Sunday, 12 February 2012

We don't need no ICT education

I was amused a few weeks ago by the announcement that Michael Gove was advocating an "open source" curriculum for ICT in schools. This is the same Education Minister who wants a more prescriptive approach to history: our island story, with lots of kings and queens and biffing the French.

It's a fair bet that Gove doesn't actually know what open source is. He's just reading a script put together by a policy wonk with an Oxford PPE and some Beats headphones. The new policy is clearly intended to give business greater access to delivery of the curriculum, while apparently giving schools greater autonomy - i.e. they get to "choose" resources from multiple providers.

For the vast majority of the users of open source software, all the term means is that it's free. The percentage of the user community who participate in code development is tiny. Gove's vision of a "wiki, collaborative approach" to developing materials for the curriculum will ironically bump up against this reality. Most schools will simply adopt an off-the-shelf curriculum to ensure conformity and thus acceptable exam results.

Gove appears to have confused open source with "any willing provider". In other words, this is about privatising course design and delivery. His speech was delivered at BETT, the leading UK education technology trade show. It's safe to assume that no one there was equating open source with free.

Part of the criticism of the current ICT curriculum is that it focuses too much on learning how to use Microsoft Office, rather than understanding technology. But this complaint forgets that the current curriculum came about because of the perceived urgent need to train the future clerical class for the business world of the 90s.

The current approach appears to be based on an already outdated vision in which the UK is a centre of excellence for programming. As any fule kno, programming is subject to the same historical forces as anything else. It has becoming increasingly commoditised, standardised and globalised. This is partly why there are now lots of "willing providers" who can rustle up a module on global variables or singletons. It's also why kids with a serious interest are already programming outside of school.

ICT has always been problematic in the UK because it straddles the normally clear boundary between the vocational and the academic. Gove's coincidental plan to scrap the GSCE equivalency of most vocational courses (and thus discount them from league tables) is clearly intended to redraw that boundary, this time with a ditch and rampart. This is as regressive as his Whig view of history.

I suspect that ICT may bifurcate as a result of this, between a vocational GCSE (get a sysadm job) and an academic one (go on to study computer science). Along the way, a lot of government money will be spent on educational systems and content, despite the fact that everything they provide will be freely available to those who look for it on the Web.

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