Monthly Archives: January 2012


A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

Chapter 12, Mostly Harmless, HHGTTG

Tagged , ,

Doubt everything

De omnibus dubitandum.

René Descartes (1596-1650)

While this was rumoured to be Karl Marx‘s favorite motto, it immediately brings to mind the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba.

Tagged , , , ,

CAS at Koli Calling 2011

In November, as part of our work with Computing At School (CAS), Sue Sentance (Anglia Ruskin University) and I submitted a paper for Koli Calling 2011, the 11th International Conference on Computing Education Research. Our paper, entitled Computing At School: Stimulating Computing Education in the UK, describes the rationale and motivation for CAS, presenting the current state of computer science education in the UK, as well as its range of initiatives to support teachers and drive curriculum and policy change.

As part of the Koli Calling 2011 programme (Sue had the pleasure of travelling to Koli National Park in Finland!), we had to produce a short video clip summarising our paper:

While some of our discussion has been supplanted by recent events, the paper is available to download for free via the ACM Author-ize service:

ACM DL Author-ize service

Tom Crick, Sue Sentance
Koli Calling ’11 Proceedings of the 11th Koli Calling International Conference on Computing Education Research, 2011

(see Publications)

Tagged , , ,

Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools

Yesterday, the Royal Society published Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools; it follows on from the publication of Nesta’s Next Gen. report last year and Michael Gove’s speech at Bett this week.

This report is the outcome of a project initiated in August 2010 by the Royal Society, with support from the Royal Academy of Engineering, and is published 30 years to the month after the launch of the BBC Micro. It was prompted by a high degree of concern, expressed by school teachers, academics and other members of the computing community (including learned societies, professional bodies, universities, and industry), about the design, delivery and provision of ICT and computing education in UK schools. The project, led by Professor Steve Furber (see interview) and an advisory group, has been informed by evidence gathered from individuals and organisations with an interest in computing.

The outcomes of the report are clear: the current delivery of computing education in many UK schools is highly unsatisfactory. Although existing curricula for ICT are broad and allow scope for teachers to inspire pupils and help them develop interests in Computing, many pupils are not inspired by what they are taught and gain nothing beyond basic digital literacy skills.

The headline recommendations from the report are as follows (see full report):

  • Recommendation 1: The term ICT as a brand should be reviewed and the possibility considered of disaggregating this into clearly defined areas such as digital literacy, Information Technology and Computer Science. There is an analogy here with how English is structured at school, with reading and writing (basic literacy), English Language (how the language works) and English Literature (how it is used). The term `ICT’ should no longer be used as it has attracted too many negative connotations.
  • Recommendation 2: The government should set targets for the number of Computer Science and Information Technology specialist teachers, and monitor recruitment against these targets in order to allow all schools to deliver a rigorous curriculum. This should include providing training bursaries to attract suitably qualified graduates into teaching — for which industry funding could be sought. Education Scotland should ensure that the declared entitlement of all learners to third-level outcomes in Computing Science is implemented in all schools for all learners using appropriately qualified teachers.
  • Recommendation 3: Government departments with responsibility for Education in the UK should seek industry support to extend existing funding in this area, and should ensure that there is coordination of CPD provision for Computer Science and Information Technology teachers that deepens subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy. Government should set a minimum level of provision for subject-specific CPD for Computing teachers, should seek support from business and industry to make that provision, and should ensure that the provision is well coordinated and deepens subject knowledge and subject specific pedagogy.
  • Recommendation 4: School infrastructure service providers, working with others, should prepare a set of off-the-shelf strategies for balancing network security against the need to enable good teaching and learning in Computer Science and Information Technology, and should encourage schools to discuss and adopt them with their service providers. Such a “Guide to Best Practice” should be used by schools and local authorities as part of any tendering process for outsourced service provision.
  • Recommendation 5: Suitable technical resources should be available in all schools to support the teaching of Computer Science and Information technology. These could include pupil-friendly programming environments such as Scratch, educational microcontroller kits such as PICAXE and Arduino, and robot kits such as Lego MindStorms.
  • Recommendation 6: The Department for Education should remedy the current situation, where good schools are dis-incentivised from teaching Computer Science, by reforming and rebranding the current ICT curriculum in England. Schemes of work should be established for ages 5-14 across the range of Computing aspects, e.g. digital literacy (the analogue to being able to read and write), Information Technology, and Computer Science. These should be constructed to be implementable in a variety of ways, including a cross-curricular approach for digital literacy at primary and early secondary school. Schools may prefer not to impose a timetable or separately staff these elements at this age, but the existence of separately defined learning experiences will ensure that each strand is always properly developed — unlike at present. A timetable distinction should then be in place from the age of 14, allowing pupils to make a well-informed choice to study for recognised qualifications in Information Technology and/or Computer Science. Given the lack of specialist teachers, we recommend that only the teaching of digital literacy is made statutory at this point. However, the long-term aim should be to move to a situation where there are sufficient specialist teachers to enable all young people to study Information Technology and Computer Science at school. Accordingly, the Government should put in place an action plan to achieve this. The schools inspectorates should monitor the implementation of this change to ensure that the problems of the current curriculum are not replicated.
  • Recommendation 7: In order to redress the imbalance between academic and vocational qualifications in this area — and to ensure that all qualifications are of value to those who take them — the departments for education across the UK should encourage Awarding Organisations to review their current provision and develop Key Stage 4 (KS4) qualifications in Computer Science in consultation with the UK Forum, universities and employers. Awarding Organisations across the UK should review and revise the titles and content of all new and existing qualifications in this area to match the disaggregation described above (e.g. Computer Science, Information Technology and digital literacy).
  • Recommendation 8: The UK Forum should advise Awarding Organisations on appropriate assessment methods for qualifications in digital literacy, Information Technology and Computer Science.
  • Recommendation 9: The UK Forum should put in place a framework to support non-formal learning in Computer Science and to support teachers. Considerations include after-school clubs, school speakers and mentoring for teachers in developing their subject knowledge. Bodies such as STEMNET will have a role to play in implementing this. To inform the focus of investment in non-formal learning in Computing, the UK Forum should also look at establishing a rigorous evidence base for the effectiveness and value of various Computer Science E&E activities. Affordability will also be a relevant consideration.
  • Recommendation 10: Awarding Organisations should consult with the UK Forum and HE departments to develop rigorous Level 3 academic qualifications in Computer Science.
  • Recommendation 11: The Computing community should establish a lasting UK Forum for joint working and coordination between the many Computing bodies, in order to progress the recommendations within this report. The Forum should provide regular progress reports on the implementation of the recommendations.

