-earned degree in the City, or on their own start-ups.



Money is the elephant in the room here that no one wants to address. It takes money to solve this problem and we do not have money, as a Nation, nor most of us as individuals – not disposable income at any rate, and believe me – it will take many people with disposable income to help solve this across the UK. Hands up, anyone?

What if this was tax?

What if we were saying:

Yes, OK, the tax system is not fit for purpose and fundamentally flawed. But we are not going to spend years over-hauling the tax system and doing what we as government usually do! We say – Yes! You are right… you are vocal and on point in your suggestions so yes, go forth – and fix it… it’s still mandatory, natch, but you can do what you will with all the resources available to you on the Internet. Lots of industry leaders in accounting are going to be making up some new measurements, but it’s OK – we know it’s broken and you have the answer, so go on then 😀 we will be doing stuff over here…

I am being facetious

Of course I know this would never be the case. Of course I understand that the tax system is way too tricky for me to make such an analogy.

In my opinion if we do not treat education in the same way we respect tax, or even open data – then what exactly is democratic revolution all about?

How can we accept and wholly applaud a Government measure to turn education over to the ‘people’ when it is so utterly broken? This problem has been highlighted ad nauseum (more to come on Friday with the RSA report saying pretty much the same thing as everyone looking at this in any depth).

The issue has been accepted as a given – yes, it’s a terrible state of affairs, thank you Mr Gove for accepting this. However, you cannot step away from the fact that the solution lies in a big collaborative effort between industry and educators, between large and small businesses, corporates and social enterprise – all working in happy harmony with schools, full of children, children whom we protect (rightly) with stringent rules – particularly when we are talking real-life interaction with children, not just digital (but even digitally :/… ) this stuff does not vanish in a well-intentioned speech.

Are we sensible in being so care-free with our youth? Is education really the space where we feel most comfortable throwing open the doors and embracing Open principles without further thought? Let’s face it, Open Government data has been a minefield of risk aversity and open-eyed horror  – but Open Education can be rolled out on a whim, because micro-managing didn’t work?

I worry that in the excitement over freedom granted today to educators for something so utterly fundamental as Computer Science in the UK, so the doors open to frozen blind panic from schools and teachers, turning to potentially unethical opportunists wanting to make a buck and chaos and failure as the result. We cannot afford this.

I worry about publishing this post as I campaign for Open practice, loudly. I have campaigned hard for government to debate the subject on teaching our kids to code – please sign the petition, it has a long way to go… but if a subject is swept away in a general wiff-waff of ‘go forth and educate yourselves’ that we miss a proper, tax-payer funded (probably quite pricey) look at every issue raised – not just the problem. I also fight for Open Data. I welcome collaborative process.

Anyone who has googled Chaos theory will have a basic understanding of the fact that change is exacted through chaos. But also, that chaos is carefully crafted. And studied.

Much though it pains me hugely to say it – we have to keep pushing for a debate. We need this to be taken seriously. Education is not low-hanging fruit.

Today was great, but it was not enough. And I am so sorry to be saying this.

15 responses

  1. I think Computer Science is one small subset of Digital Literacy in general. There are cultural changes coming into play here. Of course you are right about the money. When I worked for Open Source Schools finding and sourcing teachers who used Open Source and Open Data innovatively in their practice in subject specialist areas, well, it was always the ones who brought in experts in their field for particular projects – Digital Artists for Blender, D&T “ousiders” using Arduino to hack toys or who had immense will to innovate and change what they did in the light of new technological developments but within a strong sense of pedagogical identity. But these projects were unsustainable because there was no, what I’d call third tier infrastructure. Most LAs will not risk procurement money on Open Source firms because basically if you are not RM or (put in the equivalent big corporate baron) it ain’t going to happen. That culture needs to change to because it is acting against the interests of learning. What people still don’t get is that there is a massive cultural shift in progress involving how people meet and learn and that it often has nothing to do with the institutional side of education but can be co-opted by it. I know it’s unfashionable but we are talking pedagogy and epistemology here. How and why people learn what they learn and the reasons for learning. The fact that any government leaves it up for grabs means it could either be sidelined or it could be harnessed. I also think that headteachers and SMT will seriously have to consider their approach to managing such a system. If left to wither on the vine many people’s attitudes may be to quietly bury ICT altogether and any whiff of Digital Culture with it. A purely mechanistic CS curriculum would not be rigorous – it would be sterile in this context. So where is the vision?

