How ICT Co-ordinators could save the IT industry from collapse

Over the weekend I read with great interest an article by Ben Nunney, an education IT specialist who I met briefly last year in one of his roles with Microsoft. I started writing a reply as a comment on his post, but it quickly ballooned into what I think is now the longest post ever to feature on this blog.

Ben’s blog post, A Lesson Worth Learning, touched on several important themes in secondary-level ICT teaching in schools, with some feedback from a current student named Kevin that was eerily familiar: “We don’t really learn anything,” he said. “One time I ended up having to teach the class because the teacher didn’t know how to.”

I’d like to take a moment now to quote from my own secondary school report from more than a decade ago:

“Young AngryTechnician approached any task in IT with immense enthusiasm right from the beginning of Year 7. By the end of Key Stage 3 he had greater skills than the staff, though he was always very diplomatic about the application.”

Regular readers will now be in stitches over my supposed diplomacy skills; I attribute this aberration directly to the innocence of youth. My point here is not to inflate my own ego, however much I might enjoy the extremely rare occasions on which I can quote that report, but to point out that Kevin’s experience, 15 years later, is almost identical to my own. I don’t believe either of us are IT savants, so how is it that after all that time, the situation is the same?

Well, there is a fundamental problem with IT in schools. I’ve seen it for years, and Ben’s post echoes my own feelings. As someone with a strong academic background in IT, I’ve long argued that the national curriculum for ICT is desperately unambitious, and is ultimately failing both its students and the industry that relies on them.

I was asked in my last school to teach a few 2nd year A-level ICT classes, because none of the teachers in the school had the first clue how to teach one part of the syllabus. I went in expecting that the students would know far more than they actually did. It was soul-crushing seeing how little they were getting out of the subject – and not just for me. After 7 years of mind-numbing monotony in ICT lessons, I found only a single A-level student in 4 years at the school who was considering ICT or CS post-18. This was not a low-achieving school; this was a highly-ranked state grammar, delivering a generation of straight-A students who had been put off the subject forever. This does not bode well for an IT industry that is arguably one of the world economy’s growth sectors.

Ben’s article argues not only that there needs to be better integration of ICT in the rest of the curriculum, which I agree with entirely, but goes further in suggesting that perhaps ICT should not even exist as a discrete subject. That’s certainly not something I’d considered, and even thinking objectively about it, I think that would be a step too far, at least for the foreseeable future, and so long as students taking up IT and CS at degree level remain at their current low levels. What we do need is a subject of the sort that the student in Ben’s article describes: “We should learn real computer stuff,” Kevin argues. “You know, logic and coding, how computers work and stuff. It should be for people who want to go on and work with computers after school”.

In fact, this subject exists already – it’s called Computing. I studied it at A-Level, but it exists as a GCSE subject too, and covers exactly what Kevin says he wants from his lessons. I was lucky to be able to study it; few schools offer the subject at A-Level. The number offering it at GCSE is minuscule. Could this trend be reversed, with all schools integrating the basics of ICT into the rest of the school, and offering a more advanced ICT subject to those who wanted it?

Possibly, but the problems in doing that are twofold. Firstly, to integrate those basic ICT skills into other subjects, you need the subject teachers to be able to teach them. When a distressing number of ICT subject teachers can’t even reach that benchmark themselves, it shows we have a long way to go before teachers in other subjects can take on that task. Secondly, finding ICT teachers capable of teaching Computing would be harder still. Ben describes how he’s encountered many ex-Geographers who find their way into ICT teaching. In my experience, it’s usually Business Studies teachers (who are even less suited to the task, in my opinion). While the TDA is hell-bent on recruiting more specialist science and mathematics teachers (and rightly so), barely a word is ever said about specialist ICT teachers, though it’s hardly surprising when the syllabus is so basic that many schools are able to churn out grade-A students taught by teachers with no background in the subject.