In summary: the UK has a proud history of contributions to Computing and especially to the discipline of Computer Science, but current terminology, curricula and qualifications are holding us back from being a nation of technology creators. Whilst a lot has been achieved in establishing a digitally literate population, our aspirations should not stop there. There are many barriers to progress, and a joined up approach is required. This report sets out a positive way forward for the community.

Tagged , , , ,

Best paper awards in computer science

Check out this excellent research resource: the Best Paper Awards in Computer Science, a collection of the best paper awards of some of the major computer science conferences since 1996 by Jeff Huang.

This listing contains a couple of the conferences that I’m interested in, especially PLDI; however, it’s a shame that it does not collate POPL‘s Most Influential Paper Award (presented annually to the authors of a paper presented at the POPL held 10 years prior to the award year).

It’s also of interest to see the institutions with the most “best papers”.

Tagged , ,

Mathematics is the language of nature

11:15, restate my assumptions:

1. Mathematics is the language of nature.
2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: there are patterns everywhere in nature.

Maximillian Cohen, π


Tagged , , ,

Will 2012 be the Year of Computer Science?

2011 was a promising year for computer science in schools, with government ministers (even the Prime Minister) appearing to recognise its importance from both an educational and economic perspective; all in the midst of a uncertain large-scale education review in England. 2012 is shaping up to be just as promising, starting with the publication of the Royal Society’s 18 month study on computing in schools in a fortnight. Computing At School (CAS) have been busy on a number of fronts over the past year, but in particular advocacy at national policy level (along with the BCS Academy of Computing).

However, we have to remain grounded — there is still a huge amount of work to be done (and nothing is yet guaranteed). As well as continuing the policy work, one of the priorities for CAS is to further connect with and support the network of Computing and ICT teachers across the UK, as well as changing the wider public’s poor perception of computer science — into a rigorous, practical and intellectually useful academic discipline (and as a pathway to a wide range of careers). There are also a number of excellent initiatives to support that focus on developing the key skills of computational thinking and programming, as well as genuinely engaging young people with technology: Young Rewired State, Hack to the Future, Apps for Good, Codecademy et al.

After a recent conversation with @BringBackCS, it seemed an opportune time to coalesce Twitter discussions under a unifying hashtag:

I will be using this hashtag to promote Computer Science in 2012; please use and spread the message!

And why is 2012 especially important? It’s also the Turing Centenary, a celebration of the life and scientific influence of Alan Turing on the centenary of his birth on 23rd June 1912. A number of major events (such as the Computability in Europe 2012 conference) will be taking place throughout the year, with many linked to places with special significance in Turing’s life, including Cambridge, Manchester, Bletchley Park and Princeton. 2012: The Alan Turing Year and the Year of Computer Science.

We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.

Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,