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more Emma. I worked as a paid IT tech to see if I could help at my local primary school. I did it for several years and overhauled the rotten RM based class management system, the Admin Servers, and the network but in the end it drove me to distraction because the systems, capabilities and solutions used were so antiquated and the support from the council so dreadful and wasteful.

    My son vowed never to touch A Levels in technology after doing his AS in ICT and being told that if he didn’t follow the examples in the book he would be unable to pass. The examples in the book being two releases old versions of Excel VBA being used to build an insurance quotation system. That is inadequate on so many levels that words fail me. The teachers couldn’t understand why it was such a problem for me. Not their fault.

    Theres another gorilla in the room. The quick fashionable fix.

    The quick fashionable fix can take many forms. A shiny website, a building in Shoreditch, an opportunity to grandstand at a big event, a public campaign to get people involved and give up their time for the public good.

    But what happens when the lens moves away and the attention seekers move away? These initiatives need long term investment and enshrining in law and process to make them happen. Otherwise they are doomed.

    So the only way is to make it a statutory requirement our councils and schools must deal with. Like governors. My wife is one. They have to have them. The governors have to take decisions. Things can’t be done without their say so, and governors are accountable if things aren’t up to scratch.

    Its just too important to let it be fuelled only by enthusiasm and organic growth.


  3. “…Computer Science is one small subset of Digital Literacy…”
    “…because the systems, capabilities and solutions used were so antiquated…”

    Oh yes please.

    Not sure I necessarily agree with everything else though. Look, with very little prodding (in reality) Gove has in 5 minutes negated all the usual excuses. No he hasnt provided a solution or a vision. Thats down to us. But if we persuaded him to throw out the child and the bathwater in 5 mins, its not going to take much to persuade him what the vision and future should be.

    We’re on a roll. Lets keep going. So what is the general consensus future?

    Eh, we don’t have one either. What we have are lots of great ideas of what parts of it could be. “Eight’s too late” should be a key part of the future, but it’s not the whole story. We need to identify the other stuff that makes up part of that future.

    For me the critical part is the people ( We need to train the trainers, to overuse a cliche which most teachers hate. The staff tasked with educating our kids need to be up to the job.

    The curriculum is what Gove has zeroed. So what do we replace it with? Is every child going to be a coder? No. But lets look at increasing the number that will be capable of coding from 5% to 25% to 75%.

    And there’s more. But we need to sing to Gove like a good choir, in key, harmonious, reading from the same hymn sheet.

    Thats our job. Lets get started.

  4. The government’s complete acceptance of the problems we are facing was certainly very welcome, but I worry about their hands-off approach. Yes, it is good that they are giving experts the space to develop ideas for the future shape of ICT, but there are things that they should be doing in support of this endeavour.

    First, there needs to be a genuine commitment to supporting existing teachers, helping them to acquire the additional skills needed to deliver a more rigorous ICT syllabus. This commitment is in part financial: there may be fees to pay for training courses, and there will certainly be costs associated with providing cover for teachers so that they actually have the time to learn these new skills.

    In the longer term, the critical problem is that we don’t have enough teachers who are qualified to degree level in a computing-related subject. This is in part due to the difficulties that most universities have faced in recruiting onto computing or computer science programmes in recent years. The other factor, of course, is the relative unattractiveness of teaching as a profession when compared with the other possible career paths for a computing graduate.

    The solution to this may be to provide incentives for computing graduates to do a PGCE; perhaps the government could offer a partial rebate on tuition fees, for example, payable on securing that first teaching post?