In this way, the dual problems Ben identifies of both poorly-trained teachers and the curriculum itself are closely linked in a catch-22 situation; we can’t improve the curriculum without having better-trained teachers to deliver it, but there is little incentive to deliver that training until the curriculum truly demands it.

So, where do we start? In my opinion, it has to be with the wider school staff. Until ICT is integrated with the entire curriculum, ICT as a discrete subject will be stuck teaching only the basics. In some ways, this is also the easiest place to start, since the process has begun already. If you looked at the ICT skills of the average non-ICT teacher today, and compared them with that of a decade ago, you would see an enormous difference. That has occurred partly out of necessity as computers increasingly permeate not only the classroom, but our everyday lives. What’s notable is that the improvement in skills has happened with actually quite little formal training, and not an awful lot of direction. Despite the popular belief to the contrary, good teachers pick up ICT skills quickly, though many suffer from a lack of confidence which belies their actual ability. What’s needed is a way to strategically focus and develop those skills across the entire curriculum. What’s needed is a secret weapon, and I know exactly where to find one. Behold:

The all-powerful ICT Co-ordinator

In many schools, especially at primary level, there is no specialist ICT teacher, no Head of ICT, or department to run. Instead, they have a post called the ICT Co-ordinator. If the school is lucky, this role may be a dedicated member of staff; in the less-lucky, it’s often a role foisted upon some unwary new hire, a “yes-man” or “yes-woman” keen to impress senior management. In either case, the core idea is that this person works directly with the rest of the teaching staff to develop and support ICT teaching throughout the school.

Which is exactly what we need.

In the AngryTechnician’s New World Order, every school has an ICT Co-ordinator, even where there is a fully-fledged ICT subject department. This person acts a bit less like a teacher, and a bit more like a member of support staff – and by that, I don’t mean writing irate blogs about how rubbish the rest of the staff are. Quite the opposite: their job is to train and develop both the personal IT skills of the rest of the teaching staff, and their teaching skills in ICT – instead of taking on the teaching themselves. They are a facilitator. Their job is, quite simply, to ensure that other subject teachers have the skills and knowledge to deliver ICT content relevant to their subject with confidence and excellence. They guide and inform lesson planning in every subject where ICT is used. They are the right hand of every teacher who needs to use ICT in their lessons.

This is what many ICT co-ordinators already have in their job description, though usually as a small part of their overall job. I say it should be their single most important focus. The ICT Co-ordinator should not be taking up the slack and teaching those parts other teachers cannot reach; they should be making sure there is no part that other teachers cannot reach. In doing so, they would usher in the era much-desired by senior leaders where ICT is seamlessly integrated into teaching & learning, leaving the ICT department… empty?

Perhaps, perhaps not. At primary level it could be argued there is no need for a discrete ICT subject, if it was ubiquitous elsewhere. In many primaries, this is already the case, even if not out of choice. The need definitely exists at secondary level, and with an integrated approach to ICT, that department would be free to focus on doing what every other department does; teaching the specifics of the subject, switching pupils on to the wonder of our modern technological society, not drilling them through monotonous exercises in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

In my final year at my previous school, I suggested to the Pendragon, the newest IT teacher, that he might find the time to start teaching Small Basic to some of his students. He leapt on the idea – and started with Year 8. It has been a colossal hit. Year 11 pupils would stare wide-eyed into his lessons and complain “Why aren’t WE doing that?” They were switched on for the first time, and this year, the school finally has a cohort of pupils going into GCSE who look towards university and think of Computer Science.

If ICT was allowed to be more like Computing, doing away with humdrum labouring over how to do a mail-merge for the hundredth time, that success could be replicated with ten times the magnitude in every school. In their upgraded form, the humble ICT-Cordinator can make that happen. It might take a decade to achieve, but it would be shot in the arm that the IT industry desperately needs.

About The Angry Technician

The Angry Technician is an experienced IT professional in the UK education sector. Normally found in various states of annoyance on his blog. All views are those of his imaginary pet dog, Howard.

