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UK: towards a new ICT curriculum

42 minutes. 42 minutes before the deadline we, FSFE’s edu-team, submitted our position on the UK Department of Education proposal to disapply the National Curriculum Programme for Information and Communication Technology. Deputy coordinator Guido did some amazing work and provided the team with background information, summaries of relevant studies (pdf) and articles on the matter. Some drafting and proof-reading later we had answers prepared for the three questions which where interesting from a Free Software perspective.

It is now my pleasure to present these to the interested public, but before doing so i like to quote John Naughton on the difference between ICT education and product training.

And if you can’t see the difference, try this simple thought-experiment: replace “ICT” with “sex” and see which you’d prefer in that context: education or training?

Needless to say, we at FSFE belief in education. If you do, too, and think that Free Software should be part of it, join the mailing-list! Discuss the UK submission, share your thoughts on Free Software in schools and universities and keep us up to date about your regions best practices. So much for the preface, here are the answers:

Question: Do you agree that schools should be encouraged to deliver a more challenging, rigorous, discipline-related curriculum in ICT, especially by focusing on the foundational principles and practices of computer science?

Yes, we do. Computing provides a degree of systematic thinking that allows a proper understanding of what has become a fundamental aspect of modern life. It is not sufficient to train students in particular office software, schools should be encouraged to focus on the foundational principles and practices of computer science. Students should be empowered to understand how computers work, so they would be able to utilize ICT for operating or even creating yet unknown systems and software. A short example should be sufficient to underline the importance of education over training: Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, because of having gained knowledge of computers as such, was able to develop new applications to aid his work as a fellow at the CERN. 1989 he combined various pieces of Free Software with his hypertext idea and by doing so laid the foundation of the World Wide Web.

Especially important is the inclusion of Free Software as a concept and a tool within the ICT curriculum. Due to its openness and freedom to study, modify and share the source code, Free Software is the cornerstone of a future-proof and sustainable ICT education. That freedom stimulates the students to learn from systems designed by others and by adapting these to the students needs and interests. This might lead to the creation of something new.

Question: How can schools be best supported to engage with the ICT industry and subject associations in curriculum development, in order to develop innovative and creative approaches to ICT teaching, including the teaching of computer science?

To a great extent, Free Software services are also offered by small and medium enterprises. Looking at how other European countries support their schools, the Austrian example is quite interesting: The ministry of Education of Austria offers a financial incentive for using Free Software and Open Document Formats. Schools therefore contract regional businesses and by that they don’t just support regional companies, but they also improve the availability of high skill ICT jobs, boosting the attractiveness of the region in general.

Best practices in other European countries also include the cooperation with Non Governmental Organisations and associations specialized in the integration of Free Software in ICT education, such as the Free Software Foundation Europe or FRISK (Skolelinux), as well as many groups with a regional focus.

Schools can be best supported by offering incentives (e.g. financial) for avoiding vendor lock-ins, proprietary systems and file formats. Providing infrastructure for communication and sharing of best practices, e.g. in the form of an annual conference, while at the same time empowering schools to freely make use of regional expertise is essential for a sustainable approach to ICT education.

Question: Do you have any other comments you would like to make about the proposals in this consultation document?

As demanded by employers, it is necessary to give students real computing skills. Instead of being taught proprietary software “directions for use”, young employees need the capability to adapt to any software. The important key skill in ICT is the understanding of concepts underlying a whole category or type of software (such as a spreadsheet or a word-processor), not merely how to use a particular application. Consequently, they should get unrestricted access to the source code, which is the case for Free Software. Free Software enables and empowers interested students to go one step further: instead of just using the software, they are enabled to modify or adapt it to their own needs, thus improving the applications they use or develop.

In Education, means are more limited than in other sectors, because they have to be employed on a large scale. As clearly stated in the Ofsted report, p. 47 (136), it is more relevant to pay grey matter (e.g. help for projects conception, personal and educational training) or extra devices than to pay proprietary licences. Also, Free Software is particularly performing and gives increased perennity to hardware as it allows a longer use of old (and cheap) hardware. Together with the absence of licence charges schools are able to offer Free Software based ICT education instead of simple ICT training.

Free Software allows schools to set a better example and teach children to share and cooperate and thus join a whole community that shares knowledge. Free Software can be copied free of charge, therefore what a child can learn is not limited by the parents financial resources. With a cheap computer and an interest in programming, students can interact with developers from all over the world and contribute to Free Software. The well known ‘Google Summer of Code’ connects experienced Free Software mentors with young talents. This does not only demonstrate the students programming skills to future employers, but also the soft skills which the student acquired by working in international teams. Knowledge is universal, Free Software too.