  5. Great piece, great comments too. I’m trying to figure the whole caboodle out, so excuse some potentially vague off-the-cuff thoughts here…

    Perhaps at the heart of the matter is the question: what is coding? Is it an art or a science? Sure, I got my Computer Science degree as a BSc, but I would call what I now do on a daily basis fairly *creative* – I have an array of “scientific” tools to code with, but choosing what to do and which ones to use is all about *creativity*.

    Why is this important? Because it affects how computing (not just coding) gets taught. We don’t try to treat art as a mechanistic medium (sure, there are technicalities to drawing, but A-level Art is not about how well you can draw). We don’t tell people how to compose music beyond showing them how a stave works and how you can use a MIDI keyboard.

    Computing is not something that can be “indoctrinated” – and yet, year after we year, we basically show young people how to follow a manual. “Click here to do X”. “Menu Y lets you do Z”. “This is how you write a blog post.”

    I’m almost glad we *didn’t* do much computing when I was at school. What I learnt outside of school was far more useful. Why? Because the rules were vague, and exploratory. I didn’t worry about the “right” answer. The “right” answer was if it worked or not. The “right” answer was whether it was fun or not. I learnt to use technology and to code based on that.

    Openness can help with that, but with 2 caveats:

    First, one needs to know where to look among all the openness. And there’s a lot of choice out there. Most adults see the Internet and are (fairly) good at filtering out what they think other people are interested in. Actually choosing something to invest your own time and effort in is trickier. There is no one site that will help. Instead, it’s young people (and all people) creating their *own* sites – this will be the real measure of success.

    Second, openness does little to *inspire* usage (cf. #opendata) – it must be combined with things that make you *want* to get in there and do it yourself. Things that look different, but that look within your reach too, that make you say “hey, I could do that.” Hollywood blockbusters are not great inspiration for an individual. Watching Bagpuss is.

    Back at school, a lot of us were “into” coding. We were also into gaming, music, doodling, and swearing. We learned all of these from each other. We started off hacking small bits, and then expanding outwards into fully-blown programs. We used pens and Acorn Archimedes. We hung around at lunch and one of us would write bad BASIC while the other would play Crazee Rider.

    This was *at school*. We had free access to (non-networked) machines. We swapped floppies. We printed stuff out. The *environment* was there for us.

    Looking back, this was a kind of “closed” openness, in the same way that a playground is. Education is more than a curriculum or a grading – it’s about nurturing curiosity, and about providing easy ways to fulfil that curiosity and drive it to *new* curiosity.

    We don’t need teachers with CS degrees as much as we need teachers with a penchant for discovery. We don’t need the internet to every child as much as we need a *challenge* for every child.

    Set up your own BBS. Code websites. Write musical software. Commit rude words to Github. Fill Excel with figures. Let a thousand playgrounds bloom.

  6. As a commercial computing developer for 20 years, I’ve been saddened and annoyed to see the gradual decline of Computing teaching at schools, especially given the rise of social integration, and availability, of technology.

    At the same time, while I do have an impulse to switch to education to try and contribute, I think I’d have to take a 40% income cut to do so. I can’t do that, and it’s probably a major factor in why only 3 newly qualified teachers had Computing degrees.

    As already mentioned, while getting full acknowledgement of the problem by Government is significant, there needs to be a *plan* for going forwards with such a fundamental change. Engaging with the professional community must be part of this, and ultimately money will indeed be required – it’s not going to be free (although I can already envisage the likes of Microsoft eagerly prepping their lobbyists to offer their wares “for the benefit of our youth”, with a nice side-deal attached).

    These are principally mid-to-long term objectives though, and governments – particularly cutting-obsessed unstable coalition governments – are not going to comprehensively engage in that kind of activity. Hence Gove throwing open the door and then walking away…

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you’re doing. I’m on the way out of this business, retiring after 45 yrs with BT. I’ve been fortunate to have taught five apprentices straight from school in the last 3 years, up to Cisco CCNA level. Their english has been good, maths adequate, science almost non-existent (“Ohm’s law – yes, I’ve heard of that”). They can fly around Word, Excel and Powerpoint, and have seen a bit of VBA, but have NO idea of how computers work at a low level. The education system needs fixing, urgently.