19 responses to “How ICT Co-ordinators could save the IT industry from collapse”

  1. Adrian Taylor says :

    Completely agree with you. That’s why I don’t teach the national curriculum; when I started here, with no teaching qualifications (nothing’s changed since) or experience, just 10 years of working in Computing (I was a kernel engineer for a big UNIX vendor), I looked at the national curriculum and was filled with scorn.

    I teach year 3-6, and we cover Scratch, some PHP, algorithms, Sketchup, making videos and animation as well as the more common stuff like blogging and podcasting, and a small amount of “office” stuff, mostly with GoogleDocs. I teach the algorithms stuff to year 5, and we do it outside in the summer term; kind of a human LOGO – getting the kids to program their “robot” to walk various patterns around flowerbeds and ponds.

    We also spend a lesson or two taking an old PC apart, then putting it back together. I have a bunch of old components in bits, e.g. a hard drive with the platters and head visible. I can’t say that the kids learn much from it that they could immediately apply, but it gets them interested and excited and also makes them appreciate that computers are just machines, not some kind of magical mystery.

  2. Nick says :

    Lots of good juicy stuff here that I whole heartedly agree with after 10 years teaching ICT but there are some of us trying our best to educate students in forward thinking ICT skills but the Nat Curric and results demands of education are the main bind.

    The Co-Ordinator is without doubt in my mind the way forward but this seems to only just beginning to happen and with political upheaval possible may be a false start anyway.

  3. Karl says :

    Oh, I know this feeling. The amount of kids we’ve had in our office asking us questions about what is “memory”, is it like hard disk etc, and being totally unaware of the underlying stuff is staggering.

    When myself and NM sat down with 2 of them, both bright girls and explained the differences, then moved on to such things as binary, the fact that sooner or later it all comes down to 1 and 0, that PCs are just very very fast 1’s and 0’s, that processors DO NOT understand Windows as we see it etc etc..they were fascinated.

    “We’re just girls – we’re no good at this stuff” was said…I explained that my missus had been an IT Tech in a school, and was now a web-dev, all self taught. I explained that in a previous life I’d worked under a female supervisor in the field, and the whole “girl” excuse didn’t wash.

    We’ve shown kids who ask how a PC goes together, how it all works, even given them the chance to build some…we’ll answer any questions that aren’t daft.

    We used to get asked to take the lessons by the kids, heh. The complaints of “IT is just BORING…It’s all Spreadsheets and boring office stuff” used to make me cringe.

    I’m looking forward (in another 6-7 years) to daughter entering school and being able to work with her along with her mum to give her the best possible grounding in IT, Technology, and common sense we can. I have lots of hardware she can learn with, and lots of time to show her about the how and why of everything.

    Of course, if she chooses not to follow us into IT, I will support her in that choice..haha..I have a car with her name on it and a set of spanners waiting for her to take an interest too. If she wants.

    As to LOGO etc…I’m SO tempted to preorder one of the new BigTraks that are rumoured to be coming out again..if not to her taste, I’m sure her old dad can find some time to play..

  4. Dan Stucke says :

    Whole-heartedly agree with much of this. My job is meant to be as you describe but in Secondary, unfortunately my Maths roots have taken over as I’m sure you know fine well where priorities lie within schools these days.

    I think that ICT should begin to disappear as a subject, but it’s going to take some time. The curriculum is terrible, and the qualifications that go with it worse.

  5. tmcd35 says :

    Part of the problem is the total lack of ICT specialist teachers. All ICT Teachers/Dept. Heads/Co-ords I’ve ever met have been ex-Maths, Geography or Business teachers.

    Infact there appears to be a danger (or a trap that meny schools full into) in beleiving that Business Studies = Computing.

  6. Blast from the past says :

    I found this a really interesting post and discussion, interesting enough to spend a bit of time thinking about the questions raised and writing a response. I am a Geography teacher who considers himself to be amongst the more IT aware members of that part of the profession (AT-feel free to disagree!), with a significant responsibility for HE/Careers guidance and advice. Both of these points are germane to what I want to say.

