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19 July 2023

What are the big themes facing computing?

Education experts came together for a CAS event to explore the big themes in computing education - from digital inclusion to keeping up with the latest tech.

The panel discussion was part of CAS’ Transforming Tech Education event held in London in June, which brought together teachers, researchers and supporting partners to share expertise and CAS’ vision for the future.

Sarah Foxall chaired the panel discussion titled; ‘The challenges and opportunities of educating on the big themes in computing’.

The panel comprised:

  • Prof Simon Peyton Jones MBE, co-founder of CAS;
  • Isabella Lieghio, ICT Education Consultant and computing teacher;
  • Mark Martin MBE, Assistant Professor in Computer Science and Education at Northeastern University London and well known as the ‘Urban Teacher’;
  • Dr Jane Waite, Senior Research Scientist at Raspberry Pi Foundation.

The audience were invited to identify the current big issues in tech via an online survey. Cybersecurity, diversity and inclusion, AI, and the challenges of teaching, were the clear themes.

Mark Martin opened the discussion by looking at digital inclusion and how to ensure that young people able to access opportunities. 

“Tackling the digital skills gap also involves recognising that there is an ‘awareness gap’ among young people about where the opportunities are and how they can apply their skills in the world they live in,” he said.

“So, I think we need to look at whether there is a disconnect between the things we are teaching young people in school and the opportunities available, and how this affects their enthusiasm and morale and whether they feel that tech opportunities can be something for them.”

Jane Waite agreed; “I think there is a big gap between those feel who can take part and access jobs that are valued in our economy and those who don’t. It’s a complex landscape.”

A dynamic subject with opportunities

However, Simon Peyton Jones recognised that while situation is complex, there are also many opportunities for computing education.

“There are lots of reasons to be optimistic. People care about what’s happening in computing education because there’s an awareness that it will affect everybody and all industries and that’s a socio-cultural thing.

“There is anxiety about things like AI, but there’s also an awareness that we need to make entrepreneurs for the future. That also means there is a lot of focus and attention on computing, which is amazing and can be a positive launchpad which means we have agency to shape great computing education.

“So, the big trend for me is that computing is not a static subject with a century’s worth of knowledge about how to teach it. Everything is very dynamic and it’s all up for grabs. Let's make the most of those opportunities.”

Isabella Lieghio said her experience of teaching in a girls’ school meant she was very aware of ensuring that girls feeling that they are represented.

“One of the challenges is the visible media around technology still does not look very diverse to the general public.” she said.

Mark Martin expanded that theme of representation by saying that young people needed to see relevance to their own lives and experience.

Applying computing to real lives

“How do we get students to see that the skills they are learning in the classroom can be applied to their lives? That’s where they can bring their identity, experiences and culture to education. Let’s bring young people to the forefront and let them express themselves.”

Sarah asked the panellists for their suggestions on how computing education can effectively embrace constant change in the subject.

Simon Peyton Jones explained that because educational qualifications change slowly it can be challenging to keep up with technological innovation.

“It’s quite difficult for teachers because qualifications and their content are slow to evolve. Knowledge is still important though, so we do need to teach to what we have, even though the knowledge may not change as fast as the world we’re living in.”

The panellists also recognised that the experience and subject knowledge varies widely from school to school.

The reality of classroom experience

Isabella Lieghio commented; “We need to be careful about the number of changes we expect teachers to keep up with, especially as there are so many schools who don’t have strong subject knowledge in computing.”

Jane Waite agreed; “There’s a huge gap between those of us who are working in tech and the reality of whether computing is valued across all schools. There are still hundreds of thousands of children who don’t have access to good computing education. There’s still a lot of work to do.

“While many of us are really excited about ‘the next thing’, such as AI and research and practice –  there is the reality where there are other schools where nothing is really going on.”

There was a lively discussion from the audience, with observations that recruitment is challenging and the numbers of applicants to teach computing have dropped.

“Many colleagues don’t have the confidence or expertise to navigate forward-thinking topic areas in order to be able to enthuse their students,” said one audience member. “Many other teachers are not in a fortunate position to be allowed away from the classroom to attend events, training or research new developments.”

Jane agreed; “Computing is always going to be fast-moving and about ‘the next big thing’. CAS is so important to supporting us with this.”

Computing and citizenship

The panellists also agreed that computing was increasingly important to enable young people to understand how AI will shape their lives, from finance to healthcare and accessing benefits and democracy. Digital citizenship, recognising that technological skills have a wider social purpose and value is another key challenge which requires a cross-curriculum approach beyond computing as a subject.

The panellists recognised that many schools deliver computing with a ‘one person army’ – which is why the network of support provided by CAS is so important.

 “CAS is about reaching and supporting our teachers,” said Mark Martin. “Coming together has definitely enhanced our ability since I started teaching.”

Simon Peyton Jones agreed. “Supporting the ‘single person army’ is what CAS is all about. Teachers working alone delivering computing have a family in CAS. That’s our core mission. We have a subject that’s enormously exciting and societally relevant.”