    • This isn’t just a problem with people from school its also at university level now as well, even students studying computer science degrees are not being taught the fundamentals such as how the machine actually works , they are no longer tought machine code, simple concepts such as pointers are now missed with most classes using abstracted coding languages such as Java.

      I think that we need to be at least covering the basics so that students have at least a simple understanding of how everything works, if this is started earlier at secondary school then even better.

  8. Pingback: ICT victory for coding campaigners | Education News

  9. I’ll be honest, I’m not really a part of this whole movement – I’ve followed a link from Google+ to this post, having read about Gove’s fairly sudden move on BBC.

    I am a secondary school science teacher, though, so maybe I can give some helpful/practical comments. Let’s see.

    Students in the secondary schools I have worked in vary considerably, but I can say with some certainty that coding is not for all of them. Some of them are practically allergic to numbers. I have students who are 13-14 years old who struggle when I introduce the formula “speed = distance/time”. I have a couple of students who are 15-16 years old in a TOP set for science who find the mental hurdle of finding a percentage a bit of a challenge, and percentage INCREASE thoroughly confusing.

    Now maybe ICT is a good window of opportunity to help people to get a handle on these ideas, and get rid of the fear and loathing of maths that many develop. But if I tried to discuss algorithm options for a calculation, or tried to help them actually UNDERSTAND what they are doing when using a spreadsheet to model a system, I’d be fighting a very difficult battle.

    I haven’t played around with it at length but Scratch seems like a fairly useful way in. I liked the point that Exmosis made when s/he said that

    “What I learnt outside of school was far more useful. Why? Because the rules were vague, and exploratory. I didn’t worry about the “right” answer. The “right” answer was if it worked or not. The “right” answer was whether it was fun or not.”

    Exmosis found exploring coding fun, and I think it’s that which is going to make a good programmer. And I’m not sure whether it’s something that can easily be taught (I certainly believe the same holds for science – almost any student can enjoy the lessons, certainly, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy thinking about and applying science in their spare time, which is what makes a great scientist).

    In my opinion, to set sights high enough that you are going to improve computer literacy across the board is going to end in disappointment and disaffection for teachers whose hopes rocket sky high. What the community should aim for (again just in my opinion, and I’m not exactly an experienced teacher just yet!) is giving every child who has a bit of curiosity the basic tools and opportunity they need to start exploring coding.

    For what it’s worth, I was always intrigued by programming, though never formally trained. I had the insight to search for tutorials online, and spent some time learning HTML and javascript, dabbled in C++ and even a bit of OpenGL. I got a book about Java out of the library a long time ago, but didn’t have a Java compiler, and didn’t realise I could probably have downloaded an open-source one for free, so it went nowhere. I don’t have a purpose for my programming in mind, but I’m sure I’m one of the people who could well have benefited from what I hope the new curriculum will become.

  10. Pingback: Open Government Data *wince* it'll take a while… Open Education ... | Open Research & Learning |

  11. From time to time I display this quote at work –
    “The conditions of service are not such as to attract people who think that informed enthusiasm deserves bigger rewards than are paid to civil servants. All honour, then, to those brilliant people who accept the conditions ; there could be more of such people if the pay were more attractive.” P. Eckersley

    I work for the Met Office, but that quote is from 1942 and refers to the BBC. I’ve also spent many years as a school governor – the pay for that is zero, but there’s often real talent there too.

    For now it seems buying out way out of this problem with an abundance of new young talented teachers isn’t going to happen.

    Creativity is required – how about a coding contest (with decent prizes) for existing and in-training teachers? Let’s see if we can find what talent we already have and do nice things for them. Maybe there’s a PE or cookery teacher out there with a talent for app development!

  12. Pingback: Open Government Data *wince* it’ll take a while… Open Education – next September? No probs | One Change a Day

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