Publication date: September 30, 2015

Miles Berry is the principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton and board member of UK ICT subject association Naace.

My contribution to the Friday afternoon Mirandamod at BETT 2014

Learning Coding is now deemed a very important life skill, but what else do children and students need to know about digital technologies and computers?

I’d like to start by rejecting the premise of the question. Learning to code is no bad thing, but it’s about as useful a ‘life skill’ as learning to play an instrument, write a poem or paint a picture. It merits its place on a broad and balanced curriculum not because of its utility but because, as the lab work of computer science, it provides unique insights into how the world, natural, technological and social, is, and furthers the scope for students’ creative expression.

That apart, a few thoughts on what else should students know about digital technology.

Firstly, that computers can only do so much: that in any bit of software, or any system, something is lost – the digital is granular: you see the bits if you zoom in closely enough; the analogue is far finer grained – at least all the way down to the Planck length. When we computerize something we keep what we think matters – the audio and the video in the hangout, but don’t worry about the rest – those online have no knowledge of how warm it is in here, or what it smells like.

Students ought to know, we have to admit, how to get things done, with whatever the right / best / available tool is for the job in hand. Often this comes down to a grasp of the steps to follow, but an attitude of looking for better ways is useful too – witness those who center text using the space bar or go to Facebook by searching for it on Google every time. I’d been led to believe that computers were meant to make things easier, let’s let them.

Akin to this is looking for the common ground, the repeatable patterns, the ways of working that transfer from one application, or application, to another – write first, format later. Write first, correct later, save as you go, keep a backup, invite and provide review, be generous, be kind etc.

At a bigger scale, students should also know how to go about managing projects. A former colleague did a memorable assembly on how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time. Teaching students, or giving the chance to learn, that research projects, media assignments, whatever, are tackled through breaking big problems down into smaller ones, and then getting on with solving these, isn’t just an IT thing, but IT is one of the domains where the need might be greatest.

And finally, and again not just for IT, but a little criticality would do no harm – being able to spot the weak point in an argument, being able to evaluate digital content and consider its relevance and reliability, being able to think through the implications of their (and others’) actions, online and off, seems ever more important in an ever more connected, remembered, survailed age.

Of course, what I’ve just done is give examples of how some of the ideas of what we now call computational thinking, specifically abstraction, algorithms, patterns, decomposition and logical reasoning, can be applied out beyond the narrow realm of coding and other aspects of CS. Studying computer science is one, I think particularly effective, way to develop these capabilities, but it’s not the only one nor, for most, will it be an end in itself.