    Firstly, in response to the various comments about the ICT curriculum. I speak from a position of ignorance on the detail, and so ask questions rather than anything else. Firstly, is ICT the same as other school subjects? Ben quotes a student saying “It should be for people who want to go on and work with computers after school”. You couldn’t really create a substitute sentence for many of the other mainstream school subjects, so is it, therefore, a mistake to see ICT in the same way? It seems to me that much of the work done in ICT (particularly at GCSE) is about functional skills-a term that might ring a few bells for some teachers.

    Secondly, staff recruitment. I agree with what you say about teachers. Most teachers come to teaching (believe it or not) because they love their subject enough to have studied it to degree level and still not got bored of it. Does ICT/ Computer Science differ from many other subjects in that people who study it at degree level can go on to be professionals in that field, thus not losing contact with the subject? Perhaps this is something ICT shares with Medicine & Engineering, two fields that produce few school teachers. I know that one of the reasons I teach Geography is that I didn’t want to lose contact with my academic subject, which I probably would have done if I’d pursued another career. The opportunities are out there, though. The GTTR (http://www.gttr.ac.uk/students/coursesearch) lists 64 courses for Secondary level ICT teacher training. 4 of them are full. There are 44 Geography courses, and 21 of them are full.

    Next, your points about delivering what is currently ICT through the wider curriculum. Common sense, of course. So why doesn’t it work? I offer a few of the frustrations that I have experienced trying to do just that through my subject. Firstly, access to facilities. I work in a location which I think is reasonably well equipped and certainly well run in ICT terms. It is rarely possible to access ICT facilities in a comprehensive manner-there simply isn’t enough to go round by the time the teaching of ICT is scheduled and the rest of us have fought over the scraps. Clearly your ICT Co-ordinator plan would free up a good deal of this space, but I suspect not enough to generate unfettered access. This has, I think, 2 key impacts. Firstly teacher motivation to develop new resources & activities is reduced if their ability to deliver these is limited. Secondly, it mitigates against purchasing new software. We should probably have some GIS software running. We haven’t because we cannot gain sufficient access to lab time to enable us to write it fully into the curriculum and therefore make it worthwhile. As it happens Google Earth pretty much does the job now anyway. Interestingly, new A level Geography specifications require the use and understanding of GIS, something we’ve addressed with some difficulty this year.

    Changing hats to consider the HE picture. AT, you may be pleased to learn that the current crop of university applicants at my school includes 4 students who want to read Computer Science, one heading for a Computer Systems Engineering course and one Computer Games Design student. In my 6 years working with HE entrants I think I have noticed a rise in numbers applying to the field, and I have definitely noticed a rise in interest in more specific technical courses, which include a high level of the application of IT, such as acoustic engineering

    I remember receiving a letter from the Computer Science department at Bristol University some years ago bemoaning the quality of applicants they received and their lack of mathematical sophistication, and being especially scathing about the value of A level ICT. I wonder, do IT professionals come from Mathematics degree courses as well as CompSci courses? If so, then the profession mirrors many others where graduate recruitment is derived from loosely related studies at University. Perhaps the more productive ‘home’ for encouraging CompSci at university is not with ICT teaching?

    • AngryTechnician says :

      An good point about Mathematics – many of the more complex programming jobs certainly require a strong maths background. However, it’s by no means a necessity for the industry. I didn’t come from a Mathematics background, and in fact consider it one of my weaker subjects. Computer Science courses do differ, with some requiring more mathematics than others, but I did well at CS despite only scraping a D at A-Level Mathematics.

