Computer Science, computational thinking & pedagogy

I'm surprised at myself. I've ranted against Michael Gove with the best of them, but this new approach to ICT and computer science teaching changes everything. I find myself full of hope and optimism again that the current dearth of informed debate about ICT in education might eventually fade, as a new generation enter the discussion over the next few years who have actually grown up learning about how computers really work, and what you can actually do with them when you know how to programme them. I'm convinced that the ridiculous current system, where we're effectively "teaching our kids to be secretaries rather than programmers", has a direct link to the lack of progress in the application of technologies to enhance education.

I've written before about my frustration with what I see as 'surface thinkers' on ICTs in education, those who are excited by the possibilities that ICT may offer, but who have little or no experience and/or knowledge of how it all bolts together, and so tend to make generalist and 'surface' interpretations of ICTs that perpetuate a rambling and disconnected discourse that does not have the firm foundations that are necessary for real progress in this area. I strongly suspect that this is all deeply tied to how technology has been taught and viewed in this country for many years now, with even prominent individuals being quite open about their personal conviction that people who teach ICT do not have to know anything about it. Whilst I can happily agree that teachers need to know how to teach (isn't that a given for teachers?), I totally disagree that they don't need to know their subject.

But who am I to make these claims you might ask? Do I have the credentials to be able to join an informed debate?

I believe I do, and that brings me to the real purpose for this post. I was in the process of writing up my own experience in order that people can make up their own minds whether or not I know what I'm talking about, but as I was doing this I also started to write exactly why I felt that my specific expertise in any area was relevant and important - and that's what I want to share today. Personally I'm convinced that a good 'virtual architect' has to know their materials, just as a good real world architect does, but too often this just doesn't seem the case. So here is my attempt to talk a little about my experience, and try and justify why - at least in my opinion - this experience matters from an educational standpoint.

Programming / Embedded Cognition
I've been programming since my early teens, back in the eighties when languages like BASIC were the order of the day. It was very frowned on by those in charge of my school at the time, letters were written about the amount of time I spent on computers - didn't put me off though. I went on to use languages like Fortran, C++, and even oddities like Miranda. Whilst not a dyed in the wool programmer, I think I can hold my own, and usually code with PHP these days.

Scripting for me is the ultimate form of embedded cognition, and as such practically a prerequisite for anyone working in the ICT education field as far as I'm concerned. What you're doing when you're programming is effectively embedding your own cognition into digital space. Cognition requires time, and only digital space gives you the ability to encode thoughts over time, i.e. cognition. That's why I see it as an absolute fundamental that people who want to be involved in educational technology have to know how to code.

Web Design / Pedagogical Layering
From a web perspective I've been designing and building websites for over 15 years now, and was also a web design teacher for many years. I have a very wide range of experience in this area, from server configuration and management, to HTML and other forms of mark-up, all the way up to web scripting, CSS, Flash, APIs, basically pretty much everything that you can do on the web, including some of the more cutting edge work such as Augmented Reality.

The web has changed everything when it comes to ICT, by taking the isolated chunks of digital space that lived first inside individual computers, and then inside local networks, and made the whole digital space completely global. At the same time it's introduced a method of ICT that is generically layered, where different functions of ICTs live at different and independent levels, but using common frameworks. Now interface can be separated from content, coding can be separated from interface, meaning can be separated from code, and so on. These layers are invisible to the layman, but any expert can easily pull them apart. This allows you to understand the different values that these different layers present pedagogically, and how you might need to change or tweak layers to produce the learning outcome that you intend. If you don't understand web design, you can't see these layers, and you will forever be a 'surface' thinker.

Data / Semantic Linking
Data wise I'm an experienced designer and user of databases, not up to the level of Oracle perhaps, but much more experienced than most. I can tinker with Excel etc. with the best of them, but more relevantly am happy to create new databases from scratch using simple programs like Microsoft Access, or to use more complex databases such as MySQL. Writing SQL statements may not be programming, but it requires a sophistication of thought that is rarely appreciated outside of its own specialism.

The way data can can be held by computers, with the added complexity of semantic information about what the data actually IS wrapped around the data itself, is completely different to any other capacity to store and retrieve information. It makes paper distinctly empty of meaning in comparison. It's a unique capability of ICTs, and a direct consequence of the digital rules that they live under. We know that the way humans store information in is intrinsically interlinked forms, where an individual chunk of data is somehow directly connected with various other chunks of data elsewhere in the brain. Understanding how databases use interlinked patterns in the same way is, I believe a crucial part of understanding how data can be organised and re-purposed from an educational standpoint.

HCI (Human Computer Interaction) / Digitally Situated Learning

Human Computer Interaction may seem an oddity in this list, but it's a personal area of expertise and I think a crucial part of this jigsaw. There is absolutely no point having bundles of computer talent if you can't deliver an interface at the same time through which someone can take advantage of all your expertise. That's like having a brilliantly designed sports car with nowhere to drive it, or some fabulous new recipe with nowhere to serve it. I pretty much started my career in HCI, working as a Human Factors Engineer, and have advanced my skills through masters level study. Interface design has long been a passion, and I'm a big fan of people like Gibson, Norman and Pirolli. 

The new digital space is just another environment within which to learn, and most of it is just a straightforward simulation of existing space. However it does have specialist properties which I believe can be harnessed to create new pedagogy - but in order to discover these, you have to understand that interface is not the same as space. Too many people are tied up in the interface, but that's like trying to understand how a child understands the world by dissecting their eyeballs. It's the wrong place to look (and yes, I know that's a gross analogy). The interface is, to all intents and purposes, the surface that most people perceive as the complete entity that is an ICT. It is, however, simply a surface and one on a potentially very deep space. Only by understanding HCI can you understand this issue, and hence understand the true value that ICTs might bring to education.

But ... what about Pedagogy?
Of course there's a big omission in this list - my educational experience. Without that, all this technological expertise means nothing. However I've worked in higher education for over 10 years now, and been teaching on and off for well over half of that, and in many different scenarios from lectures full of undergraduates to adult learners thousands of miles away. I've also spent the past 5 years as a doctoral candidate, trying to become an expert in pedagogy, and specifically research into pedagogy and the way it can be impacted by technology.

I've always known pedagogy is my weak area, so have been trying to address that. I've come a long way and now decided I've reached the point at which it's time to have a voice, and become part of the conversation about technology in education, rather than a bystander. My knowledge of pedagogy may not be as comprehensive as my knowledge of technology, but I feel is now sufficient at least to have a dialogue about these issues. Be very interested to hear others take on my standpoint.

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