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The ­U.K. Is Taking Steps to Improve Computing Education in Schools

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Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Mark Guzdial

Google's CEO Eric Schmidt critiqued the lack of computing education in UK schools in a recent speech in Edinburgh:

“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in U.K. schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but it doesn’t teach people how it’s made. It risks throwing away your great computing heritage.”

Schmidt went on to lament the growing divergence between science and arts and called on educators to “re-ignite children’s passion for science, engineering and math.”  

via Teaching the innovators of tomorrow | revUp 117

A recent issue of The Economist raised the question: "Where is Britain's Bill Gates?". Two of ACM's leaders in computing education, Eric Roberts of Stanford University and Andrew McGettrick of Strathclyde University wrote a letter in reply, to help in understanding that question: 

British universities produce too few graduates with the special software-development skills that drive the high end of the industry. Universities in Britain find it harder than their American counterparts to develop innovative teaching and curriculums because of national benchmarks that are often highly prescriptive. Such benchmarks force universities to rely on written exams to measure achievement, which can undermine the all-important spirit of innovation and creativity. Written exams are rarely the best measure of software expertise.

Speaking last year to students at Stanford, Mark Zuckerberg said that he likes hiring Stanford graduates because “they know how to build things.” If British universities could focus more of their attention on teaching students to write applications at the leading edge of the technological revolution, the budding Bill Gateses of Britain would have an easier time of it.

via Letters: On British technology firms, policing, the euro, taxes, languages, Homer Simpson | The Economist.

Fortunately, computing educators in the UK can point to a couple of areas of real progress. The first is a just announced an effort to teach software development in UK schools. The new initiative is welcomed the British Computer Society and is supported by IT companies like Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, and HP.

The second step may have even greater impact.  A report by the The Royal Society, the world's oldest scientific organization, on Computing at Schools is expected in the next few months. The new report is expected to call for increased computer science education in the primary and secondary grades, and it's expected to get some real attention coming from The Royal Society.

Meanwhile, in the United States, we are still struggling to get significant computer science into the nation's schools.  It's a hard problem because the US education system is so decentralized -- literally, the primary and secondary schools are defined at 51 places (in each of the 50 states plus Puerto Rico). The common core standards (a set of education standards coming from the nation's governors, not from the Federal Government) have now been finalized. Unfortunately, Computer Science did not end up being part of those standards, despite the "Computing in the Core" coalition.  While that was disappointing, a new bill was just introduced into the US Congress to bolster K-12 computer science education in the United States.  Part of the new Computer Science Education Act is an effort to help each of the States develop computing education for their programs.

Many of us in the US will be watching carefully the developments in the UK.  We'll be eager to see the success of their efforts towards improving computing education, and then we'll aim to apply the lessons learned here.



The computing must be taught as how to compute and not as how to operate the software.

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