      ICT is in a minority in that it translates directly into a career path, but there are a few other subjects that do the same, particularly in the sciences. Electronics is an example, though it’s rare to find that being taught as it’s own subject as early as ICT is. However, perhaps the real discrepancy is in the perception that ICT leads into careers, when really, it doesn’t. Right now, it only teaches those functional skills, which while very useful, are no more career-leading than secondary-level English leads into journalism, Physics leads into Civil Engineering, or Geography leads into Meteorology. It’s in the same ballpark, but it’s not the same subject. That’s why I was keen to bring up Computing as the subject people who want to go into IT should be studying. When they do get that far, there is certainly a lot of opportunity outside of education, but a bigger factor might be that the subject of ICT still being taught in schools is so far removed from the graduate-level subject that going into teaching would actually represent a departure from what they studied for their degree, not a way to stay in contact with the subject you love.

      Access to facilities is clearly essential if we ever hope to integrate ICT into other subjects. Interestingly, as the student laptop scheme bandwagon gathers pace across the country, I’ve spoken to several schools who dove into their scheme without really knowing how they were going to use the devices once they arrived in the classroom. In many cases, the uptake in use has come naturally. What’s remarkable is that senior leaders have been able to break the catch-22 mentality and spend money on equipment before the curriculum that demanded it was in place. I think it’s important to understand that the full benefits of that investment might only be realised if there is a structured and staffed approach to developing use of ICT in other subjects.

  7. Soulfish says :

    I completely agree with what you’ve written here AT. When I studying GCSE ICT roughly 9 years ago I was very lucky to have an ICT teacher that had actually studied Computer Science at university. He’d studied a very mathematical CS course and I found what he talked about fascinating.

    It was this that caused me to finally decide that I wanted to study a mathematical CS degree when I eventually ended up at University. Nine years later and I now have a degree in computer science and like you cannot believe just how unambitious the national curriculum is when it comes to ICT.

    Your post raises some interesting points and ideas – I fully agree that integrating the more functional aspects of ICT as it currently stands into the rest of the curriculum could be hugely beneficial. Moving towards offering Computing rather than ICT at anything post KS3 (and even perhaps for KS3?) as a subject could introduce students to the concepts that they find much more interesting and encourage more people that IT isn’t just about word processing and spreadsheets – there’s so much more out there.

  8. Christopher Pipe says :

    What is depressing is that this is exactly the argument that was being made in the school I was working in over 25 years ago! Of course teachers are now much more aware of IT applications now than they were then, and ICT courses in those days were in their infancy; but why are we still rehearsing the same arguments? You have described the role of the IT co-ordinator very well; I believe school librarains and resource centre staff also have a role to play – helping teachers realise the power of IT in seeking and presenting information and playing with ideas.

  9. Nick says :

    I wonder if this would be of use to some people who read your blog, it has been around for a while but doesn’t seem to get much ‘bite’! https://www.dreamspark.com/

  10. tmcd35 says :

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit more and I’m not totally convinced that the ICT Co-ordinator is the answer. Sure it would be good if all schools had such a person as you describe but even so I’m not sure think teachers in meny subjects need to incorporate ICT into their lessons more than perhaps they currently do.

    I think the core problem is the way ICT is largely taught as a subject, and this means from KS3 – year 7 and up. By KS4 it’s already too late and suddenly offering GCSE Computing to students who have been taught MS Office by rote for the last 3 years wouldn’t get us much further. In deed this is the problem KS3 ICT = MS Office and KS4 ICT = Business Studies.

    I wouldn’t necerssarilly argue for Computer Science as a high school subject. Not everyone is interested in coding and Computing (at least all the GCSE/A-Level/B-Tec/Degree versions I’ve encounted) is programming heavy.

    I think the answer is to teach ICT properly at KS3. Instead of producing 15 year olds who can type a letter in Word and imports some pictures into Powerpoint but still can’t grasps the basics of the file system, pupils need to be taught proper ICT functional skills.

    Maybe some basic programming, certainly some OS theory – how they work, why they work the way they do, common paradigms etc. Maybe installing an OS in a VM. Trying out a Linux distro in a VM and looking at the difference between that and Windows. Opening up the side of (an old) case and seeing what makes the system tick. Some basic understanding of system building. Simple networking, etc, etc ,etc.

