There are two concepts around the use of computers in education that are frequently misunderstood. These concepts are teaching with computers and teaching about computers.
In the earliest days of computers, the only computer education was about computers. At that time, computers were huge, expensive and rare. Computer education was limited to those students with exceptional mathematical aptitude. After all, thatís what computers were all about Ė solving mathematical problems.
We, and computers, have come a long way since those days. Now computers have invaded every aspect of modern life. Education is no exception. Much has been made of using the computer as a tool in education. Word processors for writing, spreadsheets for mathematics and science, and databases for organizing information. Lately, the Internet has become recognized as a research tool. The need for computer literate people knows no bounds. Schools have been quick to jump on the computer bandwagon. Well, quick for a system that traditionally moves as slowly as education.
Unfortunately, in many schools computer education has become an educational ghetto. Computer departments, or all too often the "computer teacher", are isolated with their offerings having a tenuous connection to the rest of the curriculum at best. Computers are used to teach about computers. Computers are not being used as tools to teach other subjects.
There are, of course, many exceptional schools where computers and other technology are being integrated into the curriculum. These schools are not yet the norm. To be fair, part of this is the fault of the way we design our curriculums. English is English, history is history, math is math and mixing subjects is seldom done. Most subjects are taught in isolation. This is so common that students often question a teacher who tries to tie subjects to closely together.
Teaching binary arithmetic to a class of sixth graders I was once approached by a student. "Mr. Thompson, this stuff is math. Why are we learning about it in computer class?" Now I had tried to explain why binary arithmetic was important to understanding computers but this studentís filter was so thick that he couldnít see it. Rather then try and explain the first 10 minutes of class over again I asked him a question. "Is this English class?" "No" "Then why are you talking?" He left understanding a little better that different subjects can be related. But it was a new thought for him.
What we need to do is teach the how of computer use as part of other subjects. Students should not go to a computer lab to be taught how to use a word processor by a computer specialist. They should be taken to a computer lab by their English teacher and shown how to write using a computer. The same elementary teacher who shows a student how to draw a letter shows her how to make words from those letters. The same teacher also shows the student how to read those words to understand history.
Spreadsheets should not be taught by a specialist in isolation. Rather a math teacher should show a class how to use it to solve problems. Or students in a social studies class should be shown how to use a spreadsheet to examine and graph population data. Sometimes, especially where there is a shortage of computer literate teachers, there should be a specialist to assist the subject matter teacher. But computers as a separate subject should probably not be taught until junior high or high school.
Most colleges expect incoming students to be fluent in the big three applications - spreadsheet, database and word processing. We need to move towards where high schools can expect the same. Elementary school students should learn those tools as part of their normal curriculum just as they learn to draw letters, add numbers, and take tests.
Once in high school, with basic computer literacy taken care of, schools can move into computer courses as a separate subject. Though even here, computer courses need to be expanded and broadened to relate to other subjects. Courses in multi media applications and desktop publishing are obvious examples. Both can relate to art and graphic design. Both can involve making educational presentations on every subject. Both also have fairly obvious use for the student going on to post secondary education or from school directly to work.
There is an additional area of computer education that is in even more serious need of expansion. That area is computer programming. The is a tremendous shortage of programmers. Estimates of the number of programmers currently needed in America range from a low of 190,000 up to over 450,000. The US turned out only 24,000 bachelorís degrees in computer and information sciences in 1994, the last year for which statistics are available. The good news is that it really doesnít take a degree to make a good programmer.
The bad news is that all to many students donít want to take programming in high school. And itís hard to blame them. Programmers have an image of being geeks and workaholics. Of course, if we had enough workaholic geeks this would not be a problem. The fact is that we donít have enough. What we need to do is open programming up to more students.
There are two reasons that more students should take computer programming. The first is the obvious Ė there is money to be made in computer programming. Unfortunately, we, educators and society, have given students the impression that programming is for math geniuses who are going on to college. Except in vo-tech programs, we discourage average students from taking programming. Part of the way that is done is by having only one programming course.
When the only chance a student has to learn programming is by taking Advanced Placement Computer Science, the average student has one very large strike against them. Many people who become good, even great, programmers do very poorly in the standard read and regurgitate course. They think differently. Just the skill that might make them good programmers keeps their grades average, or below, and keeps them from being eligible for Advanced Placement courses. Having an early, general level programming course would open the door for many more students to discover an aptitude for programming.
The second reason that more students should take programming has very little to do with working as a programmer. Many college bound students, those not planning on studying computers in college, take programming just as a filler or to make their transcript look better. The reason they should be taking programming is to learn how to think. Any good programming teacher will tell you that the biggest part of their job is not teaching syntax. The big part of any first programming course is teaching problem solving. Programming involves looking at and understanding a problem and then finding a solution. Just the sort of skill society needs in its future managers and professionals.
A number of teachers of mathematics have told me that they are teaching problem solving. And they are. But not everyone is getting it. Weíve learned a lot about different learning styles in recent years. I suggest that teaching programming is an additional tool that should be more widely used to read those for whom mathematics is not the ideal way to teach problem solving.
Programming needs to be taught to two groups of students. Those who are going on to college and those who are going right to work. Both can benefit by learning new problem analysis and problem solving skills. Many school to work students will learn a valuable career skill. Many college bound students will learn a skill that they can use in college and beyond. I have a number of high school students who are writing programs that relate to other subjects including biology and physics. The use of programming for special learning projects would explode if more students arrived at college with programming knowledge.
There is a lot that has to happen for computers in education to be all that it can be. First off, we have to stop treating the problem piecemeal. Lotís of organizations want to deal with pieces of the problem. Especially the showy parts. Phone companies talk about connecting schools to the Internet. Wonderful if the people at the school actually know how to use the Internet. Most do not. Some companies what to help elementary schools. Others high schools. Many want to work with colleges. But there is not plan in place. Implementing "solutions" without plans produce frustration and failure. We need a K-12 plan for technology in education.
We need an idea of what computer skills should be taught to which grades. Start with that and then plan the hardware, software and people-ware to get there. We need to set expectations at each grade level. We must develop plans that fit different school models but that involve learning how to use computers with learning other subjects so that they compliment each other. Let computers make learning easier and not just become another subject to learn or class to take. The plan must involve educators from all levels and all subject areas. We need business input as well but primarily to help define the skills needed in all subjects after graduation. Educators must plan how to get there. Theyíll need help implementing the plan and if business people are involved they will be more willing and able to help there as well.
People are a key issue. As expensive as computers are, people are more expensive. Few companies are without training plans and training budgets for technical people. Training money for technology people in schools is woefully inadequate. A one week professional training course in a programming language may be upwards of $2000. A 2 day word-processing course may run $300. Spreadsheet the same. An Internet course may be $100. Small amounts at many companies but many schools supply $600 Ė 1000 a year to teachers. Others pay for less. Many business people who would not expect their $50-100,000 a year employees to pay for their own training seem to expect that $20-35,000 a year teachers should. A real plan must consider what training is needed and how to pay for it.
We need a national effort in this area. Nationally we need computer literate people just as we need people who can read, write and figure. We also need people who can use computers to solve problems. This is the Information Age. Information is growing by leaps and bounds. The need for people who can use the tools of the Information Age has never been greater but has not yet peeked. Without a population who can process information we will find ourselves in serious trouble. A funded plan for technology education must become a national priority.By the way, in case you are interested I blog at Computer Science Teacher. This is where I blog on a regular basis about things I think would be helpful and/or useful for computer science teachers.
Copyright Alfred C Thompson II 2007