    Theres a lot of interesting material that can be taught at KS3 level that would lead to students having a functional understanding of the lump of plastic they’ll be typing their C.V.’s on in years to come.

  11. Adrian Taylor says :

    I find the argument that there isn’t time due to results/curriculum constraints makes my blood boil. I hear this all the time when trying to encourage colleagues to take a more innovative approach to their subjects – oh, we haven’t got time to do that due to the amount of stuff we have to cover. Balls. This was even said of basics such as AfL; my argument is that you haven’t got time not to do it.

    I don’t know about GCSE, because I don’t teach beyond year 6, but my goal (and my head’s goal) is that we phase out IT as a discrete subject. My plan is for me, as Head of ICT, to support learning in other subjects, starting with History – I’m working closely with the head of history to bring a lot more technology into his schemes of work; not necessarily in the lessons themselves, but in the opportunities for extension and individual learning. Instead of being taught the Gunpowder Plot in their lesson, then being asked to produce a piece of writing on Lord Monteagle’s letter, children respond much better to researching the Gunpowder Plot themselves, then producing, for example, a Glogster poster, or using xtranormal to create their own “documentary”. If you also give them, via your VLE, a host of youtube video links to look at, then, IME, they tend to go off and look at those extra resources. Try giving them extra reading to do – I bet 99% of children wouldn’t bother, but give them a Richard Hammond documentary and they’re hooked.

  12. Sal says :

    A very insightful post, I think. I have something to back you up.
    As a History specialist with no formal ICT qualification, I was staggered when, after a year of teaching KS3 ICT as an extra, the Head of ICT said, “You’ve got half of year 9 next year – it’s an important year and we want them all taught by specialists.”

    Undervaluing your subject much? But then, what can you expect from a Physics teacher/Assistant Head/Head of timetabling…

    You’ll be relieved to hear that I was cast aside two years later when a new full time post was created and filled by a subject specialist. Teaching the ICT curriculum was so dull I wanted to eat my own head (“Finished that worksheet? Here’s another! I just have to PRINT IT OUT….”), so I can hardly have enthused the pupils.

  13. snuggleFoo says :

    We always had programming in our computer studies courses. It was always taught by the nerdy maths teachers. We learned what a CPU was, basic counting in binary and on to Karel, Pascal then BASIC.

    I loved it, but I went badly as the only student without a home computer. This was the 1990’s (when a 486 was great news).

  14. stewart thorp says :

    I am (was) head of ICT in our School, which is now becoming an academy (this September) I have managed to secure the job as Leader of ELearning and Creativity.

    ICT will no longer be a discrete subject.

    I will be left with iMedia as the sole surviving IT related subject. I will have the role of up-skilling staff to use ICT effectively in their subject. I am not sure how this is going to work as it is going to be really hard to map pupil progress and ensure they get a balanced and challenging diet of ICT. It was hard enough delivering ICT with a team of non specialists who claimed to be able to teach ICT!

    I am planning on delivering the EPICT http://www.epict.co.uk/ course to staff as a way of dragging staff competence up.

    If anyone has any advice or experience I would be most welcome of it.

    I am also investigating whether ICT used to develop effective learners in Science and Maths in our school as a part of my MA.

    Thanks for the post left a lot of food for thought.

    Stewart

  15. Simon Peyton Jones says :

    “In fact, this subject exists already – it’s called Computing. I studied it at A-Level, but it exists as a GCSE subject too, and covers exactly what Kevin says he wants from his lessons.”

    Exactly. Perhaps you or your readers would like to join the Computing at School Working Group, a bunch of people who are working to get Computing taught as a proper discipline at school? The group is really fizzing at the moment. http://www.computingatschool.org.uk

    • AngryTechnician says :

      I am actually already a member, though I wasn’t at the time I wrote this post. I would certainly recommend readers join if they are as passionate about this